‘Was That Really Me?’ by Mary Singleton
Reviewed by Robyn Smith
Mary Singleton’s remarkable memoir, ‘Was That Really Me?’, covers an extraordinary life of 80 years.
She grew up in Island Bay in a dramatic landscape, but with uncommunicative, distant parents. She lost her sister to TB, (a subject that was never talked about), but found solace in the Anglican church through music. She married young, divorced early, and had to raise a child alone.
Almost single-handedly she pioneered a society for single parents, pre-figuring the Labour Government’s Domestic Purposes benefit of 1973, participated in theatre, music and dancing and even became a nanny for a theatre family.
Later, after she moved to the Kapiti Coast, she helped untangle the financial mismanagement of the newly-formed Kapiti Orchestra. Through all this, she financed many overseas trips by selling grand pianos.
Cateloguing ups and downs
Mary has organised her book thematically, with an overall heading for each part, for example, “Part 1 – Foundations”, followed by amusing, sometimes startling captions such as “the place, the people, and a couple of tragedies, “ which include her sister’s shocking death in childbirth in a cottage hospital in Takaka.
Then another shock, a diagnosis of TB when a testing regime started at her high school, followed by incarceration in a sanatorium in Otaki, rather like being in prison. Mary and her co-patients found plenty of diversions though which she describes in her unique style.
She marries with stardust in her eyes, but it is a failure and she is pregnant. She writes poignantly of pushing a pram through the streets of Wellington “with tears running down [my] face” after the marriage break-up. She writes honestly about promiscuous behaviour with people of note, and being manipulated by selfish men with one thing in mind. After 50 she gives up this way of life and becomes a feminist.
After extensive travels overseas, Mary finds peace and solace in the Marlborough sounds, despite increasing periods of illness, making it difficult to walk. Overall, there is her beloved music, but no more piano playing because of OOS.
She regrets this deeply and the loss of her “black beast” (another grand piano) but its sale will help fund more travel.
Mary’s prologue, which ends with the observation that “shit happens” and her conclusion that “life is still worth living though….. .it can go on too long” are examples of her self-deprecating style.
I read this book at one sitting, and could identify with many strands of it. Many women (and men, if they’re brave) will feel the same way.