My father built a grotto at the front of our house in Greensborough, a small indentation in the side wall where electricity boxes typically sat for ease of inspection. Ours was not for electricity, but a cut out shoe box size, into which my parents placed a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
She stood sentinel, like a mezuzah on the doorpost of Jewish people’s homes. They pay their respects on arrival, with a pat of their hands on the small metal piece that sits on the right side of the door jamb, two thirds up from the floor and then kiss their fingers in a sign of respect.
There was a mezuzah on the front door of a flat my husband and I rented over forty years ago in Camberwell. It suggested previous tenants had been Jewish or maybe even the landlord, keen to safeguard their home. But when I was a child, my family used the Blessed Virgin, in her blue robes, arms outstretched, foot placed strategically on a snake’s head.
The first time I thought twice about my family’s religion it occurred to me that not all people believed, as did my family, in Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
‘You’re a Roman Catholic,’ the red-haired girl said. A stranger to me, I had befriended her as we explored the disused rail crossing from Camberwell to Deepdene. She asked where I went to school and when I told her OLGC, she laughed as though there was something funny about my parent’s choice of schools.
Hers, Deepdene Primary was an ordinary school. Mine was an aberration, or so she implied.
I was troubled by the word ‘Roman’. Rome was in Italy. My parents were Dutch. We had nothing to do with Italy, so why the association?
‘The Pope lives in Rome,’ my brother told me later when I asked. ‘We’re called papists. We believe in the infallibility of our pope. Protestants don’t like popes. They only go as high as archbishops.’
My mother was a fan of religion, of the popes and the saints, rather like some of the girls in my school loved the Beetles. She kept her eyes fixed on the television news where images of smoke rose about the parapets in Vatican City after the cardinals met to elect a new Pope. One of the Pauls.
I was on the lookout for someone to adore beyond Jesus and the saints. Beyond my mother whom I loved beyond all others on this earth. My mother whom I feared might one day die and leave me behind. Even though my mother was fit and strong. She was never sick. She was first out of bed in the morning, up before anyone else and she was the last person I saw at night beyond my sister with whom I then shared a room.
My sister and I played a game of who could be the last to say good night.
‘Goodnight,’ my sister said.
‘Goodnight,’ I said.
‘Goodnight,’ she said again, and I repeated a final greeting. So it went on until one of us stopped responding and we were both asleep.
This was on the good nights when our father was not drinking. On those nights and the many nights between, sleep was something you went into without too much thought. Too much thought and you might lay awake far too long listening for the noises of the night and fearful at what might happen in the shadows.
On Canterbury Road where it turns in a wide arc on its way to the bridge that runs over the old unused railway line, I gave up my religion. in Secret.
I was only eleven years old, but I remember it because the news came that someone had assassinated John Kennedy, the American president. My mother’s eyes were again glued to the television screen, and this time filled with tears.
The only time I saw my mother cry happened when archbishops, popes and certain presidents died. My mother worshipped authorities in the form of men who ran the church and some countries. Though she also had a deep love for the royal family in Holland for Beatrix and Juliana. Their names she spoke of as though they were beloved sisters.
My mother did not otherwise cry much. Not in my memory. But she exuded a terror at times that took the form of an obsequious desire to please my father, even when he behaved in ways that should have sent her roaring at him. When he told her how stupid she was. How pathetic her cooking. How much she belonged back in Holland with her beloved family. The family she had left behind to humour him, or so she told me many years later. She knew my father was jealous of her family, of her connection to them, of their loving ways and she imagined if she took herself far away it might help him feel less tortured by their connection.
Only trouble, three of my mother’s brothers followed my father to Australia. They decided that he, of all people, would make the right decision after the war and so they copied him. My father was never free of my mother’s family. While his own family disappeared behind a wall of invisibility.
I asked him once, ‘Where are they, your family? Where are your mother and father? Your sisters and brothers?’
‘I have no family,’ he said. ‘Look into my eyes. They’re black, evil, and empty.’ I burst into tears, five-year-old that I was, at the idea that my father should see himself so and that I might then be connected to this man who was evil and had no family.
By then he had also given up the religion he adopted when he married. We kids went off to Mass on Sunday mornings with our mother, and he stayed home. He sat alone smoking cigarettes and stared into space.
My father stopped believing well before I stopped. The day I realised I loved going to church simply for the singing. I found the sermons boring. The priest droned on, and I daydreamed or counted the flowers on the hats of the women in front. I did not pay attention to any of the things I should take seriously. Underneath I was a failed Catholic. A Catholic in name only. And in that I was a hypocrite, who did not deserve to belong to the church.
As the priest said one Sunday before I tuned out. ‘You people who complain about the goings on in our church, you talk as though you are not part of this church. But it is still your church, and it is you who deserve the criticism.’
He glared at his congregation, and my face flushed. ‘In other words,’ he said, ‘look to yourself for the criticism, do not look outwards.’
It struck me then, if I wanted to be critical of this religion then I should not belong, but I was too young to leave.
Besides, what would my mother say?