An overcoat of shame

Don’t let shame get in the way. Don’t let it dictate your every move. Don’t let it turn you into a shy thing, scared of every flicker in another’s eye. For fear of their judgement. Judgements that can rain on you like so much graffiti, tagging your glorious persona. 

Shyness is that mildest of the paranoias. It makes it hard for any of us to creep around among others, unless we’re willing to shake off the overcoat that hides us from the world. 

You must not shy away from the task at hand, a task made more difficult by the pressure of time. When I’m under pressure, it’s hard to think. My mind pitches forward to where I must go or what I must do. It refuses to let me wander along the by ways and side paths onto cul de sacs of nothingness, into the joy of a meander. 

It makes me rush into concrete thoughts about where and what now. What now? I ask. 

Words tumble into my brain like so much confetti, each tiny fragment a disc of colour manufactured in a factory somewhere, someone’s incessant pressings to create a rainbow coloured snow storm that lands on the bride’s white veil or her husband’s uncovered head. 

My father wore a hat to his wedding. A tall top hat, still in fashion for such occasions in the 1940s. I expect he did not wear one otherwise.

My husband insisted the funeral celebrant also wear a top hat at his father’s funeral. He instructed the funeral director in top hat to lead the hearse down the hill away from the church of the Sacred Heart slowly. All mourners followed on foot aftet the pall bearers had slid the coffin into the hearse. After which the hearse gathered speed, and the mourners straddled off to their respective cars, to follow headlights on full blare, onto the graveyard in Lilydale. 

My husband wanted his father’s death to be memorable as if at last he was able to give his father something for which his father could not criticise him. 

My own father’s funeral was marked by a surprisingly full church given how taciturn he was in life and how few friends he made. But he had his many children and their partners. He had his many grandchildren, and my mother had the parish which my father had begun to frequent during his final years after he stopped drinking. 

There was even the Our Lady of the Assumption’s charismatic group towards the back of the church, wild-eyed middle-aged women mainly, muttering under their breaths and stomping their feet as my pall bearing brothers carried the coffin out to the hearse ready for its trip to the graveyard. My father’s final trip on earth. 

My oldest brother’s eulogy still rings in my ears. The way he praised our father as a man of interest and scarcely mentioned the cruelty he inflicted on us all. I did not fully understand the degree to which my oldest brother, a decade ahead of me, had a different view of his father from us younger ones. But also, this is a brother who takes his role as the oldest seriously, as many an oldest sibling does, especially coming from a large family. 

There are many first born, so weighed down by the weight of expectation heaped on their small shoulders soon after birth, they cannot help but take on the leadership role that comes by dint of birth order.

At the graveyard where we buried my father, my ten days old first-born daughter began to cry when they lowered the cask into the ground and my husband took her away to a nearby grave side mound where he changed her nappy. He told us later that some passers-by on the golf course behind the cemetery heard a baby crying and called out to see if anyone needed help. 

‘It’s okay,’ my husband said. ‘We’re burying her grandfather.’ 

None of my children knew their grandfather. Not so unusual in generations of old. The old, already ancient in their fifties, and no longer able to hang around to help. Not that my father would have helped any more than I let my mother help me with my children. By then she already some fifteen grandchildren and I did not want mine to be among the one-of-many as I so often felt throughout my life. A state of mind that has tended me towards a loudness that can be too much for some. 

A lack of ostensible shyness even as underneath I might be quaking. Even as once I hit the fifty-year-old mark, the age when people begin to become irrelevant, ‘invisible’, as a friend once told me, I was determined not to let my shame dictate the course of my life, determined not to let those fears of judgement impale me on the fence posts of shame.  

We can’t be all good or bad

When I was a child, I patterned the world into obvious contrasts, cold winters, hot summers, happy times like holidays and hard sad times like housework or a scraped knee.

There were good people and bad people, my favourite teacher Miss Anderson tall, elegant, her hair in a tight French bun, and bad people like my father. Good people like the saints and angels and bad people like the devil. 

Not that we ever met the devil. We only encountered him in bad deeds, our own and others. Hence the need to get as far away from the devil or our misdeeds by visiting the confessional at least monthly.

My mother fitted into the category of the good person, warm kind and predictable, silent and long suffering. I could rely on her to be there for me, or so I reasoned until one night when we had visitors and she promised to bring me a couple of tea before I fell asleep, but the tea never came. 

I waited and waited in my bed into the darkness. Heard the hub bub of voices from the lounge room where my aunts and uncles, mother and father talked together over cups pf coffee and sweetened liqueurs, but no tea for me. 

She had promised she’d bring one to me, the next time she popped into the kitchen to refresh the biscuits she served as savouries, smoked oysters from a tin on salty crackers, and Russian eggs, which she had prepared earlier in the day. She boiled the eggs hard then sliced in two, took out the yolks mashed them together with mayonnaise, a sprinkle of curry, salt and pepper then returned the yolks in a pile to fill white oval space. 

I had not asked for an egg or food, only a cup of tea but my mother became so engrossed with her guests, so intent on focussing on them, the hours slipped by and with it I slipped into sleep but the memory of this one too-long-wait for my mother marked her copy book.

I kept a copy book of sorts in my head. A place in which I listed the misdeeds of people who let me down.

I did not consider myself in those days a Scorpio, a person born in November under the eighth astrological sign therefore prone to vengeful fantasies, like the scorpion who stings when wounded or afraid. I thought everyone kept a record book of other people’s failings.

My father’s misdeeds were many, my mother’s few. Until the day I bounced my ball up and down the path that ran alongside our house to the side door which we used as our front entrance way. 

Up and down with my ball on the pavement. The trick to keep it in motion as long as possible without it derailing off course or having to catch it. Up and down until it slipped sideways and into a plate of glass someone had leaned against the fence. 

The glass was intended to replace the window in the kitchen that one of my brothers had smashed with another ball. He out of carelessness, me out of misadventure. My mother did not see it that way.

‘The glass broke,’ I told her after she came running at the sound of a crash.

‘How could you,’ she said. ‘Not again.’ Her eyes glowered and her cheeks were flushed. My mother had never been angry with me. My mother had always been kind. This was not my mother. This was someone else who had entered my world and did not understand the ways of a ten-year-old child who could not stop her ball from flipping at a right angle and into a plate of glass after it collided with a stone on the concrete.

My mother in the middle, surrounded by some of her children in a familiar pose.

This was not my mother. This was some other monster mother, and I fled from her down the road to the Canterbury park where I pushed the slide swing up and down to soothe my fury at her cruel misjudgement.

I was a good person. I had to be a good person along with the saints and the angels, along with the nuns. I was a good person. If I was not good, then I became bad and to be bad was the worst fate of all. It put me there among the fallen archangels, among the sinners in purgatory, the devils in hell. It put me there with the people whom no one liked, the people like Hitler who started wars, or like the barbarians and Huns the nuns taught us about in history. It put me into the place of the unmentionables.

This was a dilemma for me. An insoluble problem. We could not both be good anymore, my mother and me. Not after she had raged at me. Not after she had shown such hatred in her eyes. 

We could not both be good. One of us had to be bad. And I feared it might end up being me.