Finding my father

I have unplugged, for
fear of storms.  Varuna, the writers’ house, sits on
an iron stone and
therefore, it’s safest to unplug.
To get here I took the
train through places whose names are familiar to me, through Blaxland, Westmead
and Penrith, Emu Plains, Wentworth Falls. 
Here in the Green Room I have a view at the corner to east and south, or north and west. I cannot
tell which because I am geographically challenged. 

I have come to
Varuna to find my father, or some semblance of him in a deeper directionality
than I have known to date.
Within half an
hour of my arrival a storm typical for this time of the year erupts.  I unplug.  A breeze dense with the smell of rain
pushes against the curtains and washes away some of the musty smell of this
house in which countless writers have penned their words. 

I look at the
photo of my father as a boy, maybe six, maybe seven.  He sits on the floor cross-legged, one in a row of seven
children who sit in the first row in front of the adults at what looks to be a
wedding shot.  My grandparents are
there too, in the corner first row standing behind the seated adults, which
include the wedding couple.
 I guess they are a married couple
because the woman in white carries a bouquet but she has no veil.  The photo could have been taken in
Freud’s time though not in the Vienna of his fame but in Haarlem Holland where
my father lived for his entire childhood, and where my father met my mother and
from where he took her to Australia before I was born. 
I do not know why
there are tears behind my eyes when I look at these photos, something about my
inability to make sense of these times and these people, especially of my
father and my father’s father and his mother. 
The mystery of
these people.  My father’s head is
lowered but he lifts his eyes towards the camera as if he mistrusts the person
taking the photo and his arms are folded. 
Some of the other children in the photo fold their arms as well.  A technique of the photographer in
those days to keep the children still, perhaps.  No one smiles as is the custom in these old photos. 
Several are caught
at that moment with eyes closed, including my paternal grandfather, the one who
looks to me as though he could never be a relative of mine.  My grandmother, on the other hand,
looks like me, the same long face, the angular chin. 
My great
grandparents are in this photo, too. 
They sit on the side of the bride and I can only assume that this photo
was taken at the wedding of my father’s aunt.  Apart from my father I know none of these people, unless I am
to include my aunt Nell who might well be the baby in the photo seated on my
great grandmother’s knee.  Nell I
have met.  Nell who was named after
my grandmother, Petronella and after whom by rights I should have been named but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother Nell was ‘in
‘What did she do?’
I asked. 
Asking my mother questions such as these plunges her into a fug of
memory to which she does not want to return.  I can see it in her eyes.  That glazed look. 
A look that says, must we go there again?  I can’t bear to think on it.  I only want to think about the good times. 
My mother is 94.  I should leave her in peace.  I should not trouble her about these
things, but I cannot help myself. 
I worry at these
thoughts like a dog at a bone.  I worry at these thoughts as if I am scratching at a wound
whose scab is dry and ready to shear off. I know I should leave it scale off
without help from me and yet I persist. 

11 thoughts on “Finding my father”

  1. I know that frustration of trying to push the door open to get answers from the only person who knows. They, in turn, are leaning heavily against it so you only manage to get a peek inside.
    Don't upset them. Don't upset them. They might stop trusting you and then you will never get any answers.
    I think this will be a very intense time for you, Elisabeth, but I hope a rewarding one.
    Regards, Karen C

  2. And FWIW . .
    Which window has the most light in the morning? That is east. North will be to your left, west at your back and south to the right.
    Or, which window does the sun shine brightest light in the afternoon? That will be west, north will be to your right, east at your back and south to your left.
    I know this sort of trivia, yet I hardly ever travel.
    Karen C

  3. I wonder how many things, rather than secrets, are simply incomprehensible mysteries, with a different meaning to everyone who knows of or encounters them.
    I spent two years scratching away at why my grandfather married a woman almost twenty years younger, why she married him, why he deserted five children, why her family did not at least care for the children….
    No one mentioned the siblings' childhoods when I was young and not interested, anyway. No one is left who remembers now.
    I know my grandfather's body was brought back to his home town for burial, from half way across the country, where he lived under a different name. But his headstone is not in the long row of family markers. An unmarked grave? All the cemetery records were lost in the 1920's. An end, either way.
    I do hope you come to some of your answers, without more distress to yourself or your mother. Good luck.

  4. So much can be seen in a photograph like this. And so much to imagine. Is it more than the wearisome patience needed to be photographed in those days – Freud's time? Is it that a group of people – some who don't much like each other, others who do, where there are various battles, arguments and friendships are gathered, grudgingly, to celebrate something that everyone should be happy about? What does a seven year old do with this?

  5. Jokes aside, my loony sister in Bairnsdale has a photo of our father taken when he was about five years old. I've studied it, astonished that this little kid would become such a heartless bastard. That's why I love babies, small children, there's still a chance for them.

  6. I think sometimes we forget how artificial photographs are. The portrait of your family was probably taken with a flash and so we’re talking about an instant in time, a millisecond or less irrespective of the shutter speed. I know there’s a lot of talk these days about reading microexpressions but I would imagine they have to be taken in a context that photos generally lack unless we were there at the time. We humans are so desperate to find meaning in everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s the layout of the night sky the day we were born or how many puffs it takes to remove all the seed heads from a dandelion. We stare and stare at old photos and imagine something’s been captured—that’s the very word we use—but I don’t think we can necessarily trust a frozen moment to be more than what it is. The photo of me with my daughter, the one I have framed on my wall, is a complete fabrication. The guy simply took enough photos that eventually—this was my hope—one would turn up that said what I wanted it to say, that I was dead proud of her.

    Very few photos exist of me smiling. I stopped smiling at cameras when I was—and I’m guessing here—about nine. I sent you a paragraph that I wrote a while back that I didn’t know what to do with. It was one of three. Here’s the second:

    [Jim] was a serious young man. One day he decided to embrace seriousness. He knew, of course, what ‘serious’ meant but hadn’t quite thought through the implications implicit in embracing it as a -ness. ‘-Ness’, suffix: appended to adjectives to form nouns meaning "the state of (the adjective)", "the quality of (the adjective)", or "the measure of (the adjective)". Actually he didn’t exactly know what serious was. At first he defined it by the things it was not. When he was carrying on his father would tell him to be serious and so ‘serious’ had to involve not carrying on. At times he was told to pay attention “this is serious”. And so he realised that the state of being serious was not necessarily a permanent one. One could approach a state of seriousness. Wait. No. Seriousness is the state of being serious. So what could a state of seriousness be? He decided to keep things simple and stopped smiling. He was nine at the time. There is photographic evidence from that time that he stopped smiling but no evidence to explain why he stopped and by the time he came around to thinking about it it was too long ago to be sure. Most things are too long ago to be sure.

    I do remember the photo I’m talking about being taken but I’ve no idea what my mindset was. I just didn’t smile. Perhaps on a whim. It doesn’t matter how much I look at that photo it refuses to reveal anything to me. And I was there. I was inside the head of the kid in the photo. I was the kid in the photo. But I’m not him now.

    I only have one photo of my dad on display. It’s one I took. It’s my favourite photo, my sister’s favourite and also (surprisingly) his. It’s black and white. He’s sitting expressionless in his chair in the house—and by ‘house’ I mean the room called ‘house’—staring blankly into space. It’s a really sad photo at least I think it’s sad but then I have a tendency to see sadness in most things. What was he thinking? I have no idea. I don’t remember talking it. I don’t remember anything about that day.

  7. Hi Elisabeth! I am with and tried to make a comment to your blog. I made a comment previously. I think my previous comment was not accepted. I wish to see now whether I am signed in now.
    Sincerely, Uta

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