A suitcase full of secrets

Yesterday a letter arrived from Holland from my cousin, Lilo, who lives in Switzerland. She sent me a copy of my aunt’s obituary along with a few handwritten words of greeting and acknowledgement.

The letter is in German, as is the obituary, and although I can make out the meaning of some words, without the help of our German house guest, I would not be able to know that my cousin writes to ask where I fit into the scheme of things.

She also acknowledges that her mother died with a suitcase of secrets still strapped to her chest.

Not until her nineties, did my aunt tell her daughter Lilo that she had experienced terrible things as a child. She would not elaborate, beyond the description of Lilo’s grandfather as a tyrant who believed that women should not be educated and were fit only for housework.

This aunt is the youngest of my father’s siblings and so the story goes to the grave with her. We will never know the truth of what happened in my father’s family, only the bare bones.

Historians might root around in the archives and try to piece together the jig saw of our lives but unless there is someone out there still alive who can bear witness to the events of my father’s life and that of his sister as small children then we are left to guess, as I have been guessing all my life.

I do not fully understand the way people hold such secrets from the light. I understand the pain might be unbearable, but to carry such knowledge and not to share it with another who is concerned and interested seems unfathomable to me and yet this is so.

There are many who want the past to stay hidden as a black hole in experience that others in the present and future can only guess at.

I imagine things went terribly wrong in my father’s family from the extent that things went terribly wrong in my own, from the few things he said to me when I was a child, not all of it war related.

When I was small, maybe as young as five or six, I sat once on his lap. We were on holidays in Edithvale in the house that an uncle let us borrow for a week or so each summer. An old shack among a series of holiday places, it was a short walk to the beach and I could hear the waves in the distance and by day the caw of sea gulls.

This particular evening we had finished dinner and I chose to sit on my father’s lap, a thing I have no memory of doing as an older child and not something I would ever do willingly when I was older.

At this stage of my life I was young enough for my father not to terrify me, not yet.

‘Where is your family? I asked my father. ‘Your mother and father, your sisters and brothers?’

My mother had talked endlessly about her own family back in Holland but my father travelled alone in the world. I asked the question with the innocence of the curious young. I wanted to know about my other Oma and Opa, about my other uncles and aunties.

‘Look into my eyes,’ my father said. ‘They are black and evil. I have no family.’

Something in his words, something in their tone, propelled me from his lap.

I could not bear the idea that my own father was evil. That he had no one. That he had come from nowhere and I ran from the room in tears.

‘Don’t be so stupid’ I heard my mother say behind me, not to me but to my father. She said it in Dutch Do nit so fou (sic), or words to that effect. Don’t be foolish perhaps or cruel or hardhearted.

In my mind it all began then, this life long search for the meaning of my father’s experience.

When my aunt Nell’s obituary arrived, I felt another door close but at the same time a crack opened up elsewhere, a crack that must be further prised apart because of the language barrier.

My cousin wants to know about her mother’s story from me. As far as I can, I will tell her.

She’s been kept in the dark for too long.

A little anxiety is good for you

There are times when I can almost feel the cortisol surging through my blood, times when my blood pressure rises and I can hear the thrumming of my over excited heart.

I ask myself why, when already I know the answer.

Performance anxiety: the thought that next week I will speak on the radio on a topic that’s dear to me – mental illness and fiction – and the fantasy that the interviewer will ask a question and my voice will seize up mid sentence.

I tell myself it’s okay to be apprehensive, a little anxiety is good. It means you care. It means you’ll sharpen up your senses in readiness.

Have you noticed when people are bored in their presentations, these people have given up caring about the topic or the people to whom they present? They don’t feel any anxiety, only the dull emptiness of a long yawn.

No such yawns for me.

‘You need to take your anxiety seriously,’ my mentor said to me many years ago, and for the first time in my life I began to wonder, did I have a problem?

Up till then, those times when my heart raced, my blood ran thin and my breath grew short, made sense to me. There was always a reason to feel anxious. It was all about feeling scared.

Scared of what I might find when I opened the front door. What state my father might be in, sober or drunk, jolly or in a rage.

At school, I worried that my uniform would not stay clean enough, the safety pins that held up my hem might be visible, a torn sleeve obvious.


All these were signs of my not being satisfactory, but they made sense.

When my mentor told me to take my anxiety seriously, she planted a seed.

There was something wrong with me for being scared.

A reasonable person would not tremble at a sudden crash. A reasonable person would not be alarmed when the car speedometer rose to over one hundred kilometres. A reasonable person would not worry about what was over the next hill.

But I worried about these things, and still do.


‘You drive and I’ll navigate,’ my sister said last Saturday when we arrived at the car hire depot at Canberra airport.

I had wanted to drive. My navigational skills are appalling, besides I like to take charge of the wheel when I’m in the car, except when my husband drives. His driving I trust, more than my own.

Last week, my sister and I drove from Canberra through Queanbeyan on our way to the coast. In most places the road was narrow, two lanes only with several points where there was opportunity for speedier drivers to pass the slower ones.

It wasn’t an easy journey, winding roads that demanded complete concentration and all the time my heart racing as it is now, my hands clammy on the wheel and my sister beside me chatting away as though oblivious to my distress.

I complained to her about the drivers on my tail, the ones who wanted to get past but could not, given the double lines. They had to wait till we reached an overtaking section and I pitched myself into their heads: ‘Old woman driver, bad as a learner.’

The hire car we’d selected, a small white Mitsubishi, had no stamina. Getting up hills I needed to flatten the accelerator and often times the car sounded as though it might conk out before we reached the top.

Going down hills was just as bad. The steering wheel felt loose under my hands, as though it might take off in either direction. Many times, I imagined us running off the road or onto on-coming traffic.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn in Broulee in good time for lunch. My sister was starving but the nearest place we could find sold fish and chips and pizza. She settled for grilled fish, while I elected to have yet another hot chocolate, my stomach filled with acid from the journey.

Various family members who were also staying in the hotel arrived over the course of the afternoon in readiness for an evening barbeque at the home of distant relatives in Mossy Point.

My sister and I shared a room in the Holiday Inn.

We were up early on the Sunday ready to strike out to Broulee Island, keen to sort out the distance and time it might take to reach our destination, the reason for this trip in the first place. The scattering of my niece’s ashes.

I write this here now and an image of my niece flashes before my eyes. There are tears behind them.

It’s too soon to be writing this.


Are the connections evident to you?

Performance anxiety, speaking on the radio, your voice carried out across the airwaves can be as frightening as travelling along the Kings Highway over the mountains, up steep hills and down, through multiple hair pin bends.

To travel along an unfamiliar road, terrified you might lose control of what feels like a tin car on toy wheels, when you lack experience at both.

And death, my beloved niece’s death. A death that came too soon.