A psychological sandwich

I am my mother’s daughter. When I was in my early twenties, when I first began to develop a will of my own, when I first discovered the thrill of rebellion and quietly thumbed my nose at my mother’s religiosity and what I then saw as her prudery, and began to favour the company of men – what I have called my ‘promiscuous’ years – my mother took to writing me letters.

My mother writes letters still even though we live less than twenty kilometers apart. She writes to all her children as a means of stating her case.

My mother’s letters to me are ‘psychological sandwiches’. They begin with protests of her love for me. The middle carries the sting. What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are? Behaving so loosely with men. Where are your morals?

Then she might end the letter with a short vignette: her memory of me as a little girl in a yellow jumper and tartan skirt, after she had come home from hospital with my new baby sister, when I was less than two years old and had been left in the care of my godparents, the Kaandorps, for over a week.

In her letter my mother remembers me then as the little girl who threw herself into her mother’s arms and wept for the sheer joy of being together again. If only, my mother writes, if only she could give to me now the things I needed then. It is as if she wishes that I had never grown up, that I had never entered into the world of adulthood, of conflict and of challenge. If only I had stayed little, then our bond might be secure.

I have been reading Nancy Miller’s Bequest and Betrayal:memoirs of a parent’s death, a book about adult children who write about their parents after death. Are these memoirs eulogies, songs of praise for parents now gone, or are they betrayals of parental secrets?

I suspect I could not write about my father as I do now were he not dead. Now he is dead, I am safe.

Will the way I write about my mother change after her death? My mother in my mind has undergone so many metamorphoses, from the woman I adored as a small child to the woman I became scornful of, though not in adolescence, even in adolescence I felt protective of her and needy, to the frail old woman she has finally become, of whom I feel protective in a different way. It took a long time before I dared to feel critical of my mother in any way.

It was later in my life, in my twenties and thirties when I had embarked on my analysis, only then did my image of my mother start to crack. Only then did I come to feel critical of her, for her religious intolerance, her manipulative tendencies, and her tendency to pretend that all is well when it is not.

I have my mother’s name, all three names, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. It is a Dutch tradition to name the second daughter after the mother, and the first daughter after the mother’s mother, a tradition that again alerts us to the significance of mothers in a woman’s life.

I did not name my first daughter after my mother or any of my daughters directly after me, but my husband insisted and I agreed to the idea that they should all have my name as a second name. Equality you might say. Their first names however belong entirely to them.

Even now I can imagine my daughters writing in the future about what it means to them to each share their mother’s name between their first and last names.

In my family of origin, we each bear the name Maria, another tradition, religious this time, a means of asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to look over us all. All except the oldest, who again according to Dutch tradition was given his father’s name in its entirety.

When we were little we laughed at the fact that even the boys carried the name Maria in their collection of personal names, Simon Peter Maria, Franciscus Wiro Maria, Michael George Maria and Gregory Paul Maria. Such odd names they seemed to us growing up in Australia in the fifties and sixties when most people’s names were Celtic and Anglo Saxon with the odd immigrant name from the Mediterranean or Europe thrown in for good measure.

Names matter, they are identifying features, they become part of our sense of ourselves and of our identity.

In the days when I fancied I might write a book in which I had hoped each of my siblings might contribute a chapter, I also imagined a paragraph on each of us, suggesting parallels between our first given name and the way in which our name reflects our personalities.

As usual I am running off into too many ideas, too many ideas to follow. One leads into the other and the track becomes unwieldy. It is difficult to back track to where we have come from. Sorry.

He travels in his head

‘I had at least thirteen addresses as a child,’ Gerald Murnane said during his talk at the writers festival yesterday, ‘and there is a joke. Whenever my father announced the next move, the chooks would lay down on their backs with their feet stuck up in the air ready for us to tie them together for slaughter.’

With these words I could tell GM was in his element, but when I first arrived and sat opposite him in the front row, I remembered how often he has told me in letters that he feels inordinately nervous on such occasions. This time, he wrote it would be easier. This time another Australian writer and friend, Antoni Jach, was to interview GM in Studio 1 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. This time GM need not prepare a speech. He could instead rely on the questions and conversation to propel him forward.

GM and I have been writing to one another for the past five years. Snail mail. GM refuses to use a computer. I am one of his many correspondents, but I like to think I am one of the most reliable. He has told me as much in a letter. When GM’s wife was dying of cancer two years ago and he nursed her over a long period before her death, many of his usual correspondents fell off, except for three of us. The two others were men.

GM is one of my literary heroes and he holds a special place in my heart. It stands to reason that I want to hold a special place in his, but GM is a man of limited affections, at least as far as I can tell.

It is hard to separate the man out from his central narrator, the various main characters who appear in all his books – a single man generally, and one who leads an austere and isolated life, but who at the same time draws wealth, nourishment and comfort from the internal workings of his mind. He travels in his head.

GM and I share things in common, which may well be part of our mutual attraction, though he once wrote to me in the early days that he thought I was a ‘nutter’. The first letter I wrote to him must have given this impression. I had just finished reading GM’s series of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and I resonated with the way he structures his sentences and his rhythm. I tried therefore to imitate GM’s writing in my first letter, which I addressed to ‘the man of the perfect sentence’. It was awful and I cringe now to think of it.

As is my most dreadful habit ,I have confused the narrator of GM’s book with the person of GM, but it matters not. During discussion time yesterday I asked GM a question, not a question more a comment. GM responded before I had even been able to form it into a question but I was relieved. I often have the urge to ask a question at events such as writer’s festivals but can never find ways to ask succinct questions. Usually my mind is in a tumult of ideas brought on by the presentation and I blurt out some words or other and feel like a complete fool. I felt worse than a fool yesterday but GM rescued me.

He talked about the ways in which religion has offered a framework for his writing from the perspective of its practices rather than its beliefs. Then he told the audience that he and I were correspondents and that we rarely saw one another. This is perhaps the closest we have ever been, he said, but in writing to one another we say more than we would ever say in real life.

I almost blushed.

I often view our letters as sort of love letters, though neither he nor I have any such desire. I suspect we are neither of us each others type, despite that which we have in common.

It is the business of writing to one another that creates this illusion of love. We write our innermost secrets. GM and I have come to an agreement that we need not bother with the usual niceties of letter writing, with the insistence that the one writing the letter acknowledge everything the other has said in the previous letter.

No, we write to each other as we wish. A letter’s content might be triggered by thoughts from the previous letter or it might deal with events of the time or the past. We write selfishly. We write to each other as though we are writing in our journal or diary, as though we are writing to ourselves.

GM could be a priest the way he speaks, a deep convinced and certain voice. He had his audience spell bound in the black space of Studio 1, with the spotlight directed onto him and his interviewer. I could feel the surge of bodies behind me, hear the swish of in held breaths as GM embarked upon a new idea. And I could hear the approving titters of laughter break into guffaws when he made some irreverent remark about himself, or the literary hierarchy.

You might say GM has a cult following. In the end, as we were about to offer a final applause that went on for several minutes, an applause that proved he had an appreciative audience, GM said,
‘It’s a bit like at election time, we’ve had a lot of that lately.’ Laughter from the audience. ‘I’m humbled.’ More laughter. ‘And I mean it.’

The lights went on. I said goodbye. I had work to do. GM told me he would not write long letters for the next little while as he is trying to get another book finished by Christmas time, his History of Books. At age seventy-one, perhaps he feels time is running out.

When I first started to blog I wrote my posts as a series of letters addressed to my fellow bloggers. I dropped the salutation a long time ago but I still think of blogging as letter writing to an unknown recipient. My blog audience feels to me as one breathing, pulsating person who reads with an open but critical mind, whose presence I am occasionally caught up in and at other times manage to forgot.

I write my blog post as if I am conversing with a close fried or lover, fearful of too much intimacy, but even more fearful of none at all.

I detect something similar when I read other people’s blogs. Whenever I read a blog for the first time, especially one in which the writer is heartfelt and intimate with her or his audience, I feel a frisson of guilt, as if I have intruded where I am not yet welcome. I feel the need to introduce myself then as if I am knocking on the door of my fellow blogger’s house and asking for admittance.

Once acknowledged, I no longer feel the need to defer. I can write directly as one included within the inner sanctum. Occasionally, although I am made welcome into someone’s blog, I never quite feel that I am welcome there.

I used to feel this more keenly in the early days when I was unfamiliar with the form. These days I feel it less, but it is still there, particularly when it comes to the popular people’s blogs.

It is as if a blog reaches celebrity status and the blogger has moved out of the zone of ordinary friendship and risen to a level that makes him or her unreachable.

You know how it is? How can I matter to someone who has such a following, who has so many friends? How can I possibly matter to such a popular person?

All this is illusory, I know. But the blogosphere lends itself to such fantasies, perhaps not as acutely as my letters to GM do.

He is a real person after all and we write our letters to one another only. Though I also know that GM keeps all his correspondence in several filing cabinets that constitute his archives and that after he dies the contents of these filing cabinets will go to some library somewhere. The monetary proceeds from the archives will go to his children and their children, but the literary legacy will be available for the public.

GM talks in his letters to me about some young woman who might come along in fifty plus years to research his archives. He names her Future Creature.

I long to be Future Creature but my future will be in the ground with GM. Future Creature is young, attractive and intelligent. Future Creature, if she is so inclined, will have a field day reading through all of GM’s correspondence, and all his unpublished autobiographical writings. She will have access to all his secrets.

Sometimes when I write my letters to GM I include some of my own secrets in the knowledge that Future Creature might also wonder about this ‘nutter’ who takes her time to write these odd, obscenely personal letters to a man of letters, GM, several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, a bright shining star in the Australian literary firmament, but whose light seems only to be noticed further a field in places like Sweden and now France. GM never goes to these places himself, except in his imagination, but at least their inhabitants can recognise the wondrous writings of a fellow traveller.