Saturday, March 07, 2015

A memoirist’s nightmare:

Eleven people living under the one roof is certain to attract mess.  Our place was no exception.  

The paint, most of which had turned a yellow brown through my father’s smoking peeled from the ceilings, while down below the skirting boards and architraves were pockmarked with gaps where the white undercoat showed through. 

Although he had built his first house in Australia, this one was a rental property and my father saw no need to bother with repairs.  Besides, he had no time.  Nine children and he worked full time in a city accountancy firm and by night tried to study for his advanced exams to become a chartered accountant at the same time as he fought off and oftentimes gave into his desire to drink away his sorrows. 

His sorrow piled high like the unwashed dinner dishes in the sink and he spent as much time ignoring them as we kids spent trying to escape our various sets of chores.

All except my oldest sister, who as the oldest girl, took on the role of substitute housekeeper willingly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me then, though these days my sister reports she resented all the tasks that fell to her. 

At the time she could see no way around it.  Plus, she hated the mess.  

The weekly washing needed to be done, washed in the ancient washing machine in the laundry, tugged through the roller and hung out to dry.  When dry, the washing also needed to be brought in sorted, folded and some of it ironed. 

Before she went out to to work in a paid job, my mother sometimes took the pile of washing into the lounge room, piled it onto a chair beside her, dragged the low lying coffee table in front of her own chair and covered it with blankets and a sheet to form a temporary ironing table. 

From there she sat behind the table and ironed my father’s shirts, school dresses, the boys shorts and other items that needed their creases ironed out.  As she ironed she watched the television and sipped from her cup of tea, the one that always sat beside her. 

Three times a day, my mother allowed herself a cigarette, for morning and afternoon tea and then after dinner, sometimes she smoked a cigarette as she ironed, lost in the fog of television and the rhythm of cigarette to mouth, cigarette to ashtray, hand to iron, iron spread out across the back or collar or sides of a shirt till it was as flat as a full yacht sail in a breeze and then upright with the iron as she rattled the shirt into its place on a hanger. 

My mother lined the ironed shirts alongside and hung them from the window ledge. Her face the picture of preoccupation and pain.  

My older sister was lucky then that the ironing did not always fall to her but once my mother took up her job as a child care worker at the Allambie reception centre for children who had been forced out of their homes through domestic violence, parental separation or whatever, my sister had to take up the ironing as well. 

I stood in line reluctantly.  Not for me the housework, the ironing, the cooking and the cleaning.  Not for me the smooth running of the household, I wanted to escape much like my mother had done before in her own girl hood when she loved nothing but to be upstairs away from all responsibilities with a book. 

My mother kept up this habit into adulthood. 

I did not spend my hours reading so much as I wanted to play or explore the streets outside, or camp out with my brothers in the back garden.  I did not want to spend my days locked in domesticity.

And then there came the days when my oldest brother who was soon to leave home decided the house needed an overhaul. 

I could not escape such times, none of us could.  

Somehow my oldest brother must have persuaded our parents to stay in the lounge room with their cups of tea and cigarettes – my brother only succeeded in this while our father was not drinking, and then issued instructions to the rest of us on how we might proceed to clean up the mess of the kitchen and surrounds.  

He gave the taller boys the task of washing down walls.  We little ones washed and dried dishes.  My sister, second in command, one below my second older brother who might well have been in the infectious diseases hospital at the time, put things away. 

My older brother instructed another sister on the art of sweeping the floor.  Another he directed towards the dustpan and brush and talked to yet another brother about how he might stomp down on the rubbish bin outside to make more room. 

In those days we did not have green plastic garage bags.  Rubbish went directly into a bin and the more compacted it became the more you could add on. 

The orders continued as each task was completed.  

My brothers were given the job of collecting hot soapy water in a bowl and then taking to the windows, one to wipe clean with soap and water, the other to clear away the streaks with a fresh old towel.  

And so we turned the squalid kitchen into a sparkling jewel, the one great pleasure my mother’s satisfaction when she came in after several hours and admired our handiwork. 

I was ten, maybe younger, surely younger, because this happened before my oldest brother – ten years older than me – left home as an eighteen year old, and so time plays tricks on me. 

The point of describing this mess and its transformation in such detail is both to talk about how much memory can play tricks on us.  The events we remember from childhood can be inaccurate, such as my age when all this happened and the sheer details of who did what.

There’s a brawl going on in my family of origin at the moment about the family archive on my mother’s side. 

This same oldest brother who managed to clear up so much of the mess.  No, that’s not true, he didn’t clear up the mess, he issued instructions for the rest of us to clear up the mess.  This same brother has decided that an archive should be more a repository for factual details of births, deaths and marriages, and for documents that contain ‘accurate’ details about how lives were lived, preferably in the long ago. 

This same brother is concerned that the archive not turn into the rubbish bin I described earlier.  With no plastic garbage bags to keep the rubbish in place, he fears the archive might become compacted with the detritus of people’s lives, people who are still alive.  

This same brother worries that some of us us might write things to include in the archive that might offend others; that maybe some have already offended others.

 So begins the memoirist’s nightmare: How do we write our stories without causing offence to others who do not want to be cast in a particular light?

Who holds the key to the archive?  Who decides on what gets included and what is left out? 

I reckon let it all be included but let people put their names to it and when factual details like dates and places of birth or death or names are wrong, correct them.  

At the same time, memories and observations and so-called opinions are those of the writer only and the writer cannot speak for others only for herself, however much she might represent others in her writing and they might then see themselves there through the lens of her words and they may not like it, but you cannot control how readers read and what writers write and if you try, something like what happens in the Lego movie will result.  

The evil Lord Business tries to glue every Lego piece into place so that his worldview prevails and can never be moved or made different. 

In other words, sterility sets in.  Instead of a living breathing archive filled with beauty and with mess, we have a static universe. 


Jim Murdoch said...

Carrie and I’ve just started watching a series called The Affair. We’ve only seen two episodes so far but the format has been established: first we get Noah’s version of what’s happened, then we get Alison’s; the same events but skewed depending on how they remember the events or how honest they’re being with their interviewer. I tend to forget about lying, lying-with-a capital-l, intentional misrepresentation. I like to think I don’t do that. But I do (oh so frequently) misremember things. Imagine if you lost your memory and had to rely on your family and friends to build up a composite of you to embrace as the real you. It’s quite disheartening how little attention people pay to us and what’s going on around us. What’s particularly depressing is what we find we can remember with startling clarity. Why did we—that part of us who makes these seemingly rash decisions—decide that a walk down a beach was important and yet we can’t clearly remember faces we saw hundreds upon hundreds of times? I detest the arbitrariness of it all.

I have one brother and one sister. I’m the oldest. My brother is three years younger than I am. My sister is three years younger than him. Then Mum went on the change but from all accounts they would’ve liked a fourth. I only have the one daughter and was quite happy with her. I said I didn’t mind what sex the baby was and I thought I didn’t but it wasn’t until my wife was giving birth, until they were hauling this bloody mess out of her—one memory I would happily relinquish—I realised I actually wanted a daughter and to hell with passing the family name on; my brother’s done that.

I don’t have many memories concerning housework. I know I avoided it—name me one kid who doesn’t—but I still have vague memories of washing dishes and windows, polishing shoes and furniture, vacuuming, dusting the house and weeding the garden. I don’t think any of us has set chores. We were assigned as needed. I don’t think I ever attempted ironing until I’d left home but I do know I did my fair share of housework from then on. As did my father despite the fact he was on many levels the most sexist man I’ve ever known. I know part of the reason was he regarded his wife as incompetent which she could be but only because she gave up under the pressure of what passed for my dad as encouragement.

I can be a hoarder but I’m a lousy archivist. I’m not very attached to the past and for the most part the inaccuracy of my memories doesn’t trouble me. Everything has its time. There’s more present than most of us can cope with without making room for pasts that are done with. That said, I’m more than the places I’ve been or the people I’ve had dealings with. If your bother insists on only recording factual details then he’s truly warping the past and what will his descendants make of the archive assuming they don’t just toss it in a skip when cleaning out his house following his death?

Anthony Duce said...

I see the nightmare this can so easily become. It’s interesting how much easier it is as adult siblings to hurt what was said when younger would be soon forgotten or ignored..

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I vote for the mess.

Unknown said...

It is the memoirist's nightmare because everyone remembers things differently. You're not the first I've heard this from—family members who fall out with each other; some who don't talk to each other; some who just don't read what their sibling has written.

It makes the truth so hard to reach, when there are people in denial, because that's what it is. But it's their own judgement of that person and their actions that they're really denying. I'm like you—I don't understand why the truth should be denied. It happened, and in 100 years' time, our descendants will appreciate that they have an accurate and living, breathing family history, not just sterile dates and boring blue skies.

Kass said...

Of course I'm projecting myself onto this remembrance and identifying with your oldest sister. I think if she truly did love cleaning up it might be because she was attempting to manifest some order that couldn't be found emotionally.

As 'the keeper of the flame' for my family's photos and mementos (because I was the only one who ended up in town), I feel compelled to organize everything and put the Mormon slant on happenings and impressions, but I would rather just do it for myself and be honest about how dysfunctional some of the tyranny of three daughter's upbringing was.