Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Sins of the Mothers

‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, often found in women, never found in men.’ When did I first hear that piece of nonsense being recited? I know I was still pretty small at the time. Even so, I remember recognising immediately that it was rubbish. Ever since, I’ve been very suspicious of the ‘women are all marvellous, men are all rubbish’ school of thought – I prefer the ‘women are generally well-meaning, bumbling, hopeless human beings - and men are too’ camp myself.

I suppose my attitude arose directly from that initial proverb’s message. The problem with it was that in my family it was clearly the exact opposite of the truth – it is the men, not the women, who hold all the stocks of patience among us. It is the women who are liable to be snappy and have a tendency to become furious at the drop of a proverbial hat.

I was reminded of this when my mother and I were talking about learning languages on the weekend. She told me the story of her first introduction to a foreign tongue, which came about when she was nine or 10 and being taught at home. Her mother, who never went to university but, judging by the row of beautifully bound books that were her school prizes, was clearly very clever, decided she would teach her little daughter French. They sat down at the table after supper one evening and my grandmother presented my mother with the conjugation of the verb to be.

My mother could make no sense of this list of strange words and, no matter how much her mother tried to explain the concept to her, remained uncomprehending. What did my grandmother expect? Her child had lived all her life in the Western District of Victoria, where foreigners were rarely if ever encountered and where, looking out across the flat endless paddocks, the idea of another place where other languages were spoken must have seemed as solid as a dream. Yet she seemed to imagine that my mother would instantly grasp the concept that there were other people in the world who used strange and different words - and that she would understand the principles of grammar simultaneously.

She must have had a very high estimation of her daughter’s brain – to begin with. Unfortunately, by the end of the lesson, she had become sorely disappointed. As a result, she completely lost her temper, told my mother she was an idiot, swiped her with the grammar book and sent her off to bed, still baffled – although not very upset (she knew her mother well enough to know her rage would pass extremely quickly and meant nothing).

This story made me laugh, because in my grandmother’s sudden burst of exasperation, I recognised parallels with scenes involving my mother and I in my own childhood - and, I am ashamed to say, scenes that happened between my daughters and me when they were little. It was one more confirmation of my suspicion that there is a streak of terrible impatience that runs down through the female line in our family, a genetic trait that nurture appears to have no effect on. None of us hold grudges, nor do we sulk - but we do imitate Icelandic volcanoes from time to time, erupting suddenly and unexpectedly, and then just as quickly calming down (although strangely enough we reserve this behaviour almost entirely for our nearest and dearest – plus people who try to trick us or rip us off).

The detail of my mother’s story that I found particularly amusing was my grandmother’s deluded insistence that she herself had been cured of her temper. Apparently this was thanks to her mother regularly taking a horse whip to her when she was young. It seems absolutely clear to me that that horse whip was not a tamer of temper; it was a symptom, the conclusive Exhibit A, I would argue, that proves my great grandmother suffered from the family short fuse as well.


  1. I find that women are terribly patient when it comes to exacting revenge.... :)

  2. Worm - men not?
    Gaw - Scots mainly on that side.

  3. Who says there's patience on the male side?

    The correct quote is "... never found in Man". That way it rhymes. Gah!

  4. You're right - but you are also the epitome of patience.