An overcoat of shame

Don’t let shame get in the way. Don’t let it dictate your every move. Don’t let it turn you into a shy thing, scared of every flicker in another’s eye. For fear of their judgement. Judgements that can rain on you like so much graffiti, tagging your glorious persona. 

Shyness is that mildest of the paranoias. It makes it hard for any of us to creep around among others, unless we’re willing to shake off the overcoat that hides us from the world. 

You must not shy away from the task at hand, a task made more difficult by the pressure of time. When I’m under pressure, it’s hard to think. My mind pitches forward to where I must go or what I must do. It refuses to let me wander along the by ways and side paths onto cul de sacs of nothingness, into the joy of a meander. 

It makes me rush into concrete thoughts about where and what now. What now? I ask. 

Words tumble into my brain like so much confetti, each tiny fragment a disc of colour manufactured in a factory somewhere, someone’s incessant pressings to create a rainbow coloured snow storm that lands on the bride’s white veil or her husband’s uncovered head. 

My father wore a hat to his wedding. A tall top hat, still in fashion for such occasions in the 1940s. I expect he did not wear one otherwise.

My husband insisted the funeral celebrant also wear a top hat at his father’s funeral. He instructed the funeral director in top hat to lead the hearse down the hill away from the church of the Sacred Heart slowly. All mourners followed on foot aftet the pall bearers had slid the coffin into the hearse. After which the hearse gathered speed, and the mourners straddled off to their respective cars, to follow headlights on full blare, onto the graveyard in Lilydale. 

My husband wanted his father’s death to be memorable as if at last he was able to give his father something for which his father could not criticise him. 

My own father’s funeral was marked by a surprisingly full church given how taciturn he was in life and how few friends he made. But he had his many children and their partners. He had his many grandchildren, and my mother had the parish which my father had begun to frequent during his final years after he stopped drinking. 

There was even the Our Lady of the Assumption’s charismatic group towards the back of the church, wild-eyed middle-aged women mainly, muttering under their breaths and stomping their feet as my pall bearing brothers carried the coffin out to the hearse ready for its trip to the graveyard. My father’s final trip on earth. 

My oldest brother’s eulogy still rings in my ears. The way he praised our father as a man of interest and scarcely mentioned the cruelty he inflicted on us all. I did not fully understand the degree to which my oldest brother, a decade ahead of me, had a different view of his father from us younger ones. But also, this is a brother who takes his role as the oldest seriously, as many an oldest sibling does, especially coming from a large family. 

There are many first born, so weighed down by the weight of expectation heaped on their small shoulders soon after birth, they cannot help but take on the leadership role that comes by dint of birth order.

At the graveyard where we buried my father, my ten days old first-born daughter began to cry when they lowered the cask into the ground and my husband took her away to a nearby grave side mound where he changed her nappy. He told us later that some passers-by on the golf course behind the cemetery heard a baby crying and called out to see if anyone needed help. 

‘It’s okay,’ my husband said. ‘We’re burying her grandfather.’ 

None of my children knew their grandfather. Not so unusual in generations of old. The old, already ancient in their fifties, and no longer able to hang around to help. Not that my father would have helped any more than I let my mother help me with my children. By then she already some fifteen grandchildren and I did not want mine to be among the one-of-many as I so often felt throughout my life. A state of mind that has tended me towards a loudness that can be too much for some. 

A lack of ostensible shyness even as underneath I might be quaking. Even as once I hit the fifty-year-old mark, the age when people begin to become irrelevant, ‘invisible’, as a friend once told me, I was determined not to let my shame dictate the course of my life, determined not to let those fears of judgement impale me on the fence posts of shame.  

What lies beneath

Ideas come to me like so many scraps of beauty but when I sweep them up and consign them to paper, they soon lose their lustre. The lustre they held when they first entered my mind and connected in a long chain of ideas that’s broken the moment I write them down. 

Now I sweep the remnants from the floor or in this case from the back of my computer where I stuck them as post-it-notes, writing prompts, and tip them into the rubbish. 

They began filled with promise but materialised into disappointment. The bread and butter of a writer’s life. The way ideas and memories can shine like gold only to tarnish into cheap jewellery whose gold coating wears off with age. 

I could go on with metaphors that match my mood this morning, but I’ll spare you the insult.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Vicki Laveau-Harvie reading her Erratics and I’m filled with awe. The voice is that of an older woman. A woman in her seventies whose voice, although Canadian, reminds me of the British Vanessa Redgrave, the voice over in the television series Call the Midwife

I relish the years such voices carry, the weight of their wisdom. The way they carry a lifetime’s experience in every undulating wave and cadence. At the same time, I resent the occasional crackle, the hint that soon enough this voice will fade away to nothing. 

I saw a YouTube clip of a woman, now over one hundred, confined to her bed in a nursing home. She was once a dancer and choirgirl in the 1930s.

A couple of volunteers who took to visiting her in the home, trawled through the archives and found some out-dated clips of her dancing in black and white. The two upgraded these tapes and brought them into the home to show the centenarian. The woman spoke in almost a whisper when they played them back. She tried to snap her fingers in rhythm with her younger self’s feet but could only wave her hands around. 

My mother had a way of doing this well before she approached her one hundredth year. She waved her arms from side to side whenever someone put on dance music. She also tried to click her wrinkled dry fingers as if she was returning to the Count Basie days of her youth.

Has my voice aged, too? I thought I heard a hint of it in a video I took of me feeding my grandson in his highchair, ‘Yum’. 

When I heard my voice played back to me it grated. How I hate the sound of my own voice from the outside. That’s not my voice. That’s not how I sound inside my head. 

Other people have remarked on a shared experience. We sound different to ourselves. Our voices cocooned inside our bodies come out of their familiar echo chamber all wrong when we hear them played back. 

When my children were adolescent, people said,

‘I can never tell which one’s on the phone. You, or one of your girls. You all sound so alike.’ From their formative years, my children who had then heard my voice more than any other voice in the world, especially when they were tiny, must have taken on the cadences. Just as I took on my mother’s voice, only I could never affect her accent. So thick and European, so slanted and the words sometimes out of order. 

I hear my mother’s voice in my own head when I have an urge to rejig a sentence, the things that stay with me. ‘You make me cold to look at you.’ 

Simple sentence reshuffles and the occasional odd word. Enthusiastic became ant ooze y astic. Psychiatrist became psychiater. And the Dutch words my mother threw out, which I find myself repeating to my grandson, schatje and lekker, words for the love of little ones and the pleasure of food. As well as words for horrible things like verschrikkelijk. Yes and no: ja and nee

These words come to me effortlessly as though they’ve always been there. The same words I used with my children when they were babies. My mother’s words to me long ago when she and I were as close as any mother and baby could be, if only for a short time. 

Getting back to The Erratics, I’m in awe of the writing. Here was a mother whose love for her two daughters faded almost before they were born, though there must have been something there to create the beautiful writer her older daughter became. 

It’s a fantastic story, witty in its poignancy. 

At one time the writer describes the process of covering a piece of paper in wax crayons in swirls of colour. A crazy display that covered the page. Then the children covered the lot in a film of thick black crayon. Finally, with a sharp implement they scratched out images through the black, and the lighter colours behind became the picture. 

‘Scatch me,’ Laveau-Harvie writes and you’ll find ‘grief’. Scratch her sister and you’ll find rage. 

If you scratch me, you’ll find shame. Shame deep and abiding which is perhaps why I’ve made it my life’s work to get on top of my shame by writing about it. By shouting it from the roof tops. By declaring myself in full view, but always beneath, there is a river of shame that runs deep. There are things I cannot even let myself know, though they nudge me from time to time. 

I must get to them before I die. I cannot let them die with me.