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.
Friends blow in
Their warm words
Whispers of kindness
Chasing the shadows
Your silence is deafening
Not even ear-plugs of disdain
Can quieten the echo
That richochets through my heart
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 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.