Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kippers and cake

On my fourteenth birthday I woke up in a strange bed in an even stranger room surrounded by cakes.  They lined the top of the wardrobe and sat cheek by jowl on the dressing table and across the chairs.  There was not a surface that did not hold at least two cakes and even in spaces on the floor Mrs K had stashed a plate filled with iced meringues. 
     My brother had driven me to Moe the night before so that I might be bridesmaid the next day when he and his already pregnant wife to be walked up the altar in the Newtown Catholic church to take their vows.  There was to be a reception in the church hall nearby.              
     It did not take me long to recognise that the cakes in this room were not in honour of my birthday but for the wedding.  Mrs K must have cooked for days. I climbed out of bed.  The floor was covered with a circular coiled rug whose ridges rubbed against my soles. I lifted the covering from one of the cakes. Surely no one would notice one missing flower.  
    One was not enough.  I looked around for more, from cake to cake, undressing each from its wrapper and scratching at the raised chunks of icing.  Then I flopped back onto the bed, guilty.  I wanted someone to find me?  It was my birthday.  I did not want to eat cake alone.
  Finally, I braved the outside corridor where Mrs K greeted me.  She waved a ten shilling note in front of her.
  “For you. Happy birthday.” 
 I took the money and thanked her.
  “Come now.  Breakfast.”  Mrs K led me down the hallway to the stink of fish.
  “We have kippers.”
I had never heard of kippers before but the smell told me I would hate to eat them, more so with a stomach full of icing.  I stared at my plate. 
  My brother arrived, clattering through the back door.  He took one look at my face, another at the plate and accused his mother-in-law to be,
     Mutti.  Don’t force her.”
Mrs K lifted my plate and passed it over to my brother.  He emptied it onto his and then reached for more.


As part of a course in beginning poetry, Earl Livings instructed us to rote learn a poem.  It's good for you, he said.  Poets do it all the time. 

 The poems I learned as a child, even as late as a fourteen year old, I can still remember with ease, but these days it's so much harder to rote learn.  

To commit Emily Dickinson's words to memory.  Words I enjoy reading but remembering them is almost impossible. 
'I cannot dance upon my toes/no man instructed me...'

How I wish I could have the rote learning capacity of my fourteen year old self, but not her predilection to cakes, her aversion to kippers and her timidity.  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Amputated nipples

‘Speak for yourself.’

Do you ever have the urge to say these words when someone makes a universal pronouncement with which you disagree? 

I wanted to say it the other night to a man whom I met via friends, who had insisted that people in England were concerned that the face of England, its population, will be completely unrecognisable in twenty years time.  Completely taken over by foreigners, he wanted to say but did not, and not foreigners of Greek or European extraction, but mostly from the Middle East.  

You can guess the rest. 

I wanted to say, look at your self.  When your parents arrived in Australia some fifty years ago they would have suffered the same derision for being different, for coming from the Mediterranean.

Why’s it so terrible to be different? Why the pressure to be the same?

I feel the impulse run through me, too.

Take for instance, my latest preoccupation with the female body and why we women do things to ourselves to conform to some perfect ideal, even if it kills us.

In my tenth year of school I spent time as a boarder, which meant for months on end my body barely saw the light of day. 

We boarders dressed in almost darkness with a pitcher of water on our side table and a face cloth with which we swabbed down our more sensitive parts before covering ourselves from top to toe.

In those circumstances it mattered not to me that I could not shave my legs or my underarms, though I had started the practice a year earlier when, at fifteen, I decided to follow in my older sister’s footsteps and turn my legs into the supple, shining silk-like radiant things I had seen in the new advertisements directed at women in 'need of ' shavers for the fairer sex. 

At boarding school no one worried about shaving legs or underarms, until it came time for the school dance.  

My older sister who had left home by then and was studying at teacher’s training college picked me up after school one day and we travelled into the city to Adele Formal Hire where we were able to select a gown for me to wear.  It was in polka dot black chiffon over a satin lining.  The dress covered my legs to the ankles, but was sleeveless in a respectable manner.  The nuns would not tolerate anything less.  No visible cleavage, no plunging back lines, nothing suggestive of the female body underneath, only arms, legs and head visible. 

You could not see my legs, but after five months in boarding school, my underarms had sprouted a fine black layer of growth.  I  took to them with fingernail scissors during the three days each week when it was my turn to take a bath.   Boarders were rostered for separate bath times three times a week, and once a week hair washing on Saturday mornings, lined up at the basins.  

In the bathroom there was daylight or in the early evening an overhead light that enabled me to see my body, at least in bits.  There were no mirrors.  Mirrors were not allowed in the bathrooms, too likely to tempt the bodies that travelled through. 

One of the older nuns had told us that in her day, girls had to bathe in mid ankle length petticoats so that they could not see their naked bodies while bathing so as to resist temptation.  

The things women must do/did to resist, not only their own desires, but the desires of others. 

So my preoccupation at the moment with the nature of women’s bodies - how we preen them, how we attack them, how we strip them of excess, how we try to whittle them into an acceptable and universal shape, how we try to hide them, how we cover them to make them look the way we imagine others might want, the way we want ourselves  - hit me hard when I saw a YouTubeclip of women who had undergone mastectomies, nipplectomies or other forms of surgery that have left massive scars on their otherwise ordinary bodies. 

To see these images is confronting and most of all for me the thought that some of these women may have elected to have their nipples removed.  

Why would they do this?  For health reasons, in the case of cancer I can understand, but the other reasons, I’m at a loss to understand.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Disappearing sunflowers

My mother has been dead for six weeks now.  I think of her often.  How is she and has she found out for sure what she once believed and I long doubted, that there is a place out there somewhere where she can finally be at rest? 

It’s a curious confusion because although I operate on the belief that my mother is now no more, she lives on in my imagination and memory and in some strange way she grows bigger on re-remembering. 

One of my daughters intends to write a short biography of my mother as part of a university assignment.  She tells me she plans to write from the perspective of contested truths about my mother.  The differences between the ways my mother represented herself and the perspectives of others who knew her. 

My mother the saint, as distinct from my mother the manipulative scheming - I went to say ‘bitch’ but that seems too harsh by far.  Not my view, never my view.  Manipulative yes, but always as a function of my mother's impotence.  Her inability to ask directly out of a belief that she should somehow do without. 

I put up a picture of sunflowers on my Facebook page three weeks ago.  Glorious, upright, full faced sunflowers.  
They are now ready for the compost bin, sad and dishevelled, an embarrassment in a vase.
  
They put me in mind of my mother’s body before she died and the direction in which my own body now heads. 

I check my hands from time to time for signs of ageing, the tell tale liver spots, big brown freckles alongside the bulging veins on my otherwise pink fingers. 

The rings on my fingers remain the same.  They scarcely age, though the wedding ring I first wore nearly 37 years ago is beginning to thin out on one side. 

A friend, now in company with my mother out there somewhere, made this ring for me.  He cast it in gold and shaped the image of a man on one side reaching out one hand to a woman on the other.  The man is bigger than the woman.  His shoulders stand upright, the highest point of the ring’s texture, while the woman, who tends to sit on the inside of my hand, is much flatter. 

I wear my ring this way, with the man visible, the woman underneath, not consciously out of any symbolic view, but out of aesthetics and comfort.  If I try to put both figures on top and in full view they look indistinguishable and the bulky man rubs against the sides on my eternity ring on my middle finger, or if I push it against my little finger with the man it feels lumpy. 


I completed one of those inane tests you find on Facebook the other day, one which tells you after you have answered a series of multiple choice questions around your preferences, the type of person you should avoid. 

Turns out the person I should most avoid is a comedian.  The person who spends his time cracking jokes.  The person with whom I can never be serious. 

Like all these quizzes there’s a grain of truth here perhaps, though in such an absolute way as to render it almost meaningless.  

Still it set me thinking. 


I had thought the person I might most seek to avoid is a person like me, a person who talks a lot, who might tend to dominate a conversation, a person who wants to be seen and heard, unlike the woman on my wedding ring, who hides underneath and brushes up against the soft padding of my hand.

Sometimes she rubs against hard objects out there in the world, this woman who wears away into a thin semblance of herself.  This woman who disappears.  

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.