Saturday, March 20, 2010

My Cleaning Lady is not a Slave

Two months into the year and already my desktop is cluttered with papers. It happens so quickly. I scarcely notice them piled up one after the other. I cannot complain. After all I am the one who puts them there. I am the one who leaves them there each day with the thought I will file them later. But I keep putting it off.

The woman who cleans our house is away for two weeks and I am mindful that I will need to try harder to keep abreast of all the mess that builds up over time elsewhere, not just here on my writing desk.

I had intended to write the words ‘cleaning lady’, but such words speak to me of class privilege and superiority. It took years before I allowed myself the privilege of a cleaning lady. Is it a privilege, or as some of my friends and colleagues at the time suggested, merely a more sensible use of my time? Besides, I rationalise, it involves giving someone else a job.

The woman who cleans for me is my equal. She is not a servant. She is not a slave. I pay her well, but still the concept bothers me and I hesitate to write it down here, to write about it for fear that readers might consider me to be blue blooded, well heeled, a snob, all those things that smack of class privilege from over one hundred years ago.

I used to be quite a housekeeper myself. Before this woman came to help with the cleaning on Fridays, I spent the better part of each weekend cleaning out the house, the toilets, the bathroom, the dusting, the vacuum cleaning, and the changing of sheets on beds.

I took pleasure in my efforts in those days when my children were young. Not now. Now I hate housework. I do whatever is necessary on a daily basis to get dirty dishes into the dishwasher after meals, to wipe down bench tops, to wash, hang and fold away clothes, but otherwise I keep my domestic habits to a minimum.

These days I spend almost every spare minute I have beyond my paid work, and the shopping, and the occasional task I must share with one of my now essentially adult children, to the business of writing.

In between my efforts at writing I read. But it is the writing that offers me greatest pleasure. I have an ergonomically designed chair to protect my back from the ill effects of sitting for too long each day and I visit the optometrist every two years to get my glasses adjusted so that my aging eyes can cope with the glare and proximity of the computer screen.

Let’s face it. Writing is a prosaic activity. The sight of someone hunched in front of a computer screen tapping away at a key board is one that does not inspire much confidence in said person. It is not like watching someone dive into a swimming pool, smash a tennis racket against a ball or climb the slopes of a mountain. The sight of someone who taps away at a keyboard has a quality of excluding the onlooker. I know this from memory.

Many years ago before I started to take my own writing seriously, when my children were still little and I spent many more hours at housework than I do today, my husband went back to university to study for a law degree. He was a conscientious student and although he tried hard to confine his studying to the nine to five life of a university student, he still needed to bring work home and to study on weekends, especially around exam time.

I remember well the resentment I felt as I watched him tap away at the keyboard in those days on one of the first computers that then existed, while I swept the floor or chopped vegetables. In those days we had no room for a study and he worked in the central living area, which continues today as the place in this household where people gather to eat, to talk and to play. I felt left out then, as if he were engaged in deep conversation with a beloved friend and there was no room for me.

I think of this memory often these days because now it is my turn to be so deeply involved in conversation with my keyboard, and others - my husband and my children - are the ones who must suffer from this sense of exclusion.
‘That’s all you ever do,’ my children lament. ‘You tap away at your computer.’

I resist a defensive response. I know it is true. If you want to find me these days, if I am not in the kitchen preparing food or tidying up after adult children, who still sometimes neglect to return the lid to the vegemite jar or fail to put their dirty dishes into the dishwasher, you will find me here, where I am now writing down endless words, writing into the ether to an imaginary audience.

I drive my car past my old primary school often. We still live in the neighbourhood where I spent a large chunk of my childhood, from five to fourteen years of age.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, OLGC sits alongside the church of the same name on Whitehorse Road in Deepdene. It is a prestigious neighbourhood. It is now, it was then, maybe more so now, but even as a child I knew that our neighbours and the children with whom I struggled to learn every day were from well to do families who seemed not to understand the struggle that my parents endured daily.

We lived on the fringes of the zone that took in the catchment area for this school. In more ways than one. Each day we walked to school, past the mansions on Mont Albert Road and the well appointed houses of Camberwell. We wore a typical uniform, the girls in blue and white gingham dresses in summer, tunics and pale blue shirts in winter, the boys in blue shirts and grey trousers, shorts all year round while at primary school. Our school jumper was grey, our school colours blue and gold. Hair ribbons were meant to be pale blue but somehow such ribbons if they ever found their way into our house soon found their way out, and more often than not, I tied my hair together with a rubber band, which the head mistress of the school, Mother Mary John, despised.
‘You’re a disgrace to the school, without wearing the proper school uniform and that includes the regulation ribbons’.

On Sundays we walked to Mass through the same tree lined streets but this time accompanied by our mother who gazed longingly into people’s gardens day dreaming of the time when she might own a house of her own. At that time we rented and already I knew the stigma attached to renting a house in Australia, the country in which home ownership is a must.

When she was a girl my mother lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, Holland. Her parents employed a housekeeper to help her mother with her five sons and two daughters. My mother was the oldest. She told us often of how she would spend hours on her bed with a book avoiding the work that had been allocated to her as the oldest girl, notwithstanding the housekeeper. She hated housework then, as a child. She hated it as an adult when she was in the care herself of nine children and could ill afford the help of a housekeeper. Here I am more than half a century or so later complaining of the same lot.

I am the most slovenly of my three sisters, perhaps even of my five brothers, four of whom have wives who might clean up after them. I have given up on the call to domesticity, I am ashamed to say, but proud as well. It is an act of defiance.

In one of my writing classes many years ago, our then teacher, Olga Lorenzo, talked about the need for us women writers in particular to forgo the demands of domesticity and even of paid work in other fields to make time to write.
‘What do you want to have written on your gravestone?’ she asked. ‘That she wrote that she kept a tidy house or that she wrote a good book?’

The answer is obvious.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Geography of Home

I break all the rules and write too much, so my apologies in advance. This post derived from Niamh's geographical meme at Various. I read her post and then Dominic's. Then I took off on my own. Later I read Rachel's.

I see now that I have failed on all accounts to answer the questions Niamh set. I was never good at geography, maths or comprehension. In my defense, I am an autobiographical writer. I cannot bear simply to list things or to answer direct questions. I like to color them in as well.

Geographical Meme

Geography was a subject I took at school as an obligation rather than a pleasure. I did it out of necessity. Learning about the landscape and the people who occupied that landscape failed to excite me. I spent my childhood in a fog of not belonging. I thought that I should have been born elsewhere.

I thought I belonged in Europe but here I was in Australia with all these children at primary school whose connection to their land seemed certain and unquestionable. My own connection seemed tenuous.

I was born in Diamond Valley Community Hospital in Diamond Creek and spent my first three years in the nearby suburb of Greensborough, first in a converted chook shed that my parents used to occupy their then six children and later in a weatherboard house my father had built himself in Henry Street. In those days Greensborough was a place of grassy paddocks and dusty roads. A suburban countryside.

I spent my fourth year of life in the mountain suburb of Healesville on Myers Creek Road, where my father and my uncle, my mother’s brother and his wife had gone into business. They had bought a series of small huts as accommodation for city visitors and a cafĂ©-cum-milkbar. The venture failed. After a year we moved into rental accommodation in Wentworth Avenue in the genteel suburb of Canterbury, or Camberwell as it is most commonly known. Ours was the scruffiest house in an otherwise beautifully manicured street.

These are the years of my childhood I remember best, my years in that rundown Edwardian gentleman’s residence when all us kids were still at home, though my older brothers left home during this time. When I was fourteen we moved to a new AV Jennings special in Cheltenham, which my parents managed to buy.

When I was fifteen my oldest brother decided that my parents should sort out their mess – primarily my father’s alcoholism – and he organised to have the six youngest move out of home. My sister and I stayed with a Dutch foster family back in Camberwell but the arrangement broke down and we wound up boarding at our convent school, Vaucluse, in Richmond, for the rest of that year. We then moved back ‘home’ to Cheltenham for my sixteenth year.

By the time I turned seventeen, life at home had become untenable again and so the second oldest brother organised for my mother to rent a shabby cottage near the sea in Parkdale. This time she left my father and we four youngest lived with her. We were visited at times by another older brother who stayed with us when he could not sort out his bed sitter accommodation, and by my older sister who was herself homeless for a time, for all sorts of complicated reasons.

I finished my last year of school in Parkdale when we moved back to Cheltenham on the basis of a miracle. My mother swore that my father was reformed and would never drink again. His reformation lasted little over a month, as I recall, and by the end of the Christmas holidays when I had started at university my father was back to his worst. My younger sister, the one immediately below me, went back to boarding school, in order to survive her final year and my mother lived at home in Cheltenham with me and my youngest sister, brother and our fast deteriorating father.

At the end of that first year at university which passes through my mind in a haze of misery, I moved into an old half house with my younger sister who had by now finished her schooling and was off to university herself and her girlfriend from school. An unstable threesome, we lived in Caulfield, first in the run-down half house in Royal Parade near the then Chisholm College and later in an upstairs flat still in Caulfield not far from the race course on the corner of Grange Road and the Princes highway.

Several further moves followed.
I will list them here: Leila Street in Ormond with my first boyfriend to Beach Road in Black Rock in a dilapidated half house by the sea, again with my first boyfriend, and then onto Westbury Street East St Kilda, the year I started my first job as a social worker, at first with my first boyfriend but in the end alone briefly after we broke up. Then I moved back to Caulfield and shared yet another flat, this time with my youngest sister for a year, after which she got married and I moved in with the man who in time became my husband in a group house in Fermanagh Road in Camberwell. I shared with him and the three other occupants of that half house for only a few months before my then partner soon to become my husband and I moved to Canberra. The government had seconded him into the Department of Administrative Services and we stayed in Northbourne Avenue in the city for some six months.

Eventually we returned to Melbourne and rented a small old fashioned apartment in a block of four in Bourke Road Camberwell, from where we were married and later, forced to leave when the block was sold, we moved into a small single standing unit in Auburn Road. We lived there for about a year before we bought the house in which we now live and have been living these past 30 years.

My early days were days of constant movement but since 1980 I have lived in the same place. In many ways I can see myself living here for some time longer beyond the time our youngest daughter leaves home into old age, by which time we will no doubt move again if death does not take us first.

All up I calculate that I have moved house twenty times and all of these bar one within the first twenty-seven years of my life. For the past thirty years I have lived in the one place, in Hawthorn, an inner city suburb of Melbourne, on a busy main road surrounded by genteel and quiet streets.

I have only lived outside of the state of Victoria of which Melbourne is its capital city once for six months when we moved to Canberra and I hated it. I resolved then that I would spend the rest of my life in the city in which I was born.

Having spent my entire childhood in the belief I should live elsewhere in Europe – go back to my mother’s home in Holland – I finally decided that I wanted to stay put. I am a homebody – nomadic only in mind. Apart from brief trips overseas and interstate I maintain my links to the land and space here. My home.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

That beast called housework

I missed my opportunity to write first thing this morning and I am out of kilter. The last two days have not been easy. The house seems dirtier then usual and more of a mess given my cleaning lady’s absence these past two weeks, given the difficulties we have of keeping the dog outside, and given the three cats. Given that I’m not interested in keeping up with the housework - I could do it but it would take most of my spare time and I would resent it as countless generations of women have resented it before me - not a lot gets done these days and we live in perpetual clutter.

Mothers are meant to do everything – to cook and to clean, to nurture children, to keep order, to contain pain, to assuage anxiety, to bake cakes and to weed gardens, to paint walls and to set tables, to serve drinks and to hear homework, to nag adolescents and to be flexible at the same time in our approach to them.

The list is endless and after nearly thirty years of being a mother, I am beginning to flag in the housework stakes. I am happy to be the mother of adult and adolescent children, and a grandmother to boot, but I cannot keep a tidy house anymore. Not when I work full time, struggle to complete a PhD part time and want desperately to write in my spare time.

I cannot keep it up. I cannot meet everyone’s needs and expectations. I cannot keep peace between my husband and his daughters when they clash, as well as deal with my own clashes with my daughters and husband, which happen equally often. I cannot be a good and cooperative helpful and deeply intimate wife and mother when I have so much to do, when I have no longer the desire of my pre-children self, when my husband and I used to chat each night for hours and hours, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine till late.

We do not smoke anymore and I cannot drink as I used to drink. I must limit my intake. I no longer enjoy nor can I manage huge feasts of three or four courses. I simply cannot hold it in. My stomach has shrunk. My appetite exists only for writing and blogging and working as a therapist and relating to people, those close to me and those further afield, but I cannot provide my children with a spic and span house, not that my husband expects it, though he’d love it if I tried harder and he thinks that I should have trained my/our daughters to do more housework themselves, instead they expect me to take on the entire load.

All this of course is my own fault. I determined when they were little that I would not impose upon them the same demands imposed upon me and my siblings especially the girls in terms of housework. I especially determined that I would not expect any of my children to grow up like my older sister who had to do all the housework, cook most of the meals and raise the small children in the absence of our mother who was away at work and both unable and perhaps a little unwilling to take up the load herself.

My older sister did it all or so it seemed to me. She was like a substitute wife. I determined I would not put my children in such a position. But in matters such as these we tend to go to the opposite extreme.

Someone has to do the housework. It will not go away. It is a relentless beast and one that will not succumb to wishing.

In recent weeks I have been watching the old TV series, Upstairs Downstairs. They had it worked out in those days it seems, the housework, that is, not the class relations. They were a disaster.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Do it Now

Here's a quote from a novel by Sue Woolfe ‘Painted Woman’.

It's one I use often when the urge to procrastinate threatens to take over. You, my fellow writers, painters, poets, photographers and artists of every ilk, might run it through your minds and remember - life is short.

‘You can put it off for years, the need to speak, to paint, whispering to yourself: my time will come. No one expects it of you, it's enough that you hang the tea towels out to dry. We live this dreadful lie, pretending all that concerns us is that the tea towels dry thoroughly in the sun. We postpone that other voice, the voice from inside that orders: now.’

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The truth and white lies: seven autobiographical 'facts'.

The wonderful musician and writer, Mike McClaren from Annotated Margins has honoured my efforts with a Kreativ blogger award. My second ever. I am grateful for his recognition and will respond as I must but only in part. I will list the mandatory things about me but I will leave it up to all those wonderful bloggers whom I follow - I cannot choose among them - to take it upon themselves if they so choose to list seven things about themselves, here in comments or on their own blogs.

Why seven? I do not know, but here are mine;

Seven things about me:

1. I have my mother’s names, all three of them: Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. I share my third name, Maria with all my sisters and brothers bar the oldest. The oldest, a boy, has my father’s name. The use of Maria as a third name for boys as well as girls honours Mary, Christ’s mother as part of a Catholic tradition. We girls thought it hilarious when we were children that our brothers should have a female name.

2. I was born in 1952, on Guy Fawke’s Day the year Princess Elizabeth succeeded to the throne on the death of her father, King George VI. My mother, despite a shared name with the queen, rarely concerned herself with the British monarchy. Her regal interests were with Princess Beatrice and the Dutch Royal Family. Her religious interests were with the Pope and his priests.

3. In 1952 the world's first contraceptive pill was manufactured. Not that this brought any relief to my parents. As Catholics, they refused contraception until the last baby was born and died and my mother at 43 years of age received permission in the form of a second opinion from a somewhat radical priest who sympathised with her plight. The doctor had told my mother that a twelfth pregnancy would not only kill the baby, it would kill her.

In 1952 inflation stood at 21% and milk cost the equivalent of 7.5 cents a pint.

4. When I was a child I pretended to be devout because it brought the nun’s approval. I also loved to sing in church.

5. I have a third nipple, known as an accessory nipple. It is scarcely visible under my right breast. When I was little it looked like a tiny cave in my skin but as my breasts developed it popped out to the size of a pimple. I consider it an evolutionary aberration. In my mind’s eye I see a pig’s udder with teat after teat to feed a line of baby pigs.

6. I am sixth in line in a line of nine children. We do not count the two and half who died – my oldest sister and my last-born sister who was still born, along with a miscarriage in between. I do not forget the dead ones and would prefer to tell people that there are in fact eleven in my family of origin. I half count the miscarriage, as I feel sure that baby – in my mind, a girl – was not viable.

7. I do not always tell the truth, but my white lies are benign and I sometimes let my daydreams get the better of me, namely I allow myself to indulge in thinking about them as though they were real.