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.