Saturday, May 30, 2009

More dog and a couple of frogs

We need to build a gate in the back yard. This is a difficulty. Bill started building a side gate when Ella was a baby. For complicated reasons he never finished it and given that Ella, like her sisters before her, was not a wanderer, it never became a problem not to have one.

The plan is to use the nearly completed gate, that stands against one wall in Bill’s workshop. But to install the gate, which needs additional pickets down either side, we need to dig ditches for the foundations of the gateposts and to paint the whole thing once completed.

Bill never does things by halves. He has so little time. Most weekends he’s so tired he only wants to potter, so I worry that this gate might not happen, though something has to happen. Without a gate the dog cannot live in the back yard. Without a gate for the backyard, the dog has to live indoors.

We lock him up at night or when no one’s home in the small bathroom upstairs but he cannot live forever in an upstairs bathroom. The rest of the day when someone is there to supervise him, he runs around the house chewing up computer cords, socks and shoes and whatever else he can get his jaws around. We need to get him outdoors.

Millie and Nick began to build Ralph a kennel but that too seems to have stalled. My suspicion is that Ralph will live indoors for too long and that in time it will become almost too difficult to get him to live outside.

How we have changed. The first cat this family ever owned, a cat for Tessa when she was seven, a cat we named Tillie, became what we then called an outside cat. None of your pets indoors, in those days. Now they all live indoors. They sleep on beds, in hallways and over heat vents, on freshly folded washing. I'm sick of picking their fur off black clothes. But isn't that the way of it, with aging we mellow. Our old standards subside. Besides I cannot see so well these days, without glasses. So the mess becomes a blur and our priorities shift.

Yesterday Millie took Ralph unexpectedly to the vet. He had lept off the bed when he first caught sight of her in the evening and fell heavily on one side. He started to yelp and limped around. By the time Millie reached the vet , Ralph was fine. No broken bones, just a fright and maybe some bruising. The vet then took the opportunity to go through the list of pets they have included in their registry. Some six rabbits - Fern, CCS, Huggle Pots to name a few, as well as Tillie. All are now long gone. Millie said she felt like a murderer or a negligent pet owner as she declared that each in turn was dead.

I once wrote a story about our pets, focusing on the two frogs, Doris and Picasso.

Here's an early draft:

The frog’s name is Picasso. He’s a boy. We used to have a girl named Doris but she died. Tragically. One day she produced a long line of eggs, little jelly eyes, that somehow stuck to her rear end instead of dropping onto the surface of the water below for hatching. At first I’d thought the eggs were frog poo, all mixed up with bits of gravel from the base of the tank. I was wrong.

Over the next few weeks Doris lost her shiny green complexion. She no longer leapt high to catch the crickets we tipped live into the tank each evening. She lost weight.
We took her to a vet who specialises in reptiles.
“It’s not frog shit,” he said. “It’s her reproductive organs. She’s a sick frog.” He was pulling at the sticky stuff at Doris’ rear end. “There’s nothing I can do. She’s too far gone. We’ll have to euthenase her.” I watched as the vet drew up a needle longer than Doris’s tiny body and injected a thin stream of liquid. Her body caved in on itself and instantly she shrunk. I took the lifeless frog home for burial.

“It’s the kindest way,” the vet had said. He’s a reptilian specialist. He can operate on lizards no longer than a finger. “But I’ve never yet managed to anaesthetize a frog.”

A year later I bring Picasso to the vet. We adopted him to replace Doris. No more girl frogs. We figured with two boys there’d be no possibility of reproductive backfire.

But now Picasso’s sick. He’s been getting thinner. The fine bone at the end of his spine is jutting out in a way it never did before and there are dark raised spots along his skin. He’s lost his bright green sparkle and turned into a darker green. Frogs change colour to reflect their temperature, the darker the green, the colder they are. Picasso’s cold all the time now even on the few 40 degree days we’ve been having lately.

Picasso is a green tree frog from the rain tree forests in Queensland. Here in Melbourne we need a special home, a glass fish tank lined with gravel, a heat mat attached below to keep the temperature tropical and a UV light to emulate the sun’s rays. Finally we need a frog licence from Fisheries and Wildlife that costs $35.00 a year, a fee that increases regularly because green tree frogs are protected.
The vet diagnoses a severe case of gravel ingestion. It seems whenever Picasso swallows a cricket, he takes in a piece of gravel with it, and for some reason he hasn’t managed to shit the stones out. Now he has a belly full. At least a third of his body weight in stones, like the wolf in one version of Red Riding Hood. The Hunter cuts him open, frees Grandma and Red Riding Hood then replaces her with large round stones from the riverbed. Then he restitches Mr Wolf who wakes up to the most awful bellyache.

The vet prescribes a dose of laxative, caramel flavoured. He’s convinced that frogs love the taste. At least Picasso takes it in. He has no choice really. The vet has his mouth prised open with a metal stick and is shovelling in the stuff, brown and gluey, much like melted caramel.
“As long as he doesn’t vomit it back up, the laxative might help to shift the gravel.” It’s our only hope,” the vet says. “Put him in a separate container tonight otherwise you won’t know whether or not he’s passed any stones.” He hands back the frog and his assistant hands me the bill.

I don’t mean to harp on money but tree frogs in captivity are expensive, at least the ones you buy here in Melbourne. They fetch at least $150.00 from specialist pet shops plus the annual licence fee and all the bits and pieces. It has been suggested to me more than once that I should announce on the status sheet that we send to the Department of Fisheries and Wild life each year that both frogs have died. I don’t suppose they expect you to keep up your licence fee for dead frogs. Still I’m too honest for that.

All in all you have to be responsible to keep frogs. And the vet will tell you as he tells me in no uncertain terms how bad I am at handling frogs. I put Doris in a shoe box. Frogs don’t travel well in cardboard boxes. “Cardboard burns their skin,” the vet says, in a way that suggests I should have known all along. An ice-cream tub would be better. “Always wet your hands first and leave them wet when handling your frog’” the vet tells me wetting his own hands under the tap. “Otherwise frogs are surprisingly strong.” “We’ve had one of ours for four years,” I tell the vet. I don’t want him thinking I’m a complete incompetent. After all we’ve managed to keep them this long. But all the while I’m trying to think back. How long is it since I last cleaned out the tank. And the sight of the burden of keeping the animals clean I’m afraid I can’t distinguish one from the other. At least I couldn’t before Picasso got sick. Now it’s easy. He’s the skinny one.

All of this happened some five or more years ago. Life rolls on, for some of us at least.

Long live Ralph, the dog.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


The cats are unsettled. They do not understand this strange new creature in the house. So far Ralph has managed, it would seem, not to notice them, though yesterday when he went over to the cat bowls, no cats in sight, he must have caught a whiff of them. Sniff, sniff on the floor around the bowls and Ralph let out a few puppy dog growls rearing back from the empty bowls.

It must be instinctive. I think of all the cartoons and stories about the antipathy between cats and dogs; cats and dogs, like siblings, like brothers and sisters. They fight like cats and dogs, we say. I think it was one of my mother’s expressions.

It is as if we have a new baby in the house. Bill is still not convinced of the dog's name. He wants to call him Towser. To Bill, all dogs are Towsers. I find the uncertainty of naming the puppy unsettling. I am reminded of those parents who are unable to decide upon a name for their babies, months after the birth. It seems to me it must impact on your personality, your sense of your self, your ultimate identity for the rest of your life. As if your parents in the first instance could not decide for themselves basic things about you. As if perhaps they were looking for the perfect name, to name the perfect baby, who of course does not exist.

If all dogs are Towsers, then our dog deserves a name of his own. Still, I too would like to call him Towser, though Ralph suits just fine. After all we once called a cat Pickles and another Tillie. We once called our rabbits, Muncheros and CCs after particular brands of corn chips and another the obvious, Peter. We once called our mice, Flora and Alexander and that's only the beginning. We once called a green tree frog, Picasso.

These animals once belonged to individual daughter's but over the passage of time they have blended in to become part of the folklore of this family. Our memories of them reflect the changes we've made. Once our cats were not even allowed inside, now they share our beds. Even our little dog has made it inside, at least for the time.

How much more tolerant we have become with age.

Friday, May 08, 2009

What's his name?

Against their parent’s wishes, our daughters have brought home a dog. At this stage his name is Ralph. Yesterday it was Alfie, short for Alfred. I did not want a dog, I kept telling Millie and Ella because I am fearful that the responsibility for this dog will eventually fall to me and I have enough on my plate.

It’s been going on for weeks now. Bill and I refused to cooperate, so eventually Millie took it upon herself. She used some of the money from Mr Rudd’s stimulus package to invest in this little blighter, who is a cross between a Springer spaniel, a King Charles and a Maltese terrier, I think. He’s only eight weeks old and gorgeous but I don’t think Millie slept well last night. He shared her bedroom.

Already my heart bleeds for Ralph. He cries in the night presumably for his mother and siblings. I do not want to have my heart bleed over any other creatures, but what can I do? He’s here now and as I’ve said before, life will go on. Our three cats so far seem oblivious to Ralph’s presence. Bill is convinced that Anoushka will leave home once she twigs. Who knows? She might adjust. It’s this sort of angsting that I resent. As if we do not already have enough worries. But I’ll get over it.

Monday, May 04, 2009


All will be well, I tell myself. All will be well. I believe it too.

I’ve been around for long enough to know that something good usually happens, something comes along to lift us out of our difficulties, but in the meantime I do worry. I imagine all sorts of terrible scenarios from the minor inconvenience to the greatest of tragedies. Even as a child I worried about this. Then I worried about my mother and my siblings.

Grade five and six composite classroom. I am sitting on the side closest to the windows. I can see the roses that line the paths alongside the church. There is a storm brewing. A fierce storm with flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. Every time the sharp crack across the classroom interrupts Mother Mary John’s speaking I try to trace on my fingertips the whereabouts of all my brothers and sisters. I worry that they will be okay, that they will not be okay. If they are outside in this weather then they are in danger of electrocution or drenching. They may get carried away in a rushing drainpipe of water. This applies particularly to the two little boys, Michael and Frank.

Sometimes I go with them to explore underground pipes that run below the street level. There is a large metal sheet like a trap door next door to the boy’s school on Mont Albert road. Together the two boys are strong enough to lift it high enough for one of us to slip into the hole beneath and then crawl through the dark and sticky drainpipe all the way underneath Mont Albert Road to the other end, where the drain pipe leads out into daylight. The trap door lid at the other end is broken. Never once as I crawled through this drainpipe did I imagine myself to be in danger. Granted, we only made the trip on dry days when the sun shone, but as an adult now I shudder at the dangers we put ourselves through.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


I am reading into memory, Jeffrey Olick, Douwe Draaisma, Annette Kuhn, Susannah Radstone. I am collecting names like footnotes to add to my store of knowledge to protect myself from feeling ‘under theorised’.

Whenever I write, I dip into my memories, both recent and from the past. I rarely write about the present unless I am actually describing the process of the experience of writing at that point of time. Most times I write about the past.

Whenever I sit down to write it is the more recent past that comes to me first. Most often as I write first thing in the morning, it is the memory of a dream, a snippet of a dream, a fragmentary image from a dream from the night before, and then it becomes a thought about my most recent preoccupations. This morning I find myself thinking about the story someone told me recently about a film she had seen. A French film, she did not say the title, about a woman who dies and leaves her inheritance, her estate to her children.

This woman has left a beautiful country house filled with antiques and valuable artifacts to her children. She has tended to and cared for this house for a long time and would like her children to preserve the house as it stands. The children have other ideas. They have busy lives; their interests are otherwise. Somehow during the course of the film we come to realise why the woman wanted to preserve this house and its furnishings. It has something to do with a relationship she had with some man. It is the memory of this relationship she wanted to preserve. The memory of him, maybe because when they were alive, their relationship was not an open one. I do not know the details of this relationship. I am reading between the lines.

The children sell the contents of the house or give them away to museums. There are two memorable scenes: the final scenes in which the grandchildren - adolescents and young adults - are having a party, a wild party in the empty shell of the house, presumably cleared out ready for sale. Their grandmother, as the saying goes, might turn in her grave. The other scene: a group on a tour are taken through the Musee D’Orsay. They walk past a beautiful dining table that had once been in the dead grandmother’s house. The group of visitors walk by distractedly. They do not know anything about the history of this table. It holds no special meaning for them. One of the group takes a call on his mobile. We hear him say to the person on the other end, ‘We’re in furniture’. This table, this beautiful object that had once meant so much to its now dead owner has become what is in fact, simply a piece of furniture.

I think of the kitchen table here, a twelve-seater made of jarrah,and handmade for us by the man from McKay’s joinery many years ago. It was relatively inexpensive at the time. A Nicholas Dattner table would have cost around $3000.00 then. Ours cost around $1000.00.

We have loved this table. So many memories of meals. The ghosts of times past are etched into its surface varnish. A lived table. No need for French polishing. No need to protect its surface from hot objects. People have polished their shoes on this table, cut out patterns for quilts, ate meals, drunk wine, read books, held arguments, broken cups, plates and glasses (by accident) on this table.

Soon the history will be gone and it will take on another after Bill and I are gone. One of our children, presumably the one with the biggest house, the one most able and willing to take on this elephant, will add it to their store of memories. Our children might well fight over this table. It has not always been with us. It is older than Ella, though not many years older. Already it begins to feel ancient.

Memories. They are the stuff of our reveries and waking thoughts. Memories that feed directly into our future plans. What we are doing now and what we will do in the future is predicated on this notion of the past. The past informs the present. How often in conversation do we find ourselves saying these two words, 'I remember'. I remember a time when... I remember a time when we did such and such... a time when as Bill jokes, ‘pies were threepence and we used to swim in dams’. The past we remember is often a simpler past, at what seems a simpler time, when even if things were difficult, problematic, even traumatic, they seem simpler in retrospect. Why is this?

Is it because in remembering, we take up only the salient images, the most pressing thoughts about the time? Our awareness does not extend across the details of a crowded room. We tend to focus on some specific detail within that room – conversation, a feeling, an incident. All the rest becomes incidental and in describing it we might simply say the room was crowded or cluttered or some other adjectival description that takes away the complexity of what it was actually like to be in such a room at such a time, in this foreign country of the past. We can never recapture it exactly as it was and every time we revisit it again, our images and reflections shift and change.