Sunday, September 30, 2012

A woman prepares for life

I am having trouble with mascara these days.  Not that I wear much of it but it's harder to see these days to put it on.  I'd need a magnifying glass to be able to see my eyelashes well enough and I only have two hands.  So I tend to apply mascara by touch, and make a mess of it along the way.  

All my life my mother told me my eyes, my eyebrows and ear lobes were my greatest asset.  Therefore, I’ve tended to dress mine up. My eyes with a touch of mascara, my ears with earrings but my eye brows I leave alone. 

The other day I was horrified when one of my daughters made an appointment to have her eyebrows plucked.
            ‘Let them be,’ I said.  ‘They’re lovely as they are.’  But no, she insisted they were like Frida Kahlo's.   My daughter takes after her father in her colouring and hair.  Women pluck their eyebrows all the time, my daughter tells me.  For some it’s necessary. 

This reminds me of the day another of my daughters gave me a voucher as a Christmas present  to have my eye lashes coloured.  Even now it seems a ridiculous idea, but at the time I went along with it in the hope that I might then be able to forgo the mascara.  

For half an hour I sat in a hairdressing salon with strange bits of protective covering around my eyes while the dye did its job.  Afterwards, I could scarcely see the difference.  It had been a wasteful plea to my vanity. 

I have grown increasingly weary with the stuff of dressing up for the world.  

When I was young I loved spending hours thinking about what I might wear, laying it out before hand and then showering, putting on my mascara and eye liner and finally dressing.

Earlier, because I was a slob at school, or so I believed: shabby clothes, dirty shoes, untidy hair; but also a worthy student, ‘from a poor family',  the nuns gave me free access to a series of classes conducted at my school through the Elly Lukas deportment school.  

Once a week for eight weeks a woman whom I shall call  Miss Bright came from the Elly Lukas deportment school to take us through our paces.  We were in fourth form, the equivalent now of year ten, all of us aged between fifteen and sixteen years.  

The expectation was that most of us would soon be out in the work force preparing our lives for that big moment when we met and fell in love with the man of our desires and would soon be married.

Miss Bright taught us how to dab nail polish onto a stocking to catch a run before it ran too far.  She taught us how to wash our stockings separately in hand made lingerie bags, and how to lay out our clothes every evening before bed in anticipation of the next day.  

Given that we would all be off to the office the next day with early starts, it was imperative that we leave only our dressing to the morning. The evening, after a light and nutritious dinner, should be spent preparing for the next day. 

Miss Bright estimated we needed to set aside a good hour in these preparations - cleaning shoes, mending tears, ironing blouses and skirts.  We were to leave nothing to chance.  Makeup from the day before needed to be removed carefully with the aid of moisturiser and water and little cotton buds and swabs.  Showers, deodorant, attention to finger nails and feet were also essential.  

Nail polish was tricky.  It was fine to use it but imperative to keep coloured nails in top shape, with no chips or cracks and certainly no ridiculous colours as were coming into vogue in those days.  A pale pink for day wear was acceptable, one that blended in with the tone of our smart work suits and maybe red for evening wear, but to be cleaned off before the end of the weekend and the return to work.

When would we read our books? I wondered, or get our homework done, not remembering that these duties were aimed at the woman at work, not the student or school girl, nor at the woman of leisure.
Finally, there was a long lesson on how to deal with men, dining out, etiquette and the like.  

I did not take the lessons seriously in the end, but the concepts stay with me.  The idea of having to sculpt myself into the perfect woman irks me still.  

Today, and throughout the past week,  I'm doing battle with my feelings about the rape and murder of a young woman here in Brunswick.  I'm not alone in this.  Jill Meagher's senseless death has aroused widespread public grief and outrage.  It has also caused a storm about the difficulties women face in the world, the idea that women are not free to walk the streets alone after dark.  

My memories of being groomed to be a fine young woman seem anarchic in a world where women are also the victims of such random and gratuitous brutality.  And I know, despite the horror of this behaviour that somewhere along the line the perpetrators of such crimes are also victims. 

I cannot get these difficulties out of my mind.  Everything else pales into insignificance.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Australians lack culture

I don’t remember when the word ‘pride’ came into it.  I only know it started when I was young.  We were a proud family, or so we had been told, proud of our European heritage, proud of the fact that although we had no money, we were well equipped with books and beautiful objects from Holland.

Pride began with my mother's family.

The order, the neatness, the sense of it all.  She gave it away to follow my father for a better life in Australia.   But my mother kept hold of her pride.

We were different from the other mainly Australian families in our neighborhood.  They spent their weekends mowing their lawns and gossiping to one another over back fences while we took family drives after Mass to Gembrook, the Maroondah Dam, even as far as Eildon. 

Most of all we were proud to be Catholics.  We came from the one true faith and were destined for great things as long as we upheld the traditions of our religion.  

When Vatican Two came along and the nuns stopped wearing their habits, my mother was not surprised.  The nuns cast off their wimples and shortened their skirts.  They adopted their baptismal names instead of the ones they had chosen from among the saints, many of which were masculine names, when they took their vows.  The priest on Sunday began to read the sermon in English instead of Latin and my older sister introduced guitars and folk singing into the church choir.  

This is how it should be, my mother said.  In Holland, the Catholic church is ahead of its time.  Holland is a country ahead of its time, but Australians lack culture.

This word 'culture' made little sense to me then.  I associated it with art, the paintings of naked men and women in my father's books, which I pored through secretly, hot and tingly, stirred up with feelings I could not understand.   

I associated the word culture with all things from over the seas.  I associated it with the workmen on building sites who wolf whistled as my sisters and I in our teens walked past.  

These workmen I knew were foreign.  They came mainly from the Mediterranean, from Greece and Italy, inferior places I believed then, given the way the nuns spoke to the dark haired girls in my class at school, but nevertheless these workmen came with an open appreciation of young women, of beauty I imagined, and of this fearful thing called sex.

I found culture therefore to be an embarrassing thing, something my mother esteemed and yet at the same time, even she blushed when the workers wolf whistled.  

Surely they did not whistle at her.  Not then I thought, not after all those years, not after so many babies when she had grown stout and stolid in her appearance.  When the only day she bothered to dress up was on Sunday, though every week day she streaked red lipstick across her lips in honour of my father's return home from work in the evening.

My hearts not in the memories today.  I’m tired,  jaded, not enough sleep, too much wine with dinner and then later sitting up and waiting till two in the morning for my daughter who left home at 10.30 pm for an evening on the town and then could not find a cab to take her home given all the other young people in the city were looking for one, too.  The waiting up and worrying.  And my mind is addled with the effort. 

While I waited I watched Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and cringed all the way through.  These were the attitudes that prevailed when I was young.  Women as blond bimbos after rich men.  Granted it is a film built on artifice and yet there is something in those attitudes that stick.  

Yesterday, I read Anne Summers extraordinary piece about the way our female prime minister is portrayed in the media, the way she is vilified. All politicians are berated in this way, you might say, but our prime minister's gender is used against her in extraordinary and abusive ways that border on bullying.   

She is childless by choice.  She is in a relationship with a hairdresser but is not married.  She is irreligious and does not fit the norm.  There are many who despise our prime minister for this, women as well as men, though mostly men it seems, particularly among the political class who find it hard to take orders from a woman.    

It made me wonder how much has changed.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sorry about that

I grew up in a family where secrecy held pride of place on the mantel piece between the crucifix and the statue of the blessed virgin Mary.  The statue was not your typical blue and white plaster cast nor was it simply a statue of Mary on her own.  It was cast in a glazed terracotta brown and it included Mary’s baby Jesus and their crowns. 

It seemed apt therefore that the statue stood on the mantelpiece directly above my mother’s head as she sat in her usual chair alongside the fireplace. My mother was queen of the babies. 

My father sat on the other side of the mantelpiece closer to the crucifix, which fitted him given that the initials of his first two names matched the JC of Jesus Christ.  Our father often gave the appearance of a man who was tortured. 

My father did not hang spread eagled on a cross but he exuded suffering, though I did not see it like that then.  Then in my childhood my father was not Christ like at all, not the Christ I had learned about at school, the one who was meant to be loving and kind.

My father was a brute.  And in my imagination in those days I considered it the role of fathers everywhere to dominate and to control.  It was necessary therefore to keep all things from my father.  It was necessary to stay safe by staying away. 

My father I think now must have been lonely in his large family with so many children.  

So what were the secrets you ask?  Or was it more an attitude of secrecy, as if we all had things to hide from one another and so we went about our daily lives hiding things from each other, especially from our father. 

I put some of this compulsion towards secrecy down to the fact of confession and sin.  I learned early that many things were sinful.  Thoughts alone were enough to get you into serious trouble within the heavenly sphere above. 

It did not stop me from having such thoughts but it led me into a pattern of doing and undoing – commit the sin and then seek forgiveness, the sin of theft being highest on my list of real sins.  The other sins I made up.  I admitted to disobedience when I was never so, at least not in my memory. 

I admitted to telling lies once.  Every week the same list of sins, disobedience once, telling lies once and stealing once.  I did not elaborate on any of these things.  I had them down pat and they worked well enough. They fooled the priest.  Once a week off to confession to wash away my sins. 

It did not work so well with my impure thoughts though - thoughts of bodies, desirous thoughts that now in my imagination I can scarcely remember. 

The impure involved games with my younger sister where we cavorted together on the bed; where we touched each others bodies the way we saw the grown ups on television touch; where we felt hot with excitement, an excitement I did not then understand, only I knew it was wrong. 

I could not admit to such sins of impurity to the priest.  I could not even utter the words and so I resolved these by novenas.  To make a novena you needed to go to Mass every Friday for nine Fridays in a row and the all sins, mortal and venial, were washed away. 

The point of all this talk of sin is that the sinful nature of my childhood evoked a spirit of secrecy. This might account for my all too ready tendency these days to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ 

To say 'I’m sorry' has become a joke in my household.  It has morphed into the words, ‘I’m sorry about that’. 

A certain tone of voice, a certain emphasis on some of the words in this short sentence can give the impression, as my husband says, not of contrition but of an exasperated ‘sorry about that’, as if I couldn’t care less. 

I’ve had enough now.  'Sorry about that', but you’ll just have to lump it. Sorry about that and now fuck off. 

And so ends this morning's reading from the bible of my childhood, of which I have written and read many chapters and now I get to the point as I do in life generally, I’m sorry about that. 

Enough for now. 

I shall skulk off to the privacy of my room and hide my secrets behind closed doors.  

Saturday, September 08, 2012

How books are made.

The dentist did not send us a reminder of our half yearly visit this year and I have used it as an excuse to avoid the visit.  Even though I know in the back of my mind that I should call for an appointment, I use the dentist’s failure to send out a reminder as an excuse to avoid doing what I know I must eventually do.  

I’ve signed up for the Keiser weight training though, that’s a tick in the box of the doing-things-good-for-you category, but for the dentist and the rest I can’t claim much success.  The rest being all those other jobs I put off until I must get them done, the washing, report writing, cleaning out cupboards, but I will get there. 

Procrastination I call it, the demon of progress.  My greatest avoidance is to immerse myself in the book I tell myself I am writing.  Actually it’s written, mostly, only I must put it together, make the pieces into a whole, and eliminate that which is unnecessary.  

I joined a class recently, six sessions,  to help us produce a manuscript, and Lee Kofman who takes this class gave me the task of working on my structure, at least four hours a week.  Lee knows how much I hate structure. 

Even the word sends shivers through me.  I gather that structure is like a skeleton on which the flesh of the story hangs, but then I think of what Julian Barnes has Flaubert say to us in his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot:

Books aren’t made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids.  There’s some long pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work.  And all to no purpose!  It just stands like that in the desert!  But it towers over it prodigiously.  Jackals piss at the base of it and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.

I lack structure, I entirely lack structure through out my life.  The obvious example to me comes in my approach to housework.  I might start to tidy up the kitchen sink, put dishes in the dishwasher, wipe nearby benches, but as I stand stacking and wiping a thought will come into my mind about what needs doing elsewhere or an object will appear in my line of vision that needs to be put somewhere else and I will traipse up through the hallway to the bedroom or bathroom or wherever and while in this new room I will see something else that needs attention, the bathroom cupboard calls for re-arranging for instance, and I will work on this.  Pathetic really.

I hold my experience of my father responsible.  My father may have been a man of structure but he passed none of it down to me.
 The man of structure even as underneath the neatness he was beginning to fall apart.  

When my daughters complain about writing an essay, their father will insist they come up with a plan first of all.  Then he will urge them to work on a beginning, a middle and an end.  Say what you are going to say, say it and then say what you’ve said.  Simple. Hey presto – a typical academic essay. 

To me it’s boring, but if I had learned this, whether from my father or from the nuns at school, I might not be in trouble with this book as I am today. 

I do not plan anything in this way, not anything written.  No, I simply plunge in where the fancy takes me and I wind up with many possible beginnings, several chunky middles and an occasional ending, but they do not necessarily fit well together.   I cannot get the form.  As Julian Barnes writes:
Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea.  Everything in Art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander.  You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang, when a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school.  A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry.

Blogging is the perfect medium for me because it can be more chaotic than a novel.  My only structure is the weekly post.  The rest I leave up to chance.  And chance is a fickle creature, sometimes she offers wondrous gifts and at other times, a load of crap.  

Saturday, September 01, 2012

My grandfather's clock

My mother does not have much by way of a literal inheritance to leave her children,  but she tells me each of us can have one of the 'precious' items from our childhood that now take pride of place in her living room. 
‘I don’t want you to fight over them,’ she said when I visited last week.  

I don’t see that we would, at least not overtly, but there is one single item that to me stands out above all others - the grandfather clock - my grandfather’s clock, the one he sent to my mother in Australia from Holland way back in the 1960s. 

‘It’s the only thing of real value,’ my mother said.  ‘It’s an antique.’

I’m not sure I can speak for the clock's actual value but its sentimental value to my mother and to her children is great, or at least I imagine it is great for my siblings as well.  

My mother has elected to give this clock to one of my brothers.  It is the only item that she has itemised specifically for one or another of us, except for her piano, which goes to my older sister, the only one who ever learned to play properly.  That is a given. 

I don't know where the idea came from, but for several years now I have lived with the belief that one of my younger sisters coveted that grandfather clock since we were children.  

You know how it is, in those conversations children sometimes have with their parents: ‘When you die, Mum, I want you to leave me your banjo…’

In this way, my daughters divide up my jewellery - what there is of it - again not for its actual value, but for its emotional value, particularly my wedding ring.  Given the fact I have four daughters and only one ring, a ring created and cast in gold by a friend now long dead, we have thought to make a fresh cast of the ring so that all my children can have a copy.  But that’s another story.

My mother says she wants to be buried with her rings, or else they will need to be cut off.  

That’s fine, my older sister reckons, but to her it seems a waste to bury diamonds. 

There seems to be a debate between the actual value and the emotional value. To me, my mother's diamonds hold little value.  They come from the rings her second husband gave her.  I care only for the rings and things that come from my childhood, narcissistic as that might seem.  

The things that existed in my childhood that live on in my memory, they are the things I desire most:  the paintings of windmills in Holland, and of Europe in the winter, the wall hangings my mother hand embroidered, the statue of the blessed virgin Mary, and the crucifix.

I sensed my mother was a little surprised when I asked if I might have the crucifix, not for religious reasons - though I did not tell my mother that - more for its significance as an icon from my childhood that sits in my memory like a beacon.  

‘Take it down now then,’  my mother said.  ‘Write your name underneath.’  I suggested that - with help - she might like to write behind or underneath each object or painting the name of the person to whom she wants to leave it. 
‘But I prefer to give each of you something you like.  I want you each to choose.’

All except the grandfather clock, and I told my mother then how much my younger sister had always wanted that clock, she perhaps more than any one of us.  But no, my mother still wants to give it to my brother.

Why, I asked, why this brother?  

‘He never married,’ my mother said.  ‘He lives alone.’ 

A clock like this could make his home homely.  A clock like this belongs in a cosy house.  A clock like this would keep him company.

My mother went on to tell me how she had stopped the clock from working when the grandchildren came along.  She did not want any of them to get hurt playing with the brass metal weight on the end of the chains at the base of the clock. 

But my brother could reassemble it, she said.  He could get the clock working again.

And so he could measure the passage of time, tick tock, tick tock, the grandfather clock his constant companion.

I do not know what will happen to the clock or the crucifix or any of the other memorabilia of my mother’s life, but at least I can write about it, as I did once in a short story - literary license and all that: 

The girl hesitates at the front door as she pulls it shut behind, long enough to catch a glimpse of the statue of Jesus hanging from his crucifix on top of the piano in the front hall.  His feet are cracked where the nail has been driven in and although someone has tried to glue the feet back in place the plaster has split up to his knees and he now hangs loosely from his arms and swings in the updraft from the open door.