Trees and their wounds

The memory of a tree and I’m off. Into the grandeur of Lombardy poplars dotted along the skyline of Cheltenham when I was a girl.

This area, once home to market gardens replete with apples, pears, oranges, and flowers, was sold off and the land excavated then turned into housing.

Each house like its neighbour, single level, double or triple fronted, cream brick veneers, looking onto the streets with three steps up to small concrete verandas bordered by ornate wire curlicues at every corner.

For a while we managed to keep our house looking resplendent and brand new but within a year it had lost its shine. In another year the floors were irredeemably scuffed, the walls smeared with the grease marks of tiny fingers and cracks were beginning to show.

Wear and tear and not the greatest construction, the house groaned under the weight of this family and of my father’s rages in the night.

It began with a storm. One Sunday morning. Tree branches clashed under pressure from the wind like soldiers on a battlefield. Rain fell in oblique silver sheets punctuated by unruly gusts yelling across the roof line.

I could not sleep. Filled with a primal fear that something dreadful might happen.

Have you ever woken with such a sensation? Some fear of something unknown. Tried to shrug it off, but every screech of branches on the tin roof of the garage next door leaves you even more fearful.

I did not want to face this storm alone. To be in the company of another who might offer distraction was unlikely to happen, so I hugged the blankets closer to my shoulders and fell back into a dream.

Only to wake minutes later to the barking of dogs in the distance and the shuffle of my mother’s feet on the kitchen lino.

Once she was awake and on duty, once she had taken up her post in the kitchen, all my fears fell away. As if I was no longer alone. My terror from minutes earlier gone.

My mother had a way of soothing me simply by being here. She need not say a thing. Just to know she was there opening and closing cupboards, settling the kettle over its flame, breaking eggs into a fry pan.

Knowing she was nearby alive and well and bringing the house into life calmed me down. It was illusory I could see that. Even then.

There were days when my mother was even more fearful than me. Days when the world seemed like the most hostile of places when even she, the oldest in my family aside from our father, could not hold her thoughts together sufficient to reassure us, all would be well. 

Those days when her teeth clattered in her mouth and her hands flailed up and down by her side, when she muttered prayers of desperation to the Blessed Virgin, my mother was even more fearful than me.

It was around this time when my brothers decided the best way to deal with our father’s drinking and rages, was to take us kids away from the two of them and leave them to sort it out together.

My mother free of the burden of her children might well be able to manage our father alone.

I cringe now at the logic of it all.

I cannot figure where in the timeline this happened. Somewhere in the early 1960s, soon after my mother’s last daughter was born without breath.

My mother’s placenta snapped during the last days of her pregnancy because her doctor argued, at 43, my mother was too old to bear any more children. 

Did she blame herself? Did she consider it the fault her body unable to hold fast to this little girl who did not open her eyes to the world, not once.

They did let my mother see the baby once she was delivered, silent and blue, into the labour ward and my mother did her best to hold her grief at bay. 

Born dead. A statement of opposites, as Lidia Yuknavitch observes. The two states mutually at logger hears, at the beginning and end of life, all rolled together. 

There was a young woman in the bed next to my mother’s, she told me years layer. A young woman who was too young and unmarried to have a baby of her own.

They took her baby away and as always, my mother compared her lot to that of one less fortunate. This sad young woman, and my mother gave thanks for her beautiful and healthy children, bounced back out of her bed and wanted to go home again.

But something about losing that baby must have triggered something in my mother. A loss too great to bear.

I can see her now in the front garden of our house in Wentworth Avenue plucking a withered geranium from its bush. 

Mrs Bruus walked by and stopped at the gate. ‘I heard about your baby. I’m so sorry.’

And my mother looked over to this other sad Dutch woman from up the street who had befriended her. The two shared a common homeland. Another person my mother could feel sorry for her.

Mrs Bruus was unable to have children despite a perfectly respectable husband and life in Australia. At least our mother had us.

‘She’s with the angels,’ my mother, said and Mrs Bruus smiled the smile of those who know nothing else to say, flinching under the detail of all this pain.

Only then, my older sister told me the story later. Her memory rippled with time.

Our mother could not go on. She had some sort of breakdown and needed to go away somewhere for a few weeks alone. I have no memory of this. Another event blanked from my memory; all ten years old. 

You’d think I’d remember my mother disappearing for a couple of weeks or more. She got through that Christmas, my elder sister said, but then it all became too much and somewhere in the January during school holidays, they shipped her youngest away to the farm of a relative in Shepparton.

My three-year-old brother stayed there for several months with two other young cousins also shipped there to leave their parents free to work.

And now there’s no one to ask. What happened then?

Lost in the fog of time only the memory of a mother who disappears for a time in person, much as she often disappeared into her mind when I was a child.

I recognise why disappearing acts are so troublesome to me. Why silence is the great killer.  

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