September 2012 archive

A woman prepares for life

I am having trouble with mascara
these days.  Not that I wear much
of it but it’s harder to see these days to put it on.  I’d need a magnifying glass to be able to see my eyelashes well enough and I only have two hands.  So I tend to apply mascara by touch, and make a mess of it along the way.  
All my life my mother told me my eyes, my eyebrows and ear lobes were
my greatest asset.  Therefore, I’ve tended to dress
mine up. My eyes with a touch of mascara, my ears with earrings but my
eye brows I leave alone. 
The other day I was horrified when
one of my daughters made an appointment to have her eyebrows plucked.
            ‘Let
them be,’ I said.  ‘They’re lovely
as they are.’  But no, she insisted
they were like Frida Kahlo’s.   My
daughter takes after her father in her colouring and hair.  Women pluck their eyebrows all the
time, my daughter tells me.  For
some it’s necessary. 
This reminds me of the day another of
my daughters gave me a voucher as a Christmas present  to have my eye lashes
coloured.  Even now it seems a
ridiculous idea, but at the time I went along with it in the hope that I might
then be able to forgo the mascara.  
For half an hour I sat in a hairdressing salon with strange bits of
protective covering around my eyes while the dye did its job.  Afterwards, I could scarcely see the difference.  It had been a wasteful plea to my
vanity. 
I have grown increasingly weary
with the stuff of dressing up for the world.  
When I was young I loved spending hours thinking about what
I might wear, laying it out before hand and then showering, putting on
my mascara and eye liner and finally dressing.
Earlier, because I was a slob at school, or
so I believed: shabby clothes, dirty shoes, untidy hair; but also a worthy
student, ‘from a poor family’,  the nuns gave me free access to a series of
classes conducted at my school through the Elly Lukas deportment school.  
Once a week for eight weeks a woman whom I shall call  Miss Bright
came from the Elly Lukas deportment school to take us through our paces.  We were in fourth form, the equivalent
now of year ten, all of us aged between fifteen and sixteen years.  
The expectation was that most of us
would soon be out in the work force preparing our lives for that big moment
when we met and fell in love with the man of our desires and would soon be
married.
Miss Bright taught us how to dab
nail polish onto a stocking to catch a run before it ran too far.  She taught us how to wash
our stockings separately in hand made lingerie bags, and how to lay out our
clothes every evening before bed in anticipation of the next day.  
Given that we would all be off to the
office the next day with early starts, it was imperative that we leave only our
dressing to the morning. The evening, after a light and
nutritious dinner, should be spent preparing for the next day. 
Miss Bright estimated we needed to set
aside a good hour in these preparations – cleaning shoes, mending tears, ironing blouses and skirts.  We were to leave nothing to chance.  Makeup from the day before needed to be
removed carefully with the aid of moisturiser and water and little cotton buds
and swabs.  Showers, deodorant,
attention to finger nails and feet were also essential.  
Nail polish was tricky.  It
was fine to use it but imperative to keep coloured nails in top shape, with no
chips or cracks and certainly no ridiculous colours as were coming into vogue
in those days.  A pale pink for day
wear was acceptable, one that blended in with the tone of our smart work suits
and maybe red for evening wear, but to be cleaned off before the end of the weekend
and the return to work.
When would we read our books? I
wondered, or get our homework done, not remembering that these duties were
aimed at the woman at work, not the student or school girl, nor at the woman of
leisure.
Finally, there was a long lesson on how to
deal with men, dining out, etiquette and the like.  
I did not take the lessons seriously in the end, but the concepts stay with me.  The idea of having to sculpt myself into the perfect woman irks me still.  
Today, and throughout the past week,  I’m doing battle with my feelings about the rape and murder of a young woman here in Brunswick.  I’m not alone in this.  Jill Meagher’s senseless death has aroused widespread public grief and outrage.  It has also caused a storm about the difficulties women face in the world, the idea that women are not free to walk the streets alone after dark.  
My memories of being groomed to be a fine young woman seem anarchic in a world where women are also the victims of such random and gratuitous brutality.  And I know, despite the horror of this behaviour that somewhere along the line the perpetrators of such crimes are also victims. 
I cannot get these difficulties out of my mind.  Everything else pales into insignificance.

Australians lack culture

I don’t remember when the word
‘pride’ came into it.  I only know it started when I was young.  We were a proud family, or so we had been told, proud of our European heritage, proud of the fact that although we had no
money, we were well equipped with books and beautiful objects from Holland.
Pride began with my mother’s family.
The order, the neatness, the sense of it all.  She gave it away to follow my father for a better life in Australia.   But my mother kept hold of her pride.
We were different from the other mainly Australian families in our neighborhood. 
They spent their weekends mowing their lawns and gossiping to one
another over back fences while we took family drives after Mass to Gembrook, the Maroondah
Dam, even as far as Eildon. 
Most of all we were proud to be Catholics.  We came from the one
true faith and were destined for great things as long as we upheld the
traditions of our religion.  
When Vatican Two came along and the nuns stopped wearing their habits, my mother was not surprised.  The nuns cast off their
wimples and shortened their skirts.  They adopted their baptismal names instead
of the ones they had chosen from among the saints, many of which were masculine names, when they took their vows.  The priest on Sunday
began to read the sermon in English instead of Latin and my older sister
introduced guitars and folk singing into the church choir.  
This is how it should
be, my mother said.  In Holland, the
Catholic church is ahead of its time. 
Holland is a country ahead of its time, but Australians lack culture.
This word ‘culture’ made little sense to me then.  I associated it with art, the paintings of naked men and women in my father’s books, which I pored through secretly, hot and tingly, stirred up with feelings I could not understand.   
I associated the word culture with all things from
over the seas.  I associated it
with the workmen on building sites who wolf whistled as my sisters and I in our teens walked
past.  
These workmen I knew were foreign. 
They came mainly from the Mediterranean, from Greece and Italy, inferior
places I believed then, given the way the nuns spoke to the dark haired girls in my
class at school, but nevertheless these workmen came with an open appreciation of young
women, of beauty I imagined, and of this fearful thing called sex.
I found culture therefore to be an
embarrassing thing, something my mother esteemed and yet at the same time, even she
blushed when the workers wolf whistled.  
Surely they did not whistle at
her.  Not then I thought, not after all those years, not after so
many babies when she had grown stout and stolid in her appearance.  When the only day she bothered to dress
up was on Sunday, though every week day she streaked red lipstick across her lips in
honour of my father’s return home from work in the evening.

My hearts not in the memories
today.  I’m tired,  jaded, not
enough sleep, too much wine with dinner and then later sitting up and waiting
till two in the morning for my daughter who left home at 10.30 pm for an evening on the town and then could
not find a cab to take her home given all the other young people in the city were looking for one, too.  The waiting up and worrying.  And my mind is addled with the effort. 
While I waited I watched Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes
and cringed all the way through.  These were the attitudes that prevailed when I was
young.  Women as blond bimbos after
rich men.  Granted it is a film
built on artifice and yet there is something in those attitudes that stick.  
Yesterday, I read Anne Summers extraordinary piece about the way our female prime minister is portrayed in the media, the way she is vilified. All politicians are berated in this way, you might say, but our prime minister’s gender is used against her in extraordinary
and abusive ways that border on bullying. 
 
She is childless by choice.  She is in a relationship with a hairdresser but is not married.  She is irreligious and does not fit the norm.  There are many who despise our prime minister for this, women as well as men, though mostly men it seems, particularly among the political class who find it hard to take orders from a woman.    
It made me wonder how much
has changed.  

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