A tide of children and of mess

It’s hard not to be repulsed when the puppy eats poo, as though something disgusting is happening and I’m powerless to stop it.

When I first saw it happening, I googled –  as you do –  and Mr Google says ‘Don’t worry. It’s normal.’ 

If it persists it could be a sign of not enough nourishment in your puppy’s diet, or a bad habit the puppy develops because you were too strict in stopping said puppy from eating poo in the first place.

It becomes a way for the puppy of getting attention. 

Best therefore to make sure there’s no poo around to act as a temptation.

All of this sits alongside my dis-ease given today we have some people visiting to sign their wills, which my lawyer husband prepared, and I will need to be present as an impartial witness. 

I’m happy to be here. Happy to engage but not in this house, this messy house in which we have lived for the past forty years, this cluttered house whose skirting boards were never finished, with paint chipped at the back door and cracks in the ceilings.

This house which we have stopped maintaining as rigorously as we might ever since we completed a second renovation twenty-five years ago. 

A beautiful house but a tired one. And it shows. A house with wrinkles like an elderly person.

The people coming to have their wills signed live in Vogue living comfort and order and it troubles me that they might judge us as slobs.

It’s not as bad as the house where I lived as a child. Here the dishes are not piled high on the sink. The floors are vacuumed. But the stuff on almost every surface gives it a cluttered feel. 

Years ago, I worked with a woman who worried about hoarding. She’s dead now and I wonder whether her fears of hoarding have made any difference to her in the long run. They did not keep her alive.

I try to think this way about my anxiety over what I imagine to be these judgmental visitors.

I like to welcome people into my house free of the fear that they will find me lacking for something as trivial as a messy house. I prefer people to judge me for my mind.

But my mind is well hidden behind my eyes and face. So, they can’t see it. They can only get hints of what’s in there. Whereas my messy house is obvious. So many things out of place. So many things not put away. 

Speaking of mess, my mother kept a slab of Nulax on top of the fridge in our kitchen which she took out of its orange and brown box daily and broke off a piece. She chewed it for her bowels.

Sluggish bowels she told me, and all I could think of was the word sluggish, like slugs, black and slimy and somehow repulsive to think of down there in her bowels. 

I tried the Nulax once. Revolting stuff, dense dried fruit jam packed with fig and seeds from some non identifiable fruit that stuck in the holes in my teeth. 

Then there’s the absence of emotional mess.

I have a good friend. I shall call her Mary. A good name for a woman with a heart of gold. A woman whom everyone loves. And the fact that everyone loves her – including me – makes me want to hate her. Makes me want to take her place in the beloved states. 

How does she do it? Make it so that people love her and admire her and trust her and offer her their loyalty and trust.

Why do I distrust such goodness? I recognize it as authentic and yet…

Whenever I hear stories about the importance of love and the need to put aside our grievances, to let them slide away, not harbor any resentment or hatred, a part of me rails against the order.

For one thing it seems boring. A life without any acrimony seems saccharin sweet, fake. I enjoy a burst of hatred sometimes, a sense of anger and outrage and feeling of being wounded and nursing my grievance like a comfortable old doll.

I want to hold onto it for a while.

My friend Mary works hard not to hold such grievances. She reckons they foster splitting. She reckons we need to recognize the good in others and not see them simply as the enemy.

She’s right of course. 

I think of a talk I once heard in which the academic talked about the poet John Keats and his ideas on ‘negative capability’. How much Keates despised the absolutist certainties of a certain bigot named Dodds.

Keats wrote letters about this man whom he despised for his certainty and yet in despising him Keats became almost as certain as the man whose certainties Keats despised. 

Such is the paradox of having ideas and inflicting them on others. We get stuck in the same mode. We put these people we hate into some separate category and become hateful ourselves.

How would it be if we were Dalai-like and filled with nothing but love.

Boring, I say. 

Besides, I suspect it’s impossible to be so without any unkindness towards another that you can only see good in everyone.

My mother tried this. It never worked. She hated one of my aunts, one who had married one of her several brothers. My mother could never admit as much. Instead she pointed out my aunt’s flaws behind a wall of concern for her brother that his wife could be so irreligious as to no longer attend Mass on Sundays. 

This aunt had suffered during the war in Indonesia. She had seen her brother shot dead by Japanese soldiers hence her foibles could be forgiven. And my mother tried to give an impression of tolerance. 

I sensed the dislike was mutual. My aunt disproved of my mother in equal measure. For different reasons.

My mother had so many children but was useless at keeping them clean and well fed. My aunt was a nurse. She knew about order. Whereas my mother read books to escape the mess. She found order in the written word and ignored the mess of her kitchen, dishes piled on the sink. Washing squashed down flat in a basket in the corner waiting to be folded. My older sister’s job.

Maybe my mother and I have more in common than I’d like to admit.

We lived in squalor as children and I blamed my mother.

And then years later when we were grown up and had left home, my mother remarried. After my father’s death and she moved into her new husband’s home not far from where we lived on Warringal Road in Cheltenham. My mother kept this new house clean and tidy. 

I could not understand it. How did he do it? And why?

Why didn’t she stretch her lazy habits into her sixties and seventies? 

Only lately it occurs to me, anyone with nine children is going to have a messy house, unless they run it like a military operation, like Captain Van Trapp in The Sound of Music.

No, my mother was doing her best against a tide of children and mess.

Maybe I can likewise forgive myself my clutter.

I too do not live alone, and I will not dedicate my entire life to the stuff of picking up after others, including the puppy. Though once a week I find myself in the back yard collecting her poo. 

A wonderful woman and her ‘dripping tap’ look.

In an essay on her biography of Charmian Clift, Nadia Wheatley describes the expression on Cressida Morely’s face (the name Clift’s husband, George Johnston, gave his wife, in his fictional, albeit autobiographical, book Clean Straw for Nothing) as her ‘dripping tap look’, a look that suggests a distance, an absent quality of mind that others also saw in the writer, Clift. 

Wheatley’s essay transported me back beyond the images I’ve seen of Charmian Clift on the beach at Hydra with her sun-soaked family and friends, to memories of my mother on the beach. 

Years earlier, 1947, my mother at the beach in Holland.

To my mother’s ‘dripping tap look’ as she lifted her eyes towards the horizon and hooded them with her hand to block out the sun.

‘My father is over there on the other side of the world. My father, my home,’ my mother said. Her hand dropped from her eyes, her shoulders slumped, and she sat back on her towel to hide behind a book.

Nadia Wheatley writes about the way Charmian Clift throughout her lifetime sought to create the image of a happy childhood. 

Clift believed this, along with the rest of her family, and yet there are suggestions that things were not so, especially given Clift ended her life by taking it.

Most people remember Charmian Clift, and her charmed existence in Greece, wife of the famed author of My Brother Jack and a writer in her own right. She kept a column in the Sydney and Melbourne Heralds when women’s voices were mostly relegated to the cookery and social columns.

Mostly people remember Clift’s suicide and the nagging question, why did she do it?  

Mid-forties but with a drinking problem that might well have contributed to her impulse to overdose on barbiturates. To kill the pain. But that was not the image created.

It left me thinking again of my mother’s life, and the way she too held firm to a belief that her childhood was blissful. But unlike Clift, my mother lived a long life, one she did not want to end. 

Or at least not until those last few weeks when she fell so ill that her body could not sustain life any longer. When she refused to eat any more and could not so much as raise her body out from under the sheets. She wanted nothing then but to be left alone. 

My mother took some time to die even as she had lost her optimism and determination to get that letter from the queen on her one hundredth birthday.

Who’d want a letter from the queen? my republican self asks. But my mother came from a country whose monarchy was even more token than Britain’s. 

The names of Juliana and Beatrix, the people of the Dutch Royal family peppered my mother’s words throughout my childhood. 

She longed for the pomp and ceremony of the Dutch Royals, Queen Wilhelmina, at the helm. She took more interest in the doings of that family than in the British Royal Family. 

My mother’s tastes impacted me deeply as a child. Her love of the actor, Grace Kelly, married to Prince Rainier, and living the life of the wealthy and carefree in Monaco. My mother created such images of this family again, a good family, with good values and what a tragedy that Grace Kelly should have died in a car accident.

Secrets and lies in families, Nadia Wheatly writes, to describe the story of her subject, the wonderful Charmian Clift. 

My husband had a joke he repeated often when my mother was alive. He referred to her as a ‘wonderful woman’.

The idea of being wonderful suited my mother, but not when coming from the sarcasm of my husband’s words. I suspect she knew he saw through her façade. Her love of all things respectable, particularly when garlanded by the church. 

My mother wept when they buried the American president of the sixties John Kennedy, following his assassination, but she had no idea of the womanizing that went on behind the scenes. 

My mother needed things to be lovely and wonderful even when they were not. 

When I was a child and we walked the streets of Camberwell on our way to Mass, my mother pointed out the houses along Mont Albert Road and highlighted the ones she would like to live in. The ones that reminded her of the Marnixplein, her home in Haarlem, the home she longed for, the place that was large enough to house her family of seven children along with a young aunt who stayed with them for several years to help her mother, my oma, who was not a strong woman and could not manage the household unaided. 

I sneer at the thought of my oma, this fragile woman, while another part of me wonders at how hard it must have been for her, just as it was for my mother. Both women who dedicated their lives to the care of children, many children, not just one or two. 

Between the two of them, they brought nineteen people into the world and even though I have read about some women who have given birth to that number single handedly, it is still a feat. Even in the world of excessive population growth where people maintain we need to reduce our numbers, not increase them. 

For my mother the number of her children and then grandchildren and later even her great grandchildren was something to crow about.

She loved to see the expression on other people’s faces when she told them she had nine children. 

‘What a wonderful woman’, my husband said of my mother, the woman who had so many children and who rated her value in those terms.

 Even as she left Holland because she felt pressure in that small country to reduce the size of her family. Or so she once told me. 

What could she do? She was raised a Catholic. Not for her contraception, even after her eleventh child was still born and the doctor told her, she must stop having children or run the risk of dying herself. 

The early nineteen sixties and my memory is shrouded by mist. 

Did I see a pill packet in her bedroom on the dressing table? 

Did my older sister tell me this story? 

Did my mother go to the priest and tell him in confession that she must resist the Pope’s ruling on contraception and take the pill because her husband had needs she could not satisfy, without running the risk of further pregnancies. 

My mother was forty-three when this last baby was born dead and no other babies followed. 

The other day I walked with my daughter and the dogs through the side streets around our house. We talked as usual about the houses and the gardens much as my mother and I once talked of the houses around our house in Camberwell and I was left with a sense of longing, of memories catching up on me.

‘I wanted so much to live in a double-storey house when I was a child,’ I told my daughter.

 Now I see it as a burden, all those steps. But then it was the epitome of wealth, the essence of that happy childhood to which my mother laid claim, the childhood that evaded me. 

I think I prefer it this way. 

I don’t want anyone to say of me, ‘She was a wonderful woman,’ and to hear the hint of sarcasm in their voices, a counter to the lives they led, the fantasy of that impossible experience, a happy childhood.