top of page
Return to the Mother

Photography by Bernie Carr

The Little White Shift

It is a simple white cotton shift, delicately worked with white embroidery, tied beneath the breasts with a soft sky blue ribbon. Mum gave it to me, her mother gave it to her, but maybe before that it came from her Grandma - Mum’s not sure. 

It's a birthing gown. Mum wore it for the birthing of all five of us. Untie the ribbon and it opens to the lower belly. If you are the doctor, place your hand between shift and skin and her modesty is preserved - feel your way around the belly - it’s an unveiling through touch - feeling for the life inside the vessel that is her. I think of her giving birth - silently, not a squeak - that was the correct way in the 50s. And the man - I know he was impatient and unsympathetic to pain - with all that authority in his white coat. The thought is unpleasant but Mum wouldn't complain - he brought all us kids safely into the world. Thinking of him causes a longing in me for the time of the matriarch. 



Birthing - it’s a process of shedding really. The snake knows how to do that - shedding its skin at regular intervals when it becomes too small for the body inside. The snake is credited with cosmic abilities of creation and regeneration as a result - along with its capacity to go into and out of the earth - in and out of the Mother - now that's divine. 

But back to birthing. The baby sheds the mother or is it the mother shedding the baby? And in that infinite moment there is the shedding of the skin of self - where all is interconnected. She is shedding like a flower - petals - physical and metaphysical - opening, falling, to reveal the seed. The outer-most petal, the gown... 

And I am to wear the gown next - for the last time. 

When I try it on I feel beautiful - pure - unadulterated. There is a sense of anticipation. It’s the white. Mix all the colours of the spectrum together in light and you get white - mix them in matter and you get black. It’s the colour of a rite of passage - the colour of death. The bride wears white at weddings to denote the death of her old life, but an understanding of the reasons why we have traditions is no longer part of our tradition. 

White - love - life - death - illumination. Or is it the white light of oblivion? 

The gown is simple - a white cotton shift over a naked body - the body has to be naked beneath the shift. It's patterned with tiny white embroidered flowers so reduced in form they could be stars. I like this - we are all made of stardust, scientists tell us - everything is - including the earth itself, or herself depending on your perspective. All - everything - forged in the furnaces of collapsing stars - matter transformed then drawn together again through gravitational force. It's wondrous. 

So, this little white shift - my mother’s - patterned with star flowers: her birthing gown - my burial garment. From dust to dust. 

In 1943, T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: 

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time. 


I wonder ... will this be the experience of death - to know our beginning anew at the moment life is extinguished? ❖ 


 janelle mendham WRITING + DRAWING  an Anthology of Artists writing 

Journal .jpg
A Little Book on Burial   (detail)  
4 pages from 24 page boxed book  - 31.5 x 23 x 1.5 cm
my burial garment  ( detail ) 
 93 x 63 cm ink charcoal pen on paper
re-imagined from a drawing of a womans ovaries and uterus by Leonard de Vinci.

Return to the Mother - works for the  Paper Garments For the Grave 
a Tasmanian state travelling exhibition

curated by
Kitty Taylor

funded by the Australian Government & the Tasmanian Association for Hospice and Palliative Care

bottom of page