“But we always took her on family holidays !” became the familiar retort espoused by my mother in an attempt to defend her ‘excellent parenting skills’ around the time I finally sought help to leave home. She’d tell anyone who cared to listen… the family doctor, priest, police, social worker, judge…man on the street. She even tried the defense on ME as she barricaded me from exiting the front door on my eventual day of exit from the madness. It was an attempt to paint me as a spoilt, ungrateful teenager; which in hindsight was of course as transparent and feeble as the ice queen was herself.
I had neither the opportunity nor resolve during that period to illuminate those whose opinions may have mattered regarding the truth of what a ‘happy family holiday’ realistically entailed; yet the physical reaction her comment evoked within me was palpable. The inner turmoil in response to her audacity broiled inside each time I heard the defense repeated. My breathing accelerated and the veins in my neck and arms were hit up with intense shot of adrenaline. Yet at that time, even as a sixteen year old I still did not have ownership of the release of expression from my lips. Subsequently they remained in their locked pose, except on the handful of occasions when I simply knew my future depended it. Somehow then, I found the words.
“You’ve ruined my make up !”, she screamed, the accusation sweeping through the two bedroom cottage like the scream of cyclonic wind signalling an encroaching storm. “What have you done? You’ve ruined all my make up”.
I was eight or nine years of age. My parents had agreed that I could invite a friend from school on our trip to the Grampians, a rugged mountain range in the Victorian countryside. I looked at the figure of my friend Siobhan who sat on the opposite bed in the small room we had just begun to settle into after finally arriving following the long car drive. Her small frame shrunk back into the shield of the curtains, surrounded in the late afternoon light that filtered through the ominous mountain ranges surrounding us. The eerie fall of dusk across the vast national park had already set the tone for the first night of our stay. I had tried to shrug it off as my regular “doom and gloom” outlook that must have snuck into my suitcase as I packed that morning. Perhaps it too wanted to have a holiday from the oppression that typically created it, unaware it was hitching a ride with the perpetrator.
Coming to my senses, I quickly leapt up from the bed and stepped into the hallway, urging my school friend to stay put. Poor Siobhan sat frozen with a stunned expression, utterly flawed at my mother’s sudden outburst. I had no idea what I was walking into, but experience told me it was best to try and shield my friend from at least some of the commotion and just get it over and done with.
As I closed the bedroom door behind me, a hand clasped my shoulder and I was spun into the front room of the cottage where my mother had started to unpack her things. I blinked and tried to gather my bearings, unfamiliar with the wooden paneled interior of the holiday cottage.
“You touched my make up and now look at it. It’s ruined. RUINED”, she screamed hysterically, both hands now upon my shoulders.
My body rocked back and forth to the rhythm of her ranting but my consciousness sat squarely within my head which was spinning metaphorically as I struggled to make sense of her accusations. Whilst I concentrated on anchoring my feet to the floor, as the room swirled around me, I retraced my steps from the moment we had arrived at the cottage. We had all brought various pieces of luggage in from the car, my mother, father, Siobhan and I. Did I pick up the make-up case ? I couldn’t recall. Could it have been tousled about in the boot of the car enabling the contents to end up in the strewn about fashion they now resembled ? Possibly… but dare I suggest it ? I was exhibiting text book behaviour of a victim of abuse at eight years of age by questioning my own actions and sense of responsibility for my mother’s distress.
“But I didn’t touch your make-up!” I cried…then instantly regretted it.
“Don’t lie to me ! You lying, dishonest child” she shrieked as the sting of a open palm reverberated across my face.
I spent the next hour ‘cleaning up the mess I had made’, painstakingly attempting to filter bits of powder back into little bottles whilst Siobhan sat bewildered and most likely quite frightened, in the bedroom. What would I want with your make-up ? I thought to myself angrily as I worked, As if I’d want to paint myself to look like you !
I wonder why my father does not feature in these memories at all. I believe at some stage he emerged from the shadows, by which time the scene had played out and the damage done.
Needless to say, Siobhan was not the only friend to regret agreeing to accompany me on a ‘happy family holiday’. There was more such fun to be had…
(To be continued…)
A couple of days ago I was contacted by Roger from Indood.com with a request to publish one of my childhood stories Take me too !
Take a look, you’ll also find a carefully chosen selection of prose, short stories and poetry.
My finger-tips came to rest upon the golden door handle supported by a steady hand, delicately placed with all the resolve of a surgeon preparing for the first incision. It was quite a feat actually considering the rest of my body was shaking and I could no longer feel the carpeted floor beneath me. Continued…
My finger-tips came to rest upon the golden door handle supported by a steady hand, delicately placed with all the resolve of a surgeon preparing for the first incision. It was quite a feat actually considering the rest of my body was shaking and I could no longer feel the carpeted floor beneath me. I was aware the slightest movement of the handle would create a squeak and I had not made my mind up yet if I wanted to make my presence known to those on the other side of the door. The internal struggle was creating havoc in every aspect of my being. My lips quivered, sweat ran from my pores and the beating of my heart could not catch up with the pace of my breathing. Thoughts swirled around my head as if my mind was set to a rapid spin cycle. Should I or shouldn’t I? The temptation pulled with magnetic force but the risks involved were also quite prominent in my mind. This could mean an escape…a way out, the voice of hope persisted in my head, Given what’s happening they may not need to much convincing. Yes, but would they really take me seriously?
I can’t entirely recall the events that had lead to my predicament that afternoon as most of the visual memories present as images of the interior of my bedroom. Possibly I had the music turned up in my room to drown out the sounds of physical scuffles and hysterical voices on the other side of the walls. Plus, there were many scenarios in my family experience that were similar to the one playing out before me. This time it related to the youngest of my four brothers Aaron, and the constant struggle he found himself engaged in as he grappled with his intensifying anger towards our parents and his growing acknowledgment of their contribution to the miserable persona that engulfed him.
It is interesting how each child’s personality and specific traits impact upon their experience of survival from an emotionally destructive childhood. Personality impacts upon one’s level of resilience that in turn, affects the inevitable choice to either confront or deny the behaviour. My brother was at last attempting in his own way to confront our parents for the years of soul-destroying torment he had endured at their hands. Tortured by a stutter that manifested as a consequence of the anxiety experienced due to living within an explosive and unpredictable home, ridiculed for his sensitivities and set up to be ostracised by his older brothers, he had a fractured sense of identity that left a gaping hole in his core. I don’t think at that stage he was able to identify the link between the years of their belittling of him and his current state of social isolation and unhappiness, but the anger had risen to the surface and was directed fairly and squarely in their direction. I was glad of it. I was hopeful that in lashing out at them and at the world, he might be steered in the direction of help…outside help that was bigger and braver than anything I at thirteen years of age, could offer.
It seemed that he had already sought that help. And this afternoon’s experience taught me that therapists can sometimes offer rather strange advice. Apparently my poor brother had sought the guidance of a highly respected psychologist who suggested he “have a couple of stiff drinks” before approaching my parents to challenge their behaviour towards him. It may have seemed reasonable to the therapist to offer this type of advice to a twenty year old male but the risk of him taking the recommendation just one step further was indisputable and, I suspect it may have resulted in consumption of more than a “couple” of drinks. During the confrontation that ensued in the living room that afternoon, my parents who were unaccustomed to their authority being challenged, would have looked intently for any signs of influence to my brother’s newly ignited courage and located it on his breath. Unfortunately, this was perfect fodder for their catch-cry claim as innocent victims at the hands of the bullying of their children. And so they dialled 000 and requested the police attend the home as soon as possible.
“Our son has turned on us, he is going crazy and I fear he will attack my husband”, I hear my mother say down the phone in feigned tones of fear and distress.
The presence of three marked police cars in one’s street is not a welcoming look in a quiet middle class neighbourhood. No wonder none of the housewives who regularly witnessed such commotion at number 24 through their lace curtains, ever came knocking at the door with offerings of home baked muffins. As a child my world-view was one based on fear. Every occurrence, every outsider, every belief system or custom that differed from my own, was ingrained within me as having corruptive influences. It took a while for me to understand for those on the outside looking in to my world, the view would have been as scary as hell itself. For almost all, it was in fact too scary, to really want to get involved. I soon learnt there was no hope of rescue by an outsider.
With my ear pressed up to the gap between the bedroom door and the wall, I heard a police officer guide Aaron from the front of the house away from the commotion and down towards the end of the hall way, just outside the door to my room.
“Ok, have you had a couple of drinks mate?” inquired the friendly sounding female constable.
“Well maybe…” responded my brother breathlessly as he tried to elaborate on his distress.
“I can see nothing is going to be resolved here”, the policewoman interjected.
“How about I walk you outside and you head off then?” she offered.
Take me, oh take me too!, a voice inside me screamed silently as my body stood frozen behind the door while my energy pulled violently towards the hallway.
The police had no idea I was there bearing witness from behind the scenes to all that was going on that afternoon. When I had glimpsed their vehicles arrive from behind the heavy curtains that framed the front living room windows, my parents had ordered me to my room. I was happy to comply.
Maybe I won’t need to come out voluntarily. Maybe they’ll come looking for me? Surely they’d want to know if there were any other children in the house?
I stood immobilised as I listened to their footsteps walk back up the hall in the direction of the front door.
EMW9WJYNBAKN The moment I alighted the family station wagon that sunny morning of the 6th of October 1982, I had no choice but to succumb to the senses of hearing and touch in order to access clues to my environment. I allowed my feet to take my body in the direction I was being lead and became conscious of the stony gravel crunching under the soles of my sandals. Some even managed to slip through the gaps in the leather between my toes where dusty sand began to gather. A warm sea breeze played cheekily with my hair, which flipped about in a pony tail tied loosely at the back of my neck. Excited tones of children’s voices lapped at my ears and my heart rose in my chest with the anticipation of all that was to come.
My inner voice was particularly audible in this moment, perhaps due to the loss of one particular all-consuming sense that otherwise took centre stage. The presence of the blindfold, a thick woolen scarf that was successfully meeting its obligation of blackening out the scenery before me, suddenly gave permission to that inner voice to leap forth in my consciousness.
“Just be prepared, alright…that’s all I’m saying”.
I swallowed hard. I knew it. I knew this was too good to be true. There was always a catch….always a let down. Where there was enjoyment, the claws of disappointment lay waiting for it’s prey. Me. My stomach was in knots by now. The ride was over. Metaphorical kicks landed in my gut…pound, pound, pound.
“Why did you allow yourself to feel it?”, the inner critic scowled at me like I was a silly child.
Well…I was a child…a child excited at the prospect of a surprise birthday party organized by her parents.
“Gee, sorry for wanting some well-intentioned excitement to materialize in my life!”, I retorted despondently.
After all, I hadn’t been completely naive. Nagging thoughts had plagued me that something was not right with this scenario unfolding before me, ever since it was first suggested by my mother a couple of weeks earlier. I had simply shoved them to the back corner of my mind and dumped a few piles of hopefulness on top to keep their muffled screams stifled for a while. A kid’s allowed to have some fun surely!
Even whilst I meticulously addressed each hand written invitation to the eight or so children I had mustered up the courage to invite to my seventh birthday party, I had watched my hand become uncharacteristically shaky as it swapped between rainbow colored scented pens. Reality was never really far from the surface despite my longing to slip into a world of Brady Bunch like contentment. I could not help but ask myself the questions.
Why was she doing this, I pondered with bewilderment and awe. Why would my mother be acting with such sickly sweet generosity ? I gave up long ago on any attempts to decipher her motivation behind such uncharacteristic behaviour. This time she had suggested that she would arrange a birthday party at a surprise location and that I may invite eight of my friends. The laughter filled hub of activity that now surrounded me was materializing as the unidentifiable location, and I was terrified. It felt as if one more step forward on my behalf would be all that was needed to smash though the trip wire that I knew was an inevitable obstacle in my path.
It was time. I felt hands maneuvering behind my head as the tightly bound scarf was given reprieve from its task. I chimed in on the tail end of its’ own sigh of relief, however once my eyes focused on the scene before me, my breath escalated to a high-pitched gasp. I covered my mouth with my hands in shock as my eyes darted over to my mother in disbelief and then back again to make sense of what lay before me. All the other seven-year-old children who were gathered around squealed in delight and giggled in response to my reaction. I could not share their enthusiasm.
Before me stood the tallest, most ominous looking slippery slide I had ever seen. Standing at the base it towered above me, its’ rainbow coloured paint-work shining rapturously in the bright morning sun. But I knew, just like the colourful costume that clowns wear, this was simply a façade that served as an entrapment to an unsuspecting child as they raced up the stairs clutching their heshen sack. I however, saw straight through to the harsh metal base, the perfect conductor for the brutal Australian heat. It glared down at me, causing a chill to run down my legs that were now wobbling beneath me like jelly.
My eyes darted back to my mother and I stared at her intently in disbelief. Then I promptly burst into tears. They knew I was terrified of slides. She knew I was terrified of slides. All slides…any slides…anything to do with slides. Even the local park variety of slide installed within me the greatest terror. I’m not sure how the fear originated but I do recall even as young as four years of age, crying and attempting to resist the coaxing of my older brothers to join them on a water slide at a water park we were visiting during a family holiday. At the time, the thought of the combination of height, speed and rushing water was just too much to contemplate, and in hindsight, understandably so. However, my participation appeared to be a mandatory clause I had somehow overlooked when signing on for this family, and so my father forcibly sat me on his lap and down I went. Once was enough. Apparently this was all that was needed to ingrain the terror in me a little deeper.
And here I found myself once more, with the same urge to run and nowhere to go. Backing out was not an option, despite the copious tears that drenched my party dress. I looked up at my parents in disbelief. Why would they plan this knowing full well of my fear? How could this plan ever be envisaged as the perfect celebration to brighten my birthday and fill me with joy and delight? Oh, that’s right…ofcourse…This was the catch. Again I stared intently into my mother’s eyes and recognized the signs of satisfaction…almost glee, that she seemed to obtain from orchestrating another’s heart-ache. Forgive me if I am sounding melodramatic, but this terror was real and demonstrated previously on countless occasions that made it impossible for anyone who knew me closely, particularly my parents…to deny. And here I stood in a dusty suburban theme park, having been lead specifically to the Magic Mountain of Slides. To me, this was no “Fun Park”.
And then I also had to contend with being confronted by the shame and embarrassment I felt in this moment as my peers and their parents stared at me in confusion. This was a scenario that would haunt me in similar social situations throughout my childhood as I found myself caught in the predicament of rationalizing my responses as my parents stood perfectly composed, presenting their well-rehearsed middle-class niceties, seemingly bewildered by my behaviour. Unable to explain my distress through muffled sobs, I was left looking like a spoilt little brat who was not pleased with her birthday surprise. As my mother tightened the grip on my arm whilst still smiling through her red lipstick, she lowered her mouth to my ear and in inaudible tones to the rest of the gathering, she ordered me to join the other children on the climb to the top of the stairs.
I have never quite understood what was at the core of my mother’s hateful behaviour. As a child my worldview was solely and heavily influenced by the “God versus the Devil” formula for conceptualizing my circumstances. I therefore came to the conclusion at quite a young age that my mother was simply corrupted by some sort of evil force. I recall hearing from my older sister that our grandmother, our mother’s mother, had told her that even as a young child, my mother’s manipulative personality wreaked havoc in the family. My grandmother had said that her sister called her one day to advise her that my mother was no longer welcome at her house, so could she please not bring her when she came to visit. Apparently, my mother’s aunty claimed that she was tired of my mother pitting one cousin against the other which always resulted in dramas and tears. It made perfect sense when I heard this tale and almost brought a sense of relief that her problems were evident long before motherhood took place. Maybe to the child me, it confirmed what I really felt deep down, that I was not to blame and that I was not just simply being overly sensitive to a mother with an exceptionally domineering personality.
What a terrifying thought to a young child, for whom the threat of the fires of hell loomed consistently in the face of ‘bad behaviour’? The thought of one’s own mother being possessed by an evil, un-godly force made me more and more repulsed by her demeanor and presence. It was the callousness of her behaviour that stung most painfully, particularly when I saw it aimed at her own children. On reflection, despite not having any first hand experience of it in my immediate world, I clearly held a definite view of the devotion and loyalty that should naturally be evoked by a mother’s love for her children. When I recall scenarios from my childhood that stir the greatest emotion within me, they are often related to a sense of betrayal by both my parents due to their lack of empathy and compassion for their own flesh and blood. Yet, even amidst the turmoil that typically engulfed me as my older brothers either chose to harass or deny me, I recognized their struggle to manage their own emotional neglect and suffering. And I still ached for their loss.
As each brother matured and began to date, on the odd occasion they brought their girlfriend to the house I would silently jump for joy inside at the thought that perhaps they had found their escape. This sensation was particularly striking when the second eldest of my four brothers suddenly announced his engagement to a girl he had been dating for what seemed like a relatively short while. The wedding was planned for only a couple of months time. Seated on the brown fabric couch in the living room, I watched them holding hands as they informed our parents. She was slightly older than my brother who was in his mid twenties. He was the class clown, a jovial ruffian, and she appeared almost quite motherly and professional. They asked me to be a bridesmaid. I was ecstatic! Secretly, this brother was my ‘favourite’ of the four, so to be designated a special role in the wedding party was particularly meaningful. Visions of a fabulous dress, a pretty floral tiara in my hair and taking my place as my brother’s sister on the altar quickly took a hold and I was instantly swept away with the excitement of it all. That lasted all of about five seconds.
Suddenly I found myself whisked away into the kitchen and with a sense of déjà-vu, found myself cornered under the picture of the Pope that hung against the green paisley wallpaper.
“You don’t want to participate in this wedding do you?” my mother sniggered at me. It appeared to be more of a statement than a question.
“She’s pregnant. They have committed the greatest sin against God. This union will not be blessed. What were they thinking sharing the one small tent?”
Oh, that’s right. There was that one small additional piece of the puzzle the pair had just added to the picture. Apparently they had gone camping for a weekend together a couple of weeks previously. My new future sister-in-law came back pregnant. ‘How exciting!’ I had thought, ‘I’m going to be an aunty’.
“You are to go out there and tell your brother you do not want to be a bridesmaid because they have committed this sin”, my mother instructed me. There was no room to protest between her nose that loomed down at me and the finger that wagged between my eyes.
By now my brother and his fiancé were in the front garden. With a heavy heart I found my way up the hallway and met him on the front porch. I delivered the message between desperate gasps for air, as streams of water ran down my cheeks and formed pools around my feet. What other choice did I have? This was the reality of how things worked in my family.
The drama continued to unfold the following night when my older sister came to visit and I happened upon a discussion that was occurring between her and our mother in the laundry. “It’s probably not even your brother’s baby”, I heard my mother say, “She has only recently broken up with her previous boyfriend. I am certain it’s his”. The disdain in her voice repulsed me. I kept walking past, lowering my eyes and head to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. I heard incredulous tones of disapprovement come from my sister in response to these hateful accusations as I closed the door to the hallway behind me.
After the dust had settled, the wedding proceeded despite my mother’s protestations. Yet the smoke from the fire of my mother’s spitefulness would soon be whipped up again by her lust for drama, and the damage that was inflicted upon all involved remains to this day. Yet a strange period of calm did emerge for a while following the wedding. During this time my new sister-in-law appeared to befriend my sister and with her insights as a psychiatric nurse, lent support to the theory that my mother was a force that needed to be managed before more of her children were impaled by her malevolence. As I had predicted, this alliance would not succeed in avoiding my mother’s radar. I soon discovered that she had concocted a clever tale to douse upon the smoldering embers that she clearly feared if ignited, could potentially overthrow her. With all the sincerity of a devout god-fearing woman, my mother informed my sister-in-law that my sister had been spreading a rumour that my brother was not the father of their child.
That’s where the relationship between the two women, and that of my sister and brother ended. The smirk on my mother’s face was enough to induce a desire within me to vomit all over her “holier than thou” Sunday church shoes.
Sitting next to Georgie on the orange painted timber bench, I squinted through the door way of the shelter shed into the piercingly bright summer sun. It lit up the asphalt of the school yard beyond, then hitting the tar like a yo-yo, bounced off again transforming into a thick steamy haze. I watched the pairs of black school shoes trimmed by white ankle length socks scuttling back and forth outside the door. In the shadows of the steamy haze, they soon morphed to a blur of black and white carried along by skinny limbs; and suddenly I found myself a spectator to a herd of zebras passing by. I chuckled inside at my cleverness as I eased my back into the gray concrete wall, allowing the cold hard surface to permeate through my cotton school dress. I was in no particular hurry to get outside and play, so the school rule that lunch must be eaten in the undercover area before going out into the scorching heat, was one I could be grateful for.
Peering into my plastic lunch box I poked dismissively at the cling-wrap that had already unfurled itself in disgust from two pieces of white bread slapped around bits of soggy lettuce and tomato. To merely look at the slathering of butter that oozed forth from the sandwich and slid insidiously onto the plastic, made me feel nauseous. I glanced into Georgie’s lunch box on the bench beside me and settled on a neat looking jam sandwich, lovingly cut into four equal triangles. I snatched it and ran. Before she even knew what was happening I’d stuffed it into my mouth until I was almost gagging. Jam never tasted so good. The thrill was infectious and I continued this pattern at lunch times sporadically throughout coming weeks until one day Georgie’s mother confronted me in the playground after school. Needless to say I was so mortified that I never did it again.
Over the years the recollection of this behaviour has confused and embarrassed me to the extent that it is not a memory I whip out to display on the mantle at Christmas. Some say ‘time heals all wounds’. It takes more than time to heal a broken spirit. The journey of healing and understanding is long and arduous, but mine has now enabled me to take that school girl by the hand, sit her down under the sparking lights of the pine tree and tell her it is ok and there is nothing to be forgiven for or embarrassed about. Caressing her with loving words that tickle like a string of tinsel placed around her neck, I am thrilled to see a giggle arise from within her at the silly side of it all. I am proud that my understanding can release her of the guilt and enable her understanding that it wasn’t the sandwich she really desired…she would have been content with the crumbs. Oh to have had a taste of just one or two of those emotional crumbs of warm and loving regard from a mother to her daughter, that spilled from Georgie’s lunch box ! Yet despite gobbling up a whole jam sandwich in seconds, there she sat on those hot summer days still feeling the emptiness inside, deprived of the love and affection that carefully prepared jam sandwich so intrinsically represented.
For such a brief episode from childhood to sink so deeply into my sense of self that it required a considerable process of peeling back the layers to absolve, simply highlights the divisive impact of emotional trauma on a child’s sense of self-worth. With all the might of an insidious tumour, the patterns of emotional neglect eat away at the cells of thoughts and feelings that make up the very core of the child’s wholeness. It leads to disintegration of the self involving intense terror and trauma that is often only subconsciously realised. In adulthood it is often replaced by confusion and utter desperation that requires a deep well of loving understanding to slowly be re-built into the centre of self. I emphasise that it needs to be re-built as this well of pure love and acceptance is gifted to us all on our entry to this life, but sadly for many it is cruelly raided by those who lack the fortitude to find more loving ways to replenish their own.
“Good night Baby Bear”.
“Night Papa Bear”, I respond as the closing door takes with it the last sprays of golden light that radiate from the hall-way beyond.
As a pre-schooler of three or four years of age, this was the comforting exchange that would end my day. On this note, I would be happy to snuggle into the added comfort and warmth of my soft toy as I drifted into slumber. It was as it should be…a father comforting his child as she relaxes into the knowing that all is safe and secure in her world, with him there to protect her. This was of course, how things were before I had learned to shut my door, turn the music up and suck in my breath.
For a very short period in those early years I looked to my father as a soft, rounded, reliable figure. I recall being perched on his shoulders at a circus, his thick hands gripping my ankles reassuringly as I strain my neck to peer above the crowd. I am Safe… in the knowing he will not let me fall. I feel the pride swell in my four-year old chest as I follow him faithfully up and down the white chalk lined boundary of a soccer field, whilst he yells directions to the boys chasing the round ball within. I am Secure… in the knowing he will not lose me in the crowd. It was as it should be. This was of course, before I learned to hunch my shoulders and shrug out which ever response was expected as he carried out my mother’s business.
Numbness connects these memories of my father. A blank white wall confronts me. I stare and stare but can’t seem to find the detail. I cannot distinguish the surface from plaster, timber or brick…I have no idea if its’ finish is gloss or matt. Impressions of my father have simply become a white-wash of nothingness. Over the years, each experience of betrayal I encountered caused the illusion of my father as an ally to dissipate into a languorous puff of indifference; his role as my mother’s accomplice in the game of manipulation gradually exposed.
On so many many occasions when I needed a voice of strength and authority to stand up for what was right and fair and normal, his silence ricocheted from ear to ear, echoing in my head with voluminous discord. At other times his outbursts of rage literally shook the floor boards beneath me, and saw me scream “Stop it…Just Stop It !”, only to be ordered to my bedroom by my mother. The fear and confusion incited by my view of the limbs of a father and his sons entangled in a violent scuffle on the rumpus room floor, soon transformed to disgust and eventually contempt. As the dynamics between my four brothers disnintegrated, cruelly orchestrated by my mother, I came to despise his placid allowance of her manipulating behaviour that had turned the males in my household into virtual putty.
Interestingly, acceptance of my father’s role as silent conspirator settled easily within me as a young child. I did not struggle against it. Generally, I did not question it, though at times I did ponder how he could adjust to the world beyond our front door …the real world…as an employee and colleague in a high profile company. That he did exit the house every morning to maintain a seemingly well functioning professional persona, made his betrayal of his children even more unforgivable. Yet his incongruous existence did not consume me. I simply grew to see him as a pathetic figure who had succumbed to a life riddled with false premises espoused by an emotionally corrupt woman, that even an eight year old could detect.
When I was around the age of ten or eleven, I witnessed a scenario that cemented my understanding of him as a conscious conspirator in the madness that was our family life. I recall a commotion one evening that lead me to quietly inch open my bedroom door, just enough to provide a view to the top of the hallway. I saw my father standing with his hand on the door knob, a brown leather suitcase at his feet. “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving”, I heard him say. Good I thought Go Go…She deserves it. My mother was on the floor, hysterically grabbing at his legs. Maybe if he leaves, the bars of control that trap us in this existence will melt away freeing us from the poisonous happenings within. Yet I see him pick up the suitcase and retreat back into the front room. Weak I thought, shaking my head in disgust. Yes that’s him…Weak.
The following series of images was created by Jorge Lizalde for his project Mnemonic, based upon a post I had submitted a few months ago titled Care Bears in the Clouds. The project aims to recreate participant’s earliest childhood memory by collating shared videos and images from the web, to recreate the memory landscape.
Care Bears in the Clouds
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being whisked up into the arms of an older brother and taken outside into the backyard of the family home. Here we would sit atop the timber picnic style outdoor table and chat about anything. It didn’t matter what the topic was. Maybe my brother would point to some birds flying overhead, or we would laugh at the antics of the pet dog. Often we would look for Care Bears in the clouds. Though the topic wasn’t important, the ritual was. It served as a distraction you see… and I think even as a four or five year old I knew it, but it was easier just to pretend. For somewhere inside the house, usually in the kitchen or front living room, my mother would be on the floor hysterical and unwilling or unable to pick herself up. My father and maybe another brother or two would take an arm or shoulder each, in an attempt to lift her up and escort her to her bedroom.
Somehow, someone must have been delegated the responsibility of removing me from the scene. Considering I was seven to ten years younger than all my four brothers, I imagine they were well accustomed to the drama but had wanted to shield me from it.
My memories of these instances present in quick, sharp snapshots, like the clicking frames of a camera and usually at angles that just allow for a glimpse around the corner of the dining room wall or behind a kitchen bench, as I looked back over the shoulder of whoever was carrying me towards the back door. It was confusing and scary, but easier not to ask questions and seek out those Care Bears in the clouds instead.
The mirror at the end of the hallway is old and disused. Smudges of finger marks and sprinklings of dust sit comfortably in the crevices of the gold leafed frame, almost smirking with a self-assured confidence that they will not be disturbed.
I’m tall enough now to see my whole head and shoulders in the reflection, although it’s dark here at the end of the hall way. The tacky timber panelling along the wall shrouds the mirror like an ominous shadow. It appears as if to swallow the creamy carpet up below and branch up through the ceiling above. I reach for the light switch near the door that leads to the kitchen and glimpse over my shoulder to check the sliding door to the living area is closed. The familiar tones of a news program slip through the gap under the door to escape down the hallway towards me. Click. A golden hue illuminates the space.
I am eleven.. twelve… thirteen. The face before me is ever changing. Loosening the hair tie, my long auburn hair falls with relief around my shoulders. Tucking strands behind my left ear, I think of the girls at school who always look so radiant and bouncy. I wanted to look relaxed like them but as much as I tried, I couldn’t. I always felt tight inside, my insides bound by a knot that wound together the nerves connecting my chest and stomach. I suffered from constant attacks of hiccups and was forever attempting to drink a glass full of water with my head tipped upside down. It was a major feat this magical hiccup cure, which usually eventuated with half the water gushing up one nostril and the rest of it running down my shirt. Or sometimes, the tension within me would creep even into my lungs and I would actually forget to take a breath and have to gasp for air. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even notice the short, sharp breaths until someone sitting next to me at school would comment, “Are you alright? You’re breathing funny. “
Leaning slightly closer to the mirror, I acknowledge that my skin is quite nice …bright and golden. I run my finger down the bridge of my nose, landing on the silky smooth tip. There are no signs of the bumpy oiliness that oozes forth inconsiderately from many pre-teen pores. My friend’s mother used to say it was because I drank plenty of water. Her words made me feel good. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but her acknowledgment felt so comforting. My cheeks filled with a warm glow and my lips opened to expose a grin that beamed so bright, my friend squinted back at me, shrugged and left the room. She didn’t understand. Couldn’t. I wanted one like that…a mother who would notice my clear skin and commend me for drinking lots of water. I wasn’t asking for much? Was I? Some people seemed to manage to get one like this. What did I do to be given such a raw deal?, I used to think.
Combing my fringe to the side with my fingers, I wondered if I was morphing into the kind of girl that a boy would look twice at. I stared into her hazel eyes seeking to lose myself, if only momentarily into a place over the rainbow. Here a Johnny Depp look-a-like would ride in on his motorbike, offer me his leather jacket for protection and burn off into distance as I draped my body around his in complete and utter surrender. I tell myself to quit being ridiculous. No-one will want to look at me that way. By the time I was sixteen, my visions had darkened somewhat to paint escapism scenarios of a different kind. I imagined stepping out into the path of a moving car or wading into the ocean until it covered my head.
With a sigh I reach to towards the light switch but it is too late. My mother steps through the kitchen door. In one swift movement I scoop up my hair pulling it tightly back into a pony tail. She seemed to have an uncanny ability to always know where I was and what I was doing.
“What are you looking in the mirror for ?, she sniggers, “Think you’re some kind of model do you?”
“No”, I mumble and retreat back into my bedroom, shutting the door behind me.
He sits at the foot of my bed. I am thirteen years old, he is twenty. Tucked up under my covers I watch him fidget, shakily speaking in whispers as he sits precariously on the edge, one foot pointing in readiness for flight towards the exit of the room. We are whispering you see, so that we cannot be heard from my parent’s room on the other side of the bedroom wall. Plus we have grown accustomed to remaining ever conscious of the gap between the closed door and the timber that frames it, where words can be sucked into a vacuum, swallowed up greedily then distorted and twisted by the distended bowels of manipulation, to perhaps be spewed forth at an unexpected future moment.
“Wha…what’s wr…wr…wrong with me ?”, he pleads, “Why don’t I have any friends ?” For as long as I can remember, he had not been able to utter a sentence without stuttering. Well, that’s not counting the times he would torment me with his ugly, angry words, the likes of which frightened the younger me who had neither the capacity to understand nor forgive his behaviour. I was never sure what would provoke the outbursts; whether there were incidents that would occur immediately prior or if the pain simmering inside just happened to overflow when I was near. Suddenly I would find myself cornered whilst looking in a drawer for some glue or scissors to complete my homework after school, as under-toned whispers prickled in my ear “Evil…evil..Colleen is evil”, or “You know, Dad is the son of Hitler”. These were scary words to a small child, particularly one raised with the fire and brimstone indoctrination of the Catholic church. I didn’t know who Hitler was at first, but I soon found out and knowing my father was born in Germany, I was terrified…too terrified to clarify whether it was a possibility or not. Plus, it actually sounded kind of plausible. Typically, I’d attempt to dodge him before he managed to secure a firm grip on my arm and make a mad dash to my bedroom where I could lock the door behind me. Sometimes I would not quite make it and a chase around the house would ensue. There was lots of slamming doors and hiding in cupboards.
When I grew a little older and more confident, although I acknowledged that as the youngest child in the family I was simply the most accessible target for his rage, the temptation to seek revenge following years of torment became too great. I recall snooping around in his bedroom one afternoon when he was not home. I simply opened the first draw of his dresser to discover a packet of cigarettes, only one or two were missing from the pack. Gleefully I contained the discovery within, waiting for the thrill of extortion to descend when it was so required.
The following day, I arrived home from school and he was there waiting. Hands on hip I interrupted the launch of his tirade with “I know you have cigarettes in your drawer. If you don’t go away and leave me alone I will tell mum and you know what will happen then!”. The power was exhilarating and it charged through me triumphantly as he turned on his heel and disappeared to the back of the house towards his bedroom. “Huh”, I thought, “That’ll teach you”, and I closed my bedroom door to retreat to a space that had suddenly transformed into my sanctuary for the evening. Or so I thought.
Later that evening at dinner, I became slightly unnerved by the smug expression that confronted me across the table. Head down, I concentrated on scooping up forkfuls of soggy beans in between mouthfuls of burnt T-bone steak that required jaws of steel to shred into palatable portions. Accepting that I could not predict the behaviour of anyone in my household, I decided to ignore his eerily quiet demeanour. Determined to continue enjoying my newly found power, I chose to not return to my bedroom as usual and instead sit in the living area to watch some television. Though not a comfortable experience, I sat myself down determinedly on the floor in front of the television whilst my father shuffled a seemingly endless supply of newspapers in front of his nose, two short legs protruding out from underneath to rest upon a brown leather footstool. After a period of blissful escapism, bedtime descended and I offered a tentative “Goodnight” to the slippers still perched on the stool beside me. A grunt was offered absentmindedly from behind the paper wall.
Closing the sliding door behind me, I approached my bedroom door a few paces down the hall way and noticed it was slightly ajar. Directing it backwards with my forefinger, I entered with caution, wondering in what form “pay back” may arrive. My suspicions were confirmed as my attention was instantly attracted to something floating in the fish tank that sat on my desk just inside the door. The water seemed black, thick and sooty like a murky puddle I may have kicked through after a storm. Blinking with confusion, I took a step closer and focused on black letters that spoke out from the red and white thing floating in the tank. They read..M-a-r-l-b-o-r-o…Marlboro. The blackness in the water was ash. The whole packet of cigarettes had been lit and dropped into the tank. My two fish, Goldie and Frank lay motionless at the bottom.
And so the torment continued.
Perhaps I had forgotten this act of revenge executed upon me, when one afternoon a few years later I decided to lock my brother out of the house. Fed up with his senseless gibberish that followed me through every room, I darted out the front door and hid down the side of the house in the car-port. Inching my way along the wall and ducking stealthily under each window as I passed, I made my way to the side gate. With the poise of a ballerina I delicately lifted the metal latch with my pinkie and eased the wooden gate back in total silence, slipping through the gap as it slowly widened. Creeping carefully towards the back door, I turned the handle with similar cunning and tiptoed onto the linoleum. Slam ! I heard the front door shut violently. Spinning around in a pirouette like fashion I grabbed the key to the back door that lay on the window ledge and firmly locked it shut. Allowing the key to slip dismissively through my fingers to the floor below, I darted through the kitchen, flung open the door to the hallway and leapt up the hallway towards the front door. Reaching for the deadlock with all the gusto of an athlete urgently extending forth the baton to a team mate, I twisted the knob until I heard the familiar “click” which assured me that all was secure. Leaning with my back against the door I paused to allow myself to breathe, an unfamiliar ripple of satisfaction creeping excitedly under my skin. “Got ya !”, I thought to myself.
Keen to observe the effect upon my brother I sauntered back through the house, past the kitchen and around to the dining area where floor to ceiling windows exposed the back garden area. There he was pacing like a wild cat, his every move at the mercy of a keen spectator positioned safely behind the barrier. Red faced and fuming he stared back at me as I stood squarely rooted in my resolute stance.
Then he had her. Hands around her throat he lifted my Cocker Spaniel Sophie up off the timber picnic table where she liked to sit and watch the strange happenings in the world that lay beyond the glass windows. Only now she was a participant too. Hanging there in the air, her little legs dangling as the weight of her body drew down from his grasp around her neck, her dark eyes penetrated my soul. “Stop it !”, I cried, “let her down !”. Scrambling for the key that I had let drop moments earlier onto the mat, I managed to unlock the door whilst still on my knees. “Let her go” I screamed as I lunged towards him through the open door. Catching her in my arms I sat at the table with Sophie sobbing, my nose buried into her black coat. “I’m sorry….I’m so sorry”, was all I could offer her again and again whilst he sniggered cruely as he re-entered the house.
And there he sat on the verge of tears that night only a few years later, at the end of my bed. A sad, desperate figure moulded by a life time of crushing disdain from those with the power to create and manipulate. “It’s not you!”, I offered with all the enthusiasm I could convey through hushed tones, “It’s not you with the problem, it’s them. They are the crazy ones, not you !” Leaning forward, I let the bed covers drop from around me, “You have to get out of here Aaron. It’s the only way you will survive!”
Whoosh, a blast of chilly air rudely broke our connection as my bedroom door was flung open. “What are you doing in here?” my mother questioned through a furried brow. “Go to bed, you shouldn’t be in here”, she snapped at my brother ushering him out of the room.
“Mum, we are just talking” I retorted, wanting to hold on to the moment that was so rare and yet so vital, but my protestations fell on deaf ears.
I always wondered if she had an inkling of the revolt that was conspiring between the pair of us that night, that for whom at least one of us would one day soon be realised.
Have you ever experienced the sense of being watched from afar, a lurking shadow catching your eye only to vanish as soon as you bring your attention to it? Or have you felt that prying ears only metres away were hanging on every word you said, such that you could almost feel the salivation of expectation moisten the air around each word you uttered before it had even rolled off your tongue? I have.
Sitting at the kitchen table with Jayne we chatted frivolously about the endless possibilities that lay ahead of us upon our graduation from school. As fourteen year old school girls, the thought of freedom from the mundane environment of a classroom and from the desexualisation enforced upon us by thick, dowdy private girl’s school uniforms…was invigorating. Jayne was a friend from a new school I started in year nine. The daughter of a well-known football coaching identity, she was also a new student to the school as her family had relocated from country Victoria to the big smoke. She was a country girl through and through, more comfortable in a chequered shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat than woollen tights, ankle length skirts and collared white school shirts. Actually, if it weren’t for the broad Aussie strine that haplessly spilled forth from her mouth, the clone like impact of the uniform may have assisted her to blend right in to her new upper middle class suburban environment. However her family’s status in the football world did nothing to rehearse her for the dance that is required to initiate oneself into private school girl culture. It was quite fitting then for the foreign girl from the country and the girl who felt like a foreigner in her world, to become friends.
So there we sat, blissfully planning a post graduation adventure. True to the great Australian tradition, we proposed a trip around our vast and exciting county in a Kombi-van. Delighted I had found a friend to sit and romanticize with about my future, the conversation truly transported me into another realm…one of hope and thrilling expectation that life could and would be different. Then something shifted in my friend’s demeanour that brought me hurtling back to a place I would rather not have returned to. I noticed her stiffen in an instant, and as she leant ever so slightly towards me across the vinyl tablecloth, her head slightly tilted to motion over her left shoulder. She uttered through barred teeth, “Colleen, is that your mother?”
My eyes darted over her shoulder towards the rumpus room behind us. There was no-one there. I knew we were alone. My mother was the only other person in the family home that afternoon and she was somewhere in the front of the house, probably in her bedroom. I glanced back at Jayne again, the quizzical look upon my face prompting her to roll her eyes back in the same direction over her left shoulder. Once more my eyes flittered back to the room, suddenly catching the slightest movement from behind a glass sliding door that lead to my brothers’ bedrooms. My eyes adjusted to focus on the outline of my mother’s form pressed up against the wall, shoulder…and ear…to the glass.
It was moments like these that made it very difficult for me to sustain friendships. How do you explain such happenings, let alone justify the motivations behind them to a wide-eyed teenage friend? Typically, the pit of my stomach would just fall through the floor whilst a swirling “here-we-go-again” motion circled in my head.
Perhaps the most excruciating example of my mother’s penchant for spying occurred the following year. For reasons still unclear to me I had moved schools again in year ten, to an all girl Catholic college in my local area. Happily, I would ride my bike to school of a morning. I enjoyed the sense of independence and the opportunity for some quiet reflection. My legs took the controls allowing me to “zone out” whilst I scanned the tree-lined streets, my thoughts wafting away with the morning breeze to merge with the clouds above.
This particular morning, I happened to be ready for school earlier than usual. The house was quiet, my father had left for work already and my older siblings who were still living at home had their own routines, quite separate from my own. As usual, my mother had not emerged from her bedroom. So off I set on my path to school, happily meandering along my way. With plenty of time to spare, I followed the curve of the asphalt road before me, navigating through different streets for a change of scenery. Soon I found myself approaching the busy suburban centre made up of shops, cafes, a train station and bus stops. My school sat ostentatiously at the crossroads, the old bell tower of what used to be the school’s chapel that now housed class rooms, rearing up to the heavens above. At this time of the morning the streets were abuzz with throngs of teenage students making their way either by foot, bike, bus, car or train to one of the four schools in the area. The footpaths were literally a sea of green, brown and blue blazers, all rippling along in the one direction.
Then, like a tidal wave, the calmness was unexpectedly rocked by a vehicle that swamped me from out of no-where. Catching me completely off guard, it appeared from behind and swerved in front of me, forcing me to steer my bike into the nature-strip that lay between the road and the footpath. Quite ungraciously I landed, legs entangled in bike, in full view of what at the time felt like and could have literally been hundreds of school children. Within an instant, a couple of girls who recognised me from school stepped forward to ask if I was hurt and if there was anything they could do. Already on my feet and re-positioning my helmet, I had somehow found a millisecond to capture a glimpse of the yellow volvo out of the corner of my eye, thus leading me to identify the driver.
Sheepishly, I found the words “No, it’s ok thanks. It’s just my mother”.
My crime that morning it appeared was to leave the house twenty minutes earlier than usual. This provoked the surveillance that lead to my road-side obstruction and public interrogation. The lighter side of me…the survivor inside…use to ponder if she had antennae micro chipped in her head. But these thoughts came to soothe me usually of a night time as I would reflect upon the maddening ludicrousness of it all. It did not help soothe or shield a sensitive teenage self-esteem from the effects of the behaviour that would act as a repellent to a peer group for whom such bizarre displays were not acceptable, let alone comprehensible.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on. ‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least, — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’ ‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘Why, you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see!”‘
—Lewis Carroll, British writer, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
For most of my life, I have approached the task of translating my thoughts into words with the same confusion as poor Alice. I think. I formulate. I hesitate. I rephrase…dilute…censor. I rehearse…then hesitate again. By the time the words pass through my sensibility filter they are often skewed, soft and more than likely, a little muddled. Surprisingly, I’m generally not too fussed by the habit, except of course when hindsight slaps me about the head on the odd occasion whereby I fail to clearly articulate… (there I go diluting again!)…I mean to say, in situations when I don’t speak up assertively about how I truly feel.
Naturally I have spent some time reflecting upon this little character trait of mine and marvel at how it has crept into my personality with such insidious stealth, that it has taken until my 33rd year to truly recognise. The child within in appears to shrug back at me quite nonplussed about my apparent dilemma. But ah huh! There it is…the lips are pursed tightly, trapping any little urge to transmit the tiniest squeak within; and I see an expression behind those hazel eyes that tells me it is worth delving a little deeper.
My mother’s voice rings harshly in my ears, “If you don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute then don’t say anything at all”. I am about ten or eleven years of age and sitting in the back seat of the family car at a set of traffic lights in the middle of a busy intersection in the city of Canberra. We have just arrived after a five hour car drive from Melbourne…a very tense, silent five hour journey. Our Christmas holiday had not got off to a fabulous start, with one of my older brothers being physically forced by my father into the car after a tousle at the top of our street, where he had tried to jump out of the car as it slowed to obey the stop sign. He was roughly eighteen and had insisted that he had no interest in being dragged along to the obligatory family holiday. I didn’t blame him for trying to shirk from participation which involved the expectation to pose like a happy middle-class little vegemite to the world for two weeks whilst silently scratching at the suffocating walls of oppression that surrounded him.
Now in the middle of a busy city intersection, he had exited the vehicle in the same way. Another brother sat smugly next to me, clearly revelling in the drama. This was the dynamic between these two, the youngest of my four brothers, that had been created by years of manipulation executed by mother’s penchant for inciting hatred between my siblings. Meanwhile, my parents sat and yelled accusations at each other as they debated what to do, oblivious to the stares from passing vehicles around us that caused me to shrink lower into my seat. I could feel my blood boiling under my skin, as it bubbled up my neck, rising steadily towards the back of my ears. I couldn’t contain myself any longer, as much as I tried. “Why didn’t you just let him stay home, then none of this would be happening!,” I blurted out in defence of my brother. It was at that point my mother swung around, whipping me with her icy-toned instruction to keep my mouth shut.
This was not the first nor the last time I would have this directive barked at me. Even as a young child I soon learnt that offering my opinion or entering into debate earnt the wrath of my mother, particularly if I dared do so in the presence of other adults. During a rare extended family gathering at our home one Easter time I had snuck unto the kitchen to steal a piece of cake. As I lifted the tea-towel to reveal the goodies on the plate underneath, I was blissfully unaware that I had apparently at some time that day, pushed through those unmentioned boundaries of freedom of expression that existed in my household. Grabbed by the shoulder, I was spun around with such force that I found myself cornered between the stool that respectfully sat under the framed colour photo of the Pope and the pantry, my back literally up against the green papered wall. “Do not dare to question me in front of others,” she snarled, her nose only an inch or two in front of mine. I had no idea what I’d even said!
Then there were the times, like the road trip to Canberra when I knew full well what I meant. And I meant what I said. One that stands out in my mind for all the wrong reasons is the first funeral I ever attended. My mother’s uncle, a man not very familiar to me but one she professed to have considered her his “favourite” niece, had tragically suffered a heart attack and died at the wheel of his car as it crashed into the cliffside on the highway that curled along the Mornington Peninsula. His wife next to him in the passenger seat and his adult daughter and her family were witness to the event as they followed in their vehicle behind. They had been on their way home from a leisurely Sunday family outing.
As we sat in the upper level of the church I looked down to the pews below, absorbed by the intensity of grief that filled the church with a thick oppressive energy as it circled the glossy timber coffin and clouded up the colourful stained-glass windows above. Even from a distance I could see the tears rolling steadily down my great-aunt’s cheeks as her fragile frame shook uncontrollably despite the many arms draped around her in support. A pain welled up inside my chest to see such suffering and love for a man, who as the numbers of people packed in the little seaside church demonstrated, was clearly adored. Then in a rare moment of softness towards my mother, I turned to look at her next to me, concerned naturally for her personal anguish. I considered the impact of the collective suffering that had engulfed me, and pondered its’ affect upon her. The look on her face however… her inimitable demeanour amongst the collection of solemn mourners, left me dumbfounded. A sudden chill shook through me as I recognised a clear expression of icy satisfaction in her eyes.
In the car ride home, I sat quietly in the back numbed by the sorrow of the day. Coldly and callously my mother dissected the grief experienced by each of her uncle’s daughters and questioned the authenticity of their feelings. On and on she rambled in the comfort of the front passenger seat, my father silently fixed on the road ahead. I tried to lose myself in the stories that lay behind the gum-tree lined properties that flittered past my window. Eventually, I could bear it no longer. I exploded with contempt, “How can you talk in such a horrible way about the family of a man, your uncle, who has just died? Let him and them, have some peace.”
That’s where my memory blurs. Maybe that’s all I need to remember. I can only imagine the type of personal attack upon me that my impassioned outburst provoked. Yet despite my confusion about my mother’s lack of sensitivity, I applaud my nine year old self for accessing the compassion and respect that eluded the two adults in the car with me that day. It gives me hope that all the ingredients…the strength…resolve…passion are still and have always been contained within me. I just need to keep reminding the child within she now has the freedom to unlock those lips and throw away the key forever.
Just when I needed you
There you would be
Paddling in the shallows
A lone figure under a tree
When I walked
Watching from afar
We spoke the same language
Shared footprints in the sand
I did not choose you
You made me your friend
Circling my energy
With you in sight
My travelling companion
I learnt how to skip
And jump the puddles in my path
I felt your melancholy
Sensed the longing for your tribe
So touched by your presence
You never went unnoticed
My feathery spirit guide
Many of my childhood memories conjure up images laced with disturbing emotions that leave a cold, isolating imprint in my mind. For that reason, over the years I have unconsciously and almost certainly wilfully swept them aside, the broom of awareness tentatively leaning across their piles of murkiness in the corners. Although not completely discarded, they are at least out of sight…for now. Episodes of true joy and bliss from my childhood memories are few and far between. Unearthing them typically requires major excavation through my mind. On discovery however, the sensation is comparable to a rebirth of the child within, as I access feelings of innocence and wonder.
One memory from my childhood that gives me such cause for celebration centres on a simple yet loving gesture from an elderly lady who lived in my street. It all came about as a result of the many afternoons I would spend in my street, perhaps as a strategy to escape the tensions inside the home. As I a young child, around the age of five or six, kneeling on my worn and splintered “hand me down” skateboard, I would propel myself along the footpath with my hands. The resulting calluses from paddling along the path left the little pads of my hands rough and sore, but that did not take away from the fun of traversing Michael St., dodging stones and bumpy concrete as I went.
I recall fantasising about the lives acted out behind the various front doors I passed on my way. I distinctly remember the home with the high timber fence painted an austere blue with a grey pebbled pathway leading to the door. My mother disapprovingly remarked that the girl who lived there was encouraged by her mother to “dress up like a model in ridiculously modern clothes”. I was not to know that this focus on “inappropriate attire” would be a theme that would be revisited in the years to come as I grew further into girlhood. The comment however, did little other than to instil an almost envious curiosity within me. I was always on the lookout for the teenager, but strangely she rarely appeared.
Then there was the two-story house with the weather-board extension that had been added as the family grew. I never recall interacting with the two children who lived there; perhaps they may have been a few years older than me or attended a different school. So I was even more deeply shocked, hurt and scared when one day they pelted me with “flour bombs” as I passed. These were small packages of flour encased in plastic wrapping that exploded on contact. I was mortified that they could be so cruel as I hung my white doughy head and sped off down the street to number twenty-six. This was really only one of a very few negative incidents to occur outside of my home but as a very sensitive child, the sense of injustice at having done nothing to provoke the attack sent me into self-imposed confinement to my bedroom for a while.
When I emerged again in the afternoons on my return from a day at school, I became more aware of a pale brown brick house about halfway up the street, with a matching pale brown low brick fence. A steel gate painted white, closed the simple concrete driveway off from the street. Often in the afternoons the old man who lived in the house would stand on the foot path leaning back against the fence, framed by the numerous rose bushes that lined the garden side of the wall behind him. I imagine this was his hour or so of reflection as he watched the world of suburbia pass by. Over time, considering we were the only two people not to rush off and disappear into the mysterious worlds I imagined behind those front doors, we struck up a rapport. I cannot recall what we may have discussed, or if much was said at all. I do know though that he became a comforting figure, ever present and gentle, just like the brown cardigan he would always wear. I knew he had a wife but I did not see her often, only rarely catching sight of her petite, fragile figure as she tended to her roses.
Then one day I must have mentioned that it was soon to be my birthday, for when the day of my birthday arrived, there the lovely old couple were, together at the fence waiting. Leaning in towards me the old lady handed me a small package wrapped in soft purple tissue paper. As I put out my hands I looked up into her face and noticed for the first time the plumpness of her skin and the loving twinkle in her eyes. With nervous excitement I peeled back the paper to reveal a little pillow that had been made by sewing two cotton handkerchiefs together. One was adorned with a red and blue patchwork pattern and the other had a picture of a puppy printed on it. A lovely scent wafted from the pillow and as I raised it to my nose I was instantly absorbed by the meditative effect the aroma inspired.
“It’s lavender”, the old lady explained, a sweet smile radiating from her lips, “Keep it under your pillow and whenever you have a headache or cannot sleep it will help bring calmness to you”
How did she know ? I thought to myself. How did she know I suffered from a terrible inability to sleep that was sometimes accompanied by a pounding in my chest and a strange sensation that felt like stomping footsteps in my head rapidly approaching, increasing in volume and intensity, until I thought my head and heart would explode with the tension? Fascinated and grateful, I thanked her for the lavender filled pillow that would become a treasured and truly soothing accompaniment to the night time rituals I developed to help me escape into a wondrous dreamscape of fantasy; a place that brought me so much relief.
Not long after her loving and knowing gesture, the old lady passed away. I didn’t see the old man in the street as much after this but one day I did tentatively approach him. He told me that each night he would lay his wife’s nightie and dressing gown out on her side of the bed and place her slippers alongside on the floor. Although the admission somewhat overwhelmed my naive understanding of grieving and loss, I was pleased that he had found his own gesture to comfort and soothe him in his time of loneliness.
Reflecting upon the gentle impact this sweet old couple had on my childhood has helped me appreciate that whether we encounter significant trauma in life or even just minor hurdles thoughout our days, we need to cherish and honour the little rituals that we develop to help us survive.
I sometimes wonder when it was I first realised my mother was “different” from other mothers. I haven’t been able to isolate a specific time or place but generally recall the gentle wave of acknowledgment that slowly seeped into my knowing. It has forever left me questioning why I was born to this woman. I remember reading the children’s book titled Are You My Mother?, and being absorbed by the tale of a baby bird that hatches whilst its’ mother is out foraging for food. The baby bird sets out on a journey to find its’ mother and comes across a cat, hen and even an excavator, asking each “Are you my mother?” until eventually it is reunited with the mother bird. I remember my response to the story, even as a very young child, was that I would have chosen the excavator if I’d had a chance.
As I began to spend more time at the home of friends for play dates or birthday parties once I started at school, I would observe the “naturalness” of the rapport shared between my friends and their mothers, so free of the tensions I experienced with mine. I observed my friends act boldly at times, challenging their parents with a resolute stance, hands on hips and steadfast in their agenda. I would stand back in awe…literally removing myself from the exchange, finding a firm footing a few steps away in anticipation of the eruption that I predicted would ensue. In most cases I was left stunned as the mother after a momentary pause, would throw her head backwards releasing a hearty belly laugh, clutching her sides in hysterics. She may also have been in a state of awe, but more so for her child’s ability to stand their ground, to exhibit the strength and confidence they would need one day when they flew out from under her wing.
Over the years I encountered many other mother figures and they always fascinated me. They almost appeared to float around their homes with a lightness that was so new and refreshing to me. Shadowed by their children as they busied about their chores, their conversations were candid and uncontrived. They were not infallible creatures…they each had their own source of distractions, but they were mostly present and attainable in an authentically loving way.
I truly believe that even amidst this stage of tender childhood innocence I was still discerning in my assessment of what constituted normal rhythms of interaction and was not lulled into a false idealisation of a picture that in reality, was less than perfect. I witnessed the tears, frustration, illness, stress and isolation that peppers the lives of all women as they struggle to balance the competing roles of wife, parent and in some cases “career woman” at a time when this role was still trekking a path through new terrain. I felt the tensions that arose between parents on the verge of separation; in families where the father was late home from work night after night and in the households stretched by dwindling budgets, tested as additional babies arrived home from hospital. Yet I encountered a vibrant honesty flow through these families whose inner and outer worlds were generally at peace with each other. Mine however was the exception…unpredictable and closeted…the ebb and flow of energy spiraled in a constant whir of negativity, creating a fluctuating climate that was depended upon the emotional whims of my mother on any given day.
By the early years of my primary school education, around the age of seven or eight, the awareness of my mother’s strange demeanour had became an ever-present strain. I tried to disassociate myself from her at every given opportunity. I enjoyed my walk to school in the morning which in hindsight, I recognise provided an opportunity to relax into a meditative state in preparation for the day ahead, as I pounded the footpath and reconnected with the rhythm of my heart. It meant I could walk through the gates, un-tarred by the heavy aura she dragged along with her.
For a time, although I acknowledged that my experience of my mother was quite distinct from that of my friends, I was content that it remained largely uncommented on. Although I sometimes caught the quizzical expressions of other adults in response to her odd demeanour and inappropriate remarks, I felt safe that my friends and their families had not yet tuned in to her oddity, allowing me to blend in to the playground without prejudice. Then the day after I had a friend over to my house for a play date, the child approached me at school and stated with an accusatory air, “My mum said your mum looked at her very strangely when she came to pick me up”. I was devastated. My secret had been exposed. There was no way to respond other than to offer a faltering retort of “I..I don’t know what you mean”. But my heart sunk with the realisation that other people could really see it too. I pondered what it would mean for me. Little did I imagine that her behaviour would have such a devastating impact upon my peer relations that in a few years time, the teenage me would be left with no option other than to retreat into the school toilets at lunch times in a desperate state of isolation.
Ever since I was a young child I have enjoyed taking myself for long walks. Typically I would leash up the cocker-spaniel Sophie and walk in the direction of the ocean that fringed the beach-side suburb of Melbourne where we lived.
Sometimes I would challenge myself by traveling routes that weren’t so familiar to me, weaving through the backstreets as I went. Although my path may have varied, my aim always remained the same – to stay away…far away from the family home as long as I could. Poor Sophie would often look up at me, tongue dripping, panting furiously as she pulled in the direction of home, only to be ignored and told to ‘walk on’. Even though my late return would earn the wrath of my mother when she heard the side gate latch click sometime just after dark, it was worth it. The chance to escape into my own thoughts and transport myself into a land of happy families was too precious to be limited by the turning hands of a clock.
We lived in a fairly comfortable middle class suburb in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It was the 1980’s… a time of financial prosperity, for “keeping up with the Jones”. This was reflected by the number of fancy Volvos and shiny Fords housed in the double garages attached to architecturally designed homes that became more abstract and ostentatious as I made my way closer to the beach. I recall one home I actually nick-named “The Castle” because it’s façade was fashioned to represent a miniature castle, complete with turrets and all!
However, it was not the silver badges standing up proudly on the bonnets of the cars that pulled into drive-ways around me, nor the obligatory BMX bikes that dropped on the pavement before me as children ran to greet them, that caught my attention. It was the emotion that permeated the air as families regrouped after their day apart. Strong enough to filter through the otherwise constructed symbols of contentment, when those remote controlled electric gates opened, it hit me like a rush of warm breath on my skin…Happiness, Unity and Tranquillity. I inhaled, allowing it to soak through every pore on my skin until my heart swelled with a painful longing that jolted me into moving on.
I was around eleven years of age when my older sister married and I discovered that her new brother-in-law and his wife lived with their two young sons in my suburb. I had met them maybe once or twice…he was tall, robust in stature and handsome; she was young, blonde and fashionable. Their street name was instantly recognisable to me due to the scoping of the area that I had accomplished over several years worth of long walks. I remember spending one evening walking up and down in front of their home, ecstatic to discover that they had not yet closed their gates thus allowing me a viewing section a metre or so wide between the walls of their high blue-stone fence. Slowly I would stroll across their drive-way trying to inconspicuously snatch a glimpse into their world. Dusk had just fallen so the light of the living room lamp illuminated my view of two tall glass vases filled with oranges, strategically placed on each end of the mantle to frame the collection of family photos above the fireplace. Crossing the road for another viewing, I thought I saw movements deeper in the home as children were prepared for baths before dinner. I imagined their mother lovingly combing back their hair and wrapping them in their dressing gowns to protect them from the cold night air.
I must have made a strange sight, pacing up and down like a burglar’s apprentice casing the premises in preparation for a midnight break-in. On reflection, I’m surprised no-one approached me to inquire what I was doing, considering I was a young girl alone in the street with only a confused dog by her side, whilst every other child was safely ensconced in the pre-dinner rituals of suburban family life.
Suddenly from across the street I heard the clanging of a rubbish bin being dragged up a gravel drive-way and I recognised the form of my sister’s brother in-law approaching the nature-strip. I felt an urgent longing to bolt across the road and throw myself at him, pleading him to allow me to come inside. I imagined pouring out my story of desperation to escape the bizarre and lonely world I inhabited to his beautiful wife. I envisaged her wrap her warm Country-Road clad arms around me, assuring me she would provide the maternal care and protection I craved.
I put my head down and walked on.
Looking at the sixteen year-old girl who stared back at me from the mirror atop the old white dresser, I felt a tremendous sense of compassion. She was alright after all…fairly pretty really, with a curvaceous figure and long auburn hair. The corners of her mouth turned ever so slightly upwards and her shoulders dropped as she let out a long deep sigh. It was a sigh of relief. Freedom. Sure, she looked pretty daggy this morning in fleecy tracksuit pants two sizes too big and an old faded white t-shirt, with a pattern across the front which was now undiscernible. But that was forgivable. After all, packing clothes when she left had not been a priority. So the clothes she now wore had been delivered by the police on behalf of her older sister, who had thrown together a bag for her that night she left her parents home forever. “Your not so bad after all” I told her. It was important to let her know this. She needed to hear it. And I felt satisfied as I saw a glimmer of hope shine through her eyes.
It was at this point that my ever-evolving journey towards self-love and acceptance began.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being whisked up into the arms of an older brother and taken outside into the backyard of the family home where we would sit atop the timber picnic style outdoor table and chat about anything. It didn’t matter what the topic was. Maybe my brother would point to some birds flying overhead, or we would laugh at the antics of the pet dog, or even look for Care Bears in the clouds. It didn’t matter. It was a distraction you see and I think even as a four or five year old I knew it, but it was easier just to pretend. Somewhere inside the house, usually in the kitchen or front living room, my mother would be on the floor, hysterical and unwilling or unable to pick herself up. My father and maybe another brother or two would take an arm or shoulder each, in an attempt to lift her up and escort her to her bedroom.
Somehow, someone must have been delegated the responsibility of removing me from the scene. Considering I was seven to ten years or so younger than all my four brothers, I imagine they were accustomed to the drama but wanted to shield me from it. My memories of these instances present in quick, sharp snapshots, like the clicking frames of a camera; and usually at angles that just allow for a glimpse around the corner of the dining room wall or behind a kitchen bench, as I looked back over the shoulder of whoever was carrying me towards the back door. It was confusing and scary, but easier not to ask questions and seek out those Care Bears in the clouds instead.