Mary Atkins Author

_MG_0112The strange thing about aging is that in your head you are still young. My mind rests comfortably in my twenties until reality pulls me up sharply; seeing the reflection in a store window of an old woman, silver-haired and wrinkled.

But to be kind, I am more than the sum of my reflection. I am honed and patinated with the events of my extraordinary life.

I was a toddler when my mother, sister and I survived the bombing and loss of our home and everything we owned in the London blitz in WW11. We became camp followers; wherever my father, a captain in the Royal Artillery, was posted in England, we followed, staying wherever my mother could find a billet.

I have memories of the woeful pulse of air raid sirens mixed with snatches of damp air raid shelters, a cupboard under the stairs that smelled of molasses, and tiered bunks in London subway stations, all of these provided a refuge for us as the armadas of planes droned overhead. I remember my mother’s anguished face as we heard the sounds of the distant crump and thud of bombs hitting their targets. But equally, I remember so clearly, the amazement and joy of finding silver-foiled wrapped chunks of chocolate lying in a laneway. The Americans dropped food parcels and these spilled treasures had obviously been part of one these. I was 6 or 7 years old and had never tasted chocolate till then.

Because of the war, and our gypsy lifestyle, my schooling was non-existent until the end of the conflict, when life became more predictable. At 15 years old, with just six years formal education, I left school to do a shorthand-typing course. I was a poor-second secretary to many unwitting employers until at age 20, my mother saw a half-page ad in the paper – air hostesses required — and encouraged me to apply.

The list of qualifications needed was excessive – high school certificate, two languages, first aid certificate, catering certificate, life-saving certificate …. The only qualification I had was ‘un peu’ school-girl French. So with a “wing and a prayer,” I applied. I could not get a silly smile off my face for days when after three interviews and jostling for position with hundreds of outrageously clever and gorgeous looking girls, I was one of the chosen few who made it.

Air travel in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a rarefied thing and air hostesses were seen as minor celebrities. My picture was in the local paper with an over-the-top local-girl-makes-good success story. This era was considered the golden age of flying. It was the time before jets when passengers had plenty of leg-room to enjoy the trappings of the luxury service and were still allowed to smoke on board. On long hauls to Africa, we would do the flight in two or more legs, stopping at a suitable destination to spend the night in some exotic hotel before boarding the passengers early next morning to fly onwards. I loved every second in the sky, every new destination. But sadly it was the days when the airlines only wanted single women so with marriage came the end of my glamour days in the sky.

I met Robert, an Australian dentist when I was helping out at my mother’s café. Our first date was to the London opening night of My Fair Lady starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It was a magical experience, which seemed to go on forever with us waltzing the streets of London singing I could have danced all night. Robert and I were together for five years before we married. In the first year of marriage, we travelled the world seeing places and crossing borders that are no more or have been renamed. We always wanted a large family and were well on target when two weeks before our second anniversary Robert was killed in a light plane crash leaving me with our two infant children to raise alone.

It was the worst of times. My grief overwhelmed me and I was exhausted from trying to manage two babies on my own. Life could not any worse I thought – and then …..

While Robert was alive, I had been plagued with weird episodes of muscular numbness or twitching, blurred vision and every now then I sounded like a drunk at a very full on party but most of these occurrences were fleeting and so we did not worry, thinking it had more to do with my hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness – well strike morning, insert 24 hour x 40 weeks.)

After Robert’s death the symptoms became more pronounced and within three years these symptoms orchestrated dramatically and I became incapacitated. Finally — I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. My book A Journey of Creative Healing documents my remarkable recovery from the disease. In the book, my intuitive remedies of rest, meditation and a daily practice of creativity, I compare with contemporary scientific evidence on the benefits of my chosen return to full health.

But what life takes it can equally give back in momentous ways — which happened when the children and I, were holidaying with friends in the Bahamas. The first week of the holiday I met Peter, an English accountant working in Nassau. We fell in love and married within the year. Our daughter was born in Nassau.   Our little-blended family embraced the privileged and bronzed expatriate life in Nassau for nearly five years.

Our life in the Bahamas changed us, and after a short spell in the UK, Peter and I decided the world we wanted to live and raise the children was vastly different in class structure and climate from our English heritage and so we immigrated to Australia. We never looked back – Australia suited us all.

I juggled work and motherhood and eventually rose through the ranks and became the national training manager of a large female sales team. In my early forties, I turned my back on the corporate ladder and returned to education, to become a home economist.

After qualifying, I started my own company that morphed from being an agency for food professionals to providing marketing, event and support services for the Australian food and wine industries as well as two prominent American agricultural associations.

For over thirty years, my company was instrumental in bringing innovative concepts and new life to marketing food and wine. Prosaic cooking demonstrations became entertainment. We added more substance and excitement to our food and wine conferences with master classes and debates. We organised festivals and events that linked small agricultural producers to profile chefs. I trained food professionals to talk and cook at the same time (think of the challenge of tapping one’s head while rubbing your stomach) and we created opportunities for food professional students to showcase their talents in many of our company projects.

But always I was writing, as a child scribbling short stories, in my working life — writing recipes, food, and travel articles. At sixty-five, after twenty plus years of refining my skills as a trainer and speaker, I wrote my first book Finding Your Voice – 10 Steps to Successful Public Speaking.   Reviewers, including the Australian Financial Review, acclaimed the book as the definitive self-help guide to public speaking.

After retirement, I wrote a biographical novel Losing You, which tells the story of a young wife and mother’s complexity and courage in dealing with the loss of her husband.

Today I have reinvented myself as a luxury cruise ship lecturer, enriching passengers’ adventures in the South Pacific. When I am not cruising, I am writing, researching and enjoying every minute of my life with Peter, family and the laid back Queensland coast lifestyle.