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.