Tuesday, December 04, 2012

You cannot shame the dead



And so I took the train through places whose names are familiar to me, through Blaxland, Westmead and Penrith, Emu Plains, Wentworth Falls to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. 

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 erupted. 

Unplug, for fear of storms.  The house sits on an iron stone, and therefore despite all the precautions in the world, the manager tells us, ‘It’s safest to 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 Vienna, 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. 

The boy who was once my father’s has lowered his head 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 knew 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 whom I by rights should have been named after but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother, Nell was ‘in disgrace’.

‘What did she do?’ I asked my mother, even as I have some idea of the answer.  I want my mother’s view. 

 But to ask 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 93.  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 but I know I should leave it scale off without help from me. And yet I persist.

‘We know she was imprisoned for embezzlement, but there was more to it than that.’

Your father had nothing to do with it, my mother says yet again as she has told me before.  An inspector came to our house.  An inspector with brass buttons on  his coat, brass buttons that my mother tells me were signs of his authority and he told my mother that she had nothing to worry about.  That my father had left home well before the events that led to his parents’ imprisonment took place. 

But what did they do?

‘Something sexual.  Something with the children.  The girls I think.  The boys, your father, they saw nothing.’

‘How can you be so sure,’ I say to my mother as I peel back another layer from her denial.  How can you be so sure given what he did to us? 

Even as I write this now I agonise over the name I might offer my older sister.  It is against the law to name the victims of incest in courts of law in the public domain.  It is all to do with protecting the innocence of the victims.  I have never understood this. 

How can the victims be held responsible for what was done to them as children and yet in concealing their names it is as if we blame them in some way?

 It comes down to shame. 

We are safe to name the dead, but not the living, for fear of shame.  You cannot shame the dead. 


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