Dressmaking, power and a virus

We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, which keeps believing nimble. Emily Dickinson.

I have two speeds, the past which comes to me in complete images of events well percolated but fuzzy around the edges.

A memory that my father sewed my mother’s dresses on a Singer treadle machine, his foot pressing up and down in rhythm with the whirr of the needle pushed in and out of the fabric.

My father chose the patterns at the haberdashery shop on Canterbury Road from the image on the front cover of the packet, a slim woman in a brightly coloured floral frock with a low cleavage and tight waisted.

A dress pattern that offered opportunities for extra small to small medium large and extra-large. Room enough for my mother who after all her babies was by then at least size large; large bosomed, wide-hipped and full in the belly. 

My father liked to dress my mother in material that spilled out in wide petaled roses, or tight cupped camelias. Enormous flowers that could encase her breasts and hips and stomach.

These were the same dresses my father ripped off my mother in fits of rage as she stirred the pot over the Kooka stove after she had refused to be drawn into his taunts about her lousy cooking and her imagined infidelities.

The dresses he crafted with the hands of a creator torn into shreds after he had left my mother in her petticoat at the stove, clutching those shreds to her chest like a person caught out naked. 

The man of my memory, from the past, now dead. 

One of those dresses

The present comes in snippets, the pressure of the moment. The grim thoughts about the way this virus has increased in our city to the point the government needed to close off two towers of public housing, places occupied by migrant families, as my parents once were.

They, post-world war two, these current tenants, migrants following the horrors of other wars scattered throughout the world. Refugees from a world that is increasingly under stress from climate change, greed and now this virus. 

I visited my sister in her retirement village the other day stopped briefly by the receptionist at the desk whose job was to police people coming into the building to protect the mainly elderly residents living there. 

‘She’s family,’ my sister said, and the receptionist waved me in as if family could somehow avoid passing on the virus. 

My sister is the youngest resident. She moved in as she had lived alone for too many years and longed for community. She moved in to stay safe.

My father taught this same sister to sew. He taught her how to lay out the pattern on the floor, to rest the white crepe pattern paper on top of the fabric and pin it in place to whichever size she decided.

He taught her to take her scissors and cut away at the fabric in line with the pins, first the back, then the front, finally the sleeves. He taught her to take the pieces of fabric and hold them together as he sat at the Singer to demonstrate, his foot to the floor holding tight to the two sheets of fabric as he fed them along a line close to the raw edge of material and so brought the two pieces together. 

Later in the night when the rest of the family slept, he visited my sister at night in her bed and taught her about sex, well before she was ready to learn such things and certainly not from her father. 

This same sister I visited in her retirement village is still learning at seventy not to believe it was all her fault, that she did something wrong, that everything that went wrong in her life was her fault, as you learn when you’re a child and too much is demanded of you. 

The way I suspect those people in the towers of public housing might have felt in the morning when they woke up to find there were police in the corridors, police in the elevators and on the ground.

Police whose job it was to make sure no one went in or out and so hopefully stop the spread of infection. But also to remind people of where they stand in the power grid of life. 

As my creative but warped father taught my mother and my sister where they too stood in the power grid of life.

The past and the present, always in flux, so that we might as Emily Dickinson reminds us, believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour to keep our believing nimble. 

Memory’s thump

After she died, my mother left each of her children $8154.94
as their inheritance.  She had wanted to
leave $10,000.00 each out of the proceeds of her rooms at the retirement
village where she had spent her last decade, but the way these things go, costs
and disbursements whittled some away. 
Throughout her life my mother was determined to give each of
her children something of significance, and each must have an equal share. 
Ironically, what she leaves can never be equal
For some of us, $8000.00 plus is a significant sum, for
others it’s a trifle.  For some it can go
into unpaid debts, for others it becomes part of their inheritance to their own
children, administered early.
They will give it away.
After my husband’s father died and left a small but more
significant inheritance size-wise, he wanted to buy something of substance as a
reminder of his father: a timeless piece of furniture that might stand up
against time. 
I have not been able to think of anything to honour the
memory of my mother other than through words on the page.
One of my brothers has been writing his ‘chronicles’ about
his life, which he had wanted to include in the family archive, but has since
withdrawn because some family members objected to certain of his
The response to his writing, which he initially spread far
and wide among our extended family, was a bit like my mother’s
inheritance.  Some responded loudly – it
meant a great deal to them.  Others did
not react at all, or at least not in company.
Last night, I read the second section of my brother’s
chronicles in which he addresses some of the contentious areas where people
have challenged his view of what really happened in our family and I wonder yet
again about the nature of fact and of fiction. 
The ways in which one person’s story can seem so very
different from that of a sibling, when both occupied the same space in
childhood, when both shared the same parents. 
But in many ways, my brother’s parents were not my
parents.  All nine of us have different
parents, given that our parents – despite our mother’s best intentions to treat
us all equally – behaved differently with each one of us. 
My father prized the boys above the girls; at least as far as
academic achievement was concerned. 
Girls were good for housework and sexual favours. 
My mother, on the other hand, preferred her sons.  Especially, the first and last-born, though
the first might say that our mother preferred the second born son. 
These distinctions put differential pressures on each of us
as girls and as boys. 
Years ago, Helen Garner wrote a story about her sisters for
an anthology on sisters in which she gave her sisters names based on
chronology, second sister, third sister etc. 
I have a similar impulse in relation to writing about my brothers, given
there are five of them, and each is unique. 
Here, too, I try to protect their identities in order to make
a point about family experience, but this emphasis on family chronology can make
for dull storytelling, so the critic in my head pulls me up and says ‘fictionsalise’.
Does it matter that my brother writes in blunt words, that my
father penetrated my sister and raped her on a number of occasions, both for
its factual nature and that the statement seems to take it further than my
understanding of events. 
Did my father actually penetrate my sister? 
Does degree matter?  My
father penetrated my sister’s mind.  He penetrated
mine.  He penetrated all our minds but in
different ways. 
See these words on the page. 
See how they disturb, even as I put them down. 
See how much the reader wants to say,
‘No, don’t write that’. 
Don’t say that.  Don’t
speak of these events, they are too awful to consider.
Embellish them in a story. 
Give the reader some space in which to imagine.  Don’t leave it too open-ended. 
My brother writes about his own memory of seeing my father go
into my sister’s bedroom late at night.  Sometimes
my father was naked.
This one hits me with a thump.
My brother as witness and given that he himself did not go
into my sister’s bedroom, given he did not watch my father with my sister, but
could only imagine it, he may have taken his memories to this extreme.
When we witness events, we take in certain aspects of that
event and our memory and imagination then kicks in and rearranges the images
over time. 
When I read about my brother’s memory it puzzles me.  Only in so far as I do not remember my father
walking naked through the house until I was in my teens, by which time this
brother had left home. 
But when this brother still lived at home, it is possible
that he saw my father in ways I did not.
Does it matter, the truthfulness of all this, of who saw
what, of who did what to whom? 
I suspect it does.  But
when it comes to sexual abuse, the facts become murky, simply through the
overload of sensations that accompany our understanding.
When I read about the three year old boy who went missingfrom his home on the mid-north coast of NSW several months ago and of how
police later recruited the aid of Interpol to look out for a paedophile ring, I
cannot get it out of my mind: the sight of this little boy in the grip of a
group of paedophiles. 
In my imagination, they are a blurry group of dark clothed
men standing in a ring around this small boy, preying on his body as if they
are dogs fighting over a bone.
This is as much as my imagination can bear before I want to
snap it shut.  Stop the images.  They are too unimaginable.
My mother was a person who could not bear to see what was
going on around her, under her own roof. 
She could not contemplate what was happening to her
daughters, most particularly her oldest, even though she tells the story of
finding my father at my sister’s bedside and of telling him if she ever saw him
doing this again she would kill him. 
She thought that was enough to stop him.
It was not enough.
My father continued to visit my sister in the night and my
mother continued not to see, until it was too late. 
Even now in my family, and in the community at large, it is
hard to want to see these things. 
Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write about them.  I pick at them like an old sore, and there
are some who say, stop it, get over it. 
It’s done now.  Get on with your
There are some who might put our mother’s inheritance into
the bank – just a few extra dollars and nothing of any substance – and there
are others who might like to make the most of our mother’s inheritance, some
who might want to use some of the talent she passed onto her children, both for
observation and her ability to write, but also to fight against this tendency
of hers to turn a blind eye.