On giving up religionCatholicism,

My father built a grotto at the front of our house in Greensborough, a small indentation in the side wall where electricity boxes typically sat for ease of inspection. Ours was not for electricity, but a cut out shoe box size, into which my parents placed a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

She stood sentinel, like a mezuzah on the doorpost of Jewish people’s homes. They pay their respects on arrival, with a pat of their hands on the small metal piece that sits on the right side of the door jamb, two thirds up from the floor and then kiss their fingers in a sign of respect. 

There was a mezuzah on the front door of a flat my husband and I rented over forty years ago in Camberwell. It suggested previous tenants had been Jewish or maybe even the landlord, keen to safeguard their home. But when I was a child, my family used the Blessed Virgin, in her blue robes, arms outstretched, foot placed strategically on a snake’s head. 

A much larger grotto from my old school.

The first time I thought twice about my family’s religion it occurred to me that not all people believed, as did my family, in Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

‘You’re a Roman Catholic,’ the red-haired girl said. A stranger to me, I had befriended her as we explored the disused rail crossing from Camberwell to Deepdene. She asked where I went to school and when I told her OLGC, she laughed as though there was something funny about my parent’s choice of schools.

Hers, Deepdene Primary was an ordinary school. Mine was an aberration, or so she implied. 

I was troubled by the word ‘Roman’. Rome was in Italy. My parents were Dutch. We had nothing to do with Italy, so why the association? 

‘The Pope lives in Rome,’ my brother told me later when I asked. ‘We’re called papists. We believe in the infallibility of our pope. Protestants don’t like popes. They only go as high as archbishops.’ 

My mother was a fan of religion, of the popes and the saints, rather like some of the girls in my school loved the Beetles. She kept her eyes fixed on the television news where images of smoke rose about the parapets in Vatican City after the cardinals met to elect a new Pope. One of the Pauls. 

I was on the lookout for someone to adore beyond Jesus and the saints. Beyond my mother whom I loved beyond all others on this earth. My mother whom I feared might one day die and leave me behind. Even though my mother was fit and strong. She was never sick. She was first out of bed in the morning, up before anyone else and she was the last person I saw at night beyond my sister with whom I then shared a room. 

My sister and I played a game of who could be the last to say good night. 

‘Goodnight,’ my sister said. 

‘Goodnight,’ I said.

 ‘Goodnight,’ she said again, and I repeated a final greeting. So it went on until one of us stopped responding and we were both asleep. 

This was on the good nights when our father was not drinking. On those nights and the many nights between, sleep was something you went into without too much thought. Too much thought and you might lay awake far too long listening for the noises of the night and fearful at what might happen in the shadows. 

On Canterbury Road where it turns in a wide arc on its way to the bridge that runs over the old unused railway line, I gave up my religion. in Secret.

I was only eleven years old, but I remember it because the news came that someone had assassinated John Kennedy, the American president. My mother’s eyes were again glued to the television screen, and this time filled with tears. 

The only time I saw my mother cry happened when archbishops, popes and certain presidents died. My mother worshipped authorities in the form of men who ran the church and some countries. Though she also had a deep love for the royal family in Holland for Beatrix and Juliana. Their names she spoke of as though they were beloved sisters.

My mother did not otherwise cry much. Not in my memory. But she exuded a terror at times that took the form of an obsequious desire to please my father, even when he behaved in ways that should have sent her roaring at him. When he told her how stupid she was. How pathetic her cooking. How much she belonged back in Holland with her beloved family. The family she had left behind to humour him, or so she told me many years later. She knew my father was jealous of her family, of her connection to them, of their loving ways and she imagined if she took herself far away it might help him feel less tortured by their connection. 

Only trouble, three of my mother’s brothers followed my father to Australia. They decided that he, of all people, would make the right decision after the war and so they copied him. My father was never free of my mother’s family. While his own family disappeared behind a wall of invisibility. 

I asked him once, ‘Where are they, your family? Where are your mother and father? Your sisters and brothers?’ 

‘I have no family,’ he said. ‘Look into my eyes. They’re black, evil, and empty.’ I burst into tears, five-year-old that I was, at the idea that my father should see himself so and that I might then be connected to this man who was evil and had no family.

By then he had also given up the religion he adopted when he married. We kids went off to Mass on Sunday mornings with our mother, and he stayed home. He sat alone smoking cigarettes and stared into space. 

My father stopped believing well before I stopped. The day I realised I loved going to church simply for the singing. I found the sermons boring. The priest droned on, and I daydreamed or counted the flowers on the hats of the women in front. I did not pay attention to any of the things I should take seriously. Underneath I was a failed Catholic. A Catholic in name only. And in that I was a hypocrite, who did not deserve to belong to the church. 

As the priest said one Sunday before I tuned out. ‘You people who complain about the goings on in our church, you talk as though you are not part of this church. But it is still your church, and it is you who deserve the criticism.’ 

He glared at his congregation, and my face flushed.  ‘In other words,’ he said, ‘look to yourself for the criticism, do not look outwards.’ 

It struck me then, if I wanted to be critical of this religion then I should not belong, but I was too young to leave. 

Besides, what would my mother say? 

On mother rage

There are days when life grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. You know you’re alive because the pain is huge. Private griefs, the ones we carry alone, are worst of all. 

One such day, hot and shiny, with a blue sky to match my mother’s eyes, I walked down the narrow side of the house to bounce my ball. A single tennis ball borrowed from my brothers and not yet soft. 

Only days earlier I had mastered the art of the endless bounce, my hand against the ball, up and down, rhythmically. The trick was to land the ball on hard surfaces. The concrete walkway perfect, from the laundry door to the street and footpath in front, up and down and counting. 

I was aiming for five hundred. My determination kept my eyes fixed on the ball and ground in equal measure. The rhythm and predictability offered a sense of control and mastery I rarely felt when it came to the physical. I could not run fast like other kids at school or shoot balls through a hoop or stretch my legs for the long jump. But I could keep my tennis ball in action. That was until it smashed against a pane of glass unseen by me. A pane of glass the glazier had left against the side fence in anticipation. He planned to replace a broken side window. 

The smash of glass sent my mother to the back door and down the side path to the broken shards. My ball stilled at only 239 bounces, a dead ball I did not retrieve for fear of cuts, which came instead with my mother’s words.

‘How could you be so clumsy?’ My usually calm mother’s eyes glazed over with a look I had not seen before, at least not directed towards me, and I fled. 

To the park. How could my mother blame me for this accident? The ball had landed on the concrete as it should but bounced against a stone, which sent it off circuit, to ricochet in the wrong direction into that fragile sheet of glass that had no business being there.

My mother and her oldest and youngest daughters. other hood, mother rage, sainthood,

My mother usually held in her resentment and anger and could give an impression of sainthood most days of the week. But now she turned into a Medusa’s head with snakes for hair. My world exploded.

This memory sits there among other memories when other heads have turned so. When years ago, a friend on the phone told me she had a bone to pick with me. I had not heard the expression until that day and the image of a bone stripped of all flesh with just a few sinews left comes to mind. 

We were on the tail end of a friendship that had lasted for years but the politics of our professional association led us down that path, a story too complicated and dull to repeat here, only the memory of those words. ‘A bone to pick’ matched the sensation I experience when someone who matters is angry with me. It is as though they have scooped out my heart and rubbed it all over with a pot scrubber. Scoured its surface to give it a good once over and then put it back with rough edges exposed. 

The episodes I remember are those when a woman has taken me to task. Not the many more times when men have decided I wronged them. And strangely as much as those times, too numerous to tally here, come into my mind they do not match the way a woman’s scorn stings. 

Is this because I grew up in a culture where women did not get angry or if they did something was out of whack? And to have a woman angry with you was to be in immeasurable trouble. 

I worked hard therefore in childhood to keep all the women in my life happy, my mother, my sisters, the nuns. But not anymore. Not now when I experience my own Medusa’s head of rage. When I know the rage that can sit inside me.

You know the expression: ‘You don’t want to get on the wrong side of her’. The implications your life is not worth it if you do. A woman’s anger is scariest of all. Think Julia Gillard in her misogyny speech. But righteous anger goes a long way to becoming enshrined as a fair call. 

What of all those other less than righteous angers, the petty ones that build up inside and grow from all the times we have needed to swallow our hurt or irritation when too much has been asked of us, but we cannot say ‘no’? All those hours caring for small children when we must swallow our annoyances so as not to bruise their delicate hearts. And all the times we must resist letting our partners, typically of the male variety, with whom we’re furious know of our fury because to let them know is to invite a cavalcade of rage from them so great ours pales into nothing. 

Does it go back to motherhood, that we learn as small girls in our mother’s arms? It’s okay for men to be angry about life’s injustices but we women must learn to hold our grievances in. The way I did when I ran to the park to hide my wounds and held them inside because my mother herself had violated that sacred unwritten rule: a mother never gets angry. A mother is always kind and loving and gentle. And if she loses her cool, she keeps it to herself for the sake of those delicate hearts around her. 

A mother personifies sainthood. Only we all know that mothers are human like the rest of us. Mothers get angry too.