Saturday, April 30, 2011

My mother/myself.

We are in a strange place of endings. My mother may be dying. She is not dead yet, not totally on her last legs, but the doctors cannot stop her heart from racing. Now they imagine she might have a clot in her lungs or some such difficult-to-discern reason for why her heart rate will not slow down.

‘It’s my age’, my mother says, finally acknowledging that she is old.

I wonder that we all go on as though we are looking for a cure. To my mind, it would be good to find a way of settling my mother's heart a while longer so that she can go back to her beloved room in her retirement village and spend the rest of her days, as she herself tells us, in the joy of looking out onto her little bit of garden surrounded by her books, her memorabilia, her piano.

But this may not happen.

If my mother cannot get back to resume the life she once lived she might prefer to die. I know she does not want to go into a nursing home.

It’s not just the finality of the nursing home, it is the disruption. Hospital for my mother is okay because hopitals are busy and noisy places full of life and attention.

Before she goes I start to write my mother's obituary. I start it now while she is still with us because we are in that in between place where life and death touch one another ever so closely, and it is as if we can see in both directions, if only for a moment.

Once my mother is gone, all we will have left of her are our memories. For now she is alive. For now I can still hear her voice, her crowded Dutch accent filled with dislocated verbs, and disordered sentences.

Am I a fraud? To rush onto the scene now, now in these last few months when it has become more clear that our mother is soon to say goodbye forever.

‘Sometimes we can’t separate relief from sorrow, resentment and love,’ David Denby writes, reflecting on the death of his parent.

This may be my struggle, our struggle, all my sisters and brothers, as we try to grapple with our mixed feelings, now as our mother is about to leave us for good.

Some part of me wants her to go, now at last, while another part wants her to stay, for many years yet.

When I was a little girl I remember so clearly a constant fear: what would I do if my mother died? How could I ever cope without her? When I entered adolescence and early adulthood the feelings shifted. I began to feel that my mother needed me instead.

I wanted then to make up to her for all the privations she had suffered married to my father, married to a man who for all the good that might have been there hidden within, bullied my mother and caused her immense pain, the pain of sexually abusing his oldest daughter among other things.

I have often wondered how it is that my mother has coped with the fact of my sister’s abuse, my father blinded by his past, and his pain.

I have often wondered how my mother has lived with this knowledge.

She carries the burden with her. I see it in her eyes. I hear it in her voice, the way she does not chastise any one of us for abandoning her as we have all chosen to do, in one way or another, over the years.

Our rage with our mother has gone unsurpassed, though I must not speak for all. I must only speak for myself. Only I can know my mind, and what others have told me, but we do not often confide in one another about these things, sometimes, but not often.

These things are too raw, too painful, too much a scooping out of your sense of yourself, from memories of a lost childhood to bear talking about out loud, at least not with one another because somehow when I am with my sisters and brothers, I carry a strange sense of guilt for all the things I too have ever done wrong in relation to them and for my anger towards them for the things they have done wrong in relation to me.

The day my older brother kicked me in the pubic bone, the day my older sister tried to nick ice cream out of my bowl once too often, the day my younger sister threw my school hat over a fence in a neighbouring street on our way to school, the day I told my little brother that I thought he was too dependent on me.

I was twenty-two years old in a new job, my brother only sixteen. He had come to stay with me for a few days in Canberra. I felt ashamed of having a little brother then with me at work and of not knowing what to do with him.

I left him in the hospital grounds. I told him he must fend for himself. I told him he was a burden on me and he cried. I cried afterward for this rejection of my baby brother who had stirred up feelings in me that I had not wanted to know about at the time.

My mother’s lips are still red, but not so purplish in tone now that she can have oxygen whenever her breathlessness appears.

I visited her this morning.
‘My head feels hollow’ she said. And with the echoing of her hearing aid it was not easy to have a conversation.

The woman in the bed opposite asked my name. She admired the fact that my mother and I have the same name and scolded me for shortening it. And I think then of my four daughters all with my name in second place, a link that goes back through the generations to the other Elisabeth’s that have preceded us.

The passage of time. There was a tine when my memories seemed as fresh as yesterday, but these days they fade. They fade every time I write about them, as if in the process of retelling them on the page they lose some of the energy they once held for me when I mulled over them from time to time.

The geraniums in the front yard pf my childhood home have faded along with the blue hydrangeas in the back. The garden has diminished in size. It was once enormous, the size of a paddock. Now it seems the size of a car park.

My mother does not share her memories any more, but she tells me that when her youngest son walked in to the hospital to see her yesterday she found herself crying.

The sight of him, and he looks so young yet, she said, as if she had expected him to look older.

She does not see my youngest brother much these days. Like most of her other sons, this brother has been angry with her. They are all angry, all my siblings but some manage to bypass the anger into a respectable closeness, others will tolerate her, others still might even feel a deep fondness.

I remember my mother as a movie star beauty with dark hair, olive skin and bright eyes. I remember my mother with lips reddened with lip stick and the faint flush of pale compact on her otherwise pink cheeks.

I remember the feel of my mother’s body, tight under her corsets, the rounded shape of her hips and belly where all the babies once lived.

I remember my mother for the softness of her skin and the melting moments in her eyes. But those same eyes could glaze over and this same mother could become distant and aloof.

She rarely spoke a cross word to me, but when anger took over and this I remember particularly from my adolescence onwards, my mother became ice cold, the steely glow of her otherwise shut off eyes, a sliver through my heart.

I have not been a faithful daughter. From the time I entered into analysis in my early thirties I began what I consider to be a delayed adolescence and I came to hate my mother.

I blamed her for everything. Where once I had blamed my father for all our difficulties, I now held my mother responsible and not so much in a simple it’s-all-her-fault kind of way but more in the way of feeling she had denied too much and I resented all those denials.

Yet I now know my mother was a creature of her times.

My mother was a woman of a her generation who married and stayed marred, who obeyed even when her instincts told her not to, who maintained her marriage at all costs, not simply out of a loyalty to the commandment of marriage, but more so because she had no choice, no money, no career, no other way of looking after nine children without the infrastructure of husband and breadwinner to support, however negligent that breadwinner might prove himself to be.

I cannot stop writing here. It holds me to the page. The clicker clacker of the keyboard protects me from this unraveling feeling that creeps up on me all the time now.

My mother is dying. She will leave soon. For all that she does not want to go, she will leave us and the little girl inside me who wept so hard for my mother when her second husband died several years ago, will weep again for her and this time for me, too, to be left, to be next in line and to be faced with the struggle that my ongoing life in this world entails.

Monday, April 25, 2011


I share a room with my sister. She is fourteen years old, four years older than me and her body is different from mine.

At night from under my blankets I watch her undress for bed. I watch her silhouette as she slips out of her tunic and blouse into her nightie. She wears a bra and the fine point of her breasts rise up from her chest like mountains.

I touch my own nipples, hard now, but flat against my ribcage.

One day I will grow breasts like my sister and mother. One day, I too will be big.

In the daytime when no one is looking I take an old towel from the laundry cupboard, one my mother keeps to use for dishcloths. I tear it into one long rectangular strip.

I take a piece of coloured ribbon from my sister’s ribbon basket and tie it around the centre of material to make a gathering where I can imagine my cleavage to be after I have tied the material around my chest like a bra.

At night when everyone sleeps I wear my bra under my nightie. I like to feel it in place and imagine myself to be grown up like my mother.

In the morning I scrunch up my bra into a ball and stuff it into an empty cigarette pack, which I have taken from the rubbish bin, I hide it between my bed and wall.

One day I come home from school. My mother sits in her usual chair beside the fire, my sister beside her. They look up at me when I walk in and my sister smiles. They look at one another in a meaningful way and without knowing why or what I sense that I am about to be found out.

I see the cigarette box first and the strip of toweling laid out on the table.
‘What’s this then?’ my mother says. She holds the bra up to the light. She does not wait for my answer. ‘You know you’re too little for one of these, but never mind, you’ll be big enough one day.’

My sister smiles, an inward smile, as if she has just been given top marks at school.

I do not know what to say. My hands are clammy. My Singlet feels wet under my arm pits where the skin prickles.

My mother picks up the empty cigarette box and stuffs the bra back inside.
‘Now be a good girl. Throw this out where it belongs. In the rubbish.’

‘What are you doing?’ my brother says as he sees me at the rubbish bin. He sees the cigarette pack. ‘Have you been smoking Dad’s cigarettes?’
‘No, “ I say. And now I know that my face is as red as the hair on the lady on the front of the cigarette pack.
‘You have been smoking,’ my brother says. ‘It’s written all over your face. Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I won’t tell.’

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Purple lips

My mother has heart failure. Her heart is giving up. She sits in a wheelchair and waits to be taken places, even to the toilet. She cannot exert herself in any way any more. To exert herself is to run out of breath.

There is fluid on her lungs, the doctor says. Every time she breathes in she has to work harder to get in enough oxygen to purify her blood.

My mother's lips are purple. At first I thought they were red. ‘How lovely you look,’ I said to her, ‘as though you have put on lipstick.’

She preens. Even at ninety-one my mother is a vain woman, but she has lost much of her dignity.

I wheel her into the toilet. The pills she take include diuretics to help get rid of excess fluid. She visits the toilet often. We are in the doctor’s surgery and lucky to find a disabled toilet large enough to fit into. I steer her alongside the toilet bowl and help her up.

‘Do you want me to wait outside?’ I ask.
‘No, you might as well stay,’ she says. She struggles with the button on her trousers. Once undone, they drop to her ankles. I try not to look.

I busy myself with the wheelchair. I put on the brake so that she can use it as a support when she’s done.

I am now the adult and my mother who once held me in her arms is like the baby, or at least a toddler on her potty.

She sits for some time on the toilet. I listen for the trickle and flush.

‘There’s not much there,’ she says. ‘It’s like this all the time. I can’t wait and then there’s not much to show.’

I stand alongside to help her up as she wipes and pulls up her knickers. I pull her trousers up off the floor and hold my hands around her waist in order to find the button hole and thread the button through.

My mother feels warm and smells of musk and something unfamiliar to me, the smell of age.

My mother flops back into the seat and I lift back the foot flaps to accommodate her feet. I am a novice with wheel chairs. I steer the device awkwardly.

It is a strange process this reversal of roles and all the while I find myself reflecting on what it will be like when my turn comes around. When my ears give out and I cannot hear so well and I must sit with my back to the room where my daughter has perched me and I must bide my time and wait uncomplaining while my daughter discusses the intricacies of my condition with a doctor who is at least fifty years younger than me.

Payback perhaps.

When I first started in social work as a young looking twenty two year old, my mother said to me more than once, ‘If I had problems, I would never want to discuss them with someone as young as you. How could I have any confidence?’

I thought then, I will never be able to catch up with her. She will always be older than me. She will always ahead of me. But now this.

When my mother dies, I will be next in line for death. It is a sobering thought.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blogging and the desire for revenge

Some thoughts from my thesis on life writing and the desire for revenge:

I keep a blog as a means of practising my autobiographical writing. I keep a blog as a means of expressing myself on the page, but not only for myself. I keep a blog to draw to me an external audience of other people whose voices might endorse my thoughts, or challenge them, and thereby help me develop.

As Steven wrote in a comment some time back, blogging acts as a ‘call and response’ form of communication, whereby the blogger leaves a post to which other bloggers and readers of blogs might comment.

My desire for revenge trickles through my blog posts in subtle ways that may or may not not be obvious. They are nevertheless apparent to me, at least to the part of me that has long felt silenced, in the first instance within my family of origin, in which I am the sixth of nine.

In keeping a blog I subvert the overlapping restrictions on my life and battle my way out of the fog of censorship. I reconstruct myself and in so doing I enact my desire for revenge.

I pay back those who might wish to silence me by writing about the process of being silenced. I thereby expose actions and events, which were once secret, hidden, concealed from view, because they were assessed as taboo.

I explore these concealments through elements of self-disclosure, aware that the desire for revenge when given voice can attract a counter attack, a different version of the desire on the part of those who would prefer that I ‘shut up’, and let them have the only say.

Like Natalie Goldberg, ‘I write because I kept my mouth shut all my life…I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay’. In so doing I may well hurt or offend others and they in turn can respond accordingly.

As a blogger I have access to identities, my own and those of others, that I could not have known had I continued my writing life in hard copy only.

My blogging life highlights the fluidity of my mind states and how quickly they can change. Likewise, other bloggers come and go. A blog’s shelf life is limited. Blogs that once started in a welter of enthusiasm now lie dormant, but they remain accessible forevermore through the Internet, like relics of the past.

The rapid speed of connection via the Internet enables a response such that by the time I have written and posted an autobiographical reflection; for example, on my resentment and frustrations about the struggle to write free of internal censorship, my state of mind has changed. I no longer feel as I did when I wrote the piece. I may feel that way again one day but for the time I become enthused again and fired up.

My comments to my blog followers, my ‘bleeders’ as Julie Powell calls them, begin to feel fraudulent. I am no longer the person I was when I wrote the piece in the first instance. I have resumed my confident writing stance, a position I am more likely to take up in response to others’ comments about my writing and when I comment on other people’s blogs.

There is a mantra that underlies many blogs: This is your blog. You can write what you like. You can do, as you will. This is your space. Yet there are unwritten constraints that demand consideration if one is to attract a readership.

Bloggers, like all writers, desire a readership. Otherwise why blog? Why write?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Patagonian Mummies

I’ve noticed my hands are aging. If I pull at the skin on the back of my hands, if I pinch it together with my thumb and finger and then let go, it stays there. A thin line, like an old woman’s wrinkle.

That’s okay I say. I want to age gracefully. When I was young I decided I wanted to die at sixty before I got too old and lost my sight and hearing, before arthritis set in and I began to hobble. Now that seems outrageously young. Too young.

Last night I dreamed my mother was dead and we, my brothers and sisters, cousins aunts and uncles lined the pews in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The church on top of Whitehorse Road stands squat like an animal about to pounce. It is built from cream coloured bricks that give it a sense of solid form and old-fashioned modernity.

The church is surrounded by row upon row of perfect flowerbeds: petunias, pink and white and standard roses in lines alongside the green lawns that form hillocks beside the church.

We are inside the church looking up to the altar and my mother’s body lies in the middle of the centre aisle but not in a coffin. She rests on a stone slab and is covered by a swathe of cloth, orange silk or taffeta. She is covered completely, her body a small mound under the creased material.

A breeze runs through the church and lifts the cloth fractionally so I can see my mother’s toes. They are parched and dried out like the fingers of a mummy. I have seen them in picture books, Patagonian mummies. The figures of the dead in Patagonia are draped in cloth that is falling apart. Some have embroidered collars around their necks and one man’s throat is adorned in what looks like a dog’s collar.

In my dream I shiver to see my mother so emaciated, so far gone. She looks as though she has been roasted in an oven and all her juices have dried out.

Then I am in the pulpit, a thrust of anxiety running through my stomach, wanting to speak but dry-mouthed and fearful they will all yell me down. But they do not, they listen and in my mind I am rehearsing the thing I have spent years rehearsing, my mother’s eulogy.

I want to tell them: I love her, I loved her, but I also hate her. The little woman with the hooked nose and spindly fingers, the rounded belly in its tight corset.

We are outside and I am numb with loss when my mother appears, now in her fifties, my mother as I am today, full fleshed and sprightly, though fatter than me. She looks over at me with piercing blue eyes. No one else sees her, only me.

‘What are you doing here?’ I say. ‘You’re dead.’ She does not answer.

My father appears, also in his fifties. He is hunched over next to my mother’s body. His face is wet from crying. He rubs his big hands up and down his cheeks. His chest heaves. He has lost his wife. Only I know she is still here.

I wake from my dream and wonder, is this an omen? Will my mother die soon?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Cold Turkey 2

Yesterday I copped a parking ticket and an infringement notice for going through a red light.

It’s a serious offence says my husband and he’s right. I shall be more wary in future. It’s not so much the $299.00 fine that irks me as the three lost demerit points. Not lost but gained. Three demerit points that will stay with me for three whole years on my otherwise almost unblemished record. I copped a speeding fine over twenty years ago and that is all.

‘Don’t beat up on yourself,’ my husband says, but I do. I feel terrible, as if I cannot wash this sin from my hands, not so much the sin, as the fact of getting caught. Have I such a feeble conscience?

Similarly with my blog, with my most recent post, Cold Turkey, which almost every one has interpreted as a straightforward statement of my decision to give up smoking. I wrote it in the present tense as though it were happening now and they all almost to a person sent their best wishes and encouragement for giving up smoking.

I gave up smoking in 1981. That’s a long time ago now.

How do my fellow bloggers see me? An old girl with a fag hanging from her mouth. The smell of cigarettes infusing her hair, her clothes and her house.

I can remember the years building up to my decision to stop smoking were years filled with guilt. It was guilt almost more than health and other considerations that pushed me off the cigarettes. Guilt that I should so publicly flaunt a hated habit in front of everyone.

By the time I gave up smoking - largely propelled by the fact of discovering I was pregnant with our first daughter - it came as such a relief.

No longer did I feel unclean, like one of the great untouchables. Coupled with the decision to give up smoking I also decided to demonstrate to my husband and myself how much money we would save from not smoking.

Every week I put aside the money we would otherwise spend on cigarettes and after some six months when I had accumulated a pretty packet, my husband and I invited two of our close friends to go out for dinner to Stephanie’s Restaurant, a leading restaurant in Melbourne at the time.

The dinner costs hundreds of dollars and would not have been something we could never have afforded, let alone pay for another couple as well, but I wanted to mark the occasion of our giving up smoking and I wanted to thank our friends, these two who had given up smoking several months ahead of us and whose inspiration had also inspired us to try to give up, too.

By the time we went for this dinner I was very pregnant, the food was too rich and I could not enjoy the wine, though I vaguely remember allowing myself half a glass of champagne in honour of the occasion.

A few years later I was surprised to learn that one of my two friends had taken up smoking again. They had travelled overseas and were living far from home. Whether it was the loneliness or the work pressures in a hard-boiled advertising agency that drove her to it, I do not know, but my friend still smokes. It could have been she who wrote the previous post or me of thirty years ago. In any case, I am troubled by the whole notion of having to write to truth in the blogosphere again.

Have I betrayed my followers by leading them up a false path or is it okay to write as I have and then when they respond as though my writing were a statement of a present experience to then tell them the truth?

Should I have gone along with the charade? Made out that yes, I am in the throes of going cold turkey. What are the rules?

My good blogger friend, Jim Murdoch says I should have signposted my intention. Why? To alert the reader into reading the post with a different eye, a prepared eye. Why can the reader not tolerate what comes her/his way and make whatever sense he/she makes of it without feeling like they’re foolish, as Jim suggests, because they read it as a statement of present fact rather than a reflection of a past experience written in the present.

I belong to a writing group in which I declare myself to be an autobiographer and the woman who facilitates this group tells me that I am a fiction writer, whether I like it or not. And certainly there are times when I find it easy to slip away from the truth of an experience into something that becomes an extension into a fantasy of that experience, but as I have written elsewhere I am too close to the surface of my experience for it ever to equate with fiction.

Helen Garner
says there are fiction writers who write close to life and others who write further away, who make things up completely. But even as they make things up they have to come from somewhere within. Imagination comes in many forms.

I talked to someone recently about her synaesthesia. She described in vivid detail the colour of all the numbers and how they appeared in her imagination. She had always believed that this was the way others experienced numbers. She could not imagine it otherwise. Then one day, well into her adulthood she heard a radio program on synaesthesia and she realised she was unusual. Most people see numbers as distinct black outlines, they do not ascribe colours to them.

It seems such a joyous thing to do. I wish I too were able to see numbers through the prism of a rainbow. I wish I were able to paint colours around each distinct numeral, but I cannot. I am too earth bound. Similarly I wish I could write fiction. If I could I would tell you all in my profile, I am a fiction writer but I am not.

I write from life, I write it as I see it, and like Emily Dickinson I ‘tell all the truth but’ I ‘tell it slant’.