In an essay on her biography of Charmian Clift, Nadia Wheatley describes the expression on Cressida Morely’s face (the name Clift’s husband, George Johnston, gave his wife, in his fictional, albeit autobiographical, book Clean Straw for Nothing) as her ‘dripping tap look’, a look that suggests a distance, an absent quality of mind that others also saw in the writer, Clift.
Wheatley’s essay transported me back beyond the images I’ve seen of Charmian Clift on the beach at Hydra with her sun-soaked family and friends, to memories of my mother on the beach.
To my mother’s ‘dripping tap look’ as she lifted her eyes towards the horizon and hooded them with her hand to block out the sun.
‘My father is over there on the other side of the world. My father, my home,’ my mother said. Her hand dropped from her eyes, her shoulders slumped, and she sat back on her towel to hide behind a book.
Nadia Wheatley writes about the way Charmian Clift throughout her lifetime sought to create the image of a happy childhood.
Clift believed this, along with the rest of her family, and yet there are suggestions that things were not so, especially given Clift ended her life by taking it.
Most people remember Charmian Clift, and her charmed existence in Greece, wife of the famed author of My Brother Jack and a writer in her own right. She kept a column in the Sydney and Melbourne Heralds when women’s voices were mostly relegated to the cookery and social columns.
Mostly people remember Clift’s suicide and the nagging question, why did she do it?
Mid-forties but with a drinking problem that might well have contributed to her impulse to overdose on barbiturates. To kill the pain. But that was not the image created.
It left me thinking again of my mother’s life, and the way she too held firm to a belief that her childhood was blissful. But unlike Clift, my mother lived a long life, one she did not want to end.
Or at least not until those last few weeks when she fell so ill that her body could not sustain life any longer. When she refused to eat any more and could not so much as raise her body out from under the sheets. She wanted nothing then but to be left alone.
My mother took some time to die even as she had lost her optimism and determination to get that letter from the queen on her one hundredth birthday.
Who’d want a letter from the queen? my republican self asks. But my mother came from a country whose monarchy was even more token than Britain’s.
The names of Juliana and Beatrix, the people of the Dutch Royal family peppered my mother’s words throughout my childhood.
She longed for the pomp and ceremony of the Dutch Royals, Queen Wilhelmina, at the helm. She took more interest in the doings of that family than in the British Royal Family.
My mother’s tastes impacted me deeply as a child. Her love of the actor, Grace Kelly, married to Prince Rainier, and living the life of the wealthy and carefree in Monaco. My mother created such images of this family again, a good family, with good values and what a tragedy that Grace Kelly should have died in a car accident.
Secrets and lies in families, Nadia Wheatly writes, to describe the story of her subject, the wonderful Charmian Clift.
My husband had a joke he repeated often when my mother was alive. He referred to her as a ‘wonderful woman’.
The idea of being wonderful suited my mother, but not when coming from the sarcasm of my husband’s words. I suspect she knew he saw through her façade. Her love of all things respectable, particularly when garlanded by the church.
My mother wept when they buried the American president of the sixties John Kennedy, following his assassination, but she had no idea of the womanizing that went on behind the scenes.
My mother needed things to be lovely and wonderful even when they were not.
When I was a child and we walked the streets of Camberwell on our way to Mass, my mother pointed out the houses along Mont Albert Road and highlighted the ones she would like to live in. The ones that reminded her of the Marnixplein, her home in Haarlem, the home she longed for, the place that was large enough to house her family of seven children along with a young aunt who stayed with them for several years to help her mother, my oma, who was not a strong woman and could not manage the household unaided.
I sneer at the thought of my oma, this fragile woman, while another part of me wonders at how hard it must have been for her, just as it was for my mother. Both women who dedicated their lives to the care of children, many children, not just one or two.
Between the two of them, they brought nineteen people into the world and even though I have read about some women who have given birth to that number single handedly, it is still a feat. Even in the world of excessive population growth where people maintain we need to reduce our numbers, not increase them.
For my mother the number of her children and then grandchildren and later even her great grandchildren was something to crow about.
She loved to see the expression on other people’s faces when she told them she had nine children.
‘What a wonderful woman’, my husband said of my mother, the woman who had so many children and who rated her value in those terms.
Even as she left Holland because she felt pressure in that small country to reduce the size of her family. Or so she once told me.
What could she do? She was raised a Catholic. Not for her contraception, even after her eleventh child was still born and the doctor told her, she must stop having children or run the risk of dying herself.
The early nineteen sixties and my memory is shrouded by mist.
Did I see a pill packet in her bedroom on the dressing table?
Did my older sister tell me this story?
Did my mother go to the priest and tell him in confession that she must resist the Pope’s ruling on contraception and take the pill because her husband had needs she could not satisfy, without running the risk of further pregnancies.
My mother was forty-three when this last baby was born dead and no other babies followed.
The other day I walked with my daughter and the dogs through the side streets around our house. We talked as usual about the houses and the gardens much as my mother and I once talked of the houses around our house in Camberwell and I was left with a sense of longing, of memories catching up on me.
‘I wanted so much to live in a double-storey house when I was a child,’ I told my daughter.
Now I see it as a burden, all those steps. But then it was the epitome of wealth, the essence of that happy childhood to which my mother laid claim, the childhood that evaded me.
I think I prefer it this way.
I don’t want anyone to say of me, ‘She was a wonderful woman,’ and to hear the hint of sarcasm in their voices, a counter to the lives they led, the fantasy of that impossible experience, a happy childhood.