‘Forgive yourself for not knowing what you did not know until you learned it,’ Maya Angelou.
‘You’re too needy,’ he said at the door as he ushered us away. Too much of an encumbrance at a time when he was drowning in his own needs.
His sorrow. His wife had just delivered a still born child and their future as they envisaged it was all but wiped out.
The memories stick. The pain of their pain transferred to us at the door when this grieving woman took one look at us – I was pregnant with my first child – and screamed to send us away.
My friend’s explanation at the door, we were too needy. Too much in search of comfort, or so he implied. No resolution was ever reached.
Even as the years rolled on and we women each gave birth to healthy babies in the years to come, the pain of loss and rejection remain.
If I knew then what I know now, I might have stayed away, even as I recognised that people in grief need others to be around to whom they can tell their story. But it depends on those others and their timing.
On that day we were an added burden, persecution.
The hurt sticks like a layer of burned black on the bottom of a fry pan. It refuses to budge even after soaking for days and scrubbing with all my might. Next time I use this fry pan the eggs will not slide out easily even when well-greased because the rough bits refuse to act like Teflon on whatever comes next.
Whatever comes next.
There are other moments of cringe. Risks taken in the name of love, or of hatred, but mainly of love.
The phone call to this same friend’s house, well before his still born baby, late one evening in the hope he might answer, and I would declare my love for him. She answered and the moment passed.
Five decades ago. Forgive yourself Maya Angelou says, while another part of me sighs with relief. How would it be had he answered my call?
What mortification might follow? Shades of the character in Second Hand Rose who stayed with a so-called happily married couple when she was orphaned as a young woman of some sixteen or eighteen years.
One night she threw herself at the man of the couple. A kindly man. A thoughtful man. A sensible man. He gently prised her arms loose, or so the story goes in my memory, and tells her their relationship cannot be. The relationship she seeks will not happen and it does not. Then Rose goes off in search of love and falls pregnant, and this same man, along with his wife, arranges an abortion.
My memories of the film fade here. The only memory that stays: the rejection of her heartfelt overtures, a young woman in search of love, imagining here was a man who would reciprocate, only he did not.
Reciprocate my love, we cry. Like babies at birth look to their care givers for the stuff of care and love, and although we cannot ascribe thoughts to new born babies – they lack the capacity – we sense in their gestures, in their nuzzling to the nipple to be fed, their cries to be held, an expectation of welcome, of care and ultimately of a love so deep they will survive the torments of infancy when they are prisoners to the whims of a body they did not know existed while floating in the amniotic sac of their mother’s wombs. Where everything was taken care of. And the only thing to rock their nirvana were the surges of anxiety or grief that might cross the umbilical cord and into their bloodstream, unprocessed.
But all this is conjecture. How can we know this other than to sense it? And we sense it through the lens of our own adult and idiosyncratic lives.
Once I was a sixteen-year-old girl shipped off to boarding school so my parents could sort themselves out. Somehow my older brothers believed my mother could stop our father from drinking, and he could unbend her excess religiosity or zeal for goodness – neither happened – and I sang in the bath.
I sang on the top of my lungs like an opera singer. I sang in the middle of the day, when the other boarders were seated in the study working on their homework. I sang in the bath during my allotted thirty minutes bath time at four pm on a Wednesday.
Boarders shared a roster whereby two days each week we could enjoy a bath for a strictly limited period. It seemed alien this taking of a bath in the middle of the day after which I slipped back into my worn day clothes, too early for pyjamas, too late for a fresh dress, not that I had one.
The bathroom was one of several in a corridor attached to the nun’s quarters which were off limits and away from the boarder’s study, separated by a thin strip of garden where the nuns had planted ferns. Lush tropical ferns that did well despite the cold winter climates of Melbourne, closed into this space as if it was a hot house. As hot as the steam rising in the cubicle of my bathroom as I sang The Gypsy Rover and added a hymn or two for good measure.
I sang for my favourite nun. To attract her attention, to win her admiration. Even her derision, to be noticed by her. She a replacement lover, for my mother, or for whoever it was who might come to love me in this barren place of boarders and rules, of uniforms and stodgy foods. The endless mashed potatoes and stringy meats of dinner times; the khaki stodge of soups not quite heated through; endless plates of stale bread we ate with butter and jam; endless cups of tea and a daily mug of cocoa. How I disliked this food, but it was food and comfort in that place of loneliness far from the familiarity of home.
Here I was in the bath. Shamelessly singing. And the worst of it now in my memory, if they heard me at all, no one ever spoke to me about the volume. No one told me to turn it down. No one, including my beloved nun, told me I was out of line.
Angelou’s words resonate now as I seek forgiveness for my younger self, even as some part of me cringes at the brazenness of it all.
The folly to think that anyone, even a cloistered nun who was herself imprisoned in this place and life, might rejoice in the melodies that came from my tongue and throat. Might imagine mine was music to make a heart soar.
Unreciprocated love, Mrs Milanova once told me, is the most painful of all. To this day I wonder the purpose of those words.
To acknowledge the pain without reciprocating, but how could she, given she did not feel it? To pretend so would have been worse than any disappointment. For how else do we grow?