The free floatings

I’ve been waging war with myself and doing battle with the dreaded anxiety.

The free floatings, I call them, those moments when the lightness of my being seems to hover there, as if my heart might stop beating and at any moment I might drop down dead, or someone else, who matters to me, might likewise disappear.

Whether it harks back to my childhood, or whether it’s connected to more recent events, I can’t say, but I find myself drifting back in time to those nights in my childhood, those rare nights when visitors came and my mother was abuzz with energy and enthusiasm.

My mother loved to party. She loved the excuse to put on her Sunday clothes and dab powder on her nose.

She loved the work involved in that extra trip to Mr Brockhoff’s grocery store to buy tins of smoked oysters, which she later peeled from their can and spread onto a plate, each murky brown morsel resting in its tiny puddle of yellow oil.

She took tooth picks then and speared each oyster through its heart in readiness for the party when she could walk around the room, plate proffered in front and her guests might lean over one after the other to scoop up the speared creature and pop it into their mouths.

I hated the smell of these things, the look of them and the sense they existed for the pleasure of the grown ups, who chatted away in our lounge room and somehow drowned out my father’s voice, as he grew more drunk by the minute.

Somehow he kept a lid on his worst behaviour in the presence of guests.

As often happens in my memory, my siblings are absent.

Never once did I enjoy the solitude of a room of my own in childhood. My room was always occupied by at least one other, usually in the form of one, if not two or three sisters, but in my memories oftentimes they were not there at all.

Likewise this night, I stretched myself out under the blankets, keen to iron out the ache that crept up on me whenever I noticed the laughter from the lounge room and wondered yet again when my mother would come.

Ages ago that same night, I had snuck into the kitchen after I heard the door in the corridor into the lounge room open and shut, followed by the clump of my mother’s heels on the carpet and then their click clack on the kitchen tiles.

I knew she was out there spreading Jatz biscuits with butter and plucking out thin strands of salmon from another thin she had brought home from Mr Brockhoff’s.

I knew she was slicing up tomatoes into thin slivers to put alongside the salmon and in time she would bring back a plate full of these biscuits into the lounge room and once again make her journey around the room, plate proffered.

‘Can I have a cup of tea, too?’ I had asked my mother when she turned to see me at the door, ages ago.

My mother did not scold me for getting up out of bed, not the way my father might. Instead she smiled and looked back to her plate of biscuits.

‘In a minute,’ she said. ‘First, I offer these around to the others and then when I make the next round of tea, I’ll bring one to you. Now back to bed.’

Something of my mother’s promise offered me comfort.

I could lie still now, less fidgety, more ready for sleep, but I did not let myself close my eyes or slip into sleep. I listened instead to the laughter from the lounge room and tried to picture proceedings.

My Auntie Anne in her glamorous, waisted floral frock, big roses on a white background and my Auntie Junie in her dark colours, flanked by a thick cardigan.

My Auntie Junie felt the cold.

She had lived in Indonesia during the Second World War. She had met my uncle in Holland not long after she had returned there, before they married. She had lived in Indonesia when she was young and during the war was interned by the Japanese.

Auntie Junie had suffered, my mother told me. She had even seen a Japanese man kill her brother in front of her eyes. She had seen this and she needed to stay warmer than the rest.

My mother did not like my Auntie Junie for all her suffering.

I could not work out why this was so. Except my Auntie Junie was a woman who valued efficiency, who kept her house immaculate and besides she had married my mother’s younger brother, not the youngest but a brother whom my mother loved and somehow my Auntie Junie did not meet my mother’s standards or else it might have been the other way around and my mother did not meet my Auntie’s standards.

They could not tolerate one another, though you would never know this from the chatter in the lounge room where the woman’s voices rose to a high pitch above the dull drone of the men.

My father’s voice, when he spoke, was the loudest and most guttural.

Whenever my mother entertained her visitors, her family from Holland, her brothers and their wives, she followed the Dutch tradition, a small drink of alcohol followed by coffee and cake.

Tradition she brought from back home and somehow thinking on these traditions my mind wandered back to the cup of tea she had promised me not so long ago.

A cup of tea, milky, with two spoonsful of sugar, a sweetness enough to slip me off into sleep.

But the tea did not come, nor my mother, and as I waited and my eyes grew heavy with a sleep I could no longer evade, I pondered the significance of a mother who could not keep her promises.

When I woke in the morning, the memory of that promise lingered. My mother had forgotten me.

But my mother had made a promise she could not keep because, although she had spoken the words of promise to bring me that cup of tea, she had spoken those words from a distance and she had not taken them into her mind as intention.

She had spoken those words to send me away.

Only in the morning, and on other nights at other times, when I was still a small person and asked my mother to come to visit me in the night, did I realise I had fallen from her mind.

And as soon as I fell from my mother’s mind, I fell into that well I call anxiety today.

A well, not only of abandonment, but one in which all sorts of fears assail me.

I am bad, I tell myself and dredge up all the events of the day in which I have behaved badly or I might have behaved badly.

I said something wrong. I spoke out of turn. I had not studied my times tables. I had not worked on my multiplication and division. I had not practiced the piano. I had kicked my dirty clothes under the bed and left them to pile up with the dust. I had not scraped under my finger nails, which were black with the dirt of every day.

I was bad and my mother’s absence became proof of this. Only her presence could save me.

But when visitors came, they took her away and for the rest I slipped into the free floatings of my life as they persist today.

The final say

I’m working on an essay on women, life writing and ageing. In it, I compare my mother’s autobiography with my memoir.

I have the advantage: I’m still alive.

It puts me in mind of a time when I was in my mid twenties and first starting out in the world as a social worker, full of enthusiasm about how helpful I could be to other people.

At this time in my life I had left home, broken off from my first gambler boyfriend and was living the life of a free woman, however difficult it might have been by night when I felt so alone and looked for the solace of male company.

By day, I worked in my chosen career and held firm to the belief that I could be helpful to other people, primarily through listening and trying to understand them and to help them make sense of themselves.

‘I’d never go to see someone as young as you,’ my mother said to me one day. She had just taken up a position working as what she called a ‘social worker’ in a voluntary and largely untrained position.

She worked with the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau in East Melbourne under the supervision of one of my old supervisors from the university and took on the role of visiting people, more often than not people who were struggling to survive in the housing commission flats in Fitzroy, people whom my mother said were much worse off than her.

My mother made home visits and helped people to manage their limited resources and traumatic histories, by offering practical help as well as a listening ear.

I took little interest in my mother’s work at this time, full to the brim with keeping myself alive, but her comment stung.

To the core.

I’d never be able to catch up with her I knew. I’d never be as old as her. I’d always be thirty-three years behind.

Nor would I ever be able to have as many children as she had, even as I had wanted to have at least nine children when I was little. Just like my mother.

I had my mother’s name and more often than not she had told me, ‘You’re just like me.’

These words had the effect of leaving me uncertain of my place in the scheme of things.

When I was younger on the cusp of adolescence, my indignation swelled whenever any of my brothers spoke rudely about our mother.

‘She’s lazy,’ they said. ‘She can’t cook to save herself.’

My mind did cartwheels as I tried to divert back to the notion of my lovely mother. How was it possible that anyone could see her as anything but wonderful? Look how hard she tried to protect us from our father. See how much she suffered without complaint.

My father called our mother the stupidest woman in the world, the stupidest and most useless piece of human flesh that ever walked. But by then I realised, despite my mother’s insistence he was ill, that my father was drunk.

And drunk people were unreliable.

Drunk people could not be trusted.

Drunk people said things they did not mean.

Drunk people spoke out of a strange and crazy place where their words slurred and took on the fury of rage, unless they were jolly drunks like in the movies and my father was never that.

I needed to defend my mother against all criticism and to do so I likened her to the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though I knew she was not a virgin, given all the babies she had brought into the world.

I also knew that, although my father told her often enough, she was a no good whore, I knew this could not be true.

I took one look at my mother, frumpish and tired, as proof. Whores, prostitutes, even the poor ones wore elegant clothes and tried to look alluring.

My mother in her apron bent over the stove cooking my father’s steak in butter the Dutch way and turning away from time to time to read her newspaper, forgot the potatoes on the boil and burned them.

The place reeked of the tell tale stink of burnt vegetables even after she had poured off the water, scraped off the top layer of seemingly untouched potatoes and left the black burnt pot to soak in water.

The taste lingered. The potatoes were inedible even as they looked the part, fluffy and light after she had mashed then to death.

My mother could not mash out the taste and was upset when we protested. ‘You can’t taste it,’ she said as if we had no taste buds of our own, as when she told us the baked rabbit was chicken and my brothers held up the bones of the rabbit to the light and fossicked around for the non existent wish bone.

I see now my mother was trying to encourage us to make light of things.

Her mantra: ‘Do as if nothing is wrong’.

She tried to cast things in a good light, as in the cliché, ‘all her geese were swans’.

I did not see it then. To me then, all my mother’s birds flew in great concentric circles over head, their wing spans blocking out the sun, and not only did they soar, they were beautiful birds who sang the sweetest songs like nightingales when they settled and made the world a better place.

Just as my mother did on her visits to the housing commission flats. I could never hope to do as good a job as she.

But now when I am a decade older than my mother was when she pronounced me too young, I can compare our stories, not the actual stories, which are incomparable, but the words on the page.

I can interrogate her text in the way of an academic and can see such flaws in my mother’s perspective, as in her way of closing things down, and telling the reader what to think.

‘And that was that,’ is my mother’s preferred way of ending chapters, as if we readers must not enquire further.

And she likes to leave things ‘in God’s hands’, again perhaps as a means of taking away any agency.

Invariably my mother leaves out the shadow side, and hints only at the dark truths of her life, in order perhaps to give her reader an impression of such beauty and kindness, she is like a bird that soars.

As for my own memoir, which comes out in a couple of months, I can offer no such interrogation, as I am too close to this book.

But at least now, I am ahead of my mother.

She cannot answer me back and I will have the last say, if only on these pages, as hopefully my children will have something more to say about me and my writing, once I am gone.

That is, if they can be bothered.

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