Sunday, May 03, 2015

Memory's thump

After she died, my mother left each of her children $8154.94 as their inheritance.  She had wanted to leave $10,000.00 each out of the proceeds of her rooms at the retirement village where she had spent her last decade, but the way these things go, costs and disbursements whittled some away. 

Throughout her life my mother was determined to give each of her children something of significance, and each must have an equal share. 

Ironically, what she leaves can never be equal

For some of us, $8000.00 plus is a significant sum, for others it’s a trifle.  For some it can go into unpaid debts, for others it becomes part of their inheritance to their own children, administered early.

They will give it away.

After my husband’s father died and left a small but more significant inheritance size-wise, he wanted to buy something of substance as a reminder of his father: a timeless piece of furniture that might stand up against time. 

I have not been able to think of anything to honour the memory of my mother other than through words on the page.

One of my brothers has been writing his ‘chronicles’ about his life, which he had wanted to include in the family archive, but has since withdrawn because some family members objected to certain of his statements. 

The response to his writing, which he initially spread far and wide among our extended family, was a bit like my mother’s inheritance.  Some responded loudly – it meant a great deal to them.  Others did not react at all, or at least not in company.

Last night, I read the second section of my brother’s chronicles in which he addresses some of the contentious areas where people have challenged his view of what really happened in our family and I wonder yet again about the nature of fact and of fiction. 

The ways in which one person’s story can seem so very different from that of a sibling, when both occupied the same space in childhood, when both shared the same parents. 

But in many ways, my brother’s parents were not my parents.  All nine of us have different parents, given that our parents – despite our mother’s best intentions to treat us all equally – behaved differently with each one of us. 

My father prized the boys above the girls; at least as far as academic achievement was concerned.  Girls were good for housework and sexual favours. 

My mother, on the other hand, preferred her sons.  Especially, the first and last-born, though the first might say that our mother preferred the second born son. 

These distinctions put differential pressures on each of us as girls and as boys. 

Years ago, Helen Garner wrote a story about her sisters for an anthology on sisters in which she gave her sisters names based on chronology, second sister, third sister etc.  I have a similar impulse in relation to writing about my brothers, given there are five of them, and each is unique. 

Here, too, I try to protect their identities in order to make a point about family experience, but this emphasis on family chronology can make for dull storytelling, so the critic in my head pulls me up and says ‘fictionsalise’.

Does it matter that my brother writes in blunt words, that my father penetrated my sister and raped her on a number of occasions, both for its factual nature and that the statement seems to take it further than my understanding of events. 

Did my father actually penetrate my sister? 

Does degree matter?  My father penetrated my sister’s mind.  He penetrated mine.  He penetrated all our minds but in different ways. 

See these words on the page.  See how they disturb, even as I put them down. 

See how much the reader wants to say,
‘No, dont write that’. 

Don’t say that.  Don’t speak of these events, they are too awful to consider.

Embellish them in a story.  Give the reader some space in which to imagine.  Don’t leave it too open-ended. 

My brother writes about his own memory of seeing my father go into my sister’s bedroom late at night.  Sometimes my father was naked.

This one hits me with a thump.

My brother as witness and given that he himself did not go into my sister’s bedroom, given he did not watch my father with my sister, but could only imagine it, he may have taken his memories to this extreme.

When we witness events, we take in certain aspects of that event and our memory and imagination then kicks in and rearranges the images over time. 

When I read about my brother’s memory it puzzles me.  Only in so far as I do not remember my father walking naked through the house until I was in my teens, by which time this brother had left home. 

But when this brother still lived at home, it is possible that he saw my father in ways I did not.

Does it matter, the truthfulness of all this, of who saw what, of who did what to whom? 

I suspect it does.  But when it comes to sexual abuse, the facts become murky, simply through the overload of sensations that accompany our understanding.

When I read about the three year old boy who went missingfrom his home on the mid-north coast of NSW several months ago and of how police later recruited the aid of Interpol to look out for a paedophile ring, I cannot get it out of my mind: the sight of this little boy in the grip of a group of paedophiles. 

In my imagination, they are a blurry group of dark clothed men standing in a ring around this small boy, preying on his body as if they are dogs fighting over a bone.

This is as much as my imagination can bear before I want to snap it shut.  Stop the images.  They are too unimaginable.

My mother was a person who could not bear to see what was going on around her, under her own roof. 

She could not contemplate what was happening to her daughters, most particularly her oldest, even though she tells the story of finding my father at my sister’s bedside and of telling him if she ever saw him doing this again she would kill him. 

She thought that was enough to stop him.

It was not enough.

My father continued to visit my sister in the night and my mother continued not to see, until it was too late. 

Even now in my family, and in the community at large, it is hard to want to see these things. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write about them.  I pick at them like an old sore, and there are some who say, stop it, get over it.  It’s done now.  Get on with your life. 

There are some who might put our mother’s inheritance into the bank – just a few extra dollars and nothing of any substance – and there are others who might like to make the most of our mother’s inheritance, some who might want to use some of the talent she passed onto her children, both for observation and her ability to write, but also to fight against this tendency of hers to turn a blind eye.  


PhilipH said...

How to describe this posting:

1. Honest
2. Thoughtful
3. Powerful
4. Heart rending

When we 'turn a blind eye' we do so for various reasons, such as cowardice, selfishness, sympathy, agreement, nudge-nudge wink wink and possibly others.

Your father - a despicable excuse for a man imo.

Anonymous said...

Elisabeth, what does your sister say of the events that happened to her?
Karen C

Anthony Duce said...

Good memories are remembered. Bad memories are forgotten or justified..
A number of years back I wrote something I called “My Moments With Mom and Dad”, as a holiday present to each of my parents. It was made up of short stories of events I shared with them as I remembered them and how they affected me.. It was honest and truthful, and mostly positive as my parents, now in their nineties, have lived good though very safe and cautious lives. I was surprised how many of the moments they decided never happened, or had completely different outcomes.

Kass said...

"My father penetrated my sister’s mind. He penetrated mine."

We observe, construe, maybe misconstrue, but we express and squeeze until what comes out is our truth. How this is received is the responsibility of individual readers.

I, for one, am grateful for your candor.

Jim Murdoch said...

My family was made up entirely of black sheep. As it turns out I was the favourite. They’d waited twenty-one years for me. No matter what I did to disappoint them there was no way I could change that. I’m not sure who I thought was the favourite. I was convinced it wasn’t me and as it wasn’t a position I coveted it didn’t really matter if it was my brother or sister but if I’d been a betting man—well, boy—I’d have put everything on my sister. My brother was openly rebellious early on—desperate for attention I can now see—and I was just… different, so different from my parents (how could these two have had me?) which left my sister who was cute and a girl and who didn’t like girls more than boys? As adults, in one of the last conversations we would ever have, we all revealed that we thought we were the black sheep. So, three black sheep.

We never talk now. Not in some fourteen years. So I have no idea what they now remember of our overlapping pasts. The past as Venn diagram. I’m not the boy—now, man—I was then. I’m off in a bubble all on my own floating further and further off. It’s a nice bubble, “a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without”; I’m quoting Beckett. It satisfies all my present needs.

As the eldest it was my job to divvy up the cash after Mum died. There was really only the value of the house and I accepted the first offer. Maybe if I’d held out we might’ve made another two or three or five thousand pounds but I wanted to be done with it. Neither my brother nor my sister quibbled about the sums they were sent. My brother used his to furnish a new house—I only know this because he called me once on business—but I’ve no idea how my sister spent her inheritance. Maybe she paid off her mortgage. We’re none of us spendthrifts. I like to think that my share is still in the bank but in reality it was spent and replaced years ago. It’s not the same money. And that’s how I feel about my memories of the things that happened to us growing up. Something is still there in the space where my original recollections were. A pain-sized hole. But it’s not the same pain.

Unknown said...

Oh, Elizabeth! You must write and keep writing about this, and so must your brother. Too bad if there are people who don't want to know—they need to grow up and learn to cope with the truth. There has been too much silence and cover up of child abuse in all of its forms.
What your brother witnessed is not his fault—it's the perpetrator's and, to a slightly lesser extent, those who turned a blind eye. Your brother and the rest of you have the right to tell your stories. Bugger your father's memory, the truth needs to be told about what he did. Wanting those who suffered to stay silent or labelling them liars is abuse all over again.
You are two courageous people in having the guts to speak openly about it. I don't doubt either of your memories.
I can't help wondering about your sister in all of this and how she has fared through it all.

Christine said...

Yes, you need to get this story out there. In the present environment where the sexual abuse of children, and domestic violence is being discussed, I would like to think, and hope, that your long years of thinking and writing about this very thing, will have a receptive readership.