Saturday, March 18, 2006
Her pale blue eyes twinkling with mirth, her smooth, fresh skin
blushing like a young girl's, my sixty five year old mother
finally gave in and released her secret with an exhalation of
air. Her shameful secret was that yes, she did know exactly the
time I was conceived.
"It was the night of the Ball. We hadn't been to one since before
we were married, your father and I. Anyway, your father's mother
looked after Veronica and June, rather grumpily too. It seemed
beyond her why anyone would want to go to a Ball. I mean what use
was it? I'm sure she didn't think we would want to go to a Ball,
not with two toddlers. I hadn't been to a dance for four years!
Anyway, we didn't get home till the early hours..."
"What time exactly was that mum?" I asked, leading her into a
story I knew she wanted to tell. She wasn't sure how to put it
into words, after all her life of respectability. I sat at her
little table, in the mid afternoon, eating yet another of her Tim
"It was about three o'clock in the morning. Your father had been
away working for a few weeks and had to go away again the next
day. That's how I..." she stopped short, "Don't tell anyone will
you Therese. Your father said later that we should have danced
all night. There! I've said it.!" she said with relief. I was
amazed and pleased. Amazed that she would actually remember, with
all the events that had happened in her life since then. Pleased
that she felt that she could say these things to me. Delighted to
imagine my young mother and father, were human just like the rest
of us. It marked a real softening in our relationship, as I began
to see her more as a person in her own right, not just my mother,
my sisters mother, my children's grandmother.
After she died, as I was disassembling her home, I can remember
crying for ages over a grotesque mug that I had bought her, which
fitted perfectly the occasion she had related. It was a large
cheap pink mug, in the shape of a pregnant woman, and had written
on it 'I should have danced all night.' Mum and I laughed
raucously over that mug and the event, in the privacy of her
little home. The generation of years between us as we enjoyed the
joke, for a moment not mother and daughter, just two women.
I was born at seven o'clock in the morning. It was a blisteringly
hot February. My mother had two active toddlers, and told me she
was very tired and hadn't been well. She said that on the
afternoon of my first, and almost last day in this world she was
feeding me in hospital and she just fell asleep. A nurse
discovered us like this, me with my face going dark from lack of
oxygen, mum sleeping in the awful heat. I was raced away and
returned much later. Mum said she was wide awake after that. Of
Dad there is no mention. Always present at the beginning of us
children, he was like most men of the times very absent, at this
most dangerous of time for his wife and child. Few Australian
women even had the presence of a friend or mother at the birth,
leaving us more abandoned than most people of the world who have
at least close family. This unnatural custom has thankfully gone
out of style of later years.
I didn't start walking till I was fifteen months old and am not
at this time aware of anything till I turned three. At three, I
still slept in a large wooden cot in mum and dad's room. When I
was five mum showed me where I had chewed all the wood right
around the top of the cot. It was being revarnished for the new
baby, who was to also get her fair share of varnish as an aid to
My two sisters slept in the next room and Nannie, dad's mother
slept in there with them. The house was pretty crowded, but the
verandahs were wide and airy and nobody had too many possessions,
so there would have been enough room.
My first memory was of a nightmare in which three or four pigs
were eating a hole in the corner of mum and dad's bedroom and
were coming to get me. I was alone in the room at the time,
because it was early in the night. They broke through and I
started screaming. They bit into my stomach. As I was screaming I
can still remember Mum and dad's faces over the cot. I was rushed
to hospital and operated on for a burst appendicitis. I have two
scars as mum told me that the Doctor had made a cut and it 'was
in the wrong place'. So another cut was made and my life was
saved. I don't remember the actual feeling of the pain, just the
dream. After this event I had two bouts with Pneumonia and spent
some time in hospital. A nurse gave me a beautiful 'glass doll'
to take home. I don't remember what happened to it but it would
not have survived long in our house. I remember walking down the
little steps from the road to our house clutching that doll,
aware of its beauty and how special I felt with this new and
treasured possession. I don't remember the actual time in
hospital, but I remember the pain in my chest. For the healthy,
stocky kid I turned out to be I had a few brushes with death in
my early life.
I remember riding high on Dad's shoulders and what the yard
looked like from the top of his head. He had thick curly hair and
I used to get my fingers right in amongst it, for a grip. I liked
it much better when he didn't use Californian Poppy hair oil on
it. Dad always made a big fuss over the toddler of the day, and
it was a very wonderful time. The impression of walking beside
him in the yard as a small child is a fleeting but strong one.
I can still see, in my mind's eye, what writing looked like
before I learned to read. I looked at Veronica's school books
with fascination, as she would read out and make sense of the
maze of marks on the paper. The only patterns I could make out
were the paragraphs and breaks. Other than that it looked a bit
like what Chinese writing looks like to me these days. There was
a total blank of understanding, and then in later years it all
made sense, like a revelation. I was very curious, and impatient
to get the stories I saw Veronica and June draw out of the maze
of black marks.
At four I ran away to the school both Veronica and June went to.
I spent enough of my life running away from this institution, it
is important to note that I once ran away to school. The nun's
asked Veronica and Susan Roughan to take me home. Near the large
tree, at the edge of the boy's playground, they both grabbed my
arms and dug their fingers in. The more I pulled away the tighter
they gripped. They were going to do their duty, and be seen to do
it in a most responsible manner. This meant being none too gentle
in the process. I bit Susan Roughan and she let go. Then I ran
like all the furies of hell were behind me, which was true.
Veronica was behind me. I had bitten her best friend. I don't
remember the rest of this event, but I doubt that I would have
made it home before Veronica caught up with me. Its not hard to
imagine what she would have done to me when she caught me.
Perhaps she still remembers.