I am no revolutionary

1968, the year of revolutions, only I don’t know it then.

I’m sixteen years old in a brown uniform that has enough pink to make it the colour of mushrooms. I spend my days dressed in this uniform, as my parents have shipped me off to boarding school.

To be more precise, my oldest brother has made the decision that I should leave home along with my younger sister and together the nuns have taken us in so that we can have a roof over our heads while we continue our studies and in time get a place at the university.

The convent roof is terracotta red only I can’t see it from within the school grounds, except low down near the gutters where the tiles on the main building slope down. Otherwise you need to stand well back from the building out on the street in Vaucluse Parade to get a better view.

Even from here, you have the problem of the high fence that surrounds the school to keep girls in and to keep intruders out, and the trees.

There are trees along most of the perimeter of the school, trees that act like prison walls only some of them can be climbed.

Not that I climb them. I am no revolutionary.

In fact, my way of getting along in this life of boarding is to conform. Not only to conform to the expectations and wishes of my teachers, most of whom wear the black habit of nuns, but to be a sycophant, not that I know this then.

If I I had known, I’d cringe to the roots of my hair.

I am excessively polite to everyone. I make it my business to get to know the name of every girl in the school from year seven up. Not so difficult given the school is small with some two hundred pupils at any time.

I have worked out that the best way to get along is to love everyone, like the bible says: ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do to you’. That way you’re safe even if underneath it you hate someone to bits.

You never let it show.

Maria Rizzo hates me. I recognise this from the sneer in her voice whenever she is forced into an encounter with me, as when we are on a shared project together.

I recognise it from the way she pulls her friends aside to let me pass during recess. She does not want to include me.

Much as I try to keep on loving Maria Rizzo, I find it hard.

She is dark haired and olive skinned with the look of someone from the Mediterranean and I can see that she might struggle, too, like the other girls who come from Greece and Italy, the other girls whose skin is not pale like mine and whose hair is dark and rough in texture, a roughness that can make such hair hard to tame.

The girls from Greece and Italy in 1968 in a convent school in Richmond, Melbourne are the most unwanted ones, apart from Juliana Kibble who might well have been Australian, though her second name suggests someone foreign from England.

Most foreign of all, she walks around the school and keeps to herself.

No one wants to go near her.

Is it that she lets off a bad smell?

Her uniform looks clean enough, cleaner than mine, but she has a look of neglect. The look of someone, irrespective of uniform or her dark hair tied back in a neat ponytail, of someone you want to avoid, or else she might contaminate you with something of her abjection.

And you would become one of the outcasts, the unspeakables.

No, it is better by far to go around the school with the biggest smile plastered on my far too thin lips, making sure to keep them closed so that my teeth do not show, otherwise others might see that some of my teeth have turned the yellow brown of rot.

I befriend Juliana Kibble. I am kind to her even though she makes it hard work by not reaching out to me or to anyone else in the schoolyard.

She sits on the edge during basketball matches and while others huddle together in groups to applaud the home team when they play against visiting schools, Juliana looks as though she lives in a world of her own.

People keep a wide arc around her.

In 1968, a year as long as any other, with the usual summer, autumn, winter and spring, the seasons stay the same for me apart from changing from the mushroom brown linen school dress with its short sleeves and white collar for warm weather, into the navy tunic and white blouse topped off by a dark blue jumper and blazer for the cold.

We are not permitted to wear our blazers by day, but only when we are out on the street or during religious ceremonies.

Some girls try to keep their blazers on during class time because the rooms are Antarctic cold but they displease their teachers even as the nuns can keep warm under layers of fabric and fingerless gloves and the lay teachers wear winter coats and scarves.

‘Character building’, I hear the teachers say and go along with them in my attempts to build my own character into someone who is strong. Someone who can withstand the cold and the hatred of Maria Rizzo, along with the eerie silence of Juliana Kibble and the insults of the mathematics teacher who only likes girls who are good with sums.

I smile at this mathematical nun when she hobbles past, crippled by arthritis in her fingers and toes.

‘She’s only like that because she’s in pain,’ my sister tells me.

But my sister is better with numbers than me, nor does she choose to spend her days trying to make everyone like her.

Her job is easier. Or so I think in those days of revolution when I should have bucked the system.

When I should have tried to find a more purposeful way.

Instead, I figured if you’re in prison, then the best way to get along is to befriend guards and fellow prisoners alike, and not offend a soul, even if someone like Maria Rizzo takes offence at your overtures.

No revolutions here.

Someone as young as you

When I was fourteen years old and first decided to become a social worker in order to help families like mine, I had no idea it would take me another eight years to begin. And even then it was only a beginning.

I held my first ever job as a social worker in Prince Henry’s Hospital on St Kilda Road near the Commonwealth army barracks and the Arts Centre. The hospital was about six floors in height but they put the social work department downstairs in the basement alongside the emergency department, which you entered from a side street.

I imagined they put us in the basement as a measure of our perceived value in those days.

I had not wanted to work in a hospital but I had earlier given up a Commonwealth scholarship to go to university for a cadetship with the Health Department. This meant I needed to pay off some of my debt to the government by working in a medical establishment of sorts, though less than a year down the track I realised no one was keeping tabs on me and I could go and work wherever I pleased.

I disliked working in a hospital as a social worker as my role was somehow determined by the medicos who thought of us as folks who could iron out difficulties at home while they attended to a person’s sick or damaged body.

I hated having to front up at someone’s bed and introduce myself as Elisabeth S from the social work department.

‘Your doctors think it would be helpful for you to see someone,’ I’d say and lean over them with kind eyes.

Some people were okay and even pleased at the idea of being able to have a chat with an interested person, but others could not see the point. I could offer to help them fill out forms – boring – or help them think about how they’d manage once they arrived back home, but this was not the work I wanted to do in my life.

And so through a long series of events and under the weight of a vast back-story, I left my job at the hospital for a counselling job in the suburbs.

So many years ago.

It comes back to me now when I think about a conference I went to last weekend in which among the many highlights there was a panel on ageing.

My mother who in the days of my first forays into work was herself only beginning to age told me one day,

‘I wouldn’t want to work with someone as young as you. You lack experience. How could I have any confidence in your ability to help?’

Her words rankled. For one thing they seemed to leave me in a childlike state and it crossed my mind then I’d never be able to catch up with my mother age-wise. She would always be thirty-three years ahead of me.

At the conference, Joyce Slochower, a New York analyst, talked about the pain of finding herself invisible, in that no longer attractive and alive-to-the-possibility-of-arousing-sexual-desire-in-another type of way that women over the age of fifty find.

She told the story of how one day she was talking with a friend in her bedroom when the friend noticed the photo of a young woman on the dresser.

‘Was that you?’ Her friend asked incredulous. ‘Was that really you?’

And Slochower felt a frisson of annoyance.

What did her friend mean by ‘was’?

‘Yes. That’s me when I was younger,’ she said and then later wondered about this idea of how we view our old selves from the vantage point of years, as if we’re talking about someone else.

Our old self is no longer us.

It’s something most of us beyond the age of forty will recognise. The way we looked in our teens and twenties as against the way we look now.

‘Our old selves’, the ones with whom we need to keep a nodding acquaintance. Remember how we once were but not become too distressed by the difference.

At this conference, I came across a colleague I had not seen for a decade. We had both changed and yet we recognised each other instantly. We could not have changed so much that our faces did not carry the traces of who we once were, recognisable even after death.

Though that was not the case with my mother once the embalmers got to her.

I suspect my mother would have wanted to be laid out and made to look beautiful. It was one of her claims to fame, her beauty, but I could not even bring myself to take a photo of her while she lay embalmed in that casket on the night of her vigil because they had puffed out her face and stoked up her eyebrows such that she looked nothing like the mother I knew.

Before they touched her face, my mother looked familiar, even in death. Afterwards she was a stranger.

Her still body reminded me of a time when my mother was in her late sixties and had a new set of dentures fitted. She looked so different, I could not stop looking at her, as if she had become someone else.

Age creeps up on us and if we continue to see one another daily we scarcely notice but for those who slip out of view for several years and then return back into our lives years later, the comparison on both sides can be startling.

Even as we might still feel like eighteen years old inside, we have entered the position of the no longer young.

My mother cannot question my experience now. Not from her grave.

Now I can at last catch up with her.

A Grim thought.