Dogs, bats and memories

Look at this dog. See how he’s aged. I got a shock the other day when he came back from the clippers with a summer coat. To see how thin he was underneath his thick winter overcoat of the past several months. 

The other day, I took both dogs out for their morning walk down the road to Fritz Holzer park, which my family prefers to call the Rose Street tip, this park of reclaimed land that forms a swamp and was once used as a tip for the cast-offs from Hawthorn and surrounds. 

Over the years, I’ve watched the park turn into a green oasis in the middle of our suburb one that now attracts visitors and dog walkers in their droves, given the constraints of life under Covid.

When my girls were young, we used to cut through this park on Friday nights on our way to dinner nearby at a Thai place and on our way home in the evening twilight we took to counting the bats that flew through the sky. 

The bats were such a novelty but soon they became a nuisance and people resented them for the way they stripped the fruit trees and buds, looking for food and they all but destroyed fern gully in our city’s Botanical Gardens. 

Our governments soon introduced policies to deter the bats and drive them off course away from the Botanical Gardens a well-manicured museum of plants, to the edges of the Yarra River where the gum trees and willows could better cope with the burgeoning colonies of bats. And as far as I know they’re still there. 

When the dog first came into our lives, I was resistant. I did not want this dog. I did not want the additional pressure of another vulnerable creature in my house, a creature whom I would undoubtedly need to take some responsibility for. I had forgotten the pleasure that animals can bring even in an over full household.

It’s taken over a decide to adjust to life with this dog and two years ago another dog to turn me around. I’m not an official dog person, one who cares about dogs, about breeds about their antics, their personalities and the struggles dogs endure with us humans as their carers. It took some work for our daughters to persuade us to take one on. I’ll try to attach a pdf to prove the point.

I’ve written before about our back garden which when our children were young became a grave yard for dead rabbits, birds, frogs, ad guinea pigs. We still have gravestone plaques dedicated to one cat, Tillie and to another cat Pickles. To the mice Frida and Alexandra. 

The naming of pets, the chance to go through a lifetime with a creature is good preparation for the fact of death. But it’s never the same when a person goes. At least not for me. 

I was going somewhere with this story when I talked of the other day, but every other day that lies behind me merges into another, even more so these days under the weight of lockdown, I wish I was able to delineate one moment from the next and create a clear storyline that goes up and down, creates that narrative arc so beloved by story tellers that has people on the edge of their seats only to come down the hill slowly at the other end through a satisfying epiphany and sense that something’s changed.

It’s not so easy when things can seem so much the same and yet they’re in constant flux.

I realised this when I turned forty and looked back on my life as if I’d only just realised I was in one. 

Now twenty years plus later, I look back and see things more clearly and yet my memory is not what it was when I first reflected on the meanderings of my childhood. Once I took to writing down my memories, they changed in shape. They lost their intensity. It’s as if a memory when first encountered shines with brilliance but then on revisiting again and again it loses its lustre and potency. And yet more and more I sense the bodily flash of the newness of things when I was small, in a smell, or a photo or a flash of colour on a walk.

And the look of the dog now. His visible rib cage, his sharp shoulder blades where his upper leg meets his hunches are a reminder of death. The skin and bones of our humanity that is lush and full at birth only to fade as we age. 

My Mother’s Holland

The taste of Holland recedes, as I grow older. It once held a central place in my consciousness. The taste as strong as the almond infused marzipan that I came across whenever someone had a wedding and layered their fruit cake with a thick undercoat of marzipan before the pristine white layer of sugar icing.

I peeled off the top most layer, not because it was too sweet. In years gone by, sweetness at its most intense appealed but not if it lacked flavour. I liked my sweetness to come with other hints of vanilla or chocolate or hazelnut not straight sugar.

This appealed to me too in my sense of Dutchness which arrived once a year in early December when my Opa sent all his children living in Australia a silver tin, the size of a squat suitcase, filled with Dutch delectables: salted liquorice, Speculaas, Hagel, and best of all the marzipan.

I left the liquorice to my older sister and brothers, those who had acquired a taste for the raw saltiness of the sweets that came usually in the form of cats, small back cats that you chewed on until your teeth were black.

More than the individual items themselves the contents was the reminder of that place my mother called home. That place where she had once been happy. That place where she had been able to lead the life she once expected for herself, surrounded by friends and family.

In my mother’s memoir she wrote about a day early after her arrival in Australia when she stood at the back door, perhaps the only door of the chook shed which they had converted into their first home, and swept the step clear of the dust that piled high from the unmade road in front. Beyond the road she could see long stretches of green fields where cows grazed as contentedly as she would have liked. But she could not graze.

She had six children under ten by then, with four at home and two at school and another one on the way. She was trapped in this brave new world where she had moved in order to give her husband the satisfaction he craved, off on a new adventure with a chance to get away from the shame he left behind in the form of his parents.

She had left behind her own most beloved parents and although three of her brothers had joined her with their families on this other side of the world far from the ravages of war, she looked across the fields up to the sky and held back tears.

A car flashed by, a black sedan smeared in dust and through the front window she recognised the driver. Her new parish priest, Father Ashe, off on a call to some other parishioners further afield.

My mother put down her broom and waved to the priest from the shade of her front veranda but his eyes looked ahead and he did not see her. Nor did he see her through the rear view mirror as he drove on up the hill after she had stepped away from the shed and out onto the street in the wake of his dust.

Or if he saw her he did not stop. He did not wind down his window and wave to my mother from his position of retreat. That would have been some comfort but he offered nothing. And she felt the tears splash down her cheeks remembering her life in the parish of Haarlem where not only would the priest stop, any visit in the direction of her parents home on the Marnixplein would be his first stop.

In Haarlem, my mother wrote, I was a somebody, the member of a respected family. Here in Australia she was nobody, of no consequence, and she went back inside, picked up her broom and dusted off the last leaf that had landed there.

So, my mother began to forget the country that was once her home. She remembered it from her childhood, but it stood still in her imagination and even as she continued to read newspaper accounts of the happenings at home, the death of Queen Juliana, the wedding of Princess Beatrix, the politics of the place, she found herself growing more attached to her adoptive country.

Besides she could no longer tolerate the idea of those long cold winters, especially as she aged when ice-skating, the joy of her childhood, became an increasing impossibility.

These days, I find myself increasingly a reluctant traveler, under the shadow of my mother’s homesickness. To be buried far from where she was born in a country she’d never have chosen as her final resting place.  Far from her parents’ burial plot.  Far from home.