Grief stalks us silently

‘I measure every grief I meet’ Emily Dickinson

 Dark days in the pits of winter. So much of war, and politics and griefs held at a distance to assail us. Assail me. Where to begin, my mother on the front step of the converted chook shed which was her first Australian home, sweeping out the dust of a day. She describes this in a short memoir which Elly Zierke included in an A-four-sized yellow book, Old Ties, New Beginnings: Dutch Women in Australia.

Somehow I lost my copy of this book and had to visit Abe books and spend big money to buy a copy back. I have it now. My mother’s story along with nineteen other Dutch women who migrated to Australia during the mid 1900s for a new life in Australia. 

The standout feature of my mother’s story, sanitised to within an inch of its life, happens when she describes her sadness on seeing Father Ashe travel along the dusty streets of Greensborough on his way to give the elderly Hickling grandmother, a neighbour nearby, Holy Communion.

The good priest did not see my mother wave to him. He did not visit her, and in her writing here and elsewhere, she talks of how lonely she felt, how far away from her loved ones. How much she, who once held a significant place in her community on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, nestled in her Hooij family home, was a someone. Until she travelled to Australia and became a non-entity to all around her. 

A mother with several babies. We her babies, bit players in her life, as children so often feature in the lives of their parents. While parents typically loom large in the lives of their children. Though not for my mother. She never wrote more than one or two lines about her parents. She talked often about her beloved father, but her mother remains a mystery.

Grief stalks us silently. The stab of sorrow through my mother’s heart, her longing for a place she once called her home, as she gazed across the yellow sands of the beach at Mentone to the far away horizon and her idea of home. Her home in Holland, the way it was before she left. 

My mother when she was someone. A woman reading and enjoying her cigarette.

When I was seventeen years old, I travelled with my younger sister to Canberra. We drove with an older sibling – must have driven, for how else could get there? A bus perhaps. Surely not a plane. I took my first plane trip in my twenties when I went to Sydney for another brother’s wedding. 

Surely we went by car, as we always went by car to Canberra. The long flat bitumen up the Hume. The endless paddocks, cows, sheep and horses, the sorrow of those barbed wire fences, the yellow/green tufts of grass, the rusted sheds along the way, the sad houses tucked behind scrabbly gum. The disappointment of the Australian bush until we reached the perfect man-made dimensions of the state capital Canberra and moved into my brother’s rented house at the foot of Mount Ainslie for a week during the school holidays. This brother who had once been in the seminary but changed his mind. No longer intending to become a priest. He chose marriage instead to a dark-haired beauty with the equally beautiful name of Sybilla. 

How I admired her. Her pale skin, her warm smile. The beauty spot to one side of her lush mouth. High cheek bones that spoke to her European ancestors. And a mother who was big and warm and generous. She fed us cakes and egg filled sandwiches till I was fit to burst. This at that torturous age of seventeen when my body was filling out and I was getting tall. Taller than my mother and older sister. So tall, I feared my height might never stop and with it my width. I feared becoming a freak, an invisible freak to all, only illuminated through my vast size.

We drove home from Sybilla’s mother’s house that night, my brother at the wheel, my younger sister and I in the back of his car. I looked out the window onto the sparkling lights of the city. I have never been filled with such longing. Even now I cannot name the sensation beyond that word. A sense that maybe I carried some of my mother’s grief inside. Something of her sense of being a non-entity because it struck me at that moment, even as I knew I belonged within my family, sixth in line and held a place somewhere in my mother’s heart, I did not feel I was loved. As corny as that sounds to me now. As pathetic in its resonance as anything I can imagine, the pain of that moment spread like the drops of rain on the window, like tear filled eyes that blurred the street scape into a grey and black mess punctuated only by the flickering of lights above the street line. 

It is my first measurable grief, attached to no one and nothing. A void of emotion, a well of pain and I cannot attach it to any specific event such that it holds meaning beyond the image of a young girl in adolescence struggling to fit into her body and mind as she stretched into new dimensions of experience.

Isn’t that the thing of adolescence, a roller coaster time where every experience is laced with ennui or inflamed rage, sensitivity to every slight, an intense dislike for anything that breeches the high-minded standards of the day and an intolerance for bigotry of any kind.

I feel this way now in the furore over plagiarism. I cannot join the throng of people decrying John Hughes for what he has done. Misguided as he might have been in not telling his readers ahead of time that he was working in the words of other writers before him. 

If only he had done this, and he would be spared the torture of the moment through which he lives. I cannot join the shrill chorus of accusers who lambast him for his heinous ways.

I have always reserved an edge of something for the wrong doer, except for people like Donald Trump, who to my mind exceeds all excess in his arrogance. 

John Hughes fucked up. Forgive him. Do not write off his every word because he has piggy-backed on the shoulders of those who came before him, as we all do. Only most of us manage to acknowledge most of our sources. And I say most, because I have no doubt I have used another’s words in my own writing and neglected to add their name again because words are like this. They slide into our minds as if our own. Even now Zadie Smith’s words for her character Samad run around in my mind. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that,’ he says often enough, as does his beloved companion Archie. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that.’ As means of exonerating themselves from wrongdoing. A means of entering a state of acquiescence to a life filled with complex contradictions.

My mother had sayings of the same kind. ‘And that was that!’, she ended her stories. An intake of breath, Ah Hah. Not quite as bad as the expression, ‘It’s God’s will’, but close enough. A type of resignation to fate. A way of bypassing the intensity of the pain of every grief people meet throughout their lives. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that.’

Wherever you go, there you are.

I found a ring in Piccadilly Circus. I was in London for a short holiday with my husband and kept my eyes to the ground in search of whatever.

It was a cold day, although spring. The garden beds were chockers with flowers. Those wild ones I recognised from pictures I’d seen of European exotics. All blues, pinks and purple, a messy mix in great clumps alongside the yellow daffodils that stood to attention on windowsills and flower boxes everywhere. Resplendent colours across an otherwise grey/ green streetscape. 

 It was twilight and people carried umbrellas to keep out the occasional bursts of rain. A gloomy London streetscape that reminded me of something from Dickens, only there were white lights beginning to twinkle in anticipation of the dark ahead. 

That’s when I saw it, there on the footpath, a heavy gold ring, with a flattened centre to make way for an initial or something. Only this ring held no engravings or stones. But it was gold. Or so I imagined as I snatched it up and thrust it inside my pocket. 

My heart thumped for fear that someone might tap me on the shoulder and accuse me of stealing. Or at least of laying claim to something that belonged to someone else.

An ancient feeling that has dogged me all my life ever since the lolly stealing days of my childhood when the milk bar owner caught me in the act of snaffling a chocolate bar from the front counter and threatened to tell the police. 

He did not report me, but instead, told my mother. She spared me the indignity of telling my father. Had she done so my fate would have been sealed. His punishment was fierce. The humiliation of a belting on the behind, naked bum for all to see.

Even as she kept my sin a secret, she shamed me out of ever stealing again, simply by reminding me that I was older than that. She was disappointed in me. She had expected it of my younger sisters, not of me. I was made of sterner stuff. Or so she reckoned all those years ago when I was ten and could not fully understand why I should not share in the spoils that the milk bar man kept on his front counter. When there were so many multi coloured bars and blocks of chocolate. What harm that I took only one a week?

I stopped stealing then but my preoccupation with finding things remains to this day. A preoccupation, ever on the alert to find something no one else wants. Only I see the value in it.

Later that evening my husband examined the ring. Back in the bedsit on the outskirts of London where we kept to our single room. The bed wore nylon sheets and pillow slips, the sort you slide off if your nightclothes are slinky. A silk nightie on nylon and in no time you’re on the floor. Economic sheets, my husband reasoned. Wash and wear in this inhospitable climate. And they’d take up less space in the washing machine. Still, they gave off an unpleasant stink, as though the imprint of the many bodies that had once rested on them was still there lingering among the fibres.

‘It has no internal engravings,’ my husband said. He bit into the side of the metal. ‘It’s not gold. Some sort of cast. Not worth anything.’

Easy come, easy go, as the saying goes, or in my case, not so easily gone. I was crushed. All the way home from Piccadilly rattling along in a train through the underground I had envisaged this huge treasure weighing down my pocket. I imagined I had found value enough to pay for our trip and more. 

I slid my disappointment up my sleeve with the soggy tissues I used to wipe my wet nose in this cold country and looked forward to the next leg of our journey to France, to Strasbourg where we would meet my aunt and uncle and stay in a hotel whose beds would surely only use the finest linen sheets, and the ground, although cold, might offer up other treasures.

There on the train station, late at night, as we shivered in wait for the train that would carry us on our final leg I recognised the tell-tale colours of a scrunched-up piece of paper that could only be of monetary value. Only it turned out to be a Russian note to the value of two dollars Australian. By this time I considered my luck had finally run out. In places so far from home. 

I had not known till then that to travel is to fill yourself with hope and expectations of all the wonderful things that might happen. All the amazing sights you might see. The extraordinary people you might meet. The return to your ancestors and their origins only to find none live up to your expectations. As my boss at a counselling agency where I worked, himself a dedicated traveller, once told me, ‘Whenever you travel, you are hellbent on survival. Where you sleep and eat matters more than anything. And every day, there are still twenty-four hours to fill.’  

In your imagination time runs past in a flash, but in truth travelling is harder than being stationary in a familiar place. When you travel you are uprooted regularly and as much as you might choose this upheaval, it challenges your vestibular system to stay straight, to keep your head steady and your limbs intact.

If you ask me therefore, I tell you now, there is no value in travel other than the crystallisation of unrealised dreams. And a relentless search to find another you elsewhere. Which never happens. Wherever you go you take yourself with you.