Sunday, December 22, 2013

So many baubles smashed.

There was one Christmas when my father in a fit of rage pulled our Christmas tree up by its branches and ripped it from its soil filled pot in one corner of the lounge room.

The tree fell heavily and there was a clattering of baubles, a sea of cut glass that my mother later tiptoed through with her dustpan and brush.

My father sulked off to his room.

Some of the Christmas baubles had come from Holland, where they had once adorned the Christmas trees of my mother’s childhood.  Through them she had held onto hope for a better life on the other side of the world.
Did she lose hope then, at the sight of the smashed tear drop bauble, the one that hung from the topmost branch and glittered from its many edges?  This was a bauble renowned for its shape and the way its maker had caved in one side and filled it with a different colour and texture from the smooth round outside.
How could my father have done this?  How could one person so destroy the beauty of Christmas?
It was never the same again.  So many baubles smashed. 

Over the next few years we went to Southland and bought new trinkets to put on the tree but none so glorious as those that came from Holland.

Today my mother is too old and tired for a tree.  She prefers her ancient nativity set, careful as ever to leave the baby Jesus hidden behind the crib until Christmas eve.  

Once more this Christmas one of my daughters has decorated a potted olive tree from our back garden with origami birds and butterflies in subtle colours, alongside the glow of white lights from Target.
In our house where no nativity scene appears, there is only the spirit of Christmas, a time when tensions are high but love cuts deepest; where we help one another; think of one another; grow frustrated with one another and sigh at the advancing of another year’s ending. 

May your Christmas be as good as mine, with all its hard edges and joy.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Three bears, cults and extraversion

I made up a bowl of porridge for my daughter this morning, the easy stuff out of a sachet, with two minutes in the microwave instead of one and a half, given I had put in too much milk.  My daughter was in a rush for work and I was trying to help her get out the door in time. 

The porridge at first was too sloppy and therefore needed more time in the microwave and then when she did not eat it immediately it became too lumpy.
I think of those three bears, and Goldilocks’s desire that things – chair, porridge, bed – be just right.

I did another Myers Briggs test this week and came out with a slightly different score from the first time I’d tried it. 

I’m sure this is not the official test but it’s one that’s free to try on line. 

My daughter reckons I should take the results of the first test seriously, at least more seriously than later results because by the second and third times I was likely to answer less honestly given I could anticipate the questions.  

Funny questions like: after you have been socializing heavily do you prefer to spend time alone.
Well, yes and no.  I can manage more company after a I’ve been with a crowd but equally there are times when I’d like some quiet time. 

This is why I dislike these tests so much.  They tend to demand 'yes' or 'no' answers and therefore become reductive. 

I know the test managers ask the same questions in reverse order to try to trick the truth out of you but I suspect people can become test-savvy and answer in whatever way they feel might best suit their purposes. 

These tests to me are like horoscopes.  You go along with whatever suits you – namely the positive interpretations, and ignore the rest.

I came out as Extravert 78%, Intuitive 38%, Feeling 62 % and Judging 22%.

At a glance, I’m not much of a judge.  The other results don’t surprise me so much.

I have my third Christmas party this afternoon, and my last bar Christmas day on Monday evening.  I haven’t done too badly.  I do not yet feel overwhelmed by the sense of excess this time of year brings. 
Shades of the question I quoted above from the Myers Briggs test.  That one is to root out the introverts,  I'm sure.  
My husband and at least one of our daughters are so-called introverts.  My older sister reckons a person on the introversion scale a la Myers Briggs, is simply one who derives energy from their own company, from quiet times.  While an extravert is a person who derives energy from time spent with others. 

I’d like to think I derive energy from both sources and to an extent I suspect we all do.  But it’s true, I prefer the company of others to total and prolonged solitude.

When I was a school girl we went on retreats once a year.  A week or maybe three to five days during the school day dedicated to prayer.  I pretended to enjoy those days.  The imposed silence. 

During retreats there were times when we sat in chapel together and a nun read to us or the priest held  Mass or benediction, something that involved noise, voices, or better still singing, but then later we were meant to make our own entertainment, namely in the form of more prayers and contemplation.
I can see us now, thirty or so fifteen-year-old girls, our missals in hand wandering around the gardens of Vaucluse Convent ostensibly in deep contemplation.

The more outgoing girls caught one another’s gaze and burst into fits of giggling.  The nun in charge who stalked around behind the rose bushes offered an unspoken reproach and silence prevailed again.

I longed for the hours to pass.  It felt as though I had been tied in a strait jacket and could not move my arms.  I should have known from this experience that I would never make a nun. 

Nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  All three would have been impossible for me, and yet there was a time in my life when I contemplated taking on such a life, out of love for my favourite teacher, whom I once decided I had wanted to emulate.  Even if it meant hours of imposed silence and a pretense – for me at least – of prayer.  

This nun has since left the convent but not before I gave up on that particular vocation. 

The other day I listened to Phillip Adams during his radio program Late Night Live on the topic of cults.  Apparently there is a group of people in London who were arrested.  Three women had been held in enforced captivity for thirty years, one of whom must have been born into slavery.  Apparently they are part of a cult. 

Their story fascinates me but the discussion of cults fascinates me even more.  One speaker made the point that if you get a group of people together and keep them separate from outside influences for long enough they can begin to develop kooky ideas. 

Madness breeds out of too much introversion, though equally there is the opposite madness, that of the mob. 

It all comes down to balance I suppose, a bit like my daughter’s porridge this morning: not too runny, not too firm.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Finding my father

I have unplugged, for fear of storms.  Varuna, the writers' house, sits on an iron stone and therefore, it’s safest to unplug.

To get here I took the train through places whose names are familiar to me, through Blaxland, Westmead and Penrith, Emu Plains, Wentworth Falls. 

Here in the Green Room I have a view at the corner to east and south, or north and west. I cannot tell which because I am geographically challenged. 

I have come to Varuna to find my father, or some semblance of him in a deeper directionality than I have known to date.

Within half an hour of my arrival a storm typical for this time of the year erupts.  I unplug.  A breeze dense with the smell of rain pushes against the curtains and washes away some of the musty smell of this house in which countless writers have penned their words. 

I look at the photo of my father as a boy, maybe six, maybe seven.  He sits on the floor cross-legged, one in a row of seven children who sit in the first row in front of the adults at what looks to be a wedding shot.  My grandparents are there too, in the corner first row standing behind the seated adults, which include the wedding couple.

 I guess they are a married couple because the woman in white carries a bouquet but she has no veil.  The photo could have been taken in Freud’s time though not in the Vienna of his fame but in Haarlem Holland where my father lived for his entire childhood, and where my father met my mother and from where he took her to Australia before I was born. 

I do not know why there are tears behind my eyes when I look at these photos, something about my inability to make sense of these times and these people, especially of my father and my father’s father and his mother. 

The mystery of these people.  My father’s head is lowered but he lifts his eyes towards the camera as if he mistrusts the person taking the photo and his arms are folded.  Some of the other children in the photo fold their arms as well.  A technique of the photographer in those days to keep the children still, perhaps.  No one smiles as is the custom in these old photos. 

Several are caught at that moment with eyes closed, including my paternal grandfather, the one who looks to me as though he could never be a relative of mine.  My grandmother, on the other hand, looks like me, the same long face, the angular chin. 

My great grandparents are in this photo, too.  They sit on the side of the bride and I can only assume that this photo was taken at the wedding of my father’s aunt.  Apart from my father I know none of these people, unless I am to include my aunt Nell who might well be the baby in the photo seated on my great grandmother’s knee.  Nell I have met.  Nell who was named after my grandmother, Petronella and after whom by rights I should have been named but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother Nell was ‘in disgrace’.

‘What did she do?’ I asked.  Asking my mother questions such as these plunges her into a fug of memory to which she does not want to return.  I can see it in her eyes.  That glazed look.  A look that says, must we go there again?  I can’t bear to think on it.  I only want to think about the good times. 

My mother is 94.  I should leave her in peace.  I should not trouble her about these things, but I cannot help myself. 

I worry at these thoughts like a dog at a bone.  I worry at these thoughts as if I am scratching at a wound whose scab is dry and ready to shear off. I know I should leave it scale off without help from me and yet I persist. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Your birthdays, the best day of the year

November is the month of birthdays in our house.  We have three birthdays, each days apart, beginning with mine and ending with my third daughter’s birthday, the last for the year in this immediate family and in between we celebrate the youngest’s birthday.  

We fuss about birthdays, a throw back to our childhood’s, my husband’s and mine, when birthdays were enjoyable enough but rarely fussed over. 

To me it’s the one day of the year when you can claim a special place.  Invariably, at least for me birthdays, my own birthdays are a disappointment.  

Other peoples’ birthdays can be fun.  You know the song: 
‘It’s my party and I'll cry if I want to…’

That’s the feeling, though no one’s heart is breaking over a lost or unfaithful love, though at a symbolic level I suppose the grief is to do with being born, of being separated and out in the world. 

I saw a you tube clip of twins who had just been born, only they did not know it not yet.  

It looks as though they are being held together in the arms of a midwife.  They are breathing independently but their eyes are shut.  They cleave to one another as if they are still in the womb and their arm movements have the jerky feel of babies in utero. 

I want to watch them wake up.  I want to see the look in their eyes.  I want to see them cry, even to greet the world, but the clip stops just as they are lifted out of their amniotic bath.  

And so presumably their lives begin.  Their birthday.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The way of grief

Here follows the opening of my chapter in Eric Miller's book, Stories of Complicated Grief: A critical anthology.

There are many more chapters written by others that are well worth reading.

Twenty years ago when I was still young, I stood under the shower one morning and found a pea-sized lump in my left breast. I had soaped myself down as usual and with my right hand I pressed the skin against my rib cage to feel the texture of my otherwise smooth breast. I was in search of imperfections.
A friend had not long before been diagnosed with breast cancer and I was more diligent in my search than usual. Only that night I had dreamed of my friend’s gaping breast cut open by a surgeon’s knife. I took it as an omen.
‘It’s probably nothing, but it feels a bit fibrous.’ I imagine the doctor did not want to alarm me. ‘Best to get it looked at.’ It took a few anxious days before my next appointment.
‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ the specialist said, ‘ just like a mosquito bite’. He pushed a long silver needle into my breast above the lump.
A mosquito bite? Clearly no mosquito had ever bitten this surgeon before otherwise he would have known not to lie to me. On a scale of one to ten – toothache being one, childbirth ten – I rate this pain from my memory today, at seven. But it was gone in a flash. The surgeon peeled off a pink bandaid to cover the drip of blood from the pinprick hole he left behind.
The results came back negative but still, ‘to be certain we should take that lump out,’ the surgeon said. ‘I might have missed the growth itself.’
The night before the day of the knife, I looked at my breasts in the mirror. I had a mixed relationship with them. They were the love of my babies’ lives but they stirred up unfathomable and ambivalent feelings in me. They were not however available for serious wounding. I woke from the anaesthetic without pain, still groggy from the drugs. The surgeon visited before my discharge.
‘All fine,’ he said and used an unrepeatable word, which when translated into layman’s terms means a benign fatty deposit. The white bandage held both breasts firm and hugged my ribcage. I was mummified. ‘Keep the bandage on for a week. Cover it with plastic in the shower. I’ll be able to take the stitches out then.’
In twenty years the scar has faded but it remains for me to see, a tiny junction on the left side of my left breast. ‘There is something peculiarly distressing about the first wound on new skin’, writes AS Byatt in her book, Still Life (1985, p. 157). And so it was for me – this scar, this wound, this mark on my breast. But as they say, I should be grateful, it could have been far worse.
I have other scars that are not so visible. They exist beneath the line of my skin, etched into my mind. These are the scars of trauma and grief, the complicated difficulties that have beset me from my earliest days. These are also the childhood scars that steered my vocation and later joined to form other scars through further traumatic experience. That is the way with grief. It becomes a scar, a hard inflexible stretch of skin, which takes the place of healthy tissue, the body’s attempt at healing itself. But scar tissue looks different. It is paler and more dense. There is a limited blood supply available and therefore less movement and circulation and in cases where there is too much scarring, it can block otherwise healthy functioning. So, too, when grief appears to have sealed over, when the initial trauma is past, the area of the wound or loss becomes less flexible. If we are to avoid such hardening, our grief must be worked through over time. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013


One morning I sprayed window cleaner onto my reading glasses so that I might see better through the usual smear of finger prints and collected grime, the build up of days of use.  That morning the fog was out thick and crusty like dirty glasses and the air was filled with moisture, tiny invisible water droplets that together created a grey blanket shrouding the back yard in sorrow.  Everything outside was wet to touch and the washing on the line would take days to dry.  

This sort of moisture permeates the washing in ways a good drenching never does.  A good drenching is in and out in no time, but a moisture soaked fog gets into the fibres of my sheets and stays there for far longer.  It lies like a curse and refuses to budge. 

I heard Craig Sherborne on the radio speaking of how he feels compelled to make sense of the details of his life and relationships by including whatever comes up for him in his writing.  

At times he thinks this is fine.  This is art.  This is the only way he can write with authenticity, even if it upsets some of his readers who imagine, rightly or wrongly, that they find themselves described in his stories. 

At other times he tortures himself with the unethicality of it all.  It is reprehensible.  He should not do it and yet he cannot do otherwise.  It is his way of coping with his life.  It is his passion, his obsession, his reason for being.  

I struggle similarly to justify my writing, on the one hand as necessary as a means of coming to some greater understanding of the meanings of my life.  

It’s all about having greater insights into what it means to be human, as Sherborne suggests, and at other times I thump myself internally for daring to write as I do.  

Somewhere in here the desire for revenge pops up its head and insists on being counted, alternatively as a reprehensible motive for which I must apologise, at other times as a valid basis on which to build an argument.  

Perhaps it is not so much the fact of the writing itself, it is the business of preparing that writing for public consumption.  It is the determination to put on view to allow others to read it that both attempts to satisfy the desire for revenge and also shifts it.  

Once the words are down on the page the hot feelings pass.  They have entered another sphere.  Perhaps they enter into readers who can now detect those yearnings in themselves through the vengeful one’s writing, or perhaps it transforms into something else, some deeper understanding of the human condition.  

No wonder the reader might imagine, no wonder the writer feels like this, I would too.  Such hurtful behaviour meted out towards them.  

I, too, want to hit out.  I, too, want to find some way of releasing that pressure as if from a cooker valve. I, too, want someone else to recognise my grief, and if in so doing I dishonour the perpetrators of that grief, if in the process, I get behind the veil of respectability of polite society, if in writing in this way I strip off the masks from the faces of those who would prefer to remain hidden, even including my own mask, then so be it.  

I can always put it back on later, when we meet for polite conversation.  But in my writing we are stripped bare of such false sensibilities.  

Through my writing hopefully we can approach one another with honesty and integrity even if that experience causes one or both of us pain.  

Saturday, November 02, 2013

No bush fires here

My morning has been derailed by the news that one of my daughters has decided to travel with her boyfriend to Merimbula on the coast.  Just for the hell of it.  It’s a six hour drive.  

They wanted to go somewhere further away, my daughter said.  And they hoped they might find more warmth.

I start to panic.  Will their car hold out?  Will they be safe?  What might they encounter?  Then I remind myself when my husband and I were young we travelled often from Melbourne to Canberra, and Sydney sometimes.  Each trip took a day and we thought little of it except for the tedium of all that driving.
My mother never worried about my travels then, or if she did, she did not let on.  I worry more than my mother ever worried, perhaps to make up for her.  But my daughter is an adult now.  She is responsible and will take care.  I have to let go.

I spent last weekend in Bowral with my husband and various of my sisters and brothers and their partners on a family reunion of sorts, the third since our first effort to get together in 2010.
We had planned to go to the Blue Mountains but the bush fires were hard on the doorstep of Closeburn, the house at Mount Victoria where we had arranged to stay and the proprietor and powers that be there suggested we should avoid the area. 

My younger sister who was organizing the trip chose Bowral at the last minute as a place outside of Sydney that might appeal.  No bushfires there.  None of us had wanted to stay in Sydney proper – too much city. 

We try to compromise in distances for these reunions given that one of us lives in Mildura, another in Dubbo, one in Gippsland, still another outside Canberra and another further north in Brisbane.  The rest of us live in Melbourne, though one Melbournian is away at the moment in America for several months. 

Not everyone made it to this reunion, only six of the nine siblings, and it felt different to me as a consequence.  Some of us came with our partners, which also diluted that family-of-origin feel. 
Still we all managed to fall into role: the girls making tea for the boys; the boys sitting around talking; my oldest brother taking charge, in spite of himself perhaps; my older sister being her usual bossy self.
We joked about these things but on the Saturday night after dinner as we sat around in the dining room of our rented house, spread around on unmatched couches and floral fabric armchairs – the usual motley furniture of holiday houses –  and drank the last of the red wine, I sensed that old wish to subvert proceedings.
The wish rose in my throat.  There was a quality of playing happy families, and I railed against it.
When I consider how much I like to keep the peace in my present family compared to my wish to shake things up in my family of origin, I wonder about the contradiction. 

The front picture of today’s Age newspaper includes a beautiful young woman in a broad open weave hat, tilted on one side of her head.  She is wearing a slim two piece white suit, the sort of outfit women show off at the races. 

It’s the spring carnival season here in Melbourne, the time for people to dress up in anticipation of the great race on Cup Day.

Beyond the young woman’s beauty I was struck by the fact she was not your average white Anglo-Saxon.  She was of Asian descent.  This is not the usual fare we see on the front pages of our newspapers here in Melbourne, not the so-called main stream.

Are times changing?  Can we now recognize and accept the diversity of nationalities within our culture.
The article attached describes how this young woman had organized her outfit on a budget.  Her suit made in Vietnam, her shoes online from the US, everything from elsewhere, inexpensive and yet glamorous. 

It seemed to me there were subtexts here, hidden hints. 
Why the emphasis on frugality?  Is it to encourage ordinary folk to participate in what they describe as fashions on the field.
I do not trust it anymore than I trusted myself at the family reunion. 

I have a photograph in front of me on my desk.  In the class photo of 1968 I smile at the camera along with thirty two other girls in my third last year at school.  All of us in our mushroom pink linen dresses, with white Peter Pan collars.

The photo is taken at a significant time in the history of the western world - massive changes everywhere, the Prague spring - but in it I smile feebly, my medal of Mary Immaculate around my neck.
There are others who also wear the medal in this photo.  It marks us as future prefects, good girls who will soon become leaders at our school.  My hair is in pigtails, my collar crinkled.  My school dress is too tight and it bunches around my waist. 

These are the days when I see myself as ugly and compensate for my appearance by being cheerful, helpful and ingratiating myself to all and sundry.
It seems an effective way to get through my final years at school.  The nuns admire me for it.  My fellow students tolerate me.  A couple of my close friends even like me and one or two others despise me.  One girl in particular, Rosanna, considers me a fraud and treats me accordingly.  She sees through my façade.  Under all the sugary niceness I am as flawed as the rest. 

The good girl of my school years contrasts with the troublesome one I have become.  There is only so long you can hold onto excess piety.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A short history of toilets

When I was four and living in Greensborough my family’s toilet looked like an upright coffin in the back yard.  It had a hinged flap on the lower back wall of wooden palings which the dunny-man lifted weekly to drag out the pan.
I looked up through the flap one day and watched the stuff come out of my little sister’s bottom.  And she watched mine in turn.

In our next house in Camberwell our toilet was stuck outside at the back of the woodshed, alongside the briquettes shoot.  I collected discarded cigarette butts from my father’s ash tray and stole a pack of matches from the kitchen mantel near the stove.  I learned to light the scrap of cigarette left above the butt and used the lit stump as a soldering iron.  I pressed it lightly onto the toilet paper to form the letters of my initials.  The edge of my ES had a tiny frilled border in copper brown.

In our next house in Cheltenham, an AV Jennings special on the Farm Road estate, we had two toilets, one inside and one out.  My mother brought outdated Readers Digests from the old people's home where she worked along with the cast offs from dead people, things she thought might one day prove useful.  Old spectacles or empty spectacle cases, faded pink nightgowns, matinee jackets, and hair rollers that had lost their pins. 

My mother brought home leather belts for my brothers and father and sometimes the combs and hairbrushes that had moved through and across old peoples’ heads of hair in a way that made me cringe.  My mother had no self respect when it came to freebies.
I refused to touch anything but the Digests.  I took them outside with me into the toilet above the back veranda and read about life in America.  I looked always for the salacious, which I usually found in the movie star section.  To this end I also collected my father’s discarded Truth newspapers for the thrill of naked bodies.

When I was in primary school, a Catholic school policed by nuns, I took it into my mind that the nuns never needed to go to the toilets, nor did they eat.  Under their habits their bodies were like those of my dolls, rigid and unyielding with no holes for peeing or pooing and no digestive system at all.
The memory of potties – those enlarged cup like containers which we kept under our beds to spare us the need for travel outside in the middle of the night – stays with me, not so much for their beauty, as for the stench they left in the bedroom when we woke and the dangers of spillage en route to the outside toilet where we emptied them each morning.
It was hard to flush unwanted things away then.  They tended to hang around longer.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Who gets the bracelet?

I visited my mother last night as I do most weekend nights to a terrible stink.  She had used the toilet after dinner and something must have got inside her and died, for the smell in the room was acrid.
I held my breath to speak for the first fifteen minutes and then the smell faded and we were able to chat free of the stench.
My brother had been by a few days earlier and left photos of his new granddaughter with my mother.  They were large photos, which I had needed to ferret out from underneath a pile of books.
My mother had remembered when I asked her about the new baby but she could not find the photos without my help.  I thought I might help further by spreading the photos around her room in front of her on the pot plant stand so that she might be able to admire them.
But it seems she has lost interest in the births of grand children or should I say great grandchildren except as a number and a sign of her vast progeny and even then she cannot remember the numbers.

'I don't like the photos there,' she said.  'Put them away.' 

My mother took off her cardigan and unbuttoned the brooch that held the top button fast. ‘Who gave that to you?’  I asked.

'Your brother and his wife, your brother the one whose daughter just had a baby.'  My mother thought this was so but she could not be sure. 

The brooch reminded me then of my mother’s bracelet, the one I have long coveted and I drew courage when I dared to ask her if I might have that bracelet, ‘when you are gone’.

My mother looked puzzled.  She too loves this bracelet.  It was a gift to her after her mother had died.  It once belonged to a great aunt.  A gold bracelet with a golden guilder attached and dated 1912, with the image of Queen Beatrix, the then Dutch queen on one side.
‘Perhaps I can give it to you before I die,’ my mother said.

Yes, I wanted to say.  Why not now?  But my mother hesitated and something in her hesitation left me saying, ‘Perhaps it would cause trouble with the others.’

Then I saw in my mother’s eyes some irritation.

‘My stomach is not feeling right,’ she said.  ‘Just a bit uncomfortable.’ 
She needed to revisit the toilet.

We speculated later whether my mother might have the beginnings of gastro and if so I needed to tell the staff as a precaution.  My mother might need to be quarantined.  

She’d like that I thought.  No need to make the trip to the dining room which she resists these days.
Walking tires her out.  She prefers to stay in her room on her own reading her beloved books, watching TV or day dreaming. 

My mother grew sleepy and I left her to her thoughts. As I closed the door I heard her switch on her television.  Perhaps my mother resented me for reminding her of her death, of the idea that she soon might not be here.

And I resented her, too.  Even after I had asked her directly, she could not bear to give in to me.  Perhaps she had another in mind.  

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The word, 'no'.

At the river in the morning I took off my shoes and socks, brown school shoes and dirty socks and I plunged my feet into the water.  

Mud oozed between my toes, twigs scratched against my legs.  There was a light current, not enough to push me off balance but enough to make me want to stay close to the edge, close enough to be able to reach out to the thick tufts of grass that sprouted there.

I was on a mission.  I had taken my bike out that morning.  I had cut myself a sandwich, filled it with butter and jam, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and dropped it into the bike basket at the head of my bike.  

The bike basket signified my bike was different from my brother’s bikes.  Only girls had bike baskets.  Boys did not need baskets.  They carried their belongings in their pockets.

That Saturday morning I had decided I would ride to Sydney, an entire state away.  A bike ride to Sydney all the way non-stop.  I told no one.  No one need know.  And I took off with the energy of any self respecting ten year old, full of confidence that I would be there by late afternoon and back by nightfall.

Uphills were the worst.  Burke Road past the turn to Doncaster, a good run down to the Yarra River, and then I elected to stop.
I ate my sandwich and found a drink tap next to play equipment in a park, carved out of flat land near the river.  I was thirstier than I had imagined, and my legs had taken on that jelly like quality that comes out of too much exercise.  Even in a ten year old.
The sun was mid sky and I had learned enough from nature study classes to know that it would only get hotter, but in the shade of the gum trees and with a slight breeze skipping over the river I cooled down. 

My feet in the ooze and all I could imagine were dangerous creatures underneath, creatures that might drag me down if I stayed too long.  It took a huge effort to drag myself back onto the shore.

A cow in a nearby paddock looked up from chewing on grass.  Even the cow had an ominous look in her eye as if she were unhappy that I should be there.
That’s when I saw the man at the top of the hill, the man who stood looking down at my bike, sizing up the basket, as if he were looking for a rider and her belongings, as if he were looking for me.  

And what could a man alone on a hill top near a river want with the rider of a small girl’s bike, one he would know belonged to a girl  because it held a basket?

The man’s silhouette on top of the hill, a black shape against a blue sky left me with a feeling I had broken rules. 

There were no signs around that said not to trespass.  The river was free or so my brothers had told me, but this man reminded me of the word ‘no’. 

I have met many such ominous men in my lifetime, in reality and in dreams, silhouettes against the sky.   

Sunday, September 29, 2013

It's rude to stare.

Have I told you how much I hate ginger?  For all its apparent medicinal qualities, the taste of ginger makes my mouth water even as I write about it, not the mouth watering sensation that says I’m-keen-to get-into-this-food type, but the mouth watering that happens when I’m ill and nausea creeps up from the ache in my gut to my mouth and my nose.

My husband, on the other hand, treasures ginger.  He drinks it as tea.  In deference to me he leaves fresh ginger out of most of his cooking though lately I’ve noticed he’s been sneaking it into some of his fish pies, as if he imagines I will not detect it – not when he introduces the ginger gradually, surreptitiously. 

This reminds of those desensitization experiments we tried when I was studying basic psychology years ago.  The idea that if someone is phobic about something, say phobic of kitchen brooms, you gradually introduce them to things that remind them of brooms and little by little, up the ante, until they are finally face to face with a real broom.

Either this exposure will cure them of their phobia or it will drive them mad, or so one of our lecturers told us.  It struck me then as a risky business. 

My husband’s efforts to introduce ginger into our diet have not cured me.  I still hate the stuff.

Why does it give me satisfaction to announce one of my pet hatreds with such equanimity?  

I recognize there are many people who have difficulty with the word ‘hate’, almost as much as I have difficulties with ‘ginger’.

It's as if the word ‘hate’ becomes the state of mind called hatred, and to hate someone is to do damage to them simply through your feelings.  I suppose hate has that absolute quality.  Very black, on the continuum of black to white. 

We were out to dinner last night in a cheap and cheerful dumpling place on Glenferrie Road.  We had ordered from the menu, avoiding all things ginger, filling up fast on dumplings as our entrée.  I sat facing the door, which meant I could not spend too much time staring at the other diners in the restaurant.
My husband sat beside me, my daughter opposite.  She had a full view of inside the restaurant but did not report on it to me.  She preferred to keep me in the dark. 

It’s rude to stare.  

I know this but I cannot stop myself when even mid-conversation with my daughter and husband, an activity elsewhere catches my eye.  There on the periphery of my vision the fascinating movements of others, and although we sat at the door of the restaurant and could only see people as they came in and went out, there was plenty of action.
The door kept jamming.  People arrived and could not get inside without exerting a huge shove at the door.  Then some forgot to close the door once they were inside.  The springtime winds are turbulent at the moment and the door left unsnibbed sprang open every time a gust caught it.
A couple of older women on a table parallel to ours copped the full blast whenever this happened. I watched as they complained. I watched as one of the waiters, seemingly one more senior, spent much of his time running back and forth to catch the door and seal it after some careless person had left it open yet again. 

'Don't stare,’ my daughter said, but even she turned to look when a youngish man went to leave and staggered at the door.  His friend, a young woman followed close behind.  

‘You can’t go out there,’ the young woman said just as the man collapsed beside her. 

Then a great flurry of attention.  ‘Call an ambulance,’ the girl said to the waiter and everyone grabbed their mobiles, including my daughter.  

The restaurant staff made the call and handed the phone to the young woman who talked to the ambulance people.  She gave the impression she knew what was happening. 

‘Stay with us,’ she said leaning over the collapsed man on the floor.  She nudged at his inert body.

‘A drug overdose,’ I said to my daughter. 

In minutes, the young man came to.  Staff helped him to his feet and then he went to sit outside on a bench in front of the restaurant with his friend, a couple of staff members and other passers-by who had elected to stop.

How could I not stare? I was trying to work out the story in my head.  I had decided by now it was not a drug overdose. The man seemed too alert, too clear eyed even from a distance. 

Maybe he was a diabetic.

In time the ambulance came and as we left the restaurant ourselves I saw the young man and his friend seated in the ambulance in conversation with the paramedics.  All seemed well by then and I told myself I must not pre-judge and decide that some one has overdosed any more than than I should avoid all things ginger. 

It might open my mind to the possibility of a new taste even if it makes my mouth water just thinking about it.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sliding backwards

Not long after she was handed her driving license my mother took out her new second hand car, a pea soup green Farina that was shaped like a woman, all curves and narrow fenders.

On the Saturdays on which my mother was rostered to work as a child care officer at Allambie, she drove to and from her workplace with her four youngest children in tow.   I was ten and the oldest of the four.
My mother took the car key with her into work and warned us not to lock the car should we decide to go for a walk or leave for any other reason.  Otherwise we would not be able to get back inside the car until her return at five o’clock.  We were not to interrupt her at work.
Those days were long.  My mother parked her car on Elgar Road not far from the Wattle Park.  We killed time by walking to the park and mucking around on the no longer functional tram that had been installed as part of the children’s play equipment.  

Back inside the car in the middle of the day we ate the jam sandwiches we had brought from home.  We doled them out slowly so as to have something to do and also to keep our hunger at bay.  We spent the late afternoon dozing and reading books in the fuggy warmth of my mother’s car.  Nine to five, so many hours to fill for four small children alone in a green Farina.
On the way home I sat in the front seat.  I helped my mother to drive by anticipating her need to turn corners.  It must have annoyed her when I insisted on clicking on and off the indicator light whenever she turned to right or left, but she did not protest.
My mother was a nervous driver and often stalled at lights. Worse still, her green Farina had sloppy brakes. We sat at the top of the hill at the intersection of Mont Albert and Balwyn Roads and waited for the car’s inevitable slow slide back, even with the hand brake raised.  I hoped the lights might change soon before the car hit anyone behind us.  

In the nick of time my mother re-engaged the gears and we shot ahead spared the humiliation of a collision.

My mother had a serious accident within a year of getting her license, serious as far as her Farina was concerned.  She gave up driving then, too terrified to get back behind a steering wheel.  With no one to encourage her, my mother lost her opportunity.
She told us years later that she had wanted to learn to drive again but by then my father was against it.  He was dependent on her company.  ‘If she gets her license,’ he said,  ‘she’ll never stay at home.’  He preferred to act as her driver instead and so my mother became a kept woman once more.

We’re slipping back into the past in this country with a conservative government at the helm.  There’s only one woman in the ministry among all those men, all dressed in dark suits, including the one woman.  We have a new title for our Immigration Department that includes the words ‘border protection’ – it seems once again we need to protect our borders.  And now we have no ministry for science, or for aging, disability or mental health, all those areas in which vulnerable people need assistance. 

We have slipped back into the one dimensional world of white Anglo Saxon, homophobic times and it terrifies me.  My only hope is this is cyclical and the slide backwards will not continue. 

I wrote a letter to a friend but did not send it.  I did not send it because I did not want to revive a situation that is now over.  I did not send it in part because I cannot revive a friendship that is over.

And so my letter sits in its envelope unopened, sealed forevermore, so many words unread, so many thoughts unshared. 

My letter will go where all the other letters-not-sent go.

There must be many such letters written by people in the heat of a moment, written with the intention of communicating to another, but lost through a change of heart.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sex and death

There’s a story doing the rounds in cyberspace about a father who wants to teach his adolescent daughter a lesson. In the family’s blog he is dressed in very short shorts and stands provocatively at a bar for the benefit of what I imagine to be someone’s iphone camera. 

Apparently, both the father and his wife do not enjoy the spectacle of their daughter dressed in her short shorts.  They consider it unseemly, obscene, inappropriate, disturbing, provocative – you name it.
Despite their protests, the daughter had insisted on wearing her short shorts to a family dinner and so her father took a pair of his shorts from his room, cut off a few inches from the legs, and wore them out to dinner, too.
Did the daughter learn her lesson?  I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to figure out what the lesson is.

Had the girl’s mother cut her own shorts down to size, the comparison might have been more telling.  

I ask myself why these things matter?  Why do we care so much about young women wearing their short shorts?  
Then there’s the Robin Thicke clip that’s also doing the rounds to the song Blurred Lines.  The lyrics are provocative, implying there are blurred lines to sexual consent. The men are in suits, the women naked.

 To counter this a group of Auckland University students created a spoof where the men, dressed only in white underpants, dance to the whims of the women who are fully clothed.  The lyrics are different, too.  An attack on misogyny.  

Not long after mini skirts came into vogue, women started to burn their bras in protests against patriarchal constraints.  At the same time not wearing a bra could be sexually provocative.
I cannot be sure what led me not to wear a bra on my wedding day.  Was it simply because my wedding dress could not sit well with the imprint of a bra beneath.  

My wedding dress was of a fabric that I believed could conceal the fact that I did not wear a bra. At least in my mind it was sufficiently modest, though I later heard rumours that people like my mother were horrified.  

I have the horrors myself when I look back on another time, a New Years Eve in the 1970s when I decided to go bra-less to a party at a friend's house in Ivanhoe.  

I had bought myself a blouse, a long floppy sleeved and cropped blouse, the type you see on a flamenco dancer.  It came together tied in a knot across my midriff.  The white cotton was as thin as a summer nightie, and almost as transparent. 

I wore it with pride.  But now I find myself cringing at my exhibitionism if indeed that is what it was.
That night people got drunk.  Someone pushed someone else into a swimming pool.  Fellows slipped off their clothes.  The men, I might add, not the women.  

The women wore bathing suits, but several of our young male companions took to skinny dipping. 
It was a night of arousal though nothing untoward happened as far as I can remember, though to look on it from the outside it might have looked like an orgy.

I wonder then about what is or is not appropriate in this life?  What determines our behaviour?  What do we decide is obscene and what not? 

Yesterday as family members stood around the grave side of an elderly aunt about to be buried I checked out the depth of the hole.   
‘It’s so deep,’ I said.
‘But look at that clay,’ one brother said.  ‘Oh to get my hands init.  To sculpt from it.’
‘It needs to be deep,’ someone else said, ‘so they can fit another body on top.’
I looked into the hole in the ground and wondered what it must be like for my uncle to see his eventual resting place.   

My husband and I have yet to choose a burial plot.  I think about it.  Preparations for death.     

My sister has made a family pall of white silk, embroidered in gold thread.  It has sections to represent all the members of our immediate family and in each section my sister has included both zirconium crystals to represent the boys in each family on the extended line and tiny pearl button to represent the girls.  

The pall symbolises the lives of our parents and their nine children, twenty three grandchildren and twelve great grandchildren with another two on the way.  My sister hopes that every member of our family will use this pall for their own funerals.  

I shrink a little inside whenever I see the pall.  It seems to me it will soak up so much grief and I cannot help but think of the pall draped over my own coffin when I die, or when my husband dies, my siblings, my mother and in time my children and then their children.   

There’s something ominous about a pall, so unlike a christening gown, which signals new life.  

‘When you’re dead you’re dead,’ my brother said.  ‘You won’t know.’  
'But there’s the build up to death.'  One my cousins nodded her head in recognition of my qualms but another sister insisted she does not think of these things. 

We chattered on about death until my oldest brother leaned over, ‘I’m not sure now is the time to be analyzing such matters.’

People stood at the side of the grave and waited for the funeral organisers to do their thing.  We fell silent, though a few chatterers further up the hill continued to talk.
When human silence prevailed I heard the birds twitter in the trees above and fell back to thinking not so much of my aunt whose body was about to be lowered into the ground but of the rest of us still alive who are left trying to make sense of how we might go on living in a world filled with rules and regulations about how we should behave.  

I still cringe at the sight of me in my see through blouse.  
My older self wonders how could she do it?  
My younger self says, who cares?  

The celebrant read out a poem.  Her words stay with me.  'Your bones are made of stars/ your blood is filled with oceans.'  

There's more to us all than our appearance or desires.