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.


The infinity of memory

During my first year at secondary school I had two choices of direction home. Either I could walk down Vaucluse Parade through Rowena street and then cut through the factories, which had thoroughfares as wide as roads through the middle, to the Richmond Railway Station or I could leave from the other exit at the school and wander down Church Street, cross Swan at the lights, and look longingly into the window of Dadd’s cake shop where the girls whose parents gave them pocket money stopped to buy a treat, then down the ramp to the East Richmond station.

Richmond was a better bet as all the trains, including express trains, stopped there. Not every train stopped at the East Richmond station. Despite this, I preferred the lesser of the two stations. It was smaller than its big sister up the line with only two platforms that sat stolid opposite one another and was cupped in a valley underneath the bridge that flew over Church Street on its way to the Bryant and May Red Head matches factory and then onto the Yarra River.

It felt safe.

Not that I ever travelled during non-safe periods, at night or in the very early morning, when the dirty old men whom, I had often encountered in the parks around our house, prowled.

I sat one day at the platform and watched one of the old red trains rattle by on its way to Camberwell when I began to consider the notion of infinity. Sister Anthony had talked about this concept during our maths class and although most lessons in maths flew over my head, especially when we began to explore Algebra, logarithms and complex ideas beyond simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, the idea of infinity fell into the irresistible category of ideas that I could not leave alone.

The idea that numbers could go on and on into the distance, and that other things too might stretch into the future on and on like the universe, my mother’s Queen Anne dressing table with it’s three mirrored panels that folded in on one another.

I could stand in the middle panel and pull the other two around my body to see myself reflected again and again as each hinged panel picked up different sides of my forever-retreating form.

My body grew smaller and smaller into the distance but there was no possibility of seeing it disappear altogether.

‘What’s wrong with your gums?’ a woman, who sat on the same bench separated from me by her shopping, asked.

I kept my school bag on the ground in front of my feet. I had been peering ahead into the distance, trying to read the tiny letters on an advertisement for tomato sauce and my mouth must have slipped open long enough for her to get a look inside.

It seemed an intrusive question, one that cut across my thoughts about infinity and I did not want to answer. But I knew small people like me were obliged to be polite to grown ups so I turned to face her.

‘Let me take a look,’ she said, and leaned towards me. ‘I’m a nurse.’ She said this in such a way as to suggest great authority rested in her role and there was nothing wrong with a complete stranger asking a twelve year old girl alone on a railway station to open her mouth for inspection.

But this woman did not know me. I opened my mouth for no one.

The train pulled into the station, the stopping-all-stations, and I grabbed my bag and raced to the first carriage at the front of the train far enough away to avoid the woman joining me.

Why, of all the many memories that follow me from a childhood of rotten teeth and fear, I should remember this woman’s curiosity is beyond me now?

I link these events with my first inkling of infinity that glorious word to match an even more glorious concept, the infinity of memory, the way one memory follows another endlessly one after the other, and each piggy backs on another, each lending itself more layers of meaning in a life that would otherwise seem dead ended.