‘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.