Hold up your socks

The year I moved into the composite classroom of grades five and six, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Something had to be done about my father and seeing that no one else, none of my older brothers or sister, nor my mother, seemed able to stop him drinking then I would.

To move into the grade five and six classroom was a mark of seniority. There we were at the top of the junior school next in line as leaders, or so Mother Mary John reminded us whenever someone broke any rules or talked during class time.

The person listening was as much a culprit as the person who spoke, Mother Mary John said. The person listening egged the speaker on.

To me, this was unfair. What if you didn’t want to listen to the person who spoke to you but had no choice. We sat in rows in twin desks, each with a separate lid but with a shared bench. You could not escape the person who sat alongside you, glued together like Siamese twins.

But Mother Mary John liked to make examples of bad behaviour and the best thing for anyone was to sit alongside a quiet person, a person who preferred to keep their thoughts to themselves, otherwise you could be caught out through no fault of your own and there was no forgiveness.

For the crime of speaking during the lesson.

For the crime of socks that fell down around your ankles when they should have been pulled up snug around the top of your legs just under your knees.

For the crime of untidiness.

Mother Mary John was obsessed with neatness. Girls had to have their hair pulled back from their face. No fringes by preference but if your parents insisted on you having hair around your ears, at least tell them you must keep your fringe short.

And boys short back and sides was best, that way none of you got distracted by things in front of your eyes.

Had Mother Mary John grown so used to wearing her nun’s habit with its tight wimple tied around her face and a white cardboard piece attached to her forehead that hid her hair. If anything flowed onto her face it would be such a shock.

And we should do likewise even though unlike her we were still kids and we had not yet entered a convent and taken those awful vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Neatness extended to our work. Sloppy handwriting or pages with dirty finger prints, or not lined up properly and headed by the letter AMDG, Latin Ad maiorem Dei gloriam for the greater glory of God, were thrown in the bin.

And neatness extended to correctness.

Mother Mary John loved to mark our work with dark crosses beside every wrong sum, but she wanted us then to repeat the calculation as often as need be in order to get rid of that big black cross.

Like a sideways crucifix. No wonder she hated them. No wonder she longed for ticks only. There were a few kids, mainly girls like Bernadette Keating  and Kathleen Sheehan, who always managed the long line of ticks that signalled genius.

They sat close to the front and beamed whenever Mother Mary John looked their way.

I tried to be like them. I preferred the status of good girl to that of troublemaker but try as I might I could not get rid of the messiness that dogged me daily.

My socks had lost all elasticity at the top and no sooner had I pulled them up, even as I sat immobile at my desk, they were down around my ankles.

My big sister gave me some of the elastic band she used for her skipping game, so I could make braces by tying a small piece to form a circle. I pulled it up over my socks up to the top under my knees and folded a short length over. This way my socks stayed up. But if the bands were too tight at the end of the day when I took off my socks there was a red indentation around the top of each leg that ached.

Cutting off circulation was the thing you did after you suffered a snake bite in the bush. The thing you did to stop the poison from flowing through the rest of your body and up to your heart and eventually your brain where it would kill you.

With so many rules behind me, I could not understand that my father had no hesitation in breaking them.

He did not go to Mass on Sundays. He did not wash his hands after he had been to the toilet. I saw him come from the bathroom and there were no sounds of water splashing.

Worst of all he was cruel. He told my brothers they were stupid if they could not beat him at chess.

He told my mother she dumb when she could not understand a move at their bridge game and at his worst, after he had drunk a whole bottle of brandy on a Saturday night, he turned the television as loud as he could and glared at my mother who was trying to ignore him.

He threw his dinner into the kitchen sink, full plate side down.

One year he dragged the Christmas tree complete with baubles and angel at the top onto the floor.

He tore my mother’s dress from her body while she tried to cook our dinner and he used swear words even though he got the word fuck wrong and said ‘fock’.

Mostly he cursed in Dutch, but I could tell it was swearing by the way it made my mother’s face crumple in disgust and despair.

Someone must know about this.

If someone else knew then they would do something to put a stop to my father’s drinking.

There must be people in the city several stations away by train who could put a stop to my father’s drinking, someone in one of those tall buildings, like the ICI building, near the Cathedral.

Someone there must know what to do. Someone there must listen to our story and help.

But who?

My Mother’s Holland

The taste of Holland recedes, as I grow older. It once held a central place in my consciousness. The taste as strong as the almond infused marzipan that I came across whenever someone had a wedding and layered their fruit cake with a thick undercoat of marzipan before the pristine white layer of sugar icing.

I peeled off the top most layer, not because it was too sweet. In years gone by, sweetness at its most intense appealed but not if it lacked flavour. I liked my sweetness to come with other hints of vanilla or chocolate or hazelnut not straight sugar.

This appealed to me too in my sense of Dutchness which arrived once a year in early December when my Opa sent all his children living in Australia a silver tin, the size of a squat suitcase, filled with Dutch delectables: salted liquorice, Speculaas, Hagel, and best of all the marzipan.

I left the liquorice to my older sister and brothers, those who had acquired a taste for the raw saltiness of the sweets that came usually in the form of cats, small back cats that you chewed on until your teeth were black.

More than the individual items themselves the contents was the reminder of that place my mother called home. That place where she had once been happy. That place where she had been able to lead the life she once expected for herself, surrounded by friends and family.

In my mother’s memoir she wrote about a day early after her arrival in Australia when she stood at the back door, perhaps the only door of the chook shed which they had converted into their first home, and swept the step clear of the dust that piled high from the unmade road in front. Beyond the road she could see long stretches of green fields where cows grazed as contentedly as she would have liked. But she could not graze.

She had six children under ten by then, with four at home and two at school and another one on the way. She was trapped in this brave new world where she had moved in order to give her husband the satisfaction he craved, off on a new adventure with a chance to get away from the shame he left behind in the form of his parents.

She had left behind her own most beloved parents and although three of her brothers had joined her with their families on this other side of the world far from the ravages of war, she looked across the fields up to the sky and held back tears.

A car flashed by, a black sedan smeared in dust and through the front window she recognised the driver. Her new parish priest, Father Ashe, off on a call to some other parishioners further afield.

My mother put down her broom and waved to the priest from the shade of her front veranda but his eyes looked ahead and he did not see her. Nor did he see her through the rear view mirror as he drove on up the hill after she had stepped away from the shed and out onto the street in the wake of his dust.

Or if he saw her he did not stop. He did not wind down his window and wave to my mother from his position of retreat. That would have been some comfort but he offered nothing. And she felt the tears splash down her cheeks remembering her life in the parish of Haarlem where not only would the priest stop, any visit in the direction of her parents home on the Marnixplein would be his first stop.

In Haarlem, my mother wrote, I was a somebody, the member of a respected family. Here in Australia she was nobody, of no consequence, and she went back inside, picked up her broom and dusted off the last leaf that had landed there.

So, my mother began to forget the country that was once her home. She remembered it from her childhood, but it stood still in her imagination and even as she continued to read newspaper accounts of the happenings at home, the death of Queen Juliana, the wedding of Princess Beatrix, the politics of the place, she found herself growing more attached to her adoptive country.

Besides she could no longer tolerate the idea of those long cold winters, especially as she aged when ice-skating, the joy of her childhood, became an increasing impossibility.

These days, I find myself increasingly a reluctant traveler, under the shadow of my mother’s homesickness. To be buried far from where she was born in a country she’d never have chosen as her final resting place.  Far from her parents’ burial plot.  Far from home.