Hankies on heads

‘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. 

Broken rules

In most other ways I looked like any other of those thirty girls confirmed one Sunday in 1966, despite being a whole year older. My fault, I realised too late. When my mother took me shopping for suitable shoes, she let me choose a turquoise pair, complete with pointy toes, foot strap and tiny heels.

Such sophistication. 

The shoes suited me perfectly in the shop but only when we lined up outside the church did I recognise a river of black patents on the girls in white dresses ahead of me.

I also wore the mandatory white dress and satin sash. In that I was no different. The virginal spectacle of a group of mostly twelve-year-old girls who walked up the aisle of the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Deepdene one Sunday morning in spring, with one eyesore at the back, me in my turquoise shoes. 

I could not hide them however much I might have tried, and it taught me a lesson about standing out, and being different. The pain of it all. The way in which something that at one time can seem exhilarating and new, can in the next become a deep source of shame. A humiliation made worse when I saw my former grade six teacher, Mother Mary John, who looked me up and down, her eyes resting for longer than they should at my feet.

At that same moment, less than one full year since I had left the primary school of Our Lady of Good Counsel and gone off to the big girls’ convent, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, I realised how short she had become.

In the space of a year, she had shrunk and had no further power over me. She could look at my feet disapprovingly, but did not say a word. Not as she might have in the past. She had no authority over me anymore. 

This thrilled me with a pleasure greater than any shame I might have experienced at standing out in my turquoise shoes.

I have found throughout life that there are times when swamped with the pain of feeling belittled, there can follow a corresponding burst of pride and growth. As if the sudden shrinkage in my sense of myself is then accompanied by an expansion that runs along the lines: I have slipped as low as I can go in your esteem, but now you have shrunken in mine, too.

Now you can longer hurt me. 

Not that I ever held Mother Mary John in high regard. She was never a teacher who filled my heart with the joy of connection. She, who put boys into empty rubbish bins to stand for hours with a ribbon in their hair after they had misbehaved. And therefore, for some reason I never understood, deserved to be treated as if they were girls. The ribbon in the hair.

It was as if a switch in gender by that simple ribbon marker created an aura of inferiority and shame they would never forget.

Standing the boys in an empty rubbish bin, made sense to me. They could thereby be punished, reduced to rubbish, but the ribbon in their hair, what little hair most ten to twelve-year-old boys of my acquaintance had in those years, made no sense. 

For the most part, this nun’s harsh words of criticism were enough to send me down the tunnel of abjection, but other children might have needed more, even as she ran an orderly ship.

Hands on heads. Hands on desks. Hands visible always, rather as the police taking a person into custody insist their would-be prisoner put their hands into the air. It took me years to understand the police doing so to ensure the trapped person did not whip out a gun.

Such is the life of childhood. A time of mystery and confusion. A time when things make no sense. At the same time things can be so clear in our understanding.

As Maria Tumarkin reckons: kids are sniffer dogs for secrets. We know what’s going on. We know when things are amiss. We can detect a lie or falsehood from a few inches. From ten feet, from across a river.

Religion offers some element of understanding here. It creates a way of viewing the world that is different from the secular upbringings of those who miss out on the mysteries of God. Any god, any religion.

They miss out on the awe and majesty of Heaven. But the secularly raised children will no doubt still find awe in the landscape of plant and animal life and in the mysteries of their people. Their parents, siblings and those who surround them. 

But the comforts and harshness of religion, at least of the religion into which I was born, adds a layer of specialness, rather like my turquoise shoes.

Even as I have travelled through life and met others like me, lapsed Catholics with whom I share a bond of understanding that runs deep. They need to be lapsed though. Those who are still beliers continue to live in the world of mystery that I abandoned in my eighteenth year when I sinned most grievously, and the earth did not swallow me whole. By having sex with a man out of wedlock. The sky did not fall through. And even though I sensed my sin was written into the lines of my face, even my mother did not see how I had changed. 

Soon after, religion lost its thrall.

It’s an easy thing to do. But before you do it, before you break the rules, it feels almost impossible to imagine. Once broken all other, now seemingly arbitrary rules, fall away like so much confetti at a wedding. Only to be swept up and tossed into the bin of memory. New rules might take their place from institutions, for me from the world of psychoanalysis, at least for a time, but these rules are easier by far to break. 

These rules were not introduced to me in childhood. These rules I gleaned from books. These rules needed to make a deeper sense than mere obedience dictated. These rules needed to offer a purpose that I understood.

Until, rather like the rules of grammar of subject, verb and object, the accompanying clauses and phrases we like to chuck around, I learned to break rules to find security in the discordant and re-find the beauty of my twelve-year-old’s turquoise shoes.