Dirt

Knees up on the couch, I traced a line with my finger along the length of my thigh. One of those summer days during the 1960s before we knew about climate change but still so hot as to leave me breathless and reluctant to do anything other than curl up on the couch with one of my father’s Time Magazines. 

At first, I thought I’d contracted some rare disease that gave off a rash of unspeakable black, but I scratched at it and watched it peel off under my fingernails with an already thin line of black where the nail joined the skin. 

No doubt about it, this was dirt.

One of those moments in my life when I knew things had to change. When I knew I must now listen to my older sister’s warnings about my body.

How it was changing. Even I could see that. How I now needed to spread deodorant under my armpits every morning before putting on my school dress, otherwise, my school dress and I along with it would smell like my brothers on a hot day. 

BO. My sister pronounced the letters with disdain. Till then a bath or shower once a week had been enough. Until the hair washing on a Saturday night could leave my hair looking clean enough all week long, especially once I tied it behind in a ponytail. But now this onset from within had begun to attack my hair as well. 

On Sundays after Mass, my sister took her hair out of its elastic band and brushed through repeatedly. She dragged the brush through from the roots to the tips. This way, she told me she was pushing the oil to her hair’s dry extremities and if she did this long enough, she could reinvigorate her hair by coating every strand with her own rich oils. Sometimes she used an egg and freed the yolk which she smeared all over her head. The egg nourished her hair, she told me, but she needed to leave it in for at least ten minutes.  Then she washed it away, oil and egg yolk. Oily hair might have been healthy, but it was ugly, she told me. Hideous, a sign of neglect.

I feared she was aiming her disdain at me. And the way in which my hair had taken on the oily look of neglect.

It was not an easy transition into this shift from hating the effort required to relishing the joy of standing under the hot stream of water and soaking up the perfume of Lux soap or Johnston’s baby powder, the smell of shampoo on a wet head, the feel of clean.

As with so many things, I soon became obsessive about the cleanliness of my body. And showers took longer and longer, as long as my father was not at home to interrupt them. 

Showers and the need to scrape underneath my fingernails to ensure there was not a speck of grime visible.

And deodorant, the most floral imaginable to give the illusion of a Myer make up counter where the perfumes hit you even before you saw the women with flame red lips and eyes covered in darkness in whatever shade was then fashionable.

In the sixties going into the seventies, we experimented with blues and turquoise, purples and pinks. The bluer the better, but I did not start on the eye colour until I left home for fear of my father’s mockery. 

From the vantage point of today, I wonder about the hours lost trying to wrangle my body into this pristine state of cleanliness and almost virginal sanctity. As if I did not want a sniff of my womanhood to be visible. 

I went once to the toilet soon after my mother and the smell of her body, to my adolescent self was revolting, heavy with something intangible. Of sex or vaginal secretions. The smells appalled me, even as I could not name them. 

My mother’s body which I once loved with an infant’s passion became this scary receptacle of the unspeakable.

I began to avoid her and kept well away from the hands she once used on my ponytail as we watched television together. Or she came up behind me while I was sitting in the kitchen over my homework.

My mother’s fingers already showing signs of the arthritis that dogged her in later life took hold of the length of my plait or ponytail and she threaded it through her fingers, wound it round and round her hand, then let it fall. Sometimes she stepped back to see the effect of her caresses. And then she started over again. 

Her affection, which I might once have craved became torture in my adolescence when we walked side by side along Centre Dandenong Road on our way to church on Sundays and the others strode on ahead. I hung back with my mother but hated the way she took up my hand as though I was a child much younger than my fourteen years might suggest or as if I was her adult partner. 

I thought of the men on the building sites. Men who wolf-whistled at me when I was alone or with my older sister, and to my mind approved of my then developing body. They would not do so when my mother held my hand. 

So, I learned to avoid my mother, in the same way, I avoided my father. Not out of fear but out of resistance against childhood and babyhood, when I wanted only to grow up and away.

Away from the smell of my mother and of her house, of her many babies, and of her European tendency to bath only once a week, like ripening fruit, even as she tapped 4711 eau de cologne on her wrists and behind her ears before Mass every Sunday and smeared a line of red across her lips. Even as she tried to meet the cleanliness standards I and my other siblings introduced. She who once spat saliva onto her handkerchief and rubbed away at the remnants of jam still visible on my child chin; who once noticed these small insults of dirt on my face, lost touch with her own messiness under the veneer of respectability that came with lipstick and eau de cologne.

Until after my father died and she re-married a man for whom she adopted a more Australian style of cleanliness and began to shower daily until she was too old to do it herself. Which brings me full circle to where I began.

Under the shower this morning determined to wash my hair, a task I have taken to hating again for its time absorbing potential and for the never endingness of its demand.

I will not revert to childhood avoidance. I will stay as clean as I can while allowing myself the indulgent thought: apart from the pleasure of standing under the warm rush of water.

Apart from the comfort of soap against my skin, the business of shedding clothes, of stepping underwater, the assault of having to dry a once warmed body against the shock of cold once outside the shower and the trouble with towelling yourself dry, making sure I get between every toe to avoid tinea.

These tasks are almost as bad as the tasks of washing dishes after a meal or wiping benches. I do not derive pleasure from the task itself. Maybe it’s like writing, the best of it occurs once it’s done. 

I will keep at it. 

An unsent letter

A letter to my analyst

Dear Mrs Milanova

It’s high time I wrote to you. I’m here in a place called Yarck near Alexandra on a writing retreat. One aimed at helping me and eight others, all women from the same age demographic, develop our writing skills.

But here in Yarck I want to do more. I want to write about our time together, yours and mine, when I was one of your many patients and you were my one and only analyst. 

That sets up the imbalance for starters. You were like a movie star to me and held the same thrall while I was simply one of your many fans. Maybe that emulated my experience growing up in a family, all those siblings and only one mother to go around. And one mother who gave up going around soon after the birth of each one of us in turn.

As babies up till three months she managed to breast feed; beyond that the weaning and then by the time we could walk and talk even before we were out of nappies we had to find ways of managing with the help of older brothers and sisters, sisters mainly, to get by.

You helped to steer me through that morass of memory, a childhood full of people, too many people and only one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and a father who roamed the house at night in search of beds to share, with daughters whose bodies did not welcome such visits and only one, my older sister with whom he stayed over time.

All this until our mother, the one mother who hid herself away in books and religion and tried to resist our father’s overtures for fear of yet another pregnancy, caught him in the act. Caught him with her first-born daughter and warned him off. 

‘If you come here again, I’ll kill you.’ Fierce words and she meant them only once our father was full of brandy and oblivious to the taboos of parental ties, he forgot her threat and resumed his visits and my sister who disliked these visits so much got herself out of bed around five o’clock and walked through the streets of Camberwell to the church in Deepdene alone, determined to spend the rest of the morning before school at Mass. 

People thought she was devout. Nun material and she toyed with this, entry into a convent as a way of escape but it did not matter for the sacristy after Mass each day held sway when the priest invited her to join him there. But the priest was kinder that our father when he held her in his arms and stroked her hair and kissed her full on the mouth and offered her love.

Better than our father who was more interested in the sexual side of love even if misplaced onto his first-born daughter.

No not his first-born, that daughter was dead already at five months of age from some sort of meningitis in war torn Holland. She was buried there in a small grave in Heilo where our mother had taken her in the hope of finding food during the Honger Winter of 1945. 

The war ended and their daughter dead, my father stayed with the army reserve and they shipped him off to Indonesia for two years so that he could fight and lose against the Indonesians in their bid for independence.

It gave our mother a two-year respite between babies, though she visited her our father once while he was in England, on officer training and her second son arrived as a result. 

This first born daughter, at least the one who lived beyond five months, took the place of our mother, as cook and cleaner. Every Saturday she slaved under piles of washing, the dirty underwear, socks, shorts and dresses of eleven people while our mother took herself off to work to look after other people’s children in a children’s reception centre to augment the family income. 

Our father earned good money as an accountant but hated to spend it on children, as much as he did. He drew the line at paying the school fees at the Catholic school our mother insisted we children attend. 

So my older sister took on the role of housekeeper and second wife to our father and I stood next in line to take her place or so I believed though I rebelled in silence by hiding in the back yard whenever chore time started on Saturday mornings or paying lip service only to the clean-up of our bedroom, the one single task my older sister allocated to me.

I hid away and with my younger sister we went to the swimming pool in Camberwell in summer and to the park in winter.

I bore witness to these events, preferring to observe than to participate, always on the edge, never at the centre. Though I longed to find that central place, I did not want it with my father but with my mother.

I never found it with her even though she passed on her name to me, the same name she bore in full and yet I could not matter to her as much as when I was a small child, I imagined I did. 

Always the one who suffered the most, my older sister held sway with both parents. Both turned to her, both took from her and in a strange way gave to her the label of victim, the one member of the family who suffered the most and as suffering holds much sway within the Catholic church her place was cemented in sainthood while the one who stands nearby and looks on holds the uncertain role of messenger and whistle blower.  

We all hate tittle tattlers and even as I write to you Mrs Milanoiva from this writing retreat at Yarck, the sense of rule breaking and rebellion runs through me.

Whistle-blowers break the rules of the established order by calling out the secrets of authority, by exposing chinks in the armour of those who rule. They destabilise the situation and lead to wars and trouble and unhappiness because they cannot sit still on the periphery and see that things are not quite right while hoping against hope that they too might get a chance to speak their mind on centre stage while ever fearful of what might come out when they try.

Enough of this long rant. It is time to rest my keyboard heavy fingers and move onto other words. 

Elisabeth