Dirt

Knees up on the couch, I traced a line with my finger along the length of my thigh. One of those summer days during the 1960s before we knew about climate change but still so hot as to leave me breathless and reluctant to do anything other than curl up on the couch with one of my father’s Time Magazines. 

At first, I thought I’d contracted some rare disease that gave off a rash of unspeakable black, but I scratched at it and watched it peel off under my fingernails with an already thin line of black where the nail joined the skin. 

No doubt about it, this was dirt.

One of those moments in my life when I knew things had to change. When I knew I must now listen to my older sister’s warnings about my body.

How it was changing. Even I could see that. How I now needed to spread deodorant under my armpits every morning before putting on my school dress, otherwise, my school dress and I along with it would smell like my brothers on a hot day. 

BO. My sister pronounced the letters with disdain. Till then a bath or shower once a week had been enough. Until the hair washing on a Saturday night could leave my hair looking clean enough all week long, especially once I tied it behind in a ponytail. But now this onset from within had begun to attack my hair as well. 

On Sundays after Mass, my sister took her hair out of its elastic band and brushed through repeatedly. She dragged the brush through from the roots to the tips. This way, she told me she was pushing the oil to her hair’s dry extremities and if she did this long enough, she could reinvigorate her hair by coating every strand with her own rich oils. Sometimes she used an egg and freed the yolk which she smeared all over her head. The egg nourished her hair, she told me, but she needed to leave it in for at least ten minutes.  Then she washed it away, oil and egg yolk. Oily hair might have been healthy, but it was ugly, she told me. Hideous, a sign of neglect.

I feared she was aiming her disdain at me. And the way in which my hair had taken on the oily look of neglect.

It was not an easy transition into this shift from hating the effort required to relishing the joy of standing under the hot stream of water and soaking up the perfume of Lux soap or Johnston’s baby powder, the smell of shampoo on a wet head, the feel of clean.

As with so many things, I soon became obsessive about the cleanliness of my body. And showers took longer and longer, as long as my father was not at home to interrupt them. 

Showers and the need to scrape underneath my fingernails to ensure there was not a speck of grime visible.

And deodorant, the most floral imaginable to give the illusion of a Myer make up counter where the perfumes hit you even before you saw the women with flame red lips and eyes covered in darkness in whatever shade was then fashionable.

In the sixties going into the seventies, we experimented with blues and turquoise, purples and pinks. The bluer the better, but I did not start on the eye colour until I left home for fear of my father’s mockery. 

From the vantage point of today, I wonder about the hours lost trying to wrangle my body into this pristine state of cleanliness and almost virginal sanctity. As if I did not want a sniff of my womanhood to be visible. 

I went once to the toilet soon after my mother and the smell of her body, to my adolescent self was revolting, heavy with something intangible. Of sex or vaginal secretions. The smells appalled me, even as I could not name them. 

My mother’s body which I once loved with an infant’s passion became this scary receptacle of the unspeakable.

I began to avoid her and kept well away from the hands she once used on my ponytail as we watched television together. Or she came up behind me while I was sitting in the kitchen over my homework.

My mother’s fingers already showing signs of the arthritis that dogged her in later life took hold of the length of my plait or ponytail and she threaded it through her fingers, wound it round and round her hand, then let it fall. Sometimes she stepped back to see the effect of her caresses. And then she started over again. 

Her affection, which I might once have craved became torture in my adolescence when we walked side by side along Centre Dandenong Road on our way to church on Sundays and the others strode on ahead. I hung back with my mother but hated the way she took up my hand as though I was a child much younger than my fourteen years might suggest or as if I was her adult partner. 

I thought of the men on the building sites. Men who wolf-whistled at me when I was alone or with my older sister, and to my mind approved of my then developing body. They would not do so when my mother held my hand. 

So, I learned to avoid my mother, in the same way, I avoided my father. Not out of fear but out of resistance against childhood and babyhood, when I wanted only to grow up and away.

Away from the smell of my mother and of her house, of her many babies, and of her European tendency to bath only once a week, like ripening fruit, even as she tapped 4711 eau de cologne on her wrists and behind her ears before Mass every Sunday and smeared a line of red across her lips. Even as she tried to meet the cleanliness standards I and my other siblings introduced. She who once spat saliva onto her handkerchief and rubbed away at the remnants of jam still visible on my child chin; who once noticed these small insults of dirt on my face, lost touch with her own messiness under the veneer of respectability that came with lipstick and eau de cologne.

Until after my father died and she re-married a man for whom she adopted a more Australian style of cleanliness and began to shower daily until she was too old to do it herself. Which brings me full circle to where I began.

Under the shower this morning determined to wash my hair, a task I have taken to hating again for its time absorbing potential and for the never endingness of its demand.

I will not revert to childhood avoidance. I will stay as clean as I can while allowing myself the indulgent thought: apart from the pleasure of standing under the warm rush of water.

Apart from the comfort of soap against my skin, the business of shedding clothes, of stepping underwater, the assault of having to dry a once warmed body against the shock of cold once outside the shower and the trouble with towelling yourself dry, making sure I get between every toe to avoid tinea.

These tasks are almost as bad as the tasks of washing dishes after a meal or wiping benches. I do not derive pleasure from the task itself. Maybe it’s like writing, the best of it occurs once it’s done. 

I will keep at it. 

Never as it seems

A friend told me recently that the French translation of Little Women, the book by Louis M Alcott, reads as The Daughters of Mr March because there is no equivalent expression to convey the essence of Little Women in French. 

Is it patriarchal and possessive? 

I prefer the word ‘woman’ to ‘lady’. The word ‘ladies’ has such a ring of gentility about it. 

The other day, I went with my own little women. Or at least three of them, as the fourth is busy trying to rebuild a kitchen in her house. 

We were joined by a very old friend. 

Many years ago, we went to see the Gillian Armstrong 1994 adaptation of Little Women with a good friend when she was younger than I am now at the Carlton flea pit as they called the Carlton movie house in those days.

It had individual leather seats whose inner springs were almost collapsed to the point you almost sat on the floor. 

My daughters, one a baby, were still young children only one nudging adolescence then. 

I enjoyed this latest version of Little Women for its non-chronological effort to keep pace with the spirit of the book, a writer whom I imagine was trying to shift out of convention into a freer view of the world. 

How could any such view be experienced in a deeply Christian household struggling in poverty alongside much richer neighbours and relatives, and also against a backdrop of the American civil war? 

A minister father, a dedicated mother who gave up her dreams for her good works and her children. Reminds me somewhat of my own mother, only unlike Marmee, my mother was not married to a religious Chaplin. 

My mother might have liked that. To have been married to a priest. But Catholic priests were/are not allowed to marry. 

When I was young, I held the same view of priests as did my mother. She thought they were a cut above the vanities of ordinary men. The priests in her mind, were all ‘good’ men who knew how to be empathic and kind, who knew how to consider other people, who never got angry or drunk like our father. 

They would have been much better as a partner. Though my mother once told me she preferred that priests stayed celibate. She was fearful of whatever pillow talk might ensure.

‘I would not like the priest to tell his partner what I told him in confession,’ she told me once. 

Funny to me, the parallels to other more secular worlds.

When I moved first into social work and later into therapy, I imagined that any man who went into one of the helping professions must be a cut above the rest. 

In the mid-1970s, I went on placement with one such good man, the two of us, me and (I shall call him) Tom were appointed to work within the Northcote community. 

We were stationed at the Northcote Town Hall for six weeks over the Christmas period. Our job to travel throughout the community to interview the local charities and services and draw up a booklet of what was available to the community.

A list of community services. 

My mother included this newspaper clipping in her autobiography. Perhaps she was proud to have a daughter whose name featured in the newspaper then. She never told me as much.

The task itself was not of much interest to me, but travelling every day across town to Northcote was exciting and moving into a new neighbourhood, taking on the authority of one who knew how to do these things – when I did not – most of all working alongside Tom, was such a pleasure. 

He was married at the time to a woman who was as charming as he and they had a small daughter. It was my first glimpse into new parenthood and these two impressed me as the most loving of couples. 

I went over some weekend evenings with my then-boyfriend Paul and we spent hours playing card games, eating cheese and drinking, the men beer, and the women, Pimms and lemonade (or some other such sweet concoction). 

We fell out of contact once I finished my degree as well as switched boyfriends for another and entered a different life in the therapy world. 

Tom became an administrator in community services, the branch of social work that can lead people into higher places. I stayed at the grassroots of working with people.

I think of Tom from time to time, googled him once. Heard somewhere that he and his wife had split.

This put a nail in the coffin of my most delicious fantasy, that marriages to men who are social workers or therapists must be marriages made in Heaven.

I started watching a Netflix show called Bonus family the other night. 

It’s Swedish, (subtitles needed) and features a couple who work together as therapists to help couples who are struggling.

I won’t go into the details other than to observe the strange antics of this therapist couple who sit side by side as they seek to help the couple seated opposite.

They come across as thoughtful and wise.

Later we see the therapists in their kitchen between sessions bickering in a way that puts any fantasy of them as an ideal couple to rest. 

Truth is there’s no such thing as an ideal couple any more than there’s an ideal person, despite our tendency to want to include saints, heroes, and celebrities in our lives. 

We are all ordinary folk, mere mortals, flawed and prone to failure, including in our relationships. Despite the romantic ideals evoked in books like Little Women.

Oh but the fantasy is such a pleasure, as the fictional little woman, Jo Marsh will tell you.