A memoirist’s nightmare:

Eleven people living under the one roof is certain to
attract mess.  Our place was no exception.  
The paint, most of which had turned a yellow brown
through my father’s smoking peeled from the ceilings, while down below the
skirting boards and architraves were pockmarked with gaps where the white
undercoat showed through. 
Although he had built his first house in Australia, this one was a rental property and my father saw no need to bother with
repairs.  Besides, he had no time.  Nine children and he worked full
time in a city accountancy firm and by night tried to study for his advanced
exams to become a chartered accountant at the same time as he fought off and
oftentimes gave into his desire to drink away his sorrows. 
His sorrow piled high like the unwashed dinner dishes
in the sink and he spent as much time ignoring them as we kids spent trying to
escape our various sets of chores.
All except my oldest sister, who as the oldest girl,
took on the role of substitute housekeeper willingly, or at least that’s how it
seemed to me then, though these days my sister reports she resented all the
tasks that fell to her. 
At the time she could see no way around it. 
Plus, she hated the mess.  
The weekly washing needed to be done, washed in the
ancient washing machine in the laundry, tugged through the roller and hung out
to dry.  When dry, the washing also needed to be brought in sorted, folded
and some of it ironed. 
Before she went out to to work in a paid job, my
mother sometimes took the pile of washing into the lounge room, piled it onto a
chair beside her, dragged the low lying coffee table in front of her own chair
and covered it with blankets and a sheet to form a temporary ironing
From there she sat behind the table and ironed my
father’s shirts, school dresses, the boys shorts and other items that needed
their creases ironed out.  As she ironed she watched the television and
sipped from her cup of tea, the one that always sat beside her. 
Three times a day, my mother allowed herself a
cigarette, for morning and afternoon tea and then after dinner, sometimes she
smoked a cigarette as she ironed, lost in the fog of television and the rhythm
of cigarette to mouth, cigarette to ashtray, hand to iron, iron spread out
across the back or collar or sides of a shirt till it was as flat as a full
yacht sail in a breeze and then upright with the iron as she rattled the shirt
into its place on a hanger. 
My mother lined the ironed shirts alongside and hung
them from the window ledge. Her face the picture of preoccupation and
My older sister was lucky then that the ironing did
not always fall to her but once my mother took up her job as a child care
worker at the Allambie reception centre for children who had been forced out of
their homes through domestic violence, parental separation or whatever, my
sister had to take up the ironing as well. 
I stood in line reluctantly.  Not for me the
housework, the ironing, the cooking and the cleaning.  Not for me the smooth
running of the household, I wanted to escape much like my mother had done
before in her own girl hood when she loved nothing but to be upstairs away from
all responsibilities with a book. 
My mother kept up this habit into adulthood. 
I did not spend my hours reading so much as I wanted
to play or explore the streets outside, or camp out with my brothers in the
back garden.  I did not want to spend my days locked in domesticity.
And then there came the days when my oldest brother
who was soon to leave home decided the house needed an overhaul. 
I could not escape such times, none of us
Somehow my oldest brother must have persuaded our
parents to stay in the lounge room with their cups of tea and cigarettes – my
brother only succeeded in this while our father was not drinking, and
then issued instructions to the rest of us on how we might proceed to
clean up the mess of the kitchen and surrounds.  
He gave the taller boys the task of washing down
walls.  We little ones washed and dried dishes.  My sister, second in
command, one below my second older brother who might well have been in the
infectious diseases hospital at the time, put things away. 
My older brother instructed another sister on the art
of sweeping the floor.  Another he directed towards the dustpan and brush
and talked to yet another brother about how he might stomp down on the rubbish
bin outside to make more room. 
In those days we did not have green plastic garage
bags.  Rubbish went directly into a bin and the more compacted it became
the more you could add on. 
The orders continued as each task was
My brothers were given the job of collecting hot soapy
water in a bowl and then taking to the windows, one to wipe clean with soap and
water, the other to clear away the streaks with a fresh old towel.  
And so we turned the squalid kitchen into a sparkling
jewel, the one great pleasure my mother’s satisfaction when she came in after
several hours and admired our handiwork. 
I was ten, maybe younger, surely younger, because this
happened before my oldest brother – ten years older than me – left home as an
eighteen year old, and so time plays tricks on me. 
The point of describing this mess and its
transformation in such detail is both to talk about how much memory can play
tricks on us.  The events we remember from childhood can be inaccurate,
such as my age when all this happened and the sheer details of who did what.
There’s a brawl going on in my family of origin at the
moment about the family archive on my mother’s side. 
This same oldest brother who managed to clear up so
much of the mess.  No, that’s not true, he didn’t clear up the mess, he
issued instructions for the rest of us to clear up the mess.  This
same brother has decided that an archive should be more a repository
for factual details of births, deaths and marriages, and for documents that
contain ‘accurate’ details about how lives were lived, preferably in
the long ago. 
This same brother is concerned that the archive not
turn into the rubbish bin I described earlier.  With no plastic garbage
bags to keep the rubbish in place, he fears the archive might become
compacted with the detritus of people’s lives, people who are still alive.  
This same brother worries that some of us us might
write things to include in the archive that might offend others; that maybe
some have already offended others.
 So begins the memoirist’s nightmare: How do we
write our stories without causing offence to others who do not want to be cast
in a particular light?
Who holds the key to the archive?  Who decides on
what gets included and what is left out? 
I reckon let it all be included but let people put
their names to it and when factual details like dates and places of birth or
death or names are wrong, correct them.  
At the same time, memories and observations and
so-called opinions are those of the writer only and the writer cannot speak for
others only for herself, however much she might represent others in her writing
and they might then see themselves there through the lens of her words and they
may not like it, but you cannot control how readers read and what writers write
and if you try, something like what happens in the Lego movie will
The evil Lord Business tries to glue every Lego piece
into place so that his worldview prevails and can never be moved or made
In other words, sterility sets
in.  Instead of a living breathing
archive filled with beauty and with mess, we have a static universe.