Locked inside the past

And so the days move on. My mother has bounced back from the brink of death and although her heart continues to fade the medication has kicked in and seems to have given her a new lease on life for the time being at least.

I have a new rhythm now when I visit. First I make her a half cup of tea – half cup only as her fluids are restricted to at most a litre a day – and then I settle myself down on the floor near her feet, peel off the support tubing from her legs and massage in a thick paste of Sorbolene cream on both legs, one after the other.

My older sister was the first to undertake this ritual but since she has been away these past ten days the task has fallen to me. I find it strangely soothing.
‘You’d make a good nurse,’ my mother said yesterday as I dipped my fingers back into the white cream.
‘I’m not so sure of that,’ I said to her. ‘I’m not so patient.’ But it’s true I prefer to be doing things and somehow smoothing Sorbolene cream into my mother’s dried and thin skinned legs comforts me as much as it comforts her.

Again this reversal of mother and child, this sense that I might now do things for my mother that she once did for me, though I have little sense of my mother from those early days when she would have attended to my physical needs. Who does?

My memory of my mother is one of a gentle presence, a somewhat preoccupied presence, maybe a vague presence but someone I could love with all my being. It distressed me as a ten year old when my older brothers spoke harshly of our mother, when they called her names.
‘How can you talk about our mother like that?’ I said. I needed to preserve an image of my mother in those days as a beautiful woman, saintly in her manner.

In those days I did not object to saints, not as I do now. Today I am troubled by the notion of sainthood. It borders too much on the masochistic. Self denial can become perverse as much as it is necessary often times to put ourselves second to others, but not all the time, and not in that awful self effacing way as did some of the saints from my childhood memories.

When I was little the saints were the equivalent of movie stars. I followed their fortunes with the same vigour young people today might follow the fortunes of a celebrity. I attached the significance of each one of our saints’ name sakes to every one of my sisters and brothers and tried to draw links between the personalities of each sister and brother with the saint after whom they were each named.

My own patron saint was altruistic, a holy woman who performed countless works of mercy. Or so my mother tells me. We share names, my mother and I, with our patron saint, Queen Elisabeth of Hungary.

Elisabeth of Hungary loved the poor. Strange, to love the poor. I always hated being poor. I even hated the so-called poor. The little black boy on the desk at school with his red bow tie and metal tongue hanging out begging for a penny was a constant reminder of the miseries of being poor. Unlike other girls I never had a surplus penny to offer him and the starving poor in Biafra. Any surplus pennies I’d have kept for myself.

My mother says our patron saint was married to a tyrant. Not so strange that. My father was a tyrant and he married a good woman. He often said as much.

In my mother’s version of the story Saint Elisabeth went one day, as was her custom, to visit the poor with a basketful of food. She had taken bread, freshly baked from the palace kitchens (Elisabeth was a queen) and fruit, green apples, yellow pears, purple plums plucked from the palace orchards and vegetables from the gardens, broad beans, potatoes and squash. A riot of colour and a cornucopia of smells, neatly tucked inside her huge basket and covered with a heavy, lattice cloth, normally used by the cook for cleaning and mopping up spills.

The poor family, a widow and her four small children, urchins in rags, were huddled together around an open fire in the centre of the thatched cottage when Elisabeth made her entrance. Before she had a chance to make her offering, horses hooves could be heard in the background and moments later Elisabeth’s husband, the king, the tyrant, the wretch swooped in through the door and ripped off the cover. He had forbidden her to give to the poor and was about to lambaste Elisabeth her generous folly when he was stopped in his tracks. Roses, blood red, blush pink and sun yellow, spilled out across the dusty floor, their perfume overtaking the sooty fumes of the fire. Elisabeth had been spared her husband’s rage. He now was the one humiliated and she vindicated through the intervention of God’s miracle. Elisabeth’s sainthood was guaranteed, the roses a clear sign of her beatitude.

My namesake’s story offers a message on how I must behave and whom I must marry. Alternatively, I suspect I might fare better not marrying at all. Instead I might become a nun and forego the tyranny of such a husband, believing, as I do, I have no hope of such miracles.

I met the writer MJ Hyland once in the days when I was trying to scratch out a complete memoir of my life up until I was eighteen years of age. She had read and edited some of my earlier chapters. We met in a café in Carlton in the days when MJ Hyland went by the name of Maria and when she still worked as a lawyer for Clayton Utz.

She was generous with her time, though I paid her for it, and her fees were not slight. It mattered not. I had met her in a CAE workshop on fiction writing and I enjoyed the way she taught and the way she thought.

Maria suggested then that I play around with the saints’ names as they attached to each of my sisters and brothers. In her mind’s eye she could see each of us in bed and above our beds a framed portrait of our respective saints.

I do not have a fiction writer’s imagination, at least I do not have Maria Hyland’s imagination. At first in my imagination I saw a row of children in beds lined up side by side, like sardines in a can, one sardine can after the other, but that was not how it was, nor is it the way I want to see us.

Still the idea has stayed with me, and it becomes problematic. To identify the names of the saints after whom each of my siblings was named is to identify my siblings by name and I am wary of such an undertaking, as if I presume too much in speaking their names out loud. It is as much as I feel safe to do in identifying them as an older sister, a younger sister, an older brother, a young brothers.

In this way I can only identify my siblings in chronological order relative to me. I do not identify them as ‘real’ people living in the world because I do not have the right. They are real people and yet in my writing they become more like fictional characters locked inside the past.

When I was little my father took photos of each one of us, separate portrait shots which he developed within a tiny dark room that was once the pantry in our old Camberwell kitchen. He developed the photographs first as tiny proof shots which he then laid out in the bath room and spread against the bath wall to dry. From these miniature shots my father made decisions about which photos he might develop to normal photo sized dimensions.

The sheets of proof shots he then discarded as useless, but I retrieved them from the rubbish pile. I took these tiny images of me, my sisters and brothers and cut them into miniature squares and then lined them up in age from oldest to youngest in my homemade photograph album. I have the images still.

My siblings mattered so much to me then. They matter to me now, but in a different way. We have grown distant. Our lives have diverged. We have produced families of our own and live far apart, but my memories of their significance remains. They were once my best friends however much we fought. They remain so today in my mind like pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is my life, as I am perhaps a single piece in the jig saw puzzle of their lives.

We each take up only a small space in each others lives and yet if one or other of the pieces goes missing the whole thing is incomplete, like a hole in an otherwise full set of teeth.

Our parents frame us and soon that frame will be gone completely and the individual pieces of the puzzle will be less well held but hopefully they will stay together even in the absence of the parental frame. Hopefully my mother’s soon and inevitable death will not cause the whole jigsaw puzzle to fall apart.