Wounds on trees

‘The sinister pedantry of therapy. Its suggestion that somehow life was reparable. That here existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided towards it.’ Hanya Yanagihara.

Elsewhere Yanagihara writes about ‘the still life of a dead family’. Grim thoughts with which to begin my day.

I disagree with the first notion. Therapy as repair. Therapy as conformity. My version runs more long the lines of Freud’s initial suggestion: Therapy might help a person move from overwhelming misery in life to more bearable misery. 

It’s a modest claim, even as Freud, the man, seemed anything but modest, to me at least. He had his grandiosities. 

Don’t we all. Our determinations. Our hopes and dreams.

As for the dead family in still life, I can picture such a family. The family that lives on the surface while underneath all manner of brutality occurs, particularly to the children. And their root system rots.

Wounds on trees

Where branches have been torn off in storms or fallen under the woodchopper’s axe. Wounds that leak sap as an antidote to bleeding. Some type of coagulation of the inner sap to help such amputations to heal. Into burls. 

A wood turner’s delight. All those veined synapses in the wood. Tree branches as arms to support the leaves and stabilize the root system underground. A tree without branches has little chance of growth.

A memory slips in. During my twenty third year I rented a flat, one of two, within a rambling singe storey dwelling on Burke Road in Camberwell. At the top of the hill close by Canterbury Road and St Marks Anglican church. A solid brick residence stuccoed in battleship grey behind a broad front garden of grass and woody plants, including a spreading jacaranda which shielded the house from the street. 

Inside was dark and needed lights on all year round. Two bedrooms to one side, in one of which we slept. The room closest to the back with a wide window and wardrobe space and the other smaller, closer to the front but with the tiniest windows. We used it mainly for storage. 

The kitchen through which you entered by the back door was pokey with a small stove, room for a fridge and few cupboards almost no bench space to speak of more like a boat galley and around the corner a spacious loungeroom with the one wide window in the house. 

Even so it too was gloomy given the overhanging trees lining the front garden. There was also a pond void of fish but replete with water weeds.

My memories of this place, even at the height of summer when the equinox blazed brightly were of inner darkness. There was a narrow gravel driveway to one side where I parked my white VW and my husband-to-be his blue Renault. And a garage that was locked. 

Just as well it would have been a nuisance to open those clanking doors, where the once grey paint peeled to reveal the bare grey of aged boards. This garage was an aberration. 

We lived in this flat over a year before the landlord sent us a letter, via the agent, to tell us they were about to sell and we needed to move out.

That day in the front garden. Oh the costumery.

Memories are piling in now thick and fast.

The first when I was in the front garden one day in the weeks before our decision to marry when I thought of visiting my mother. Only I felt no desire to do so. My father was still alive. He had stopped drinking and he and my mother lived in quiet contentment, or seemingly so.

My father had started back at the church and shared in bible study with my mother. 

The idea made me cringe. But it was better than drunken abuse. Still, there’s not much worse than a reformed alcoholic, one who has found God. 

Not that my father espoused the virtues of God. He kept his religious views to himself. I’ll never know whether my mother put pressure on him to re-cement her faith or his. He had become a Catholic some forty years earlier to marry her. No mixed marriages allowed. And then, soon after his death when my mother chose to marry another man who came into her life, she urged him to renew his Catholic vows. 

To be close to my mother, it seemed, you needed to believe.

I could not believe. Not as I once held fast to those ideas when a child. My faith was rotten. Eaten out by my late adolescent conviction it was all poppycock. It made little sense and kept us in thrall to a God – if he did indeed exist – who seemed capricious at best, cruel at worst. Life to me was more complex than religion suggested. 

The thought my mother might be hurt if I did not visit that weekend as I had promised. But the thought of visiting hit me hard, and in the end I made some feeble excuse as to why we could not come.

It set in train a process of thought in my mind about a sensation I had experienced all my life. The sense I needed to look after my mother. That she relied on me to make her happy. That she was deeply unhappy despite her religion and only I could rectify her sorrow.

After I left home this thought softened as we were separate at last but every so often it rose and grabbed me by the neck. A choking sensation as if I had let her down and she would be devastated at the loss of my allegiance. 

I understood she was upset at my abandonment of religion but as with most things we did not talk about it.

The thing I remember most clearly about my relationship with my mother throughout our shared adulthood, we rarely, if ever, talked. Only once, after I sent her a piece of my writing which I had called Night Terrors

I sent it to her through snail mail. She rang me soon after and suggested we talk.

She was married by then to her second husband and seemingly happier than she had ever been when married to my father. So, we arranged I should visit one lunch time. We could talk after we ate, once my stepfather had gone off for his usual afternoon nap. My mother did not want him to join the conversation. She did not want him to know.

The lunch was cordial, and we talked of the usual nothings, only after Gordon closed the door behind him did I feel the relief of finally letting my mother know something of my childhood experience and she in her turn acknowledging,

‘The things your father did to me’. She did not elaborate and to this day, I’m still guessing. 

Trees and their wounds

The memory of a tree and I’m off. Into the grandeur of Lombardy poplars dotted along the skyline of Cheltenham when I was a girl.

This area, once home to market gardens replete with apples, pears, oranges, and flowers, was sold off and the land excavated then turned into housing.

Each house like its neighbour, single level, double or triple fronted, cream brick veneers, looking onto the streets with three steps up to small concrete verandas bordered by ornate wire curlicues at every corner.

For a while we managed to keep our house looking resplendent and brand new but within a year it had lost its shine. In another year the floors were irredeemably scuffed, the walls smeared with the grease marks of tiny fingers and cracks were beginning to show.

Wear and tear and not the greatest construction, the house groaned under the weight of this family and of my father’s rages in the night.

It began with a storm. One Sunday morning. Tree branches clashed under pressure from the wind like soldiers on a battlefield. Rain fell in oblique silver sheets punctuated by unruly gusts yelling across the roof line.

I could not sleep. Filled with a primal fear that something dreadful might happen.

Have you ever woken with such a sensation? Some fear of something unknown. Tried to shrug it off, but every screech of branches on the tin roof of the garage next door leaves you even more fearful.

I did not want to face this storm alone. To be in the company of another who might offer distraction was unlikely to happen, so I hugged the blankets closer to my shoulders and fell back into a dream.

Only to wake minutes later to the barking of dogs in the distance and the shuffle of my mother’s feet on the kitchen lino.

Once she was awake and on duty, once she had taken up her post in the kitchen, all my fears fell away. As if I was no longer alone. My terror from minutes earlier gone.

My mother had a way of soothing me simply by being here. She need not say a thing. Just to know she was there opening and closing cupboards, settling the kettle over its flame, breaking eggs into a fry pan.

Knowing she was nearby alive and well and bringing the house into life calmed me down. It was illusory I could see that. Even then.

There were days when my mother was even more fearful than me. Days when the world seemed like the most hostile of places when even she, the oldest in my family aside from our father, could not hold her thoughts together sufficient to reassure us, all would be well. 

Those days when her teeth clattered in her mouth and her hands flailed up and down by her side, when she muttered prayers of desperation to the Blessed Virgin, my mother was even more fearful than me.

It was around this time when my brothers decided the best way to deal with our father’s drinking and rages, was to take us kids away from the two of them and leave them to sort it out together.

My mother free of the burden of her children might well be able to manage our father alone.

I cringe now at the logic of it all.

I cannot figure where in the timeline this happened. Somewhere in the early 1960s, soon after my mother’s last daughter was born without breath.

My mother’s placenta snapped during the last days of her pregnancy because her doctor argued, at 43, my mother was too old to bear any more children. 

Did she blame herself? Did she consider it the fault her body unable to hold fast to this little girl who did not open her eyes to the world, not once.

They did let my mother see the baby once she was delivered, silent and blue, into the labour ward and my mother did her best to hold her grief at bay. 

Born dead. A statement of opposites, as Lidia Yuknavitch observes. The two states mutually at logger hears, at the beginning and end of life, all rolled together. 

There was a young woman in the bed next to my mother’s, she told me years layer. A young woman who was too young and unmarried to have a baby of her own.

They took her baby away and as always, my mother compared her lot to that of one less fortunate. This sad young woman, and my mother gave thanks for her beautiful and healthy children, bounced back out of her bed and wanted to go home again.

But something about losing that baby must have triggered something in my mother. A loss too great to bear.

I can see her now in the front garden of our house in Wentworth Avenue plucking a withered geranium from its bush. 

Mrs Bruus walked by and stopped at the gate. ‘I heard about your baby. I’m so sorry.’

And my mother looked over to this other sad Dutch woman from up the street who had befriended her. The two shared a common homeland. Another person my mother could feel sorry for her.

Mrs Bruus was unable to have children despite a perfectly respectable husband and life in Australia. At least our mother had us.

‘She’s with the angels,’ my mother, said and Mrs Bruus smiled the smile of those who know nothing else to say, flinching under the detail of all this pain.

Only then, my older sister told me the story later. Her memory rippled with time.

Our mother could not go on. She had some sort of breakdown and needed to go away somewhere for a few weeks alone. I have no memory of this. Another event blanked from my memory; all ten years old. 

You’d think I’d remember my mother disappearing for a couple of weeks or more. She got through that Christmas, my elder sister said, but then it all became too much and somewhere in the January during school holidays, they shipped her youngest away to the farm of a relative in Shepparton.

My three-year-old brother stayed there for several months with two other young cousins also shipped there to leave their parents free to work.

And now there’s no one to ask. What happened then?

Lost in the fog of time only the memory of a mother who disappears for a time in person, much as she often disappeared into her mind when I was a child.

I recognise why disappearing acts are so troublesome to me. Why silence is the great killer.