Saturday, January 24, 2015

My mother is a psychotherapist

One of my daughters wrote this piece and I post it here with her permission, along with some name changes to preserve privacy.  

My mother is a psychotherapist of the psychoanalytic variety. She’s the kind of therapist you’d explain your childhood to, your dreams, perhaps your repressed sexual fantasies. My mother would never describe herself as a Freudian, but he is the ‘grandfather of psychoanalysis’, so he’s hard to escape.

I first learned about Freud’s life and work in Grade Six. I'd seen his name in my mother’s consulting room, on the spines of books that were all the same, but had different numbers at the bottom.  I’d heard her say his name.

When I picked up a book in our classroom with Freud’s name and face on the cover, I knew I had to borrow it. It was one of a collection of books on important people’s lives and work. Churchill was there, and Marie Curie, among others. But Freud was a guy I needed to know about. He reminded me of photographs I’d seen of my grandfather. A serious European gentleman with dark framed round glasses.

I took Freud home with me, and my mother was tickled by my interest. I felt this was the first step to understanding the adult world, my parents’ world. I can’t remember what I read in that book, except for the chapter on ‘Penis Envy’, because I showed my friends and we giggled. But I knew this man was important. He knew things about people and how they worked, and my mother had his books in her room, and I wanted to know about him.

My mother practices from home. Ever since I can remember, the doorbell rang on the hour, and my mother travelled down the hallway, opened the front door, and let her patient in. The patients sat, or sometimes lay down on what my mother called a couch, but was more like a bed, in the front room of our house. 

The room was beige, red and brown. On one side were two large chocolate brown armchairs. They sat like giants, facing each other, silent and solemn. As a child I saw in them crinkled faces, broad arms, and solid legs. Sitting in them swallowed me.  

On the other side was the large red bed, with a hard pillow at one end and an itchy throw rug at the other. It was not like my bed, there was no doona or soft toys. A beige carpet covered the floor. It was the only fully carpeted room in our house – the rest was parquetry.

This room was different, special. In the centre, a rectangular coffee table stood on top of another carpet – Persian with swirls of colour. I squished my bare toes into the carpet, or lay on the Persian rug, arms and legs spread like a star. It was the softest, and cleanest rug in the house.

The cats were not allowed in here. Between the two chairs there were two high windows. Rich, velvet red curtains draped the sides, but they were never drawn. Instead, lace curtains and frosted glass blocked out the sticky beaks.

The door to this room was mostly closed, but I was allowed in when it wasn’t in use. 

I would push down the door handle – it was different to all the others, you didn’t twist it, you pushed it. The door squeaked open; the sound buffer at the base lifted off the floor. I often walked around the room, picked up and inspected objects I had seen many times before. A small glass vase with a tiny opening held dried flowers, a wooden bowl my father had made, and a table lamp with a push switch underneath the shade.

These objects seemed deliberate and meaningful, like the bits and pieces I kept in a special box in my wardrobe. But the objects in my mother’s consulting room were serious and adult; they held a different kind of power.

They were always in the same spot. Perfectly placed on a table, or shelf. In my box I kept a friendship bracelet, my sister’s old mobile phone, and a gold plated frill-neck lizard pendant I bought at Sovereign Hill. I tried hard to make them mean something, to make them important and significant.

Sometimes I picked them up, one by one, and placed them back in the box. I inspected them, contemplated their purpose, and outlined the reasons why I kept them. But the mysterious objects in my mother’s consulting room had seen and heard things that I could only wonder about. They had absorbed the mystery and the adultness the room, and my mother’s occupation, held.

My siblings and I, and my father, weren’t allowed to leave or enter the house when patients arrived. My mother is a reasonable woman. She didn’t make rules unless they were needed and I respected that the things she decreed were important, even when I flouted them.

But patients were off limits. We weren’t supposed to see them, or interact with them. We avoided them. If I asked my mother about her patients and their lives, she told me of the importance of patient therapist confidentiality, of boundaries, of the sacred privacy of her work. I understood. I could take on the responsibility.

The rhythm of my mother’s sessions ran my day as a child, and I respected and enjoyed the pattern. It was always the same. At ten to the hour, she let her patient out. I heard the outside come in, the sounds of trams and cars, and then the front door clicked shut and the patient was gone. In the ten minutes between her sessions, when she sometimes gobbled down a snack or skulled a cup of tea, I snuck in to see my mother. That was our time – the ten minute increments allotted to me.

“Mum, I hate Helen,” I often told her. Helen was my nanny when I was seven or eight. She cried a lot because the father of her child was “a real arsehole” (as mum told us), and had left her. Helen’s son, Ben, was the worst kid I had ever met. He broke things, he screamed, he ran around our house shrieking. I hated him. I hated being left with him. He was snotty and out of control, and played with my Lego without asking.

When I told my mother how much I hated Helen and Ben, she told me that life was hard for them, and I needed to understand this. It made me cross that Helen cried and that she didn’t tell Ben off when he was naughty. 

This was not how things should be. She was the mother, and he was the child. Mothers were supposed to help people. They were supposed to help their children be better.

At this point in my life, I didn’t know exactly what my mother did, but I knew she helped people. She talked to them and they talked to her, and sometimes they cried. She did what she was supposed to do, as a mother, and I accepted her role, and her fifty-minute absences entirely. I see her room as sacred, it was where she did her work, and saved other people, helped them be better. I didn’t mind sharing her.

My mother worked on Saturday mornings. She had two sessions and finished before 10am. One Friday night, a girl from school, Ellen, slept over. We were friends, but I found her annoying, and she only came over when her mother asked if she could. Ellen was a ‘difficult’ child, my parents told me. But we should be kind to her, and be her friend. 

I dobbed on Ellen in Prep when she stood on a table while the teacher was outside the classroom.  She was sent down to Kinder for the day. I didn’t like the way she flaunted the rules, but Ellen and I had fun together, most of the time.

One Saturday morning after our sleepover, my mother was with a patient, I told Ellen, and when we were in the hallway we must be quiet, and we must keep the door closed when we’re in the kitchen because the noise will carry. 

We played on the floor in the kitchen with my Barbies. I liked dressing and undressing them, putting shoes on their tiny pointed feet, brushing their hair. I was preoccupied with tasks such as these, so I didn’t notice Ellen stand up and walk towards the hallway door.

By the time I realised, it was too late. I looked up and saw she had gone and the hallway door was open. I got up to try and find where she was. I looked down the hallway and saw Ellen at my mother’s consulting room door, hand poised to knock.

The door opened and I saw my mother’s blonde curls poking out. I couldn’t hear what they said. She closed the door, and Ellen walked back up to the kitchen, and to me. 

My face was red and hot. My throat was claggy and it was hard to swallow. I looked at Ellen and I wanted to hit her, to punch her, until she said sorry. 

How could she violate the sacredness of my mothers’ room? How could she dare to attempt to pass the threshold? I was so angry I almost couldn’t speak. 

“Why did you do it?” I said.
“I wanted to know what the room looked like,” she said. 

Ellen’s mother came to pick her up an hour later, and I spent the day in my room with the door closed, simmering with rage.

When people find out what my mother does, and where she practices, they ask me if I’m comfortable with it. “Aren’t you worried about these people coming to your house?”
“They’re just people like you and me.” That’s what my mother always said, when my siblings and I asked about the strangers who rang the doorbell.

Sometimes people ask, “Aren’t you curious about the people your mother sees?” 

There isn’t room for curiosity  The constant reminder of confidentiality and privacy I received since a child dampened my curiosity. The line was drawn, thick and strong. 

Even as a child, when I picked up those objects in the consulting room, hoping to absorb some adult sensibility from within them, I stopped myself from trying to discern what they had seen and heard. 

I know my mother worried about how her children, the offspring of a therapist, would turn out. Would we feel neglected or ignored? Would we feel these other strangers who rang the doorbell were more important to her?

In fact, my mother’s work provided me with a structure, a pattern, and an authority that comforted me as a child. She was a mother, helping people, as mothers should, and Freud was the man who told her how to do it.

I see things in a different light now, obviously. The world is messier, less black and white. Old men don’t often connect with authority to me anymore, and women aren't always maternal.

Little did I know, when attempting to absorb the power of those objects in my mothers consulting room, I was trying to enter a world that I would have found far too confusing, far too complex than I could have coped with then.

My mother’s consulting room is still beige, red, and brown. She refuses to change it because it might disturb her patients. The chairs are different, but they are still large and brown. The bed is new, but it is still the same shade of red. It holds few mysteries to me now. I know it well. Its musty smell is unchanged.

The objects are still the same, same vase, same lamp. When I enter our house through the front door I pass the two high windows of her consulting room. Sometimes I take a quick look through the window and see the outline of a figure lying on the red bed. The frosted glass and the lace curtains prevent me from seeing a clear picture. 

That’s how it should be, though, so I look away.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Take your spurtle stick and stir

I dropped my husband at the railway station in Camberwell this morning, from where he will take a metro train to Southern Cross and from there, a country train to Ballarat. 

He’s off on an adventure.  He and a friend have decided to spend the day exploring the town. 

I should be there with him, you might think.  The happy couple off together on an adventure, but ever since I began my PhD over ten years ago, I’ve had this wonderful excuse for staying at home. 

For locking myself away in my study and purporting to write. 

Some of the time I write, some of the time I read, and some of the time I surf through Facebook and other people’s blogs for information about the world in which we live.

Last night over dinner my husband told me the story of his trip through Warranwood last weekend, where he travelled with another friend, an old work colleague, who now lives in Ringwood, and had asked my husband to show him around the local area and point out places from my husband’s past. 

As my husband began to tell me the story of his bike rides through the dirt roads of Warranwood on his way home from the Ringwood East post office where he once held a pre-Christmas job to help clear the excess mail of the season, my imagination soared. 

My husband worked the night shift and as he rode home at five o’clock in the morning he strapped his transistor radio to the handlebars and listened to Dave Brubeck’s jazz band play La Paloma.  Listen now and you, too, might be inspired.

I listened to my husband's story and as I listened, all ears and imagination, I wished his story had been my story so that I could go into such memories and sensations to write about them. 

And as I listened to my husband, and tried to shake off the fug of mind that a second glass of wine brings about in a Japanese restaurant where we shared agadashi tofu, sashimi and tempura, the stories from the past added a resonance to our meal that would otherwise be lacking. 

I like to sit after a meal and talk.  My husband likes to get up immediately the meal is eaten, pay the bill and high tail it home. 

We have some degree of conflict here.  But we live with it.  We compromise. 

I sense something of my mother in me here, too.  She loved to sit for a long time after a meal and talk.

‘We can talk when we get home,’ my husband says, but by then for me its too late.  The magic is lost.

 Besides, when we get home there are things to do.  Dishes to put away.  The dog to take outside for a pee. 

I do this more regularly now because our dog has become increasingly reluctant to venture into the garden alone at night, as if he is frightened of the bogey man or of intruders or of whatever else it is that troubles a dog in his back yard in the evening. 

I did not tell my husband that I prefer to talk at the restaurant after the meal because when we are out and about we have more energy for conversation. 

When we get home, we tend to go off to our separate activities. 

He likes to snooze a bit, drink another glass of wine, muse, sit in the garden and think. 

I take myself off to communicate with my public, as my husband puts it.  Or to escape into some lightweight – preferably light weight – DVD or online offering, because by the end of the day I am keen to escape the pressures of life. 

My husband and I once lived as a Darby and Joan type couple, barely separable, but in more recent years we have entered a place of shared and also separate lives. 

And so, with all my children away from home and my husband off for the day, I find myself in this rare place, a day on my own, a day of my own. 

A day when I can choose to do what I want to do without recourse to others. 

A day when I can sit at my desk free from recriminations for being such a homebody.  Free from the usual requirements that I shop for something we need – though I will have to go out at some stage later and think about dinner before the end of the day.

My husband made a spurtle on his lathe two days ago for one of our daughters who has long wanted a spurtle for cooking. 

He made it out of bits of the discarded front door of one of our other daughters, from red pine. 

He plans now to make three more spurtles for each of his daughters at my request. 

Once one sees the first spurtle, they will all want one, not for its inherent value or usefulness, but for the fact their father made it, and it's beautiful: a cross between a Harry Potter wand and a stirring stick. 

A spurtle deserves to be in everyone’s home.  A poke-your-eye-out spurtle, a change- the-world-with-your-magician’s-wand spurtle, a stirring stick for porridge or sticky jam spurtle or for any other foodstuff that needs stirring on the stove. 

My husband will use kauri pine for his next spurtle, he tells me, and then hoop pine for the next, and after that who knows?

He will find a type of wood suited to the purpose. 

He will weave his magic on his lathe and carve a rough piece of wood, a long rectanglar piece of wood, into a thing of beauty.

If only I could write like that.  Pare away the hard edges and wind up with a spurtle. 

And here’s a thought: not mine but Raine Maria Rilke’s, from Letters to a young poet.

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good  marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his [sic] solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The sorrows of goodbye

I drove my youngest daughter to the airport on Tuesday night.  She’ll be away for six months.  

It’s not quite the empty nest syndrome, but when I came home earlier in the afternoon after two days at the beach with my husband and grandsons, a terrible pall descended and I recognised the nagging sadness of farewell. 

My daughter will return and the six months of her time away will pass soon enough, but things will never be the same again. 

A trip like this is bound to be life changing, especially for my daughter, who is going to expand her mind, despite her ambivalence about leaving.  

On the trip in the car on the way home after we had watched her go through the opening into the departures zone, where people queue for ages to get through customs and to their eventual flight, I told my daughter’s boyfriend about the reasons for my desire to avoid travel except when necessary. 

For him, my daughter’s leaving is saddest of all, as they’ve not been long together.  She’s been planning this university semester overseas for more than a year, well before they recognised their connection. 

In any case, as we walked back to the car after our tearful farewells, I told my daughter’s boyfriend how it was when I was a child when relatives visited from Holland, or in the case of one of my uncles and his immediate family, from Indonesia. 

The joy at the airport, the pleasure of my extended family in Melbourne coming to greet relatives from overseas and my mother’s delight were all palpable. 

But at the other end, when it came to say goodbye, my mother’s grief swamped me as she waved to her father, on that last time she ever saw him after he had walked through those doors.  

My grandfather was already in his late seventies and soon after his return to Holland he developed blindness and later died at the age of eighty-six years.

 My mother was not able to be with either of her parents when they died.  And both died not long after respective trips to Australia.  The trips must have taken it out of them, those long journeys by sea and later by air.

I can still feel my mother’s pleasure against her grief the moment I go through those electronic doors at any airport.  

The crisp air-conditioned comfort inside, the reams of people lugging suitcases across the walkways up and down escalators, the people who mill around signboards to read the names of destinations, the flight numbers and airline logos splattered in neat lines that keep rolling over. 

There’s a sign to let you know that certain flights are closed and if one was your flight you’re too late to take it now. 

And one to tell you your loved one’s plane has landed and you rush down the escalator to the arrivals section underground where all arrivals disembark.  And wait and wait and wait until your loved one has cleared customs. 

People hang over the iron bar with you and wait for the doors to open to reveal their loved ones who are coming for the first time or returning from a trip.

There’s a buzz in arrivals with the occasional whoop of joy when some new longed for person goes through the double doors and looks to right and to left along the corridor that leads out in either direction. 

They look to find someone they know, someone who’s expecting them and when they lock eyes on that someone there’s the mutual grin of satisfaction, the squeals of joy, the brisk movements that signify they’re together at last.

All this joy at arrivals, but on the next floor above we see the sorrow of goodbyes where couples hug one another, families like ours give one last squeeze to a departing daughter who will be back soon enough, but the ghosts of past relatives who once went through the departure doors – my aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandparents – hover on the sidelines. 

These relatives could not return.  Their lives were lived elsewhere, but for a while during visits, their lives joined ours and we could be together in the flesh.  But in that first hello, as Gillian Bouras writes, we heard the echo of their goodbyes. 

We’ll skype and text and use Facebook I tell my daughter and she tells me the same, but it’s not the same. 

The virtual world is a poor substitute for the real one, where people like me who are not big on touching cannot reach out to touch, to stroke a cheek, to hold a hand, to pat a back.  The deprivation seems unbearable even as when we are together in person I might hold my distance. Now the actual distance divides more acutely than any skype screen can allow.

My grandsons are young.  They will wonder in a few days where their aunt is, but for now, although we have told them she’s gone away for a few months, they cannot know what her absence means. 

They will recognise it only in a slowly dawning sense of loss.