The shattered glass of dreams

‘Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.’ Tove Ditlevsen

Long and narrow like a coffin, childhood, the beginning points to the end, as do all our beginnings, to death.

But I’m more taken by the notion of escape from the clutches of childhood, than death. How much we can’t do it on our own. We need help.

One Sunday I nibbled on a lettuce leaf. Fresh and green it had arrived from the greengrocer’s van the day before and no one had bothered to unload it yet. There were apples underneath, and pears resting alongside leeks, potatoes, and greens but I did not dig down for one. 

Early morning and with Mass ahead I knew I should not eat. Not for three hours before the priest rested a round host on my tongue and I was free to return home and eat as I wished.

Most likely toast or even an egg, given it was Sunday and on Sundays we each ate an egg. One cooked in whatever way we chose. Boiled fried or egg white separated from yolk and whipped up with sugar to form meringue mixture which we ate with a spoon. A sweet cloud of deliciousness.

We fasted to honour the host on our tongues, the arrival of Jesus into our bodies, on the holiest day of the week. A sacred day, a dress up day. A day for visitors in the afternoon. And cake, if my elder sister was inclined to bake. Our day of rest when my father did not drink, leaving calm and peace to fall over us all. 

I tried the way I often tried in these childhood days to rationalise away the lettuce leaf. I did not dare to ask my brother, ‘Is lettuce food?’ I suspected it was and he would only confirm the knowledge.

I had otherwise to convince myself that I was a rabbit nibbling on greens like Peter Rabbit from the story books in Farmer McGregor’s paddock. Food for rabbits perhaps but not for humans.

If it was a leaf I had nipped from the garden but not from the greengrocer’s box which was filled with food, but food only once cooked, or so I reasoned, trying to shake off the idea I had interfered with my fasting ahead of communion.

To eat ahead of time within the three-hour fasting period was to risk mortal sin if I took the host onto my tongue or else to do the unthinkable.

When the line of people who rose from their seats one row after another from left to right from front to back, snaked its way up the aisle to the front altar step and each of knelt ahead of the priest and his altar boy -the priest with gold chain firmly held beneath a snow while lace bordered cloth – I should stay behind and seated. While others scrambled over to get to the aisle. My mother nudging me to move, unable to understand why I was not joining the queue. And worried that I must have sinned, or worse, I was rebelling against my religion. 

How could I do such a thing? What would they think of me. Ten years old and already in a state of mortal sin. A sin so great if I entered my coffin of death right then and there, I would go straight to hell, those burning flames, for the rest of time. 

How does a child wriggle out of such dilemmas? How find a way beyond impossible choices?

In my family we did not admit to sins unless discovered by another.

My brother once caught my sister and me stealing lollies from the front room of our house in Healesville when I was five and we were punished after he dobbed us in.

The humiliation of my father’s hand slapping my bare behind. Punishment far greater than the fires of hell which I did not then understand.

Five years later I understood them well. 

The flames that licked around your cheeks. The unbearable heat. The way your toes were red raw with pain. The punishment was merciless and there would be no escape in a death and oblivion. This was an eternal fire that raged while you recoiled under its heat never able to quench your hirst, soothe your skin or comfort your aching head.

Eternal damnation. And it was mine for the taking if I let the priest put a snow-white host on my tongue that morning. 

The latest Mass was at 11,00 am and this was where we were headed. I nibbled on a lettuce leaf at 9.10 am. I looked at the clock. Ten minutes later and I began my calculations.

Communion happened towards the end of Mass. The priest must run through all the liturgy. In Latin, a mystery to me. I could only tell where we were by the bell ringing and the positioning – sitting or standing . But the movements of priest as he raised the chalice high in the hosanna chorus, by the shuffle of bodies at communion time. And it was Sunday. 

The priest would spend at least twenty minutes, if not more, on his sermon. By the time we made our way to the communion altar rail, like so many ants lined up for labour, the clock would be close to midday.

My skills in numbers were limited but I could add and subtract any under twenty. My salvation was close by. I was within the window of safety and need not worry if I resisted the temptation of any more nibbles on lettuce, or bites into apples, spoonful’s of sugar. Anything that might tempt me, as my stomach rumbled in that long slow empty wait for Sunday Mass.

You don’t get out of childhood free of charge.

Even when you grow up and escape the narrow confines of your coffin, the residue of such feelings remains.

The stuff of rules, of needing to adhere for fear of punishment, the police siren at the red traffic light if you slip through too late and leave yourself in peril of being squashed by another car, of killing yourself or another or almost worse still of taking on the anger of a court of law for your unforgivable misdemeanour, these are elements that dog me in my dreams. 

After a day of heat to match the fires of hell several days ago, a storm came through and cleansed the garden of its despair.

Our house was spared though others elsewhere lost power when power lines broke down and suffered from fallen trees and the horrid outcomes of wild storms. 

My daughter lifted the window, one along a line of windows in our kitchen living room area to let in fresh air and cool the place down. It’s one of two windows in a line of seven that can still open.

Most were stuck fast forever when another daughter’s boyfriend helped us out for pocket money by painting the architraves and window ledges. He did not know the trick to painting window frames. You most leave them open and move them up and down when the paint is drying so it does not stick fast.

The paint stuck fast and although there might well be another way to force open the resistant windows, for the last thirty years we have settled on the opening of the two free ones as a source of fresh air after hot summer days when night comes and the atmosphere cools. 

Halfway through dinner there was an almighty crash. It came down with one of those adrenaline forcing thumps that sets your heart pounding, and your underarms get wet.

The one open window had snapped from its inner cords and fell shattering into a thousand tiny pieces, all in one piece. 

No harm done other than a shattered window. Safety glass, so no chance it would smash everywhere and get splinters in our feet, but still we put a safety barrier around it to protect the dogs until we could get it fixed.

The cracking glass in the window clicked for several minutes after its fall, piece by tiny piece until it had finally found its place as a glass silver mosaic so beautiful to see but ever so fragile.

When I was a child I broke a pane of glass by accident with my bouncing ball. My parents had ordered it to replace another broken pane.

This was a sin I could not hide. An accident. It was one of those moments when hell felt like nothing compared to my mother’s rage. My mother who was never angry with me, grew white and the frown on her forehead deepened. The flash in her eyes fiercer than the fires of hell or the cracking of broken glass on concrete.

How did I get out of the coffin of childhood?

How did I learn there was a way out?

I reconciled myself to rules that make sense and abide by them up to a point and then try to forgive myself the shattered glass of my dreams? 

It’s never enough.

2 thoughts on “The shattered glass of dreams”

  1. I guess it must be a Catholic thing. All religions have sin but Catholics have SIN. I knew what things I wasn’t supposed to do as a kid—mainly not lie or steal or swear—and I knew they were technically sins but the word was never hammered home the way it seems to be with Catholics. I supposed it puzzled me a bit growing up. Catholics—and Jews and Muslims, not that I knew any of them—seemed far more fervent in their faiths. I mean, we all believed ours was the one true religion and I never forgot for a second what I was brought up to believe but I always viewed beliefs as something intellectual: you did what was right (in God’s eyes) because it was right, not because you cared if it was right. I knew Christ died for me but it never felt personal and I guess that was when I started to realise that spiritual concerns weren’t my concerns. Hell, too, was never a big deal. I didn’t believe in a fiery hell. You died and that was it. Even the Hitlers of this world just died and that was it. That was the worst that could happen to you, nonexistence without the possibility of a resurrection. Bad, but not hellfire-and-damnation bad.

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