‘I am out with lanterns looking for myself.’ Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson had a way with words. She caught them on trip wires and shot them out to topple us.
I find myself lost in memories and peering into a world that is occupied by people, mostly family, sisters and brothers, sometimes mother and father, the world of my childhood.
I watch from the comfort of knowing I am one of them. I belong.
Alien things happened within this family and still I belonged. The visits to church for Mass on Sundays. Compulsory for all good Catholics, only my father refused and one by one my older brothers followed in his footsteps and failed to abide by the rules.
I tried to learn the rules, but they kept shifting. It was once compulsory to fast for three hours before communion. It was once compulsory to eat no meat on Fridays, the day of fish. Women were required to wear hats in church, or some other type of covering.
I examined the women on Sundays in their many flavoured hats, like gigantic bunches of flowers on top of every second head, or sober quiet styles, French berets, squat pill boxes. And every so often someone who had forgotten her hat or lost it or had no money to buy one, pinned a handkerchief to her head.
There it sat on top of her wiry hair like a flattened sail on a sea of curls. Like the women you saw streaking though the shopping centres on rainy days who did not want to get their hair wet and so covered their heads with plastic shopping bags.
Something interrupts the scene, something incomplete, out of place like the whole of my childhood. One image only with hints of disorder like hankies on heads, not folded neatly inside pockets or used discreetly on noses then scrunched into balls and tucked into sleeves.
In summer we wore a strict uniform to school. Mushroom pink waisted dresses in linen with a white detachable Peter Pan collar, white gloves, long white socks, brown lace up shoes and a navy blazer, which we wore all year around. Hot and heavy but compulsory for half of the year when the sun blared on us like loud music. As if we were in a desert and even our straw hats, also compulsory, did not offer much shade. Bold girls scrunched their blazers into balls and stuffed them in their school bags only to drag them out when they reached sight of the line of prefects on duty at the school gates.
I was not one such girl. I was obedient. I kept to the rules, most of the time and when I slipped up, my rule breaking was silent and hidden from every single person who might possibly add to the critical voice in my head that told me I was bad. So bad for my sin, for the missal I found in the back of the church on Sunday, one that had a translucent cover of mock pearl with a gold crucifix embedded inside in the front cover. It bore no name and sat forlornly on one of the seats in the back pews. It had no home, nor owner, so why not take possession of that book?
But as Mrs Milanova, the woman who became my conscience in the form of my psychoanalyst, came to tell me years later, ‘Things that are stolen can never be used.’
She was right. I never used the missal I took from the back seat of the church. Instead, I hid it away in the top of a cupboard where I forgot its existence along with the many other small things I had found left abandoned on the street or in our church.
The past gets swallowed up in the present. A daughter just rang to tell me she has covid. Caught most likely on Friday night when she was out for dinner with a friend. They ate outdoors but from sharing platters and this morning two RAT tests later reveal she is covid positive.
The friend rang this morning to alert my daughter to the fact that although she is still negative on her RAT test, she has symptoms and her brother who lives with her, has Covid. My daughter was unwell last week with mastitis, feeding her four-month-old. And she took several tests throughout the week, including a PCR on Thursday that came back negative.
So presumably she caught the virus on Friday with her friend. My daughter has no symptoms as such but isolation for the next seven days with two small children in her care and a husband who goes bonkers when confined to the indoors. Not much fun. But hopefully none of them will get too sick.
When I was a child I knew of contagious diseases, but my mother had instilled in her children a fantasy of immunity that came through our genes. She talked of germs but seemed unworried by them even when two of my siblings contracted rheumatic fever in their teens. She said nothing at the time. Maybe she did not know that this disease came out of a bacterium which entered people’s hearts. Again she might not have known, the incidence of rheumatic fever occurs in indigenous communities, and in ghettos where there is poverty and overcrowding.
Our childhood struggles were hardly at the level of real poverty, though there was a time when a girl at school told me I was poor. How she had decided this I do not know. Perhaps because when I was in primary school, much to my shame, my mother could not afford to buy leather shoes, the kind worn by most children at Our Lady of Good Counsel school. instead, I wore blue plastic sandals. The buckle up type you still see these days at the height of summer. Blue plastic sandals that I wore with socks at school and after school abandoned the socks. Without socks the sandals collected dirt and the sweat on my skin left black lines on either side of my feet. Dirt that even then horrified me for the way it stuck. My white school socks were equally hard to keep clean given the sandals were wall to wall holes on a thin strip of plastic on which I walked.
But this was not poverty. This was inconvenience. After the girl told me I was poor I went home and asked, my mother.
‘You’re not poor,’ my mother said. ‘Not if you have a roof over your head and food to eat.’
That sorted it then. A simple solution. A roof over your head, no accounting for its quality and likewise for food.