Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Alamein train

I sprayed my glasses with lens cleaner this morning to get a better perspective. I wiped them with the soft cloth one of my daughters gave me some time ago after her travels in Holland.  It imitates a Delft blau pattern of birds, flowers, leaves and squiggles, in blues, black and white.  

I need a fresh perspective. 

When I was ten I sat one day at the front gate of our house in Wentworth Avenue for long enough that the sun began to warm my skin. I sat still, hopeful no one might notice me.  

My older sister had issued house-cleaning instructions to me and my other sisters and brothers and I did not want to join them. 

I could have been clearing out lost objects from under my bed, or wiping over the dusty mantelpiece, instead I sat in the sun.  

Why must I work?  Why must I bother with the busy stuff of life when there was all this peace to be had at a gatepost in the early spring sunshine?

The others must have been busy enough not to notice my absence, or they, too, might have taken to hiding.  Only my older sister would be hard at it, cleaning and sweeping, mopping and dusting. 

Only my older sister cared about these things.  She still does.  Her house is immaculate while mine is a frenzy of clutter. 

In those days, our mother took the train from Alamein.  It stopped at all stations to Camberwell and only there joined the Lilydale line to the city.  

My mother was the only one in my family to take this train. Every Saturday when she was rostered to work she took the train to Alamein and from there she walked to Elgar Road and the children’s home where she worked.  

And every Saturday at the end of the day from five o’clock onwards my sister and I waited for our mother’s train to make the return trip to the city, stopping at all stations, including ours in East Camberwell, from which she would emerge. 

Train after train came and went and each time I heard the thrumming on the line that signified a train approaching, I peered ahead filled with expectation. 

 My sister and I watched after each train had stopped as doors opened and passengers alighted, hopeful that the silhouette of our mother might soon step onto the station and then we would be safe. 

But there were as many trains passed without my mother on board as the train that eventually carried her to us.

My sister and I, one on either side, then walked with our mother through the tunnel from the station that led up to the electricity output station, across past the scout hall and down through the park that eventually joined Canterbury Road and the final stretch home.

We did not tell our mother about our day at home with our father. We had learned to keep our minds focussed on the happy things, the good things, the joy of walking side by side with our mother at last, the smell of pink blossom from the trees outside the scout hall, the first sprinkling of spring rain. 

We held our hands over our heads and sped up our steps to keep from getting wet before we reached the shelter of the shops. 

I did not want to go home to my father, but I knew there was no other choice, no other way of living our lives other than the way we lived. 

By now his mood had dropped into one of darkness.  A tall angry man stuck in his chair, cemented there, as if frozen in time.  His comfort, the bottle at his side from which he took slurps, like a hobo in the movies. 

We did not greet him on our return but went straight for the kitchen where my mother took off her coat and filled the sink with water.  She dropped in a pile of potatoes and held each one in turn to scrub off the dirt with her fingernails, until her nails were black and each potato bare skin.  Then she left the potatoes on the sink to rinse before taking them to the chopping board for skinning and cutting. 

My father staggered into the kitchen from time to time and each time he grew louder and angrier.  He hectored my mother from the door but we said nothing.  

We were trained in the art of pretence.  We were skilled at behaving as though we were not there. 

Two small girls crouched under the kitchen table holding onto our dolls as if they were safety harnesses until our father left the room, only to wait again for his return. 

In time, my mother went into the lounge room to talk to my father who had called out for her so often she could no longer ignore him, however skilled she was in the art of invisibility.

We two girls sat under the table and addressed our dolls.  How bad they were.  How much they needed scolding.    

The potatoes boiled in their water till there was no water left to boil. 

'Autobiographers lead perilous lives'. We write our version of events and wait for others to attack in much the way my mother waited for my father in the kitchen.  We wait for someone to raise objections to what we have written.  To some, those most critical, the content of the writing is all that matters.  The content and the associations these readers make to their own lives. 

‘You have violated my privacy,’  they say.  You have spoken about people who do not want to be written about.

‘Tough,’ my daughter says when I complain of recent events.  ‘That’s what writers do.  They write about people.’ 

And those who read with an agenda, who seek to find traces of themselves in the words, or to find fault with the writer, do not read with open minds, but with a scorched earth policy that says:  you have exposed the family to ridicule.  You must be punished.

In totalitarian regimes, writers develop ways of communicating underground, ways in which the powers-that-be are unable to detect dissent. 

How else can we offer a fresh perspective in this perilous world?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A scarlet letter

If I had not gone to visit him that day, if I had not decided, to hell with caution, to hell with my studies, to hell with propriety, I would not have lost my virginity.  

I would not have entered into the world of sexual experience that marked me, in my own mind at least, as an adult woman, no longer virginal, no longer innocent.

And, although it did not show on the outside, I feared it could radiate outwards and everyone would know that I had fallen from grace. 

The clich├ęs run thick and fast. 

I was nineteen years old.  The following Sunday I went to Mass at St Patricks in Mentone.  I sat, stood or knelt in line with the priest’s words, and chanted my responses to his droning.  I listened to his sermon without taking in a single word of what he had said and wondered why it was that cracks had not appeared in the brick walls of the church, or why a voice had not roared from on high to say that I had sinned so badly I deserved to be punished for evermore. 

Even my mother who sat beside me on the hard pew did not seem to notice.  She, whom I once thought could read my mind, did not detect the telltale signs of my sinfulness. 

As the time for Communion drew near, I panicked.  I could not take Holy Communion given my sinful state but if I did not line up with everyone else come Communion time, my sin would be obvious – the nature of it not, perhaps – but its severity, as plain as the Scarlet Letter around Hester Prynne's neck. 

The memory of this dilemma stays with me, but its resolution does not. 

Did I stay in my seat, my sinfulness on display for all, or did I manage to sneak up and pretend to take Communion, only to skulk back to my seat without the host in my mouth.  Or worst of all, did I take Communion as if I were without sin to escape detection and so commit the greatest sin of all, the blasphemy of receiving the body of Christ in a state of mortal sin?

First Holy Communion Day, before the sin.  

Every memory has to matter.  It’s not good enough to tell a story, to offer an anecdote, to introduce an image without some understanding of its significance, or so my daughter, who has started a class in creative writing at university, tells me.  

I have enrolled in a poetry class for beginners.  In the beginning it is easier to learn before the expectations of knowledge set in.  

I fear my poems will be simple things, unable to transcend the ordinary, unable to offer resonance or layers of meaning.  

I will clunk around in average words with my narrow vocabulary and the small girl inside of me, who as a ten year old fancied herself as a poet, will get in the way. 

She will say to me, you have to sound smart.  You have to use big and clever words.  It does not matter what they mean, it only matters that they look good on the page and that the grown ups who read your poems will be gobsmacked and in awe of the cleverness of a ten year old who can write such things. 

And I will scold myself for my clumsiness.  My blood will quicken and my gut churn because underneath I will know, it is all a falsehood. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The sound of her voice

Traces of my mother are everywhere.  In the cups in my kitchen cupboard, the mock crystal sugar jar beside the jug and the dinted green tea caddy my mother had used for years. 

I do not need these things but could not bear to see them shipped off to strangers. 

My sister, brother and I cleared out the last of our mother’s belongings last weekend.  There were things we should have sent to the opportunity shop but my sister and I took it in turns to lament our inability to part with them.  

And so among other things, I found myself taking home my mother’s small two-seater couch.

The couch is in good condition but it has a striped and floral pattern that goes with nothing in my already over cluttered house.  

I took home my mother’s bookshelf, the one my father built over thirty years ago in the months after he had stopped drinking and was trying to make amends.  

I took home the small cabinet on which my mother’s TV sat.  I took home the crucifix.

The crucifix spent its life on the mantelpiece of my childhood.  It holds sentimental value for me more than anything else, but it gives my daughters the creeps. 

They reckon it is fearsome.  They did not grow up in the same religious tradition as me.  They see a man spreadeagled on a cross.  They see cruelty and pain. 

I see a memory of my childhood home.  A man on a crucifix did not trouble me then because it was so much part of the story of our lives, and I knew he did not stay that way for long. 

Life has slipped back into normal gear but every so often I hear my mother’s voice in my head and remember then that I will never hear her again.

There’s a you tube clip doing the rounds of a profoundly deaf baby who gets hooked up to a machine that enables him to hear sounds.  He is surrounded by his mother, the specialist and an assistant or two and you hear them chattering in the background while the camera focuses on the boy’s face.  His eyes light up to the sounds, as if for the first time in his short life there is a new activity going on in his brain. 

He smiles, again and again, and leaves off the grizzling from when they first shoved an earplug into his ear, into a wide-eyed state of delight at the sound of his mother’s voice.

My mother’s voice was thick with Dutch.  There were a few English words she could never manage, words like enthusiastic, which on her tongue became antogestic, and psychiatrist became psychiater. 

There are Dutch words I use myself these days and I have to stop to find the English translation for them, words like stoffer and blick for dustpan and brush.

I try to feel sad about my mother now, but I cannot muster a feeling.  It’s as if my feelings for her have moved into cold storage.  I do not understand this.

 Last week at the retirement village as I carried yet another box of my mother’s belongings to my car I met a woman who claimed to have known my mother well.  This woman leaned on her walker, much as I mother did before those final weeks when she could not get out of bed.
‘Your mother was a lovely woman,’ the woman on the walker said.  ‘She never missed a thing.  Sharp she was.’  And the woman went onto tell me how one day my mother had remarked to her on how much she loved her tea.
‘How many cups of tea must she have drunk over her lifetime,’  the woman said.  ‘She was nearly 95 wasn’t she?’  How many cups of tea my mother had wondered and then she joked with the woman about the number of Hail Marys she must have said. 

I staggered to the door several more times with the bric a brac of my mother’s life, her books, her lamps, the cushions from her couch and then thought of the people who sat around the dining room and library area there, the people who go on living in my mother's retirement village.   Another one down.  

Whenever I read the obituaries I think to myself what will it be like when my name features among the names of the recently dead? 

It’s a grim thought, but the names in the obituary are names that seem innocuous and ordinary, and now these people are no more, like my mother. 

I knew it would be like this: this eerie sense of being next in line for death.