Saturday, March 07, 2015

A memoirist’s nightmare:

Eleven people living under the one roof is certain to attract mess.  Our place was no exception.  

The paint, most of which had turned a yellow brown through my father’s smoking peeled from the ceilings, while down below the skirting boards and architraves were pockmarked with gaps where the white undercoat showed through. 

Although he had built his first house in Australia, this one was a rental property and my father saw no need to bother with repairs.  Besides, he had no time.  Nine children and he worked full time in a city accountancy firm and by night tried to study for his advanced exams to become a chartered accountant at the same time as he fought off and oftentimes gave into his desire to drink away his sorrows. 

His sorrow piled high like the unwashed dinner dishes in the sink and he spent as much time ignoring them as we kids spent trying to escape our various sets of chores.

All except my oldest sister, who as the oldest girl, took on the role of substitute housekeeper willingly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me then, though these days my sister reports she resented all the tasks that fell to her. 

At the time she could see no way around it.  Plus, she hated the mess.  

The weekly washing needed to be done, washed in the ancient washing machine in the laundry, tugged through the roller and hung out to dry.  When dry, the washing also needed to be brought in sorted, folded and some of it ironed. 

Before she went out to to work in a paid job, my mother sometimes took the pile of washing into the lounge room, piled it onto a chair beside her, dragged the low lying coffee table in front of her own chair and covered it with blankets and a sheet to form a temporary ironing table. 

From there she sat behind the table and ironed my father’s shirts, school dresses, the boys shorts and other items that needed their creases ironed out.  As she ironed she watched the television and sipped from her cup of tea, the one that always sat beside her. 

Three times a day, my mother allowed herself a cigarette, for morning and afternoon tea and then after dinner, sometimes she smoked a cigarette as she ironed, lost in the fog of television and the rhythm of cigarette to mouth, cigarette to ashtray, hand to iron, iron spread out across the back or collar or sides of a shirt till it was as flat as a full yacht sail in a breeze and then upright with the iron as she rattled the shirt into its place on a hanger. 

My mother lined the ironed shirts alongside and hung them from the window ledge. Her face the picture of preoccupation and pain.  

My older sister was lucky then that the ironing did not always fall to her but once my mother took up her job as a child care worker at the Allambie reception centre for children who had been forced out of their homes through domestic violence, parental separation or whatever, my sister had to take up the ironing as well. 

I stood in line reluctantly.  Not for me the housework, the ironing, the cooking and the cleaning.  Not for me the smooth running of the household, I wanted to escape much like my mother had done before in her own girl hood when she loved nothing but to be upstairs away from all responsibilities with a book. 

My mother kept up this habit into adulthood. 

I did not spend my hours reading so much as I wanted to play or explore the streets outside, or camp out with my brothers in the back garden.  I did not want to spend my days locked in domesticity.

And then there came the days when my oldest brother who was soon to leave home decided the house needed an overhaul. 

I could not escape such times, none of us could.  

Somehow my oldest brother must have persuaded our parents to stay in the lounge room with their cups of tea and cigarettes – my brother only succeeded in this while our father was not drinking, and then issued instructions to the rest of us on how we might proceed to clean up the mess of the kitchen and surrounds.  

He gave the taller boys the task of washing down walls.  We little ones washed and dried dishes.  My sister, second in command, one below my second older brother who might well have been in the infectious diseases hospital at the time, put things away. 

My older brother instructed another sister on the art of sweeping the floor.  Another he directed towards the dustpan and brush and talked to yet another brother about how he might stomp down on the rubbish bin outside to make more room. 

In those days we did not have green plastic garage bags.  Rubbish went directly into a bin and the more compacted it became the more you could add on. 

The orders continued as each task was completed.  

My brothers were given the job of collecting hot soapy water in a bowl and then taking to the windows, one to wipe clean with soap and water, the other to clear away the streaks with a fresh old towel.  

And so we turned the squalid kitchen into a sparkling jewel, the one great pleasure my mother’s satisfaction when she came in after several hours and admired our handiwork. 

I was ten, maybe younger, surely younger, because this happened before my oldest brother – ten years older than me – left home as an eighteen year old, and so time plays tricks on me. 

The point of describing this mess and its transformation in such detail is both to talk about how much memory can play tricks on us.  The events we remember from childhood can be inaccurate, such as my age when all this happened and the sheer details of who did what.

There’s a brawl going on in my family of origin at the moment about the family archive on my mother’s side. 

This same oldest brother who managed to clear up so much of the mess.  No, that’s not true, he didn’t clear up the mess, he issued instructions for the rest of us to clear up the mess.  This same brother has decided that an archive should be more a repository for factual details of births, deaths and marriages, and for documents that contain ‘accurate’ details about how lives were lived, preferably in the long ago. 

This same brother is concerned that the archive not turn into the rubbish bin I described earlier.  With no plastic garbage bags to keep the rubbish in place, he fears the archive might become compacted with the detritus of people’s lives, people who are still alive.  

This same brother worries that some of us us might write things to include in the archive that might offend others; that maybe some have already offended others.

 So begins the memoirist’s nightmare: How do we write our stories without causing offence to others who do not want to be cast in a particular light?

Who holds the key to the archive?  Who decides on what gets included and what is left out? 

I reckon let it all be included but let people put their names to it and when factual details like dates and places of birth or death or names are wrong, correct them.  

At the same time, memories and observations and so-called opinions are those of the writer only and the writer cannot speak for others only for herself, however much she might represent others in her writing and they might then see themselves there through the lens of her words and they may not like it, but you cannot control how readers read and what writers write and if you try, something like what happens in the Lego movie will result.  

The evil Lord Business tries to glue every Lego piece into place so that his worldview prevails and can never be moved or made different. 

In other words, sterility sets in.  Instead of a living breathing archive filled with beauty and with mess, we have a static universe. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

No need for possessions

It wasn’t everyday I went out for an extravagant lunch, but on this day I went with a group from my department to lift morale, and Sean came, too.  Despite the call for cheer, everyone clock watched.  Everyone ordered fast and ate quickly in time to get back to work within the allocated hour but Sean and I moved slowly over our meals and conversation.  One by one my colleagues left and by the time they’d all gone, Sean and I were left alone.
‘How about it?’ Sean said.  His eyes raised, his lips moist.
I thrilled at the thought of such unspeakable behaviour, the stuff of novels, and fell in.  We booked a room in a hotel over the road from the shrine.  I even paid the bill.  Why should the man always pay for the woman? I reasoned.
‘Possessions,’ Sean told me, ‘weigh you down.  It’s better to live with little more than the clothes in your suitcase.’
  Sean and his partner lived like this he told me as we peeled off our clothes and I wondered what she might have thought about my taking possession of her man on this crisp autumn day near the shrine on St Kilda Road where the ghosts of soldiers long dead once gathered. 
It was a small room in a low cost hotel with only a view of the sides of office buildings but the sheets were crisp and clean and privacy was guaranteed. 
He bedded me without ceremony.  In those days I operated on remote control much of the time, a woman disappointed in her relationships, and in her chosen career as a social worker; a woman who had wanted to help people but found herself in need of help instead.  I did not know this at the time. At the time I thought only of how wicked I had become and what excuses I could offer back at work.
Nina, the deputy social worker, called me into her office the next day, not long after I had arrived, a little less bold than the day before when I made the decision to leave a message with the secretary to say I’d fallen ill after lunch and would not be in for the rest of the day.
‘You can’t do things like that,’ Nina said.  She did not buy the line I had been ill the day before.  She’d been with us at lunch.  She’d seen me stay behind with Sean.  He also failed to return to work, but she was too polite to put two and two together, other than to tell me, it must not happen again. 
Within a week, I resigned my job at the hospital.  Not because of Nina or Sean or that stolen afternoon but because I could no longer tolerate the idea of being a handmaiden to the doctors who saw social workers as their secretarial assistants in matters of health benefits and first port of call on where to go after discharge when a person is too old or frail to go home alone.  This was not what I had studied for.
As for Sean, I never saw him again, but his name popped up ten years later when a Commonwealth policeman knocked on my door. 
‘Do you know a Sean McCloud?’ he asked.  I nodded my head and he told me the story.  For the several years now, they had been investigating a certain Peter Hill, alias Sean McCloud, wanted by the Canadian police for extortion.  Interpol were on the lookout and they had contacted Sean’s ex-colleagues. 
‘Did you know he was not a qualified social worker?’ the policeman asked.  I shook my head.  
Sean was an imposter who took on professional disguises wherever he travelled as a way of funding his life style, the policeman told me.  He lived off the largesse of others.  He took possession of their possessions and left them wondering.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

I want it now

My Dutch grandmother, a woman of scruples, a woman who held fast to her religious beliefs even under pressure, kept camphor balls in her apron pockets during her pregnancies. 

An uncle told me this recently, when I visited him in his retirement home, this uncle, my mother’s younger brother, and one of the only two left now of my mother’s large sib ship of seven. 

I had read a short memoir of his childhood, and somewhere the words: 
‘The unusual habits of mother during her pregnancy, especially in her choice of food, made her vitamin deficient and could have given her children a form of rickets as our dentist pointed out.’ 

I was curious, and asked my uncle about his mother’s strange eating habits and he talked about the lack of vitamin D from the harsh long winters in Holland and how his mother fed her family cod liver oil.  

He did not mention her eating habits, only this peculiarity. 

My uncle described how from time to time, as his mother went about her housework duties, she dipped her hand into her pockets and pulled out a camphor ball.  Then she put it to her nose and breathed in deeply, as if from a snuff box, but only when she was pregnant, my uncle told me, and only when she had those strange cravings that pregnant women can have, not otherwise. 

It seemed an odd habit for a woman of scruples, a woman whose religious observances bordered on the extreme.  Mass every day even in the snow and cold and the rosary every night.  

She was an expert at self-denial.

Self-denial takes practice.  

I remember when I first decided to get a grip on my television watching as a thirteen year old.  I sat in the classroom and the Latin teacher, Mother Eleanor, was going on about the importance of learning our verbs.  About the importance of putting aside time every night to practise them. 

I pitched myself in my mind to the end of the day.  I saw myself come home.  I saw myself go into the kitchen and spread at least four slices of bread with margarine and jam, then I went to the lounge room where my brothers were already stuck in front of the television and I joined them. 

I put my sandwiches on the arm of my chair and eat sandwich after sandwich as first Bugs Bunny, followed by the likes of Daniel Boone or Robin Hood flashed across the screen.  Then my father came home and I bolted, along with everyone else, no longer hungry for dinner, no longer keen on sitting together as a family, but having to go through the dinner ritual regardless. 

During the Latin lesson that day I decided I would stop watching television.  I would give myself time from the moment I came home to do my homework and then I would get good at Latin. 

I would deny myself for a greater good.

They’ve done experiments with small children where they sit each child in front of a lolly and tell them that if they can resist taking that lolly for five minutes – not sure exactly how long, but about five minutes – then they can have two. 

The researchers do this test to demonstrate the development of impulse control and of will power.    

Some kids can do it.  They can hold out for the greater reward but others cannot.  They want it now. 

When I shop with my husband for some item that is of significant value, a new chest of drawers for instance, or a computer upgrade or some such thing, he likes to look, to compare, to consider and then to go home empty handed, with the intention of returning the next day or the day after that once he’s satisfied this is the best thing to buy. 

Me.  I see it.  I examine it and think about it.  I reckon it’s okay.  Enough value for money, a good quality product, it will do the job.  I want it now.  Why wait till tomorrow or the next day to buy it when we agree we need it and can have it now?

In this way we are different.  But over the years I have noticed some of my husband’s caution has crept into me and some of my impulsiveness erupts from him.  Just some. 

My husband is still a great one for window-shopping.  It’s nothing for him to go off to a farmer’s market and come home with some small token, a bunch of radishes for instance, whereas if I were to go to said farmer’s market I’d feel almost compelled to buy stuff we might not need, stuff that interests me perhaps, expensive butter from nearby farms, venison from a local supplier.  We might eat it eventually but we do not need it. 

I will want to buy something for our children, too, but my husband is happy to feast his eyes on the displays and come home empty handed. 

And then I get to another part of my uncle’s memoir where he talks about his mother’s response to the fact that five of her seven children left home as young adults to live far away in Australia, in New Guinea and in Brazil.

‘Every time somebody leaves, it takes away a piece of my heart,’ my Dutch grandmother said.  And no amount of scruples, impulse control or camphor ball sniffing can stop her heart from breaking.