A scarlet letter

If I had not gone to visit him that day, if I had not decided, to hell with caution, to hell with my studies,
to hell with propriety, I would not have lost my virginity.  
I would not have entered into the world of
sexual experience that marked me, in my own mind at least, as an adult woman,
no longer virginal, no longer innocent.
And, although it did not show on
the outside, I feared it could radiate outwards and everyone would know that I
had fallen from grace. 
The clichés run thick and
I was nineteen years old.  The following Sunday I went to Mass at St
Patricks in Mentone.  I sat, stood or knelt
in line with the priest’s words, and chanted my responses to his droning.  I listened to his sermon without taking in a single
word of what he had said and wondered why it was that cracks had not appeared
in the brick walls of the church, or why a voice had not roared from on high to
say that I had sinned so badly I deserved to be punished for evermore. 
Even my mother who sat beside me on
the hard pew did not seem to notice.  She,
whom I once thought could read my mind, did not detect the telltale signs of my
As the time for Communion drew near,
I panicked.  I could not take Holy Communion
given my sinful state but if I did not line up with everyone else come Communion
time, my sin would be obvious – the nature of it not, perhaps – but its severity,
as plain as the Scarlet Letter around Hester Prynne’s neck. 
The memory of this dilemma stays
with me, but its resolution does not. 

Did I stay in my seat, my
sinfulness on display for all, or did I manage to sneak up and pretend to take
Communion, only to skulk back to my seat without the host in my mouth.  Or worst
of all, did I take Communion as if I were without sin to escape detection and so
commit the greatest sin of all, the blasphemy of receiving the body of Christ in a state of
mortal sin?
First Holy Communion Day, before the sin.  
Every memory has to matter.  It’s not good enough to tell a story, to offer
an anecdote, to introduce an image without some understanding of its
significance, or so my daughter, who has started a class in creative writing at university, tells me.  
I have enrolled in a poetry class
for beginners.  In the beginning it is
easier to learn before the expectations of knowledge set in.  
I fear my poems will be simple things, unable
to transcend the ordinary, unable to offer resonance or layers of meaning.  
I will clunk around in average words with my
narrow vocabulary and the small girl inside of me, who as a ten year old
fancied herself as a poet, will get in the way. 
She will say to me, you have to
sound smart.  You have to use big and clever
words.  It does not matter what they
mean, it only matters that they look good on the page and that the grown ups
who read your poems will be gobsmacked and in awe of the cleverness of a ten
year old who can write such things. 
And I will scold myself for my
clumsiness.  My blood will quicken and my gut churn because underneath I will know, it is all a

The sound of her voice

Traces of my mother are everywhere.  In the cups in my kitchen cupboard, the mock crystal sugar jar beside the
jug and the dinted green tea caddy my mother had used for years. 
I do not need these things but
could not bear to see them shipped off to strangers. 
My sister, brother and I cleared
out the last of our mother’s belongings last weekend.  There were things we should have sent to the opportunity
shop but my sister and I took it in turns to lament our inability to part with
And so among other things, I found
myself taking home my mother’s small two-seater couch.

The couch is in good condition but
it has a striped and floral pattern that goes with nothing in my already over cluttered
I took home my mother’s
bookshelf, the one my father built over thirty years ago in the months after he had stopped drinking and was trying to make amends.  
I took home the small cabinet
on which my mother’s TV sat.  I took home
the crucifix.
The crucifix spent its life on the
mantelpiece of my childhood.  It holds
sentimental value for me more than anything else, but it gives my daughters the
They reckon it is fearsome.  They did not grow up in the same religious
tradition as me.  They see a man spreadeagled
on a cross.  They see cruelty and
I see a memory of my childhood
home.  A man on a crucifix did not
trouble me then because it was so much part of the story of our lives, and I knew
he did not stay that way for long. 
Life has slipped back into normal
gear but every so often I hear my mother’s voice in my head and remember then
that I will never hear her again.
There’s a you tube clip doing the
rounds of a profoundly deaf baby who gets hooked up to a machine that
enables him to hear sounds.  He is surrounded
by his mother, the specialist and an assistant or two and you hear them
chattering in the background while the camera focuses on the boy’s face.  His eyes light up to the sounds, as if for
the first time in his short life there is a new activity going on in his
He smiles, again and again, and leaves
off the grizzling from when they first shoved an earplug into his ear, into a
wide-eyed state of delight at the sound of his mother’s voice.
My mother’s voice was thick with
Dutch.  There were a few English words
she could never manage, words like enthusiastic, which on her tongue became antogestic, and psychiatrist became psychiater
There are Dutch words I use myself
these days and I have to stop to find the English translation for them, words
like stoffer and blick for dustpan and brush.
I try to feel sad about my mother
now, but I cannot muster a feeling.  It’s
as if my feelings for her have moved into cold storage.  I do not understand this.
 Last week at the retirement village as I
carried yet another box of my mother’s belongings to my car I met a woman who claimed
to have known my mother well.  This woman
leaned on her walker, much as I mother did before those final weeks when she
could not get out of bed.
‘Your mother was
a lovely woman,’ the woman on the walker said. 
‘She never missed a thing.  Sharp
she was.’  And the woman
went onto tell me how one day my mother had remarked to her on how much she
loved her tea.
‘How many cups
of tea must she have drunk over her lifetime,’  the woman said.  ‘She was nearly 95 wasn’t she?’  How
many cups of tea my mother had wondered and then she joked with the woman about the
number of Hail Marys she must have said. 
I staggered to the door several more times with the bric a brac of my mother’s life, her books, her lamps, the
cushions from her couch and then thought of the people who sat around the dining
room and library area there, the people who go on living in my mother’s retirement
village.   Another one down.  
Whenever I read the obituaries I
think to myself what will it be like when my name features among the names of the
recently dead? 
It’s a grim thought, but the names
in the obituary are names that seem innocuous and ordinary, and now these
people are no more, like my mother. 

I knew it would be like this: this
eerie sense of being next in line for death.