Rick Morton: Mum, A Queer Icon
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQI+ storytelling night I host and programme around Australia. If you’re listening for the first time, make sure you check out the back catalogue of episodes. There are, to put it mildly, shit tonnes of good stories for you to seek your teeth into. Seek your teeth into? Sink your teeth into. Sink your ears? Sink your ears into them. I don’t know if that makes sense. There’s also a Queerstories book that you should really buy, and a podcast collaboration with Google’s Creative Lab called My Mother’s Kitchen. It features a bunch of Queerstories storytellers and is a cool interactive game “slash” podcast “slash”… Look, it’s an experimental audio experience and you should definitely check it out at mymotherskitchen.com.au.
If you’re a regular listener, just a heads up that I’m taking a bit of time to work a little less on Queerstories and a little more on my own writing projects, so for the next six months or so, episodes are coming out weekly rather than twice a week. Feel free to hold me accountable to this on Twitter by sending me all caps tweets that are like, “ARE YOU WRITING RIGHT NOW?!” Or, “HAVE YOU FINISHED YOUR PLAY?” I’ll take all the encouragement and pressure that I can get.
Rick Morton is an award-winning journalist with The Australian and is the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt. Rick is the winner of the 2017 Kennedy Award for Outstanding Columnist. One Hundred Years of Dirt was longlisted for the 2018 Walkley Book of the Year and was Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. This story was first performed at Adelaide Writers Week, then at Queerstories for Sydney Writers Festival in May 2019.
Noah Webster was a lexicographer working on the great American dictionary in 1806 when his wife came into the study and found him with the secretary on his lap. She said to him, “Noah, I am surprised.” And the great lexicographer replied, “No my dear, you are astonished. It is we who are surprised.”
My Mum slut-shamed a possum the other day.
And I was thinking of this little exchange when I asked her about the precision of the language that she had used. “Surely,” I offered, “your beef is with the fertility of the possum and not how many times it has had sex.”
For four years now, Mum has been stuck in a territorial dispute with a family of common brushtail possums that have moved into her roof and, in so doing, consumed her life to Seinfeldian proportions. In my thesis tonight, this ongoing skirmish is part of a central proof that my mother Deb Morton is a Queer Icon. I was on painkillers when I wrote that line too.
In addition to pushing back against the forces of Barry Humphries, there is a solid logic here. You see, possums are like straight people. They look fine and harmless from a distance but if they ever get into your home, they refuse to leave and their children will become your problem.
*Audience laughs and claps*
*Rick laughs at himself* What am I doing?
Like possums, it is…
*Rick continues laughing, prompting more audience laughter*
Like possums, it is illegal to kill a heterosexual. The only way to deal with either is to trap and relocate them, usually with the promise of a mining job in the Pilbara.
Deb Morton is a queer icon. She loves a good renovation, especially if it keeps out a possum, but there is one thing she loves more: A reality television show about renovations. Once, during a phone call, I was in the middle of telling mum about the latest structural personal failing of mine when she yelled without any warning, “Sticks and Wombat just won the family holiday!”
The Channel Nine reality show The Block is like cocaine for my mum. She doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble but she will absolutely go on a five-day Block bender and show up at your house, dehydrated, in a dressing gown with a Makita power drill.
Proofs three and four: Mum loves craft and has way too much experience dealing with the police despite never having done anything wrong. My brother battled ice addiction for several years, and the first real hint that something was up were the mushrooms he’d drawn on every available surface in psychedelic colours.
He started calling himself Shroomy. My brother told us he wanted to sell his artworks, which was great news for any interior designers who’d ever considered the wares at a weekend market and thought: “No, not shit enough.”
Over the summer of 2016, Mum set about her usual festive handiwork, stitching reindeer to send to her children as Christmas decorations. At the same time, she discovered my brother Toby was working on a little craft project of his own, blowing glass ice pipes around a drum underneath her house. It reminded me of some of the more diverse episodes of Better Homes and Gardens, where the gardener builds an outdoor planter box while Noni Hazelhurst sets up a safe injecting room.
Mum was both furious and what I would describe as angry-proud. “Now how the hell did he learn glassblowing, Rick? That’s what I want to know,” she said to me down the phone. There was a pause before she added resolutely, “It’s a skill!”
Proofs five and six: Deb Morton is a feminist trailblazer and sassy as hell. When she married my dad, he refused to let her keep her maiden name. Faced with this obstacle, Mum did what any self-respecting woman would do and laid low for 11 years like an extremely drowsy sleeper cell before executing the greatest coup of all when dad asked for a divorce: She refused to give the name back.
She is still Mrs Morton to this day. And she raised a feminist daughter. My sister Lauryn is a kind, funny, and extremely talented midwife. During the week, she delivers new life into this world. And on weekends, she hunts wild pigs and takes them out of it.
You know that look on a dog’s face when it farts itself awake? That’s the look men get when they realise they have scorned my sister.
It’s amazing. In so many ways, strong women are core business for our community.
Proofs seven and eight: Deb Morton adores a costume and is extremely curious.
Mum, a teacher’s aide at a primary school, has gone to school for Book Week dressed up as a member of ABBA, one of the Incredibles, an elf, a reindeer, another elf, and, inexplicably, an elephant with a papier-mâché head so large and bulbous, three poachers in Africa got an erection.
She taught me curiosity from the earliest age. Wonder, awe, that sense of the sublime we can all find in nature among the plants and animals. Granted, curiosity also gave us gender reveal parties and the first dick in a watermelon, but we should embrace the new frontiers that bring us joy, and move on swiftly from those that conjure despair.
Proof number nine: Deb Morton is a film connoisseur. And nothing, I repeat nothing, will get in the way of a viewing of Bridget Jones’ Baby. I was home writing my book in July 2017, and mum and I were enjoying the third instalment of the noted classic when my brother’s friend Scottie was stabbed in the neck under the house with the severed end of a broken golf club.
We hit pause on the DVD. Scott was lying on the ground, a pool of blood pouring from the stab wound in his neck. I was on the phone to the ambulance, Mum to the police, and my brother had gone over to the fence to assure some passers-by that everything was absolutely okay, which of course it wasn’t. Scottie survived, albeit with some nerve damage to his face, but our house became a crime scene until early the next morning.
The local police sergeant turned up. “Oh, g’day, Rick, I haven’t seen you in years,” he said cheerfully through the screen door. He asked me to take him in detail through everything that happened.
“Well, Mum and I were upstairs watching Bridget Jones’ Baby,” I told him.
And he said, “So, watching a movie upstairs?”
And I said, “Yes, Bridget Jones’s Baby.”
“Yeah, we’re probably not going to need that level of detail.”
Oh, so we’re just going to give up on Renee Zellweger’s happiness now? Is that how this night is going to go?
When the law boys left at 1 A.M., I turned to mum and asked: “Do you just want to just finish the movie?” She said, “Of course, darling.”
The final proof for my thesis is the most important. It’s love. When all else failed around her, Deb Morton loved and loved and loved. Through poverty and turmoil, pain and suffering, she loved. When others may have turned to bitterness or anger, she found her joy in the most significant of human victories.
Mum is very short and, as such, has a very low centre of gravity but – like a Shetland pony with a long-term domestic partner – it was love that kept her upright in this world.
And in our community, when so many tried to take so much from us, we found love and we used it not just to survive but to thrive. So why is my mum a queer icon? Because she loved me, her gay son. And it was enough. Thank you.