Among the rocky crags

My mother and her sister and brothers had a tradition where every few years when they came together as grown ups, they sat in the same position they occupied as children for the family photo. A tradition that lasted several decades until the first one died.

Now there is only one left, nothing remains but the memories and the photographs.

This last weekend my family of siblings, not all, but seven of us came together for yet another reunion and this time in the Blue Mountains. It was a long way to travel for all of us scattered throughout Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, but we made the trip to reconnect and I’m glad we did.

I find myself censoring here, fearful that any of my siblings might read about my thoughts and fearful they might disapprove given I am not a spokesperson for us as a group and yet something impels me to write about this time away under the bluest of skies in the brittle cold of those rocky crags.

Most of us grew up together though the oldest had left home by the time the youngest of us was still in primary school and then the youngest among us stayed home a number of years after we older ones had left.

She did not remember where I was in my last year living at home. I am not there in her memory. And it’s strange how hard it is for me to hold her in my memory given that last year when I lived at home and my sister, the one younger than me, had gone back to boarding school because she could not bear the thought of living at home and getting through her final school year while I was starting university and had no such option. Not that I’d have wanted to go back to boarding school.

I thought I knew the Blue Mountains well given I’ve stayed at Varuna, The Writers House, in Katoomba a number of times, but somehow I managed to get us down to the wrong entrance to the cable cars, which meant we needed to pay for tickets on arrival at the main building from where all the scenic tours begin.

To be in such amazing structures slipping down to the rainforest floor and dangling across the sky thousands of metres above the ground in a yellow cable car was exhilarating.

My sisters and I share the same concern over heights and found ourselves reminding one another to look forward, not down, as a way of protecting ourselves from the dreaded vertigo and jelly legs that come to me whenever I rise to any height above ceiling level.

We stood at Echo Point and asked a passing tourist to oblige us with a photo. He took pleasure in capturing this group of aging siblings against the back drop of The Three Sisters.

The tourist also took photos of our four sisters in front of that sisterly rock formation and we stood together arms linked.

My brothers present, three tall greying bearded men stood side by side when it came their turn to pose for the camera. The two on the ends crossed their arms while the one in the middle dropped his arms to his sides.

We sisters urged them to move in closer and to smile.

‘That’s as much intimacy you’ll get out of us,’ one of my brothers said, as if we had asked for too much.




The boys in my family find displays of affection even harder to muster than the girls. And speaking as one of those girls, I recognise how hard it is to get close and yet when it came to say goodbye on the Sunday, and each one of us hugged the other in turn, and the boys shook hands, there was a sadness, albeit tinged with eagerness to get back to our other lives.

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.