An unsent letter

A letter to my analyst

Dear Mrs Milanova

It’s high time I wrote to you. I’m here in a place called Yarck near Alexandra on a writing retreat. One aimed at helping me and eight others, all women from the same age demographic, develop our writing skills.

But here in Yarck I want to do more. I want to write about our time together, yours and mine, when I was one of your many patients and you were my one and only analyst. 

That sets up the imbalance for starters. You were like a movie star to me and held the same thrall while I was simply one of your many fans. Maybe that emulated my experience growing up in a family, all those siblings and only one mother to go around. And one mother who gave up going around soon after the birth of each one of us in turn.

As babies up till three months she managed to breast feed; beyond that the weaning and then by the time we could walk and talk even before we were out of nappies we had to find ways of managing with the help of older brothers and sisters, sisters mainly, to get by.

You helped to steer me through that morass of memory, a childhood full of people, too many people and only one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and a father who roamed the house at night in search of beds to share, with daughters whose bodies did not welcome such visits and only one, my older sister with whom he stayed over time.

All this until our mother, the one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and tried to resist our father’s overtures for fear of yet another pregnancy, caught him in the act. Caught him with her first-born daughter and warned him off. 

‘If you come here again, I’ll kill you.’ Fierce words and she meant them only once our father was full of brandy and oblivious to the taboos of parental ties, he forgot her threat and resumed his visits and my sister who disliked these visits so much got herself out of bed around five o’clock and walked through the streets of Camberwell to the church in Deepdene alone, determined to spend the rest of the morning before school at Mass. 

People thought she was devout. Nun material and she toyed with this, entry into a convent as a way of escape but it did not matter for the sacristy after Mass each day held sway when the priest invited her to join him there. But the priest was kinder that our father when he held her in his arms and stroked her hair and kissed her full on the mouth and offered her love.

Better than our father who was more interested in the sexual side of love even if misplaced onto his first-born daughter.

No not his first-born, that daughter was dead already at five months of age from some sort of meningitis in war torn Holland. She was buried there in a small grave in Heilo where our mother had taken her in the hope of finding food during the Honger Winter of 1945. 

The war ended and their daughter dead, my father stayed with the army reserve and they shipped him off to Indonesia for two years so that he could fight and lose against the Indonesians in their bid for independence.

It gave our mother a two-year respite between babies, though she visited her our father once while he was in England, on officer training and her second son arrived as a result. 

This first born daughter, at least the one who lived beyond five months, took the place of our mother, as cook and cleaner. Every Saturday she slaved under piles of washing, the dirty underwear, socks, shorts and dresses of eleven people while our mother took herself off to work to look after other people’s children in a children’s reception centre to augment the family income. 

Our father earned good money as an accountant but hated to spend it on children, as much as he did. He drew the line at paying the school fees at the Catholic school our mother insisted we children attend. 

So my older sister took on the role of housekeeper and second wife to our father and I stood next in line to take her place or so I believed though I rebelled in silence by hiding in the back yard whenever chore time started on Saturday mornings or paying lip service only to the clean-up of our bedroom, the one single task my older sister allocated to me.

I hid away and with my younger sister we went to the swimming pool in Camberwell in summer and to the park in winter.

I bore witness to these events, preferring to observe than to participate, always on the edge, never at the centre. Though I longed to find that central place, I did not want it with my father but with my mother.

I never found it with her even though she passed on her name to me, the same name she bore in full and yet I could not matter to her as much as when I was a small child, I imagined I did. 

Always the one who suffered the most, my older sister held sway with both parents. Both turned to her, both took from her and in a strange way gave to her the label of victim, the one member of the family who suffered the most and as suffering holds much sway within the Catholic church her place was cemented in sainthood while the one who stands nearby and looks on holds the uncertain role of messenger and whistle blower.  

We all hate tittle tattlers and even as I write to you Mrs Milanoiva from this writing retreat at Yarck, the sense of rule breaking and rebellion runs through me.

Whistle-blowers break the rules of the established order by calling out the secrets of authority, by exposing chinks in the armour of those who rule. They destabilise the situation and lead to wars and trouble and unhappiness because they cannot sit still on the periphery and see that things are not quite right while hoping against hope that they too might get a chance to speak their mind on centre stage while ever fearful of what might come out when they try.

Enough of this long rant. It is time to rest my keyboard heavy fingers and move onto other words. 

Elisabeth 

Haunted

I checked the outside temperature this morning before I could allow myself to turn on the heating. I was cold but didn’t trust my own internal temperature gauge.

As if I need external permission to make adjustments. Especially as I get older. 

My mother told me these things as I was growing up and now it’s my turn to pass on the message to my children.

Your body changes as you age. Your sensitivity to the climate changes. You feel the cold more, the heat less. You can’t eat as much and your passion for certain foods, especially the sweet ones, diminishes. 

Though it can be different for different people. My husband and I battle over the amount of chilli he adds to his cooking, or sumac or Aleppo pepper. He’s heavy on the spices. As he ages, he wants more. 

As I get older, I’m more interested in the bland. At least food wise. Not too many shocks in taste to assault my senses. While my husband’s appear to have become less sensitised. 

 I cannot suggest that my experience is universal, but I find my mother’s words resonate.

How I hated to hear them when I was young. How I hated her prognostications for the future as if she was ruling out other possibilities for me. 

I have a friend who has read much of what I’ve written and tells me that my mother remains an enigma to her. My father less so. 

Why does it matter? Why must I try to resurrect my mother on the page? To keep her alive for posterity. To flesh out her form. 

My mother was a short woman – five foot two inches –  made more so, in contrast to my father who stood a good foot taller. He was lean and she was round. Like Jack Spratt and his wife. 

Jack sprat would eat no fat, his wife would eat no lean and so between the two of them they licked the platter clean. 

Such a metaphor for a marriage of contrasts. My parents too. She religious to her core. He atheistic with occasional agnostic tendencies when he went on search for meaning beyond his own miseries.                         

My mother read newspapers, the Catholic Advocate, the evening Herald and the morning Age in much the same way my husband reads his newspapers from top to bottom.

My father read newspapers, too, but much like me, he often skimmed the pages as if he was in search of something else there. Skim along the surface of the words rather than embed himself in them. In a rush. 

My father’s state of mind is one I inherited with my determination to keep on the move, to flit from one thing to the next. 

Yesterday I read the story of one Celia Paul, a British artist who was once the lover/partner of the great Lucian Freud, the grandson of the great Sigmund Freud and a man whose art I admire but whose personality I loathe. 

Lucian Freud apparently has some forty children to his name. He liked to spread his seed. There’s a megalomaniacal quality to the man and the way Celia Paul talks about her time with him, reminds me of the oppression of my own father. 

These men who insist you take your place further down the table while he sits at the head.

Ironically, my husband prefers to sit at the head of our table too but he can shift around if necessary, but only if necessary. 

Celia Paul came into my mind as I was writing because she calls herself an autobiographical artist and her subjects are portraits of family, her sisters, her mother and her son, Frank.

She could never complete the portrait of Lucian Freud that she tackled towards the end of his life. 

Reading between the lines, where she talks about portraits as needing to be imbued with love – otherwise they become forced – she did not love him anymore.

Such prodigious talent and such a bastard. 

These things trot around my mind. Watching the ‘fictional’ story of one Patrick Melrose on my computer screen, the story of a man addicted to alcohol who manages to give up cocaine and other drugs for a better life to the point he can marry and have two sons of his own, but dogged by the childhood trauma of a father who sexually abused him, who raped him repeatedly when he was a small boy.

 The images won’t leave me. I woke this morning to let the dog out for a pee and when I climbed back into bed the images formed in my mind, that small boy and his father and I could not get back to sleep. 

Although the movie only hinted at what happened in the bedroom behind the closed door, my mind went into overdrive filling in the gaps. 

I had a dream once, many years ago where two men broke into my house and one of them threatened to rape my small daughter. I woke in a panic yelling at him. Did he not recognise the size of his erect penis while her body was so tiny? 

It’s this difference in size, this vast confusion between the body of a child and that of an adult that the father in the film, and my own father confused.

I have also had dreams in which I morphed back into feeling like a child, as I’ve watched my children when they were little trying to wedge their three-year-old bodies into a toy Barbie car. A car big enough for doll passengers but not for a full-sized toddler. 

In my own dream I was in Richmond and trying to fit into my red sports car parked on the street, a miniature Barbie car, my leg first, and I could not even get my big toe inside. 

An Alice in wonderland dream but at least in Alice’s story there is no sense that she hurts people the way the father in Patrick Melrose’s story hurts his young son. 

Even as I write these things I fear putting images into the minds of others, the trauma this arouses and at the same time, I reckon we need to consider this, otherwise we won’t do our utmost to stop it from happening again and again.

Not a great shot of the family into which I was born, including my father. I’m seated behind his leg. He had rushed into this spot after activating the camera’s timer, ready to capture us all for posterity. The insert in the corner features my father with my older sister in Holland during better times.