Grief stalks us silently

‘I measure every grief I meet’ Emily Dickinson

 Dark days in the pits of winter. So much of war, and politics and griefs held at a distance to assail us. Assail me. Where to begin, my mother on the front step of the converted chook shed which was her first Australian home, sweeping out the dust of a day. She describes this in a short memoir which Elly Zierke included in an A-four-sized yellow book, Old Ties, New Beginnings: Dutch Women in Australia.

Somehow I lost my copy of this book and had to visit Abe books and spend big money to buy a copy back. I have it now. My mother’s story along with nineteen other Dutch women who migrated to Australia during the mid 1900s for a new life in Australia. 

The standout feature of my mother’s story, sanitised to within an inch of its life, happens when she describes her sadness on seeing Father Ashe travel along the dusty streets of Greensborough on his way to give the elderly Hickling grandmother, a neighbour nearby, Holy Communion.

The good priest did not see my mother wave to him. He did not visit her, and in her writing here and elsewhere, she talks of how lonely she felt, how far away from her loved ones. How much she, who once held a significant place in her community on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, nestled in her Hooij family home, was a someone. Until she travelled to Australia and became a non-entity to all around her. 

A mother with several babies. We her babies, bit players in her life, as children so often feature in the lives of their parents. While parents typically loom large in the lives of their children. Though not for my mother. She never wrote more than one or two lines about her parents. She talked often about her beloved father, but her mother remains a mystery.

Grief stalks us silently. The stab of sorrow through my mother’s heart, her longing for a place she once called her home, as she gazed across the yellow sands of the beach at Mentone to the far away horizon and her idea of home. Her home in Holland, the way it was before she left. 

My mother when she was someone. A woman reading and enjoying her cigarette.

When I was seventeen years old, I travelled with my younger sister to Canberra. We drove with an older sibling – must have driven, for how else could get there? A bus perhaps. Surely not a plane. I took my first plane trip in my twenties when I went to Sydney for another brother’s wedding. 

Surely we went by car, as we always went by car to Canberra. The long flat bitumen up the Hume. The endless paddocks, cows, sheep and horses, the sorrow of those barbed wire fences, the yellow/green tufts of grass, the rusted sheds along the way, the sad houses tucked behind scrabbly gum. The disappointment of the Australian bush until we reached the perfect man-made dimensions of the state capital Canberra and moved into my brother’s rented house at the foot of Mount Ainslie for a week during the school holidays. This brother who had once been in the seminary but changed his mind. No longer intending to become a priest. He chose marriage instead to a dark-haired beauty with the equally beautiful name of Sybilla. 

How I admired her. Her pale skin, her warm smile. The beauty spot to one side of her lush mouth. High cheek bones that spoke to her European ancestors. And a mother who was big and warm and generous. She fed us cakes and egg filled sandwiches till I was fit to burst. This at that torturous age of seventeen when my body was filling out and I was getting tall. Taller than my mother and older sister. So tall, I feared my height might never stop and with it my width. I feared becoming a freak, an invisible freak to all, only illuminated through my vast size.

We drove home from Sybilla’s mother’s house that night, my brother at the wheel, my younger sister and I in the back of his car. I looked out the window onto the sparkling lights of the city. I have never been filled with such longing. Even now I cannot name the sensation beyond that word. A sense that maybe I carried some of my mother’s grief inside. Something of her sense of being a non-entity because it struck me at that moment, even as I knew I belonged within my family, sixth in line and held a place somewhere in my mother’s heart, I did not feel I was loved. As corny as that sounds to me now. As pathetic in its resonance as anything I can imagine, the pain of that moment spread like the drops of rain on the window, like tear filled eyes that blurred the street scape into a grey and black mess punctuated only by the flickering of lights above the street line. 

It is my first measurable grief, attached to no one and nothing. A void of emotion, a well of pain and I cannot attach it to any specific event such that it holds meaning beyond the image of a young girl in adolescence struggling to fit into her body and mind as she stretched into new dimensions of experience.

Isn’t that the thing of adolescence, a roller coaster time where every experience is laced with ennui or inflamed rage, sensitivity to every slight, an intense dislike for anything that breeches the high-minded standards of the day and an intolerance for bigotry of any kind.

I feel this way now in the furore over plagiarism. I cannot join the throng of people decrying John Hughes for what he has done. Misguided as he might have been in not telling his readers ahead of time that he was working in the words of other writers before him. 

If only he had done this, and he would be spared the torture of the moment through which he lives. I cannot join the shrill chorus of accusers who lambast him for his heinous ways.

I have always reserved an edge of something for the wrong doer, except for people like Donald Trump, who to my mind exceeds all excess in his arrogance. 

John Hughes fucked up. Forgive him. Do not write off his every word because he has piggy-backed on the shoulders of those who came before him, as we all do. Only most of us manage to acknowledge most of our sources. And I say most, because I have no doubt I have used another’s words in my own writing and neglected to add their name again because words are like this. They slide into our minds as if our own. Even now Zadie Smith’s words for her character Samad run around in my mind. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that,’ he says often enough, as does his beloved companion Archie. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that.’ As means of exonerating themselves from wrongdoing. A means of entering a state of acquiescence to a life filled with complex contradictions.

My mother had sayings of the same kind. ‘And that was that!’, she ended her stories. An intake of breath, Ah Hah. Not quite as bad as the expression, ‘It’s God’s will’, but close enough. A type of resignation to fate. A way of bypassing the intensity of the pain of every grief people meet throughout their lives. 

‘Can’t say fairer than that.’

One thought on “Grief stalks us silently”

  1. I had to look up the John Hughes thing and I’m not sure I buy his defence. Okay, anyone might slip a sentence from another novel into a larger work without realising it. Having had it running around in their heads for many years it might have become to feel like their own—I have a memory of a dream that registers as a memory but couldn’t possibly have happened—but it looks like in this case we’re talking entire passages and one would have to wonder why he’s chosen works that are so familiar it was only a matter of time before he was going to be discovered and challenged.

    If I was to use a word like ‘Newspeak’ in a work without acknowledging Orwell no one would bat an eye because everyone would realise I was deliberately referencing ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ but you could also do that with ‘daffodils’ or ‘babbling brook’ which, for so many people, would evoke Wordsworth and Tennyson. I have a poem which I’ve never actually submitted anywhere but consists of the entire text to ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams; the only difference is that every word has a footnote referencing a line from a work by Shakespeare where he’s used the same word. The title of the piece is, unsurprisingly, ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’. Is that plagiarism? I would say not because the whole point of the poem is that every word we have ever used has been used before.

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