On learning to hide

You learn these things early. Your place in the scheme of things.

When I was little, girls wore hats to church on Sundays.  By the time I reached adolescence, a mantilla, whose name derived from the Spanish, a triangle of black or white lace, would do.

Sometimes when someone had forgotten her hat or mantilla, she spread a handkerchief on top of her head and held it there with hair clips, like a peasant’s headgear against the burning sun.

Cover your heard if you are a woman in honour of God.

I never questioned why it was that women needed to cover their heads and not men.

Subtle hints in my mother’s voice when as a ten year old I walked around the house without a t-shirt on the hottest of days, walked around half naked like my brothers.

‘You can’t dress like that,’ my mother said. ‘Put on a t-shirt.’

The boys were free to go on paper rounds, to ride their bikes through the streets after dark while we girls stayed at home to wash dishes, sweep floors, make beds and keep our home tidy.

My father was six foot three inches tall, my mother five foot two. Somehow their height became a measure of their status. His an all powerful presence, she a submissive and delicate woman who worked her way around pleasing him at every turn.

Only later did I realise my mother never asked for things, at least not directly, and certainly not from my father? She kept a low profile flirting only when we had visitors, with men and women alike, chatting endlessly to the family – her family also from Holland – who visited on Sundays.

She passed around the biscuits, shop bought on porcelain plates and poured endless cups of tea, while he, ever gruff and stiff in his chair, tried to attract attention but could never raise the interest that my mother raised as she slipped from person to person with her smile and enthusiasm and energy.

It faded as soon as the visitors had gone when once again my mother stood over a pan of sizzling steak or boiled potatoes in a routine of meal preparations that left her silent.

We knew the difference between boys and girls from earliest days. We knew that boys were smarter than girls, that boys were stronger.

The boys won at games of marbles on the hallway floor, their aim was steady while mine slipped. Their thumbs could propel the marbles across the room in one flip while I needed several faulting tries to get the marble half way to where I wanted. Mine stuck in the worn out sections of carpet where the wool was ground down to bare webbing from too much walking.

Even as the unspoken rules told us to keep ourselves hidden there was a flipside.   The call to be visible and beautiful and all things desirable in the eyes of the man who would one day choose you as his own.

My father stitched our mother’s dresses from material they bought together at the fabric shop. Bright floral patterns that my father fashioned into tight waisted and low cut frocks my mother wore most days in the summer.

Perhaps the fact that my father had fashioned those dresses gave him licence to rip them off her in moments of rage. My mother like a servant in the kitchen preparing the family meal became a woman undressed, her face flushed, her eyes ablaze with fear as she grabbed at the scraps of fabric left hanging around her hips while my father glowered with indignation.


In a 1975 interview available on YouTube, Michael Parkinson talks to a fresh faced Helen Mirren who wears a long black dress and holds a feather in her hand, which she says was meant for her hair but looked ridiculous so she carried it instead.

She waves it around from time to time during the interview as if she is playing into Michael Parkinson’s insistence that she is a sex goddess, an actress who seduces and flirts as part of her trade.

He asks about her physical attributes and she insists he spell these out. And Michael Parkinson who sits cross legged in his swivel chair in blue suit and tie almost laying back in comfort content to preen and pose questions in his fine British voice asks what’s it like to take her clothes off for the screen.

Does it demean her as an actor?’

Helen Mirren slips in and out of irritation. She tells him it would help for everyone on the set to take their clothes off, too; the director, the producer, the camera men, the other actors, that way she, the actress – because it’s almost always the actress – need not feel so alone.

Was that the way my mother felt in the kitchen all those years ago after my father ripped off her clothes? So visible and yet invisible. On display for all to see, but without ownership of her body, alone like Susanna and those elders.


My father collected art books which I pored through as a ten year old and there too I observed the same phenomena, the naked women sometimes with snippets of material draped around their shoulders or between their legs, exposed for all to see but behind their eyes, no one there.   And the men in robes, the fancy clothes of medieval times, dressed up like peacocks admiring the object of their desires.

Is this what it means to be invisible, to be an object?

I learned early to hide my body behind clothes while at the same time displaying myself as an object of desire once puberty hit and I discovered like my mother before me I had these things called breasts that were of me and not of me. They belonged to me, but were also a source of desire for the other.

When my father visited my sister in bed at night even before she had reached the age of breasts and child bearing hips, even before she wore bras and needed stockings held up with suspender belts instead of socks, then I knew to keep myself invisible, to hide from him, to hide from men, or at least to hide my inside self from them.

I could perform like the women I saw in the movies, the women on the bill boards my mother with her visitors. I could wear clothes that hugged my body once I had lost weight in an avalanche of starvation once I hit my late teens but it was only the objective me, the displayed body open to view.

The rest I hid inside.

I still hide her but now it’s easier.

A woman over fifty ceases to be visible. Helen Garner describes this as a freeing time, no longer sexually available, no longer on the sexual market and therefore no longer needing to set ourselves the goal of external beauty for the camera.

But a different kind of angst arises when you fear your image as an older woman marks you as one not to be taken seriously, as one to be ignored.

It is a joy to hide, Donald Winnicott writes when describing the game of peek a boo as played by babies, of disappearing and then reappearing, but a tragedy never to be found.


In hindsight

Since my mother died I have started to feel the cold in ways I never did before. As if her presence kept my body a couple of degrees warmer and her absence becomes a cold chill through my bones.

I knew even before she went, her death would leave me older, at least by the feel of it.

Today I’m on the edge of a cold, the sort that makes your nose itch, your eyes water and your throat burn. But it’s not so bad I tell myself, not bad enough to opt out.

And I’m hungry too. A good sign they say: feed a cold starve a fever.

You know you’re sick when your hunger goes, when you no longer salivate at the thought of something tasty.

My mother stopped eating three weeks before she died. In hindsight, we should have seen it as a sign. She was pulling out but we kept trying to keep her going.

Thrush collected in white globules at the corners of her mouth and she poked her tongue in and out in an effort to get rid of it.

In time the hospital staff treated the thrush but it kept on coming back. Then someone came up with the idea of feeding our mother cranberry juice, the concentrated kind, to give her relief.

My sister bought a good-sized bottle from the chemist and we encouraged my mother to drink it by the cap full.

She gagged. She turned away, and the white flecks in her mouth turned pink.

Every day they brought her lunch.

‘Coax her to eat. Anything at all. Try the chocolate mouse,’ my sister said and shoved a heaped spoon close to my mother’s nose so she could get a smell. ‘You love your sweets.’

But even the chocolate pudding stayed in its plastic hospital sized tub, uneaten.

And so it was, my mother gave up eating and with it the will to live.

I had not bargained on this way of going. If only I’d known.

Thirty three years earlier when my first daughter came into the world, I had no idea about how to feed her either.

I had every intention of breastfeeding before her birth but it never occurred to me it took skill or practice or some other unforeseen capacities on the part of mother and baby to make it happen.

My first daughter’s labour was long and in the end I needed yet another dose of pethidine to get me through, but this time too close to delivery. I had lost the will and capacity to push so the doctor set me up in stirrups and dragged my baby out with forceps.

Exhausted and in pain and drugged out on pethidine, this was not the birth I had anticipated.

My first daughter was born at lunchtime, and by clock work the staff wheeled in a lunch tray, chicken of some sort, and my husband also exhausted but still awake enough to be hungry, ate my lunch while I drifted off into a deep sleep all afternoon.

When I woke at 6 o’clock in the evening I asked to see my baby.

Thirty three years ago babies were taken from their mothers and wheeled off into communal nurseries where the nursing staff kept a close eye over all their charges.

Visitors could come during visiting time and walk along a glass walled corridor where they put up a sign with the baby’s name or family name against the glass. One of the nurses on duty then picked up the baby whose name had appeared and lifted her for all to see.

During those long seven days of confinement visitors were not to touch, any more than were fathers or anyone else other than staff and mothers.

When the baby cried out in hunger, a nurse took each one to each mother for as long as was necessary for a feed and nappy change.

At some point around day three, one of the nurses took each mother into the nursery to teach her the art of bathing her baby and to reinforce the rules of nappy changing.

Thirty years ago before the advent of disposable nappies we tried to find ways of folding the nappy corners and tucking them inside so as to preclude the use of safety pins.

Safety pins, despite their name, were not safe.

I tried to keep up this tradition of pin less nappies after I took my daughter home but failed. The nappies leaked and for all that I had bought the best pilchers on the market – those strange plastic lined over pants – to cover the nappy but like cranberry juice as an antidote for my mother’s thrush, such nappies could not prevent any seepage between changes.

Still, the trick most foreign came with that first attempt to feed when the nurse first brought out my baby and suggested I try.

I gave up my dignity to oblige as the nurse grabbed a hunk of my breast to one side and forced the nipple into my baby’s mouth.

We were lucky. After two or three such attempts my baby latched on and began to suck and so began my life as a breast feeding mother.

Nothing glorious or beautiful at first and in those days with strict instructions to let the baby suckle for only one minute at a time and then change sides so as to give the nipples a chance to harden, I was anxious to get it right.

The regulation of breast feeds reminded me of the rules about sunbathing: spend only ten minutes in the sun on day one, turning yourself slowly, as though you were basting a chook, and then the next day increase your time in the sun by another ten minutes and so on, day after day, ten minutes at a time until on day six you could endure a whole hour in the sun without burning and your body turned a glorious golden brown without a hint of burning.

No need for sun screen or any such thing in those days and if you really fancied a glowing tan you might use coconut oil for that extra baste.

If only we knew then what we know now.

And so it was when my baby was born.

With my second and subsequent babies I no longer needed a nurse to grab a hunk of my breast and force that nipple into my baby’s mouth and with the benefit of hindsight, I would have done it differently with my first, too.

With the benefit of hindsight I also would have stopped forcing that spoon of chocolate mousse into my mother’s thrush filled mouth.

Wth hindsight, I would have more respect for the beginnings and end of life.