Dressmaking, power and a virus

We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, which keeps believing nimble. Emily Dickinson.

I have two speeds, the past which comes to me in complete images of events well percolated but fuzzy around the edges.

A memory that my father sewed my mother’s dresses on a Singer treadle machine, his foot pressing up and down in rhythm with the whirr of the needle pushed in and out of the fabric.

My father chose the patterns at the haberdashery shop on Canterbury Road from the image on the front cover of the packet, a slim woman in a brightly coloured floral frock with a low cleavage and tight waisted.

A dress pattern that offered opportunities for extra small to small medium large and extra-large. Room enough for my mother who after all her babies was by then at least size large; large bosomed, wide-hipped and full in the belly. 

My father liked to dress my mother in material that spilled out in wide petaled roses, or tight cupped camelias. Enormous flowers that could encase her breasts and hips and stomach.

These were the same dresses my father ripped off my mother in fits of rage as she stirred the pot over the Kooka stove after she had refused to be drawn into his taunts about her lousy cooking and her imagined infidelities.

The dresses he crafted with the hands of a creator torn into shreds after he had left my mother in her petticoat at the stove, clutching those shreds to her chest like a person caught out naked. 

The man of my memory, from the past, now dead. 

One of those dresses

The present comes in snippets, the pressure of the moment. The grim thoughts about the way this virus has increased in our city to the point the government needed to close off two towers of public housing, places occupied by migrant families, as my parents once were.

They, post-world war two, these current tenants, migrants following the horrors of other wars scattered throughout the world. Refugees from a world that is increasingly under stress from climate change, greed and now this virus. 

I visited my sister in her retirement village the other day stopped briefly by the receptionist at the desk whose job was to police people coming into the building to protect the mainly elderly residents living there. 

‘She’s family,’ my sister said, and the receptionist waved me in as if family could somehow avoid passing on the virus. 

My sister is the youngest resident. She moved in as she had lived alone for too many years and longed for community. She moved in to stay safe.

My father taught this same sister to sew. He taught her how to lay out the pattern on the floor, to rest the white crepe pattern paper on top of the fabric and pin it in place to whichever size she decided.

He taught her to take her scissors and cut away at the fabric in line with the pins, first the back, then the front, finally the sleeves. He taught her to take the pieces of fabric and hold them together as he sat at the Singer to demonstrate, his foot to the floor holding tight to the two sheets of fabric as he fed them along a line close to the raw edge of material and so brought the two pieces together. 

Later in the night when the rest of the family slept, he visited my sister at night in her bed and taught her about sex, well before she was ready to learn such things and certainly not from her father. 

This same sister I visited in her retirement village is still learning at seventy not to believe it was all her fault, that she did something wrong, that everything that went wrong in her life was her fault, as you learn when you’re a child and too much is demanded of you. 

The way I suspect those people in the towers of public housing might have felt in the morning when they woke up to find there were police in the corridors, police in the elevators and on the ground.

Police whose job it was to make sure no one went in or out and so hopefully stop the spread of infection. But also to remind people of where they stand in the power grid of life. 

As my creative but warped father taught my mother and my sister where they too stood in the power grid of life.

The past and the present, always in flux, so that we might as Emily Dickinson reminds us, believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour to keep our believing nimble. 

The Museum of Failure 2

Ruled by the clock, I do not write well to the notion I have only a small parcel of time before I must advance onto the next project. It adds to my list of inadequacies, which weigh heavily at the moment. A failure to write as I imagine others do, even when I know they don’t. To write effortlessly and produce startling results from the depths of my imagination. Instead my mind skims the surface for what’s happening in my life. 

To go deeper needs boundless time, to muse, to let my mind wander. I have read many a fiction writer argue the need to lose yourself, to go into that liminal space that is neither here nor there. 

Even last night’s dreams evade me from the instant I opened my eyes. And although it’s still early morning, still dark in this household, the meanderings of my dreams have escaped into my clumsy thoughts of the day ahead. A day with a deadline and a workshop that begins at 8.00 am sharp, during which I will communicate through zoom with seven other people, six of whom (including me) will workshop their writing, and six of whom live in various places scattered throughout the United States of America. 

The workshoppers live in places whose names are familiar to me, Chicago, Iowa, Tucson and outskirts of Philly, as in Philadelphia. Although I am far away from these people, I sense a connection through our interest in writing and also six of our lot are women. 

As usual, I’m the oldest. I tell myself this does not matter. It should not matter but in my floating mind of comparisons it does. 

It is the deepest hazard in a writers’ life to go into the pit of self-criticism, into the museum of failure, but I find myself here again whenever I encounter a new group of writers and begin again the journey of figuring out where I belong in my imagined pecking order.

There is no actual pecking order but growing up with eight siblings, I veer towards it fast. I veer towards questions such as how we are going? Should I say something? Should I keep my mouth shut? And what of what I say?

 Ever since the days of the analysts I have fears for my behaviour in groups. 

When one of the unknown analysts critiqued my behaviour during my analytic training and said I had a habit of saying things that shut the group down. This knowledge came to me as feedback from my mentor. 

At the time, he told me I should not take this feedback too seriously. After I had asked who said this, and could I speak to them. Could I get some clarity on how it was the things I said things shut down the group? 

He claimed not to know. ‘It’s early days,’ he said. ‘Feedback is often like this, in the early days.’ 

Then why offer it?

Still, I preferred some feedback relative to another colleague who said there was none for her. No one critiquing her performance during the training though she was critical of theirs as was I. 

We both entered the museum of failure as failures. We each were asked to leave the training. And to this day the residue of those criticisms, the idea that I say things in groups whereby I shut the group down hangs heavily. Especially when my conscious thought is one of wanting to get the group talking. 

As it was in my family. Channelling my mother. She loved nothing more than to have us all seated in the loungeroom in a circle around the low coffee table. A plate of biscuits doing the rounds, handed from one person to the next, or one of us going around the room to offer each in turn a biscuit to accompany the tea or coffee we drank every day more often than was wise. 

But these gatherings happened rarely and only on Sundays or after we grew into adults and came home to visit. Then no matter how many of us there were, my mother ushered us from the kitchen where we preferred to mingle into the lounge room where my father sat. 

He rarely entered the kitchen when I was a child except to tell one or another of us off for some misdemeanour, or to tell my mother her food was inedible. I have almost no memory of him in the kitchens of my adolescence though he was there at the head of the table in the Camberwell house when I was small. 

A dark brooding presence. He said things that stopped the conversation. Perhaps it was this trait in me, handed down from father to daughter that the analysts detected. Someone who said things that were so shocking they stopped people in their tracks. That upset people into speechless silence.