Iris came into our house and our family via Mum. All the waifs and strays did. That’s how we used to meet them. That’s how they became friends to the point you can’t remember a time not knowing them. Mum would say “This is so-and-so, and so-and-so”, and that would be it. And if so-and-so and so-and-so didn’t want to be befriended by Mum, there were always another couple of so-and-so’s who did.
Iris was a couple of months pregnant when Mum met her. A couple of months pregnant and desperate. Mum wasn’t pregnant, but she was desperate. Desperate enough to try out the Four Square Pentecostal Church in Fremantle, following the collapse of her marriage when Dad walked out on her.
And that’s where she met her fellow desperado Iris, who figured that she’d tried every other man for security and significance, so she might as well try Jesus.
Iris was from Ireland. Which endeared her to Mum right away. From the same city too -Dublin. Two desperate lonely suddenly single Irish women meeting in a church who were from the same place, and hadn’t a clue how life was going to turn out from here on in. What could possibly go wrong?
Apart from being pregnant Iris was also a lot of other things Mum was not. Iris was a recovering alcoholic who had just split up with the father of her unborn child. And Iris wore bright flowing colours. Mum wore beige. In fact Mum’s two favourite colours were light beige and 100 per cent, undiluted, unreconstructed original beige. Mum’s clothes never clashed. She never went out of the house asking herself “Does this go?“
Iris? Reds and oranges and saffrons and purples. All flowing and robe-like. Fremantle was, in the early to mid-eighties, in the throes of the Rajneesh cult – The Orange People – who had moved into town and were everywhere. Iris looked like she fitted in.
But Iris didn’t fit in with the Orange People. If you’ve seen the Netflix series Wild Wild Country, you’ll get the picture. West coast USA Oregon and west coast Australia Fremantle were their global hangouts, filling our port city with orange-clad, well-heeled, well-educated Baby Boomers who were on an eastern mystical quest for love, lust and finding themselves.
So Iris looked the part as far as clothes were concerned, maybe even wore those colours at that time in order to try and fit in, but hey, she was an alcoholic, uneducated, not a brass tack to her name, and love and lust hadn’t exactly gotten her too far.
And as far as finding herself? Well she’d just found Jesus – or more to the point he’d found her. So she walked the Fremantle streets alone. And then Mum found her. Or, again, more to the point, they found each other. And in line with Mum’s style, Mum had her over for dinner.
So I’ve said that Iris was pregnant. No shock there. And no shock for her either. It was her eighth unplanned pregnancy in what was turning out to be an unplanned life. Seven terminations, some in an alcoholic haze – just like some of the conceptions -, and now pregnant for the eighth time. Eight pregnancies, seven terminations. What’s one more in the whole mix?
Mum thought one too far. And since meeting Jesus, Iris was beginning to think that too. Mum, conscious of her own background as a guilt-ridden pre-pregnancy love child of outwardly pious parents, persuaded Iris that she could keep the baby, and that Mum would befriend her and help her.
And that’s what Iris decided to do – to keep the baby. And that’s what Mum decided to do – to help her, even though Mum was in so much dire need of help herself. Or perhaps because Mum was in so much dire need of help herself.
Which is why we found ourselves Mum, me, my twin, and my two younger brothers, some four months later, lying on the beach in Busselton in the middle of summer just after Christmas, when Perth becomes unbearably hot and we all escape south, with Iris lying next to us on a beach towel.
With Dad gone, and no means of paying for a holiday, long term family friends had kindly given us a much needed break and mental refresh in the south west town. Mum said we were taking Iris who needed a holiday too.
Busselton and its surrounds has beaches that would be roped off for the jet-set in just about any other part of the world. But back in the eighties it was the poor man – and poor woman’s holiday retreat. It’s been “discovered” now, more’s the pity.
And there was Iris, nut brown from the sun she loved to bake in, sitting there on the white sands of a Busselton beach in a skimpy bright coloured two-piece, her by now swollen belly exposed to the sun, rubbing tanning lotion into her linea negra like she was basting a turkey.
Mum sat there all sensible in beige shorts, tee-shirt and sunhat, while the brothers were not sure where to look. Or at least how to look without really looking, if you get what I mean.
And a few months later Oscar was born. Well he wasn’t born Oscar. He was born a baby boy, and Iris asked my twin brother and me what would we like to call him. That felt like an honour back then, even as an eighteen year old, and it sure feels like an honour now, thinking of how much thought and care my wife and I went into in naming our daughter and son.
And we came up with Oscar. Why? I don’t know, maybe because we were – still are – David and Stephen – and they’re such white bread names, and Oscar had a ring of wholemeal, high fibre about it. But we liked it anyway, and more importantly so did Iris. Mum wasn’t so sure. I am almost convinced she would have called him Beige. But as these things go Oscar soon looked like the Oscar he was inevitably going to grow up to be.
And that should be happy story right? Well, sort of. Oscar was born, but that’s a hard thing for a single mum even when you’ve got good friends and a church that’s pretty supportive. And it’s not like Iris took to motherhood. Or that she was even very “motherly” whatever that term means. There was no pampering and what-not. It was Iris and Oscar (and Jesus) against the world.
My twin and I loved Iris because she was sharp and angular and always questioned things, and always pointed out religious cant or pride masking as piety. She was good to hang around, even though she was pointy and grumpy and wanted to know why church was asking her to do things she didn’t like.
Mum loved her too – but realised she was going to have to be in it for the long haul. Mum had had a broken upbringing, but Iris had taken that to the next level. Some things don’t fix easily. If in this life all Iris had was Mum as her foil, that was enough for Iris. And Mum decided that could be that was enough for her too.
Over time as Oscar grew up, Mum would help look after him. But over time, Iris would pack up and move somewhere else, taking Oscar on her seemingly endless quest to settle. She loved Jesus and instilled that love for Jesus into Oscar, but she was restless and frustrated.
Yet Mum loved her still, and loved Oscar still. And he loved her. Sometimes, when Iris and Oscar were living hundreds of kilometres away, Mum would receive letters that began “Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
We were never sure if the next paragraph was going to tell us about how school was going, or give us instructions for the impending Parousia, followed by a household moral code.
Over time, visits became less frequent, church less attended, feelings more frustrated. It was harder work for Mum, who would, nevertheless welcome Iris with open arms when she did turn up. By this stage Oscar was in a good relationship with his biological father, so that was encouraging.
And then, the visits dried up to a trickle. If Iris was in town, she’d breeze in to see Mum, but never for long and never like the old times. Those sunny days on the beach, with all the cares in the world, yet strangely enough, with none of them, were far behind.
Our lives moved on. So did theirs. And Oscar did what all babies do. He grew up. And we lost contact with them, though we heard enough to hear that neither of them really felt Jesus was who they needed in their lives anymore. They’d moved on.
The last I heard of Oscar was that he was back in his old stomping ground – his Mum’s old stomping ground – Fremantle, doing tertiary studies in an Arts degree. No more letters, but a young man who could, nevertheless, articulate himself well.
And why do I write about Iris and Oscar? Because it all came back into my mind this past week. Oscar came back into my mind because the subject of abortion is on our social media pages, and in our newspapers and on the lips of our politicians. We’ve just had the next state in Australia pass the first round of legislation around late-term abortions.
I feel sobered by abortion. And it’s a huge topic. A complex, huge topic. I don’t see abortion as emancipation. Unfettered, celebrated abortion will make our society heartless. It’s no longer a case of “safe, legal and rare” like the good old days of the eighties. But if I’m honest, there’s another angle to it: Our heartless society often fuels abortion. Renders it a plausible option for all sorts of reasons. It’s a vicious circle.
I look at Iris, back there, pregnant, drying out, dressed in orange, yet with no tribe to belong to, and I wonder if Mum hadn’t have had the heart to love her like Jesus did; ask her to keep her baby; and befriend her over the long term; what she would have done with that eighth pregnancy? What would she have done with Oscar? What could she have done?
And it was in that light that a pang hit my heart, and I went on an internet search this week. For Oscar. Trawled his name, trawled his studies, trawled his hangouts, trawled all of the things that would coalesce into someone resembling a more grown up Oscar than the one I remember.
Stalked him. And found him. A short bio and photo on a creative webpage advertising his skill and work history. Couldn’t mistake that Iris face. That gentle smile. Yes, years away from following Jesus obviously, but still with the water-stain of His presence in his eyes.
And I thank God for Iris. And I thank God for Oscar. And I’m sure Iris thanks someone, or perhaps Someone, for Oscar. And maybe, even if it’s ropey as far as theology is concerned, God thanks Iris for giving Oscar the opportunity to grow up to be the creative, life-affirming smiling young man that the photo and bio suggests that he has grown up to be.