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. 

Is this really me?

Last night I trawled through photos which one of my brothers has collected onto a CD, photos that cover the span of my mother’s life from her birth in 1919 until she turned eighty five.

I went back to 1952 in search of photos that mark my birth. There is one photo underneath which my older sister has written my name. I recognise my sister’s handwriting, but I fear she has it wrong.

Is this really me, in the first with my mother,in the second with my older sister and brother, or is it another brother, who was born some seventeen months earlier? He and I were the first two of our parents’ children born in Australia. My mother has described this brother’s birth as difficult. The hospital was crowded and they left my mother outside on the veranda. When she felt the need to bear down no one heard her cries for help. Not until he was nearly there.

Several years ago when I was raging against my mother and reluctant to acknowledge our connection, I still wanted to know something about my birth, so I disguised my interest under a curiosity about what all her births were like and my mother obliged me by writing up her memories of each one of our births.

Given there are nine of us my mother’s memories must become confused and conflated, but mine she remembers as a forceps delivery.

I check my forehead for bumps, for signs of the imprint of those metal clamps on my head. Forced into the world, dragged into life. I want some evidence of what it was like and can find none.

When you have spent several years in analysis probing the deepest recesses of your mind you become acquainted with the notion of your internal baby. Still I look for external evidence and there is almost none. It annoys me that I cannot lay claim to this image with any certainty. I want to look into the eyes of my baby self and see myself there, but I cannot. I can only imagine and even then I may be looking into my baby brother’s eyes.

On the other hand there are numerous images available from my life as a ten year old, twelve year old and fourteen year old. These I recognise as me, though you may not.

I thought I was ugly as a child. I look now and think not so, not so ugly at all. Why then did I feel I was ugly. Was it simply by virtue of contrasting myself to my two younger sisters who were always considered the pretty ones? Or was it something else, some sense that the way I felt inside, all the badness I carried with me in those days should be translated directly onto my face, to turn it ugly overnight?

I thought of myself then as like a gargoyle, those ugly creatures that clung to the edges of roof tops in the ornate houses that surrounded the streets where we lived.

I am about to start work on a paper about autobiography as fiction or in excess of fiction. What is your take on this? When I write about myself as in autobiographical practice is it necessarily fictional to some degree or is it necessarily the true story of my life?

Why do I even bother to ask the question? We all know the answer. It’s one of those horrible endless questions some of us agonise over. Like the nature/nurture argument some of us battled over at university: Is it your genetic make up and hereditary or is your environment, your education and upbringing that determines how you turn out?

Why do we get into such artificial polarised debates? Of course, the answer is neither one nor the other. Of course, the answer is both and more besides, but our perspective affects the degree to which we might favour one or the other.

In the argument over autobiography as fact or fiction, I tend more towards the fictional side of things, even as I use the stuff of my life as it ‘really ‘ happened in my memory as my building blocks.

The way I recast the story of my life, the way I re-remember events, even as many of these events can be corroborated by others, including my siblings, I still do not regard them as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m comfortable with a certain level of truth in fiction, emotional truth I call it, universal truths that lie in the stories we tell one another about our lives. These are distinct from outright lies and fabrications, falsehoods and distortions. I’m not interested in those, but more often than not such falsifications can be seen through. At least I hope they can be seen through.

Maybe authenticity is a better word. Authentic accounts of lives lived rooted in the past but brought into the present in our fictional interpretations of our memories. The blogosphere is full of it.