The things he did to me…

In one of his recent letters, Gerald Murnane tells me about the furore created within the University of Melbourne when the historian Geoffrey Blainey questioned what Gerald Murnane calls ‘multiracialism’.

Elsewhere, Gerald wrote that Blainey also suggested during ‘the great age of religion’ parents in the 1940s post-war Australia sent their children to Sunday school in order to have their time free so they might ‘be alone together’.

I read this euphemistically as time free for the purposes of having sex. 

And I read into it the implication that it was the foreign folks from Europe who brought their odd over sexed ways with them.

The thought of sex on weekends during the day still makes my stomach curdle, not the adult me but the child in me, who remembers my father calling out to my mother on a Saturday afternoon after he had invited all his daughters in turn to join him in bed. 

A time when we children sat in the loungeroom after our mother had gone to him to pacify our father in some unspoken way, which in these days I recognise as having sex. 

But what sort of sex? 

‘The things he did to me…’ my mother once told me when she was in her nineties. She was reluctant to speak further and the child in me did not want to know. 

The things he did to me… 

So, Geoffrey Blainey’s idea that people stayed home on Sunday mornings to be alone together while their children were learning about Jesus, sends the same distaste into me.

Besides, I wonder is this a patriarchal perspective. 

If there were countless children, as I imagine was the case in many households, not only the Catholic ones post-war, given the baby boom, how many mothers would have wanted to spend their child-free time pleasing their husbands and risking the possibility of still more children?

The contraceptive pill did not arrive on our shores till 1952, so they’d have had to go to some trouble to find ways of protecting themselves from still more children. And those mothers, most of them at home every day to look after the children already there, unable to work because women were required to stop work at least within the public sector the minute they married, were already overwhelmed. Such a world. 

It makes my stomach churn almost as much as the memory of my father calling out to my mother or my sister or me to join him in the bedroom where he was drunk and disorganised on a Saturday afternoon. 

By Sunday morning in the days of the six o’clock closing when hotels were shut from Saturday evening through to Monday morning, it was usually a safe time to go instead to Mass – not Sunday school, a protestant invention – with our mother.

She did not need to stay home then to pacify her husband, because by Sunday morning when he had run out of alcohol and had no way of getting more, we enjoyed what children called ‘our day of peace’ while our father sat all day in his chair in the loungeroom feeling sorry for himself and apologising to our mother for whatever he had done the day before. Not that he could remember, and I don’t know that she ever told him, other than to complain that he behaved badly.

My father in his younger days pre-war, before he became the man of my memory.

Such was the degree to which my mother protected our father, and herself from the dangers of living in our household during the 1950s post war, post migration. Menzies Australia, a place of freeze-dried conservatism and narrow horizons. 

They still exist but many of us now try to see beyond them. 

Enjoy every puddle

A fly flew into my tea this morning and drowned. I fished it out fast and toyed with the idea of starting again, a fresh cup of tea, but then thought the better of it.

A few germs can’t harm me.

Still I flinched at the sight of this tiny black fly, wings stuck to its body, encased there in its funeral shroud of tea. 

In the garden outside, the October roses have gone brown after a full day of rain yesterday and although everything looks washed clean, the garden has the same sad look of that fly, drowned. 

Years ago, after a ferocious drought I promised I’d never begrudge rainfall again. For every puddle I saw thereafter I’d rejoice, and I try to hold firm to this resolution. 

On Monday night I’m going to be part of the audience at the next Q&A session at the ABC studios is Southbank. A bunch of illustrious and brave women will discuss family abuse, among other things. 

Someone gave my daughter tickets and at first I baulked at the thought of another night out but now I’m excited to take part. 

When I was a child I did not think that my father’s violence towards my mother and the rest of us anything out of the ordinary, at least not in our household. I did not give it a label, other than knowing that my father was volatile and prone to fits of rage at the slightest insult especially when he drank. 

I knew too that this was not a thing to be discussed outside our family home. 

At roll call in school when Mother Mary John asked us to give certain family details at the beginning of each year, she asked the names of our fathers and also their occupation. My father was an accountant. I said it with pride. I thrilled at the way he carried behind his long name, Jan Christiaan Schooneveldt, the letters of his qualifications, DipAccCA, or some such thing. I did not think about his other characteristics. Not then in class when I craved respectability.

I longed for the day when I too might attach acronyms to my name, letters from the alphabet placed together in such a way as to suggest achievement.

I find it hard to do so these days. There’s something almost boastful about putting the PhD behind my name and I can’t understand why other than I grew up in a world where we women were taught to be demure and never boastful.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s boasting, big noting yourself, calling attention to your achievements, and yet there are times when I long to tell the world, especially when it comes to my writing, ‘Here, look what I’ve done’. 

I have noticed too that the men around me never seem to have this struggle, this diminishment of pride in their achievements, even the shy ones. 

I enjoy a long correspondence with the writer Gerald Murnane and his last letter to me was one long boast about how pleased he was to have reached eighty and finally to have the recognition he has always believed he deserved. 

Oh, to be so confident. 

I prefer humility in my writers, those who can talk about their writing with pleasure and pride but have no need to rate themselves as anything but writers who have a story to tell. 

When I was a child Mother Mary John made it clear that the worst any of us could be was a notice box. Those children who sought attention from the teacher all the time. 

The boys were the biggest culprits. And mother Mary John punished them by making each stand in an empty rubbish bin on the school veranda for several hours. 

To add to the insult, she tied ribbons in their hair.

No greater insult to a small boy than to tell him he was behaving like a girl and could therefore be seen as a girl. 

I had trouble understanding the logic of this. If the boy was being punished for making a notice box of himself by fidgeting at his desk or flicking paper at his neighbour, how then did that make him like a girl when you considered that ordinarily the girls were the least likely to commit the offence of seeking attention?

Adam Phillip’s the British psychoanalyst puts a different emphasis on seeking attention. He reckons it’s important to seek attention for survival. He also argues that the thing that most gets in the way of attention seeking – in the sense of being curious about the world and people around us – is the issue of shame. 

The problem with shame, it reduces out ability to attend. It closes off our minds to other possibilities. This can’t be a good thing. 

Shame is different from humility. The one a problem, the other a virtue. Though each a problem in excess. 

Shame cuts us off from one another; humility connects us through our shared humanity and ordinariness. It recognises we’re each not the best but we’re good enough. 

The poor fly who flew into my tea did not mean to end its life there. It might have already been at the base of my teacup hidden under the tea bag when I poured in boiling water and floated to the surface to be visible once I added milk. 

Or it might have mishandled a landing on the rim of my cup. 

It all happened so fast. Like life itself. 

It can seem interminable when we’re in it but the older I get the faster it goes, and I know in years to come and for Gerald Murnane, too, we’ll both simply be memories. His greater than mine as his legacy is far greater but in the scheme of things, how much do these thing matter except to our most sensitive and infantile selves who do not want to be forgotten.