‘A child is always a cocktail of its parents’ desires.’ Hanif Kureishi
This might be so for those first and second born, but thereafter parental desires thin out, especially when a parent is onto their ninth or tenth child, or even beyond.
The thing about being one of a large family, the collective tends to come first and individual desires get swallowed up in what is possible given all the other hungry mouths.
Life’s hopes and dreams are relative to those of others. Or so it was for me, sixth in line. Born into a large family you’re never alone, but often lonely.
One day when my eldest child went to sit on my lap in a moment of affection or need, I felt an almost instant revulsion. Her body too long and bony. She did not need this and although I did not push her away, I gave her the message there was no room left on my lap for big girls.
It was harsh of me to harbour such expectations of daughter, to grow up, to act her age, to be a big person now her infancy was over. But a nine-year-old is still a child and small in their minds and bodies.
I think back to how young I felt even in my twenties when I first took myself off to see a therapist. Even later in my thirties, I told Mrs Milanova in the early days of our work together, I still felt like a child, and the responsibilities of parenthood and adulthood weighed heavily. But my longing to grow up, to be a grown up, at least on the outside, followed my every move, especially once I hit adolescence.
My four years older sister was my model, in all things, size, shape and deportment. In the days after my father had visited her in bed at night, before the sun was barely visible through the trees, she climbed out of her bed and dressed in the near dark, then climbed out our bedroom window, only to return two hours later for a hasty breakfast before she went to school.
She told me later she went to early Mass. She did not tell me until many years later she was meeting the priest after Mass to bathe in his comfort. Without knowing why, I sensed there was something on offer out there in the world that was not on offer to me. Not yet at least. Neither my father’s visits in the night nor my sister’s early morning trips out into the world.
In my tenth year I went to bed one night well before my sister and tried to sleep but could not. A pain in my stomach gnawed away and I imagined a cancer growing here. My Oma in Holland had died not long before of stomach cancer and I figured it might return in me.
My mother was expecting again. The word pregnant was forbidden in our house, too filled with sexual innuendo, too scientific. Women expected, and we all knew the next thing would be another baby in our midst. The nights pierced by sounds of a baby’s hunger cries and a tension in our parents faced yet again with the responsibility of life’s most vulnerable. Once you hit two or three years of age, you were hardy enough to manage almost alone, or at least in the care of older siblings, but until then there was pressure on my mother to be available, to keep her littlest one in mind long enough so the baby would not die.
The pain in my gut did not go away until I dropped into a troubled sleep and dreamed I was in an open space. Everywhere white walls, white ceilings, white windows, such there was no contour or shapes I could discern beyond bright white that stretched into infinity.
I woke when my sister turned on a light in readiness for bed.
‘Go back to sleep,’ she said to my stirring. And I buried my head under the blankets, tent style and breathed in the stale smell of my body. Desperate for lights off so I could breathe fresh air again, and sleep.
‘My stomach hurts,’ I said from under blankets.
‘You’ll be okay,’ she said. ‘You probably ate too many feijoas.’ Perhaps she was right. I had eaten at least five of the green chook egg shaped fruit. We found them hanging from branches spanning the fence of the white house at the top of our street.
It was not stealing we reasoned because the fruit was ready to fall onto the path side of the fence. You could tell by the way the fruit gave way with a light tug. We did not reach over the fence. The fruit was sweet and delicious, a cross between banana and passionfruit.
I knew from our mother that too much fruit gave you the runs. Not enough fruit bound you up and when you were older it was hard to get ordinary fruit to make a difference. My mother took her fruit in concentrated form from a packet she kept on top of the fridge. Nulax. I tried it once. Tough, chewy and sweet like dried figs and dates rolled into one. She would never eat five feijoas in one sitting. She only ate her food in small bursts and preferred it concentrated.
I preferred quantity and it seemed to me there was never enough, except for the stuff I hated like mashed potatoes or slices of tongue my mother boiled on weekends as a treat. A treat for her perhaps but not for me. The revolting sight of a great purple/pink mass whose sheet of taste buds she peeled off in one clean swipe once the tongue had cooked and cooled enough for her to rip away. The tongue itself was bad enough but the way it ended at the fat end where it once connected to the roof of a cow’s mouth and was left an ugly mess of red sinews made me gag. No bones. It looked as though the tongue had been ripped from its body and I hated to think of a cow silenced, even though my mother assured us cows were dead before they were cut into pieces.
I was still of an age where grown-ups and older siblings were my primary source of information, beyond books, priests, and nuns. The priests and nuns had a way of telling you things that flew over me in a mish mash of words about love of God and obedience to his rules. My mother had a way of saying things that were aimed at settling us down. Stop asking questions. But my older brothers and sister had a way of colouring the world in bright colours. loved to hear their stories, especially my brother Michael, the brains of our family who read the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans from beginning to end and told me how the way those BC Gods lived centuries earlier.
The monstrous Minotaur, a bull like creature who lived at the centre of a labyrinth and ate young people for breakfast. The Minotaur’s tongue would have been too big to fit into my mother’s biggest pot. There was a story of the one-eyed Cyclopes who lived in caves and gave hell to anyone who came looking to steal their sheep. And the three headed dog Cerberus at the entrance to Hades. His job to stop dead people from leaving.
My brother filled me in on all the monstrous details of these creatures. They never scared me any more than the characters in fairy stories scared me. The only thing that scared me when I was nine years old was the world in is present form.
My father in the night. My father drunk by day. The dentist who poked around my mouth and declared my teeth the worst he’d seen in any child of my age. And the teachers at my school, especially Mother Mary John in her black crow habit and wire rimmed glasses.
She glowered over us children and glared when our shoes were not regulation, or our ribbons white instead of blue.
She eyed me up and down after school one day and called me into her room, a brown paper parcel on the table nearby. ‘Take this home to your mother,’ she said. ‘She might be able to use it. Go straight home now and don’t show anyone.’
It felt like a bomb in my school bag. Must have been something terrible to be sworn to such secrecy. When I handed the parcel to my mother, she unwrapped it with care. There inside, two party dresses, one in pink, the other blue. A perfect size for me and my younger sister and I delighted to think I now possessed a proper dress for Sunday Mass. Though I worried the person who once owned this dress might also sit in the church during Mass and see me in her old dress and I would become even more of a second-hand person. It was one thing to wear your sister’s hand me downs, altogether another to wear casts offs from strangers.
Only on the street where I was sure the stranger who once wore this dress would not be walking, our house was far from church did I feel the full glow of pleasure in my blue party dress. With its velvet ribbons attached to the waist and its embroidered collar and bodice. Pity my black patent shoes from two years earlier at my first Holy Communion were too small by then and once again I was forced to wear the blue plastic sandals of my day to day.
I hated the way dirt got through the straps to turn my once white socks black. And if I did not wear socks my feet came out after a day of sandal wear with black welts long the strap line and at the base of my feet where the dirt mixed with my sweaty skin to create a mud like of black.
I hated dirt. The way it came upon you unbidden and piled itself on thick. Although we had a bath once a week in the family bathtub two by two, on Saturdays, the dirt even showed up there. A line smeared the bath rim which my sister and I liked to wash away with soap, only to watch it reappear when the water re-settled.
I would be clean for Sunday mass after a good scrub on the Saturday but for the rest of the week, the dirt snuck its way into my hair, onto my skin, under my fingers and toenails and before I knew it, even my face carried the tell take marks of left-over food scraps from the jam on my bread or the tomato sauce on my sausage. Life was tough for a nine year old.
Parental desire notwithstanding, it’s not easy being small.