Mary Atkins Author


The strange thing about getting old is that you are still young in your mind. I rest 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.

To be kind, I’m more than the 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, damp air-raid shelters, a cupboard under the stairs that smelled of molasses, and tiered bunks in London subway stations. These provided a refuge for us as the armadas of planes droned overhead. I remember my mother’s anguished face as we heard the distant crump and thud of bombs hitting their targets. But equally, I remember so clearly, after the Americans dropped a food parcel, my joy of finding silver-foiled wrapped chunks of chocolate lying in a laneway. I was 6 or 7 years old and had never tasted chocolate.

Because of our wartime gypsy lifestyle, my schooling was non-existent until the end of the conflict. I left school at 15 years old to take a shorthand-typing course. I was a poor-second secretary to many unwitting employers.

I was 20 years old when my mother encouraged me to apply for a job as an air hostess. The list of qualifications required was excessive. A high-school certificate, two languages, a first-aid certificate, a catering certificate and a life-saving certificate. The only qualification I had was ‘un peu’ school-girl French. So with a wing and a prayer, I applied. I had a silly smile on my face for days when, after three interviews and jostling for a 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 ‘50s and early ‘60s was rarefied and air hostesses were minor celebrities. My picture was in the local paper. This era was considered the golden age of flying. It was before jet-flights. Passengers had ample leg-room to enjoy the trappings of the luxury service and smoking was allowed.

On long-haul flights to Africa, it was winged in two or more legs. We stopped at suitable destinations to spend nights in an exotic hotel before boarding the passengers early the 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 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, waltzing the streets of London singing I could have danced all night. Robert and I were together for five years before we married. 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. I was exhausted from trying to manage two babies on my own. I thought life could not be any worse. But…

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 of my illness became more pronounced. Within three years, these 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. In my book, I compare the benefits of my chosen recovery to full health with contemporary scientific evidence.

But what life takes, it can equally give back in momentous ways. 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 blended family embraced the privileged and bronzed expatriate life in Nassau for nearly five years.

Our life in the Bahamas changed us. Following 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.

Juggling work and motherhood, I 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 company, which morphed from 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 helped to bring innovative concepts and new life to market food and wine. Prosaic cooking demonstrations became entertainment. We added more substance and excitement to food and wine conferences with master classes and debates. We organised festivals and events that linked small agricultural producers to profile chefs.

But always I was writing. As a child scribbling short stories. In my working life, writing recipes, consultancy reports, and travel articles for the print media. At sixty-five, after twenty-plus years of refining my skills as a trainer and speaker, I wrote my first book, Finding Your Voice – Ten 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.

Over the past decade, I have reinvented myself as a luxury cruise ship lecturer, enriching passengers’ adventures with presentations on culture and history. 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.