A letter to my father

Dear Dad

I know it’s against the rules to blame anyone, but I blame you. I’m all grown up now and should know better, even so, it’s hard to get beyond that sense that I keep chasing you in all these men I’ve met over the years who turn out wrong, not because they themselves are wrong but because they’re not you, the you I needed when I was little.

You even spelled my name wrong on my birth certificate, not that it was you who spelled out the letters. You must have gone to Births, Deaths and Marriages to register my name and sat in a small office with a clerk whose job it was to take down the details. And you got it all wrong, my name spelled in the English way and not the European and even the births of my other siblings, the ones who came before me, you listed in the wrong chronological order.

How could you do that? Were you addled, too overwhelmed by the birth of your seventh child, your sixth child living, to notice that the clerk put down a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, to notice that the clerk listed your first born daughter as younger than her older brother.

These things matter, to me at least, even if they did not matter to you. It’s the order of things. The way we’re put onto this earth to live out lives in a certain order in families from oldest to youngest, but you paid it all little heed. We could all be one just mess of children, each one indistinguishable from the other.

And then that decision to name me after my mother, your wife. What about that decision? Did you have a say in it? I found out later I should have been named Petronella after your mother, but my mother told me you hated her so much, your mother that you wanted none of your children to be saddled with that name. That was good of you. Bad enough to be saddled with my mother’s name but then to cop your mother’s name, the one you supposedly hated, far worse.

You were tall and intelligent enough to beat Barry Jones on Pick a Box not that you’d have tried. You’d have had to front up on the television screen in front of all those viewers. Not for you the performance, at least not one held in public. You preferred your own company but then from time to time when you grew lonely you took off in search of one of your daughters, one would do, preferably the oldest but if she was not available and my mother was nowhere to be seen you’d go after me or one of my younger sisters.

But I was smart, Dad. I knew how to avoid you. I knew how to make myself invisible, as thin as a sheet of paper. I knew how to slide from room to room on tiptoes, silent as a beetle and just as small, and you did not see me as I slid down the hallway past those double glass doors that led into your chamber whenever you called out my name.

You called and you called and the more you called the more I plugged my ears and hid from view, from you, from everyone. Out back to the laundry toilet with the door closed tight even without a lock. You refused locks in our house. You wanted access at all times but you could never access me, could you Dad? You could never get to me, inside my body, under my skin or into my brain.

I held firm. I held you at arm’s length and now I have to suffer the consequences, the guilt that slides like treacle down my back and sticks to every pore of my skin, making it hard to breathe.

My younger sisters weren’t as smart as me. They heard your call. They came when you called. They went into your bedroom and closed the door behind, and even though they were five and eight and I do not know what happened behind that door, nor am I ever likely to know because the older one of those sisters has sealed her lips tight like a clam and she will not speak to me nor to any of the others and the younger one cannot remember other than to tell me how ten years later when she was fifteen and we older ones had all left home, she heard you at her doorway late one night.

She knew you were there. She knew you were naked. She could see your silhouette against the hall way light. She knew it had reached the stage it was her turn, but our mother arrived in the nick of time.

‘Leave her alone,’ our mother said and you skulked away like a rodent. Never to pester her again, except in her nightmares.

As for me, you still appear in my dreams, not as often as before. I can still feel your presence at night in the dark when I tread over cold tiles to the toilet and hold my breath fearful of your touch. Always your touch, the touch I avoided throughout my childhood, the touch I feared that has made me now into a woman afraid, afraid of closeness, afraid of penetration, a woman who has sealed herself off from too much bodily connection. And I could not reclaim my body long after you had left. No body, no chance of penetration, no chance of invasion, no chance of the burning touch that drives even stronger people mad.

1953-41

A psychological sandwich

I am my mother’s daughter. When I was in my early twenties, when I first began to develop a will of my own, when I first discovered the thrill of rebellion and quietly thumbed my nose at my mother’s religiosity and what I then saw as her prudery, and began to favour the company of men – what I have called my ‘promiscuous’ years – my mother took to writing me letters.

My mother writes letters still even though we live less than twenty kilometers apart. She writes to all her children as a means of stating her case.

My mother’s letters to me are ‘psychological sandwiches’. They begin with protests of her love for me. The middle carries the sting. What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are? Behaving so loosely with men. Where are your morals?

Then she might end the letter with a short vignette: her memory of me as a little girl in a yellow jumper and tartan skirt, after she had come home from hospital with my new baby sister, when I was less than two years old and had been left in the care of my godparents, the Kaandorps, for over a week.

In her letter my mother remembers me then as the little girl who threw herself into her mother’s arms and wept for the sheer joy of being together again. If only, my mother writes, if only she could give to me now the things I needed then. It is as if she wishes that I had never grown up, that I had never entered into the world of adulthood, of conflict and of challenge. If only I had stayed little, then our bond might be secure.

I have been reading Nancy Miller’s Bequest and Betrayal:memoirs of a parent’s death, a book about adult children who write about their parents after death. Are these memoirs eulogies, songs of praise for parents now gone, or are they betrayals of parental secrets?

I suspect I could not write about my father as I do now were he not dead. Now he is dead, I am safe.

Will the way I write about my mother change after her death? My mother in my mind has undergone so many metamorphoses, from the woman I adored as a small child to the woman I became scornful of, though not in adolescence, even in adolescence I felt protective of her and needy, to the frail old woman she has finally become, of whom I feel protective in a different way. It took a long time before I dared to feel critical of my mother in any way.

It was later in my life, in my twenties and thirties when I had embarked on my analysis, only then did my image of my mother start to crack. Only then did I come to feel critical of her, for her religious intolerance, her manipulative tendencies, and her tendency to pretend that all is well when it is not.

I have my mother’s name, all three names, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. It is a Dutch tradition to name the second daughter after the mother, and the first daughter after the mother’s mother, a tradition that again alerts us to the significance of mothers in a woman’s life.

I did not name my first daughter after my mother or any of my daughters directly after me, but my husband insisted and I agreed to the idea that they should all have my name as a second name. Equality you might say. Their first names however belong entirely to them.

Even now I can imagine my daughters writing in the future about what it means to them to each share their mother’s name between their first and last names.

In my family of origin, we each bear the name Maria, another tradition, religious this time, a means of asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to look over us all. All except the oldest, who again according to Dutch tradition was given his father’s name in its entirety.

When we were little we laughed at the fact that even the boys carried the name Maria in their collection of personal names, Simon Peter Maria, Franciscus Wiro Maria, Michael George Maria and Gregory Paul Maria. Such odd names they seemed to us growing up in Australia in the fifties and sixties when most people’s names were Celtic and Anglo Saxon with the odd immigrant name from the Mediterranean or Europe thrown in for good measure.

Names matter, they are identifying features, they become part of our sense of ourselves and of our identity.

In the days when I fancied I might write a book in which I had hoped each of my siblings might contribute a chapter, I also imagined a paragraph on each of us, suggesting parallels between our first given name and the way in which our name reflects our personalities.

As usual I am running off into too many ideas, too many ideas to follow. One leads into the other and the track becomes unwieldy. It is difficult to back track to where we have come from. Sorry.