Bigotry begins in childhood

Isn’t it strange how your childhood follows you around and will not let you be? It creeps up when you least expect.

For me it comes in bursts of colour, or taste, a sense of newness and I flash back to the year I opened the Christmas wrapping on my first Rockman doll, a huge plastic baby without hair on the oversized head of a new born, along with indented arms and legs as if still foetal.

 My sister got one too, such a relief. We could play together for hours with our respective babies, and not fight over them. 

When my first daughter was born, I did not consider gender stereotypes as I do today. Instead, I longed to buy her first doll and went overboard for my daughter’s two-year-old birthday by buying a doll almost her size. 

My husband named the doll, Azaria after Lindy Chamberlain’s baby, the one who was taken by a dingo. 

No one believed it at the time, that Azaria was taken by a dingo. They were convinced Lindy Chamberlain had killed her baby, in some sort of crazy religious ritual.

At the time of Azaria’s disappearance, Lindy and her husband were camping at Alice Spings near Uluru, along with others from their religious community, and the baby was taken from their tent. 

Someone at the time reported that Azaria meant ‘sacrificed in the wilderness’, which added to the accompanying media frenzy and belief the baby was taken as part of a ritual sacrifice. 

People’s doubts about Lindy’s claims of innocence, just like the character Meursault in Albert Camus The Stranger, were initially based on her apparent lack of grief at the time of her baby’s death. 

Camus’s Meursault, a French Algerian, also failed to show appropriate grief when his mother died. 

We like people to behave predictably even when they’re in shock or have different cultural mores. This is hardly fair but typical of the puritanical parts of people that expect conformity in times of our own shock as when a baby disappears. 

The courts convicted Lindy Chamberlain of murder and it took three years before she was set free. Further inquests followed after a baby’s jump suit appeared near a dingo’s lair at the base of Uluru. 

Lindy’s life was shattered, despite eventual financial compensation years later; her marriage also ended and all on account of a dingo and the bigotry and suggestibility of the Australian people. 

By the time the dingo took Azaria I was the mother of two daughters and knew enough about the joys and sorrows of parenting. The way with every stage of your child’s development something of your own rehearsal for that stage flashes into your being like the lines of a play, or the ability to ride a bike. 

You might forget the lines or how to ride but the lines or ability come back to you fast enough. 

So, it was when my third daughter heated one of those Red Skin lollies, pink slabs of raspberry flavoured confectionary, in the microwave and reached in her hand to pick it up.

She had not realised the microwave would heat the stuff into a boiled toffee that clung to her fingers. 

I was working at the time and in between sessions came out and urged her nanny, who had been out of sight at the time my daughter tried the experiment, 

‘Take her to chemist. He might have some ointment.’ 

I had no idea that it was a burn that might require a more specialised form of treatment as through a doctor. 

Already, I took my children to doctors more often than my parents ever took me and my siblings. But not often enough. 

Doctors were a luxury when I was a child or an unnecessary form of connection. Unless you had something serious like rheumatic fever, as two of my siblings copped, doctors were best avoided. 

Even in adulthood, I too liked to avoid them unless absolutely necessary until I read that people who visit doctors live longer. 

In any case, the point I make here is that the nonchalance and disregard I held for children’s ailments might well have derived from my own childhood of parental disregard for cuts and bruises or even greater calamities like when my older sister broke her leg falling from a tree.

My father made her a makeshift splint, care of his life in the army, and put her to bed with Panadol.

Not until the next morning when he saw the swelling did he decide she needed a trip to emergency. 

Back to my daughter and her burned fingers, an experience she remembers well as a sign of her neglected childhood.

 I too remember, though less clearly and consider how I might have behaved differently, if only I had recognised those hints from my own childhood. Hints that alerted me to the notion that, like my parents before me, I should have taken my daughter to a doctor.

Another thing that hits me full on here comes with our use of language. 

In these days of racial sensitivity, the name, Red Skin with the cartoon image of an Indian chief on the cover, (no longer featured, though the name continues) appals me. 

A form of racism that I did not notice when I was young or even when my children were young, not until today when I recognise the value of doctors in crises, and the need to reserve our judgements when people behave in ways we don’t expect, like Lindy Chamberlain or when language is used to put some people down so as to keep others up.

And so, your childhood follows you around. 

To eulogize the dead past

I don’t know what possessed me after my shower this morning, but I went to the bathroom cupboard and squeezed a spray of Tweed perfume onto my wrists and the nape of my neck. From a bottle that has stood half empty these past several years. 

A yearning to go back in time perhaps to the days when I wore Tweed often. An old-fashioned scent and harder to come by than ever before, hidden among the cheap perfume casts offs at Priceline. 

Probably only crazy old folks like me still wear Tweed along with the likes of Charlie and Opium, those scents from the seventies and eighties, that I once loved.

 They remind me of my younger days. The Tweed as far back as my childhood. 

I remember an advertisement from Women’s Weekly or some such, where a Cary Grant look alike walks past an unknown woman, hair pulled back tight in a black bun from her white forehead, and her shoulders covered in a cream coloured trench coat. 

Each walks past the other in opposite directions, and he, with a smile on his face, turns back to speak to her.

She turns back to listen, 

‘Aren’t you wearing Tweed? The speech bubble above the man’s head reads. And she responds with an enigmatic smile.

When I was a child this struck me as the most romantic recognition ever. Man meets woman across a waft of perfume.

These days I see it as plain old creepy. The patriarchy at work.

How times change? Even so, my desire to wear Tweed prevailed throughout my thirties and forties and even into my fifties. 

My signature scent.  If anything, I liked to be consistent. 

More recently, I’ve met a woman who travels under the weight of a different perfume. You can smell her coming towards you. In an understated way. And her car reeks of patchouli, lavender, a mix of mint and rose. 

She uses natural oils, she tells me, mixed fresh from individual essences every morning, and excludes anything commercial or manufactured. 

We went on a writing retreat together and spent time exploring the products available at Dindi Naturals in a place called Yarck. 

Why not smell of the natural earth if you must smell of anything at all, beyond your own natural perfume, of human body, preferably washed recently enough? 

So, I pushed my Tweed to the back of the cupboard till this morning when an ear worm in my head, worked its way into my consciousness during the shower.

Gilbert O’Sullivan, ‘Alone again, naturally’ pitched me back to the days when a man sang of his grief and suicidality, after being jilted at the altar. 

The thought left me longing for the good old days when things seemed simpler.

Don’t get me wrong. The idea of a such a time is a fantasy only. The good old days were every bit as complicated as today, only they can seem simpler with the benefit of hindsight, and our tendency to eulogize the dead past. 

If I knew then what I know now, I’d do it differently. Avoid the same mistakes. 

And I might never have taken to wearing Tweed, if I can blame Tweed for anything.

As a then non-smoker, I might not have been seduced at the sight of my husband, before he was my husband, smoking Gitane cigarettes and thinking to myself at the ripe old age of twenty-three that it looked cool. 

It took until my first pregnancy to give up and even though I still dream of smoking cigarettes and once held onto the idea that if a Gilbert O’Sullivan moment hit me, I could always take up smoking again.

I have not smoked these past 37 years and I doubt I will ever take it up again. 

But unlike some reformed smokers who can’t abide the fact there are those who continue this habit, I enjoy a vicarious whiff of smoke whenever I walk past a smoker. 

The memory of how it felt when I inhaled that long draft into my lungs and the adrenalin pull of pleasure it gave me with its false sense of clarity.

Even as, at the time I also believed I was turning my pink lungs into a red bloody black akin to my father’s lungs, the way they were when he died after several decades of smoking three packets a day, Craven A filter tipped. That was, until emphysema stopped him in his tracks. 

They say you can shed the effects of smoking from your body if you give up soon enough, but the memories hang in there. 

Now when I pass a smoker and catch a whiff, I breathe it in like a secret I must not let out.

My longing to return.

My mind thrills to the synchronicity of the good, bad and downright smelly, in these links  between a whiff of Tweed and that Cary Grant moment of misogyny with cigarette smoke and blackened lungs. 

And Gilbert O’Sullivan is still alive it seems, and despite being ditched at the altar in his song. It looks like he’s happily enough married with at least two daughters, or so Google tells me from a Japanese you tube clip of yesteryear. 

The song is fictional, too. Though better to believe it’s true.  

It feeds our empathic response. Mostly.  

And I’m still wearing tweed, still dreaming of smoking cigarettes and caring less and less about the after effects of my smell.