Sunday, June 28, 2015


Mother Margaret Mary stood in front of the class and handed back our papers.  One after the other we stepped forward onto the raised platform where she stood in front of her desk and reached out from her pile

I knew it would take an age to come to my name.  Mother Margaret Mary went alphabetically. 

Some kids smiled as they walked back to their desks; others frowned. 

When she finally called for me, I scraped out from behind my desk, one where the top was attached to the base and you slid in and out sideways. 

‘I knew you weren’t any good at mental,’ Mother Margaret Mary said as I reached out to take my test.  ‘But not this bad.’

I had not known I was this bad either. 

I’d tried hard to figure out those numbers, those additions and subtractions, multiplications and divisions, but my head went fuzzy and it took me ages to get out one sum after the next.

‘Two out of ten,’ Mother Margaret Mary said. 

She said it in a way that made me feel small.  She said it in away that made me wonder whether she enjoyed my bad mark.

This was not unusual.  Mother Margaret had a way of triumphing over our childhood mistakes.

When one of the boys talked to his friend during class when he should have been silent, she called him out to the front and then took a ribbon from her desk.  She kept a collection of ribbons there, ribbons that had fallen from the hair of some careless girls and been lost.

She took the ribbon and lifted a piece of loose hair from the boy’s head then tied the ribbon round it in a bow.

Then she ordered the boy to stand outside of the classroom in the middle of an empty rubbish bin that stood near the door.  She kept him there for hours.

‘If you act like a girl, you’ll be treated like one.’  That presumably was a reference to Mother Margaret Mary’s choice of ribbon for his hair, but I never understood the reference to girl’s behaviour nor the purpose of the rubbish bin, other than to tell the boy he was nothing more than rubbish.

I didn’t know about humiliation in those days. 

I didn’t know then that some people took pleasure in making other people who were already vulnerable by virtue of their size or some other difficulty, feel even more vulnerable.

Years later, when I was at senior school and had grown taller and begun to realise that maybe I could be good at other things and, although I was still no good at arithmetic, I could at least count and measure size.

I met Mother Margaret Mary one day at my new school.  She had come with other nuns to visit when they appointed a new reverend mother.  I saw her at the back of the chapel.  I swear she had shrunk.

She looked so much older that I remembered her.  And for the first time in my life it occurred to me that people can change, and those who wield power over you one day, can the next, become like the emperor of no clothes.

‘The queen wipes her bum, too,’ my husband once said to me when I was approaching a meeting that terrified me.

He was trying to give me courage.  And in a strange way it helped. 

Not the sight of the queen on the toilet, but the idea that Mother Margaret Mary might also have used the toilet and that she, too, had a body. 

When I was a small child who failed her mental arithmetic test I had imagined Mother Margaret Mary had no body. 

I had imagined she did not eat, or sleep, or use the toilet like the rest of us, and that outside of the classroom and staff room she spent her days in church. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Once upon a time...

In an hour or so, I will skype an acquaintance whom I met online and who now lives in New York, about her editing of my manuscript. 

In other words, I will talk to someone on the other side of the world and we will see one another on the screen as if we are close by and it will be our first ‘real’ encounter, as face to face as we can get. 

I have a daughter who lives in Japan at the moment and another visiting Berlin.  I have seen both of them in the past week on the screen, heard their voices and, although we have not been able to touch, we have been able to be with one another in ways I could not have dreamed of as a child except on the Jetsons. 

Once upon a time, we communicated with our loved ones overseas in written form  on aerogrammes: thin blue paper with a dark border around the edge, the image of a plane in one corner, already stamp impregnated on the other top corner at a cost dependant on its destination and with broken lines around the ends that told you where to fold, and with sticky bits that jutted out onto rounded corners which you could stick down to form an envelope. 

Such aerogrammes you needed to open with a knife, otherwise you risked ripping into your beloved one’s written words. 

There were telegrams too, this time on pale yellow paper with short typed messages that often omitted joining words to cut down on costs.  

People sent telegrams sent at times of births and especially deaths and maybe to announce a wedding or to send greetings at a wedding when the person could not be there. 

When I was a child, my Dutch relatives phoned maybe once a year, at Christmas time.  

I watched my mother take up the phone, its black receiver that stood against the wall in the hallway near to the bathroom. She sounded  breathless in anticipation and her words in Dutch were halted as if she were measuring each word out and weighted in gold.  

Ten dollars a minute these calls cost, or some such ridiculous amount.  It made it hard for anyone to want to speak and when they did, they reverted to platitudes in their anxiety to reconnect. 

My mother received one such call in Healesville where we lived for a time.  I watched her pick up the ringing handset and as if in a movie, she pulled away from the wall when she heard the news that her mother had died.  

She could not go to the funeral.  She could not say goodbye to her mother. Could not hold her mother’s cold hard hand when her body was laid out for a vigil; could not do anything other than imagine her mother’s death and mourn alone. 

My daughters overseas were devastated that they, too, could not be here for their cousin’s funeral last week.  It’s hard work going to a funeral but harder still not being able to share the family ritual that connects us and helps us to go on living. 

In an hour or so when I connect with the woman in New York who will help me to think more about my manuscript, I will notice the quickening tempo of my own speech, because I am nervous and I dislike seeing myself in the corner of the screen while I am looking at this other person who fills the screen. 

Depending on the connection quality, colours and shapes will distort.  We will see one another, but not as we might were we to meet in person.  Still it's a good thing at least to see one another when we speak.

Better than a phone call, though this skype call will not hold the same terrors as the calls my mother made to her family over fifty years ago when they rang from Holland. 

Just an optimal level of anxiety.

We will be free to speak as many words as we need to communicate our respective messages, but still I am nervous. 

It’s like waiting for test results at the doctor’s when you fear you might have some dreaded disease, or exam results when you fear you might have failed. 

How will I receive her criticism?  I have told her I do not want to re-write the whole thing, but I am concerned about its structure, the way it hangs together. 

Structure, that monster.  It stalks me whenever I write. 

What’s your structure here? 

‘Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea.

I greet this quote as the words of authority from a great man, Flaubert, whose mind was more disciplined than mine, who thought in that rational well-enunciated way through which scholars think, while I straggle around the edges, barely able to select one thought over another, to create something that coheres.

And my skype call to New York awaits. 


Saturday, June 13, 2015


Part way up the mountain in Macedon, we said goodbye to my niece.  It was freezing despite the faintest glimmer of sunshine.  

The organisers had set up a marquee in a secluded section of the gardens at Duneira, a reception centre that mainly caters for weddings and other life inspiring events.  

It was uncanny the way I found myself – I was not alone in this –using the word ‘wedding’ in the place of funeral.  It was also understandable, because in November last year, my niece and her partner were married in the sun in Portsea and the festivities were similar, much happier, but even then we knew about the gruesome diagnosis and that it was only a matter of time before we would be saying goodbye. 

Even in her dying, my niece worried about polluting the earth with her chemical soaked remains and so she organised an environmentally sustainable funeral where they did not use more chemicals to keep her body life-like after death. 

Nor did she use a coffin.  Instead, her family wrapped her in a shroud, which they and others who had attended an earlier vigil, decorated with drawings and messages.  A simple calico coloured cloth that housed her body before cremation. 

They rested my niece on a flat board with handles on either side, which the pallbearers used to carry her out. 

We all brought flowers and foliage from our gardens and spread them around her body during the service and then later the funeral assistants carried these cuttings, flowers and branches in huge strips of cloth behind the hearse.  

My niece’s immediate family walked before the hearse as it drove down the hill to the main road and the rest of us formed a guard of honour on either side to farewell this beloved young woman.  

All the cliché’s come to my mind and I try to push them away. 

I dreamed this morning that my niece’s father, my brother, stayed at my house.  He was looking for things to repair he said.  He liked to keep himself busy. 

Keep busy, he and his wife said after the funeral, as they handed out food to guests.  Keep busy, as if in doing so they could keep on living. 

If we stop we die, too.  We join my niece in her frozen state.  

In the past week I find myself overcome by a type of malaise that leaves me unmotivated beyond my work and the normal domestic duties of my days.  

I find myself wanting to withdraw from the extra-curricula.  

I find myself wanting to sleep more than usual. 

I find myself wanting to avoid writing. 

I tell myself I’ve written enough words for any person’s lifetime.  Maybe it’s time to start editing and erasing.  Prune back the words to their bare minimum. 

I know of at least two successful writers who reckon that most people write too much.

I felt chastened when they first told me this.  It left me feeling clumsy and loud, as if I had spilt out my thoughts in a useless array when I should be more like my friends and sit for hours in silence before I let one single sentence appear on my screen. 

Everything else is mere indulgence.  

Monday, June 08, 2015

A dead man's shoes

Is it churlish of me not to believe that my beloved niece who died five days ago is up there in heaven with my mum and ‘having a ball’,  as one of my sisters told me the other day?

I wish I could believe it.  Such thoughts make going on living easier.  Such thoughts make the idea of dying easier, but they don’t help me. 

My niece has died and the process of saying goodbye is too raw and close to write about.

Given my preoccupation with my own death of late, I try to find other ways of processing this stark event.  Stark because it’s out of order.   Read my niece's words, before she died, if you will.  She writes like a dream.

Young people should not die, but they do.

Young people who leave other even younger people motherless, should not die, but they do.

I have only attended funerals thus far in my life where the death has felt vaguely okay, given the age or circumstances of the person who died, my parents, my husband’s parents, my brother in law. 

All their deaths felt bearable.  This most recent death in my family does not.

So I will go into memories of an earlier death, one that did not leave me breathless, but curious.

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix died in his nineties and our city grieved, at least those who shared my bubble of the world as a young girl living in the  leafy green suburbs of Catholic Melbourne grieved. 

They laid him out in state in the middle of Saint Patrick’s cathedral and people were invited to visit him over the course of a week. 

My family went, those still living at home, and by some strange turn of events, my father, who had long stopped going to Mass, came too.  He drove the car and my sisters and I sat in the back of the station wagon from where we waved to cars that followed. 

The idea was to get as much of a response from the driver and his passengers following.  A nod, a smile a wave of the hand was enough.  It was more than we could elicit from the body of the archbishop. 

We queued outside in the early evening and walked up the aisle in a shuffling procession of silent believers, heads bent in grief. 

I had to pretend and studied the terracotta tiles on the floor and the curve of the arm rests at the end of each pew.  The way they formed an ending to each row and became their own sort of row going up and down the church.

I had never before seen a dead body, at least not in the flesh.  I imagined only the dead saints from holy pictures, those who were burned at the stake or flailed alive or had a red cascade of blood flowing down their sides, with a beatific smile on their faces. They welcomed death.

The archbishop’s face was white and his skin taut.  He wore makeup and his hair, tucked underneath his archbishop’s hat, what little you could see of it, was neat and slicked down. 

Clerical robes hid the rest of his body, all of it unremarkable.  But the shoes left me puzzled.  They shone as though they were black patents, the shoes of my First Holy Communion.  They shone as though they were made of black plastic.  They caught the light.

I could have seen myself reflected in those shoes if I had been allowed to lean over far enough to try.  But the coffin was erected on a dais and held away from the people by a frame of posts held together by dark braid. 

No one told us to keep off but it was obvious.  Keep off.  Keep out.  Death lies here. 

Death has a way of silencing us.  It leaves us breathless, and I’m not talking about those who die.  They are silent and breathless for evermore.  I’m talking about those of us lucky enough or unlucky enough, as the case may be, who remain. 

Those of us who must go on living in this imperfect world without their loved one.  Those who must make sense of the world without her.