(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me).

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Around the Dining Table

Yes, we had one of them when I was growing up – a big, rectangular wooden one – and a dining-room too. 

 The dining-room was in the very centre of the house. One door, a corner door, opened into the kitchen, which was at the back of the house, overlooking the big back yard from high up. On a sloping block, the house was one storey in front, two at the back. Up the hall, at the front of the house, opposite my parents' bedroom, was the lounge-room, with sofa, armchairs and fireplace. 

My little brother's bedroom and mine were in the middle. His opened off the dining-room, and was always called The Sunroom, from a time before there was a little brother, as it got the afternoon sun. It was a playroom for me then, for quiet play involving blocks or coloured pencils, and a sewing room for my mother.

My bedroom was the other side of the house, across the hall. I got the morning sun and the rising moon. I got our next-door neighbours' yellow roses showing above the fence.

The day was fine
With bright sunshine
And as I looked from out the window of my room
I saw a golden rose in bloom

... I wrote when I was eight.

We used all the rooms. Meals were indeed around the dining table. There was no television then, so no eating on laps in front of it – though sometimes on cold nights we might have soup on our knees in the lounge-room, in front of the fire. When Grandpa was staying, which was often, we played word games around that fire. Sometimes we roasted chestnuts. They were special occasions. When, as usual, we sat around the dining table to eat, we played word games there as well.

The bathroom was at the back of the house, behind my bedroom and opposite the kitchen. There was a passage between bathroom and kitchen, across the back of the house, with the big dining-room window looking into it. It was wide enough for a built-in bench where my Dad had his pot-plants. (No, not THAT kind of pot. This was the 1940s.) I remember the primulas most of all: delicate, pretty and profuse.

Alongside the passage, at the very back, under a row of high outside windows, was the stairwell going down to our lower storey. That was only half the length of the upper. It housed a woodshed (also opening onto the outside), the laundry, and a small spare bedroom where Grandpa stayed on his long visits after Nana died.

When other visitors came, more briefly, my brother moved into my big bedroom and the visitors took the sunroom. That was also where Nana used to sleep when she stayed with us before my brother was born ... before she was dead. 

My brother arrived when I was four. That was the other thing, besides my Nana's death, which made four such a crucial year for me – the year when everything changed. He seemed to me pale, miserable and boring, and he took up a lot of my parents' attention. He was born with an extreme squint in one eye, necessitating a longer stay in hospital after the birth, and going back for medical visits later. He had glasses at eight months, the youngest child who had ever been prescribed them at that time – 72 years ago – and possibly since. 

I had been the adored daughter, the firstborn, the focus of all the attention, whether good or bad. Too much attention, my psychiatrist thought, 20 years later. 

I didn't like my little brother. 

The Crime

I was four when my brother came.
Only weeks before that, my Nana –
with her warm, gigantic lap,
her long hair never cut,
her soft brown laughing eyes,
her voice like dark honey –
became quiet and pale and still
and gone, forever gone.

"A death, and then new life,"
I heard a grown-up neighbour say
as if it was a good trade,
as if it was cause to rejoice,
as if we could at least
take some comfort in it.

The babe too was pale.
He came from the same hospital
where she had been, where I last
saw her blanketed in white
and speechless – the hospital
where my mother too disappeared
in a sudden flurry one night
and only my father came back.

But my mother did return. Finally.
She carried this bundle.
Everyone acted glad.
I only stared
at its meaningless face
protruding from the white shawl.

There must have been pleasure
I suppose, for my Mum and Dad.
I remember it cried a lot,
and the way they shrugged
and made helpless faces at each other
in the long nights of wailing
that  nothing would appease …
until exhaustion won.

"Good enough to eat,"
an aunt cooed over the cradle.
And I remember the hot taste of flesh,
my mother screaming behind me:
"You bit your little brother!"
and the purple marks on his arm.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2007 

I didn't like myself either, for doing that. I felt mean and hateful. But I didn't want a brother; I liked the playmates I already had. 

For one thing, there were the nature spirits. That's what I call them now. Then I called them fairies. Most people, I soon found out, didn't see them, or even believe in  them. Or said they didn't – which I in turn found hard to believe, though I only saw them briefly myself; one minute there and the next gone, then back again, then gone again.... By now I have reached the conclusion that they flit back and forth between dimensions. 

They played with me in the garden, naturally. That big back yard was mostly taken up by a huge lawn, and around the edges of that were flowers and bushes as well as some berry vines – raspberries, loganberries, red currants and black currants. Up near the garage at the end of our driveway were some clumps of gooseberries, as well as a big black wattle just right for climbing. I could use the railings of the back fence to start my way up, then almost immediately arrived in a big, comfortable fork in the branches where, all through childhood, I could sit and read my books. Reading was always my favourite thing.

At the far end of the lawn were a rockery with flowering cacti growing among the stones, a stand of (rather small and thin, I now realise) bamboo, some man-ferns, and a trellis summer house. Just the other side of all this was my Dad's veggie garden and strawberry patch. 

There were two great willow trees at opposite sides of the veggie garden. From the one behind the summerhouse hung a swing made of two thick ropes and a flat wooden seat. My Dad made it, and if I was lucky he would come and push me in it. Mostly I swung in it myself, surrounded by long curtains of willow fronds. I swung and dreamed, in a private haven with pale green walls. They were particularly pretty in Spring, when the new leaves were lightest green and tightly curled.

As well as the fairies there were some children who came to visit. Other people couldn't see them, either. They not only joined me in the garden but also in the house. They liked to sit up at the dining table with us, and I was so keen for my mother to set places for them that she did. My parents called them my imaginary friends, when they thought I wasn't listening. 

Sometimes my Dad pretended he could see them. He talked about them as if they were real, and even spoke to them, but it was obvious he was just pretending. He would say things like, 'Maudie's finished her toast,' when we hadn't given her any; or would address a particular chair by name, but it would be the wrong name for the child sitting in it. 

I saw them perfectly well. But now, decades later, I wonder – was it just like physical seeing, or did I perceive it as being ‘in my mind’s eye’? 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

When Nana Died

Four was the pivotal year in my childhood. It must have been a week or so after my fourth birthday, in November 1943, that my Nana died. I know she died just a couple of months before my little brother was born, in January 1944, because my mother always lamented that fact. 

Dear Nana —

I was just four
when you went to Heaven.
How could you leave me 
so tightened down, 
so shrunk …
so cold my air,
so strange and fogged 
my home garden
in which I wandered
every step uncertain,
missing your held hand
your warm contralto laugh?

I still remember
the songs and tales
in that haven, your lap.
How did you change
to a white lump
in the hospital —
in the high bed
where I could not reach you
and you were so silent?
I hung my head,
gave silence back.

You were Florence,
daughter of Jane
the famous beauty.
My aunts remembered her.
To me, beauty was you —
old fat woman from India.
Your long hair
brushed out for bed 
unfurled like a princess’s
all down your back.
Then you rewound it,
plaited and coiled
as your crown.

I tried to findyour big hotel
on Puri beachfront,
your life before:
the life of the stories.
I travelled all that way —
the other side of the world —
old woman myself by then.
Nana, where were you?
Without your old photos 
from the family album
I couldn’t be sure.

Hotelier, hospital matron,
young mother, wronged lover —
these I knew not.
In the apple orchard
trailed by your dogs,
and the birds lilting,
I place you forever:
in Spreyton, Tasmania.
From the cottage doorway
you smile welcome
– dear Nana.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2006

I loved my Nana more than anyone – and felt more surely loved by her than by anyone else. 

My mother was seven months pregnant with my little brother when Nana died, her grief at the loss of her mother, whom she adored, compounded because Nana hadn't lived long enough to meet her newest grandchild. 

It seems in memory that Mum was mostly in bed during those last weeks before Denis was born, alternately weeping and sleeping. My Dad tiptoed around, preoccupied. When I cried for my Nana being dead, he shushed me quickly, saying, 'You mustn't upset your mother,' and shooed me outside to play.

So I wandered slowly up and down our vast back lawn, not feeling playful. Anyway, my usual playmates (whom I now identify as nature spirits and deceased children) hovered at a respectful distance on this occasion. I was vaguely aware of them in the background, but I had other things on my mind. I needed to brood.

I looked at the ground as I walked, but gradually became conscious of the sky, sensing it as having a quality of aliveness, presence. That was the first time I felt what I describe as 'a white feeling' – having no words to label it more precisely – which has come to me a few more times over the decades since. It happens soon after someone very special to me dies. It is beautifully peaceful, while at the same time clear and aware, and is accompanied by the calm conviction – indeed, I would say knowledge – that the dead person has come to visit me, and is giving me a message. The message is never in words; it's an inner knowing. But I can translate it into words. It says Love, All is well, and Goodbye. 

Sometimes it happens before I know the person has died; then I get the news soon after. It was that way many years later when my friend Fran, who was going through a very troubled time, crashed her car in the early hours one morning and killed herself. An unconscious suicide, I've always thought. I came suddenly awake and sat straight up in bed, both alert and peaceful, my mind full of the idea of her but without any of the concern I'd had for her in the previous weeks. On the contrary, I felt a relaxed happiness. A few hours later came the phone call to say she had died just before the time I woke. That was shocking and distressing despite what I’d experienced, but later the experience was some comfort.

When, some years later again, my dear Aunty Katy went, we knew her death was close but not yet that it had happened, when that feeling came. I was married to Bill then, and Katy knew him well. They were fond of each other. He picked up the feeling too. In this case it was mixed with playfulness, as the curtains fluttered without a breeze, and we almost heard her laughing. Katy had motor-neurone disease late in her life, and hated the restrictions it forced on her. We could tell she was having so much fun as a spirit, with total freedom to move, no physical restrictions at all. Half an hour later, one of my cousins rang to say she'd gone. 

With my Nana, though, I knew she was dead as I walked that lawn, under a sunny sky with sweet white clouds that I didn't want to look at. I wasn't allowed to cry for her, and didn't (until over 40 years later, when another death occasioned so much weeping that it finally triggered that old grief too); instead I felt numb and sullen. I was only a little girl, but we don't think of ourselves as little when we are, do we? We are always as old as we've ever been, and feel as wise and perceptive as anyone. Or was it the not crying that made me feel stolidly adult? 

When the white feeling gently suffused me, as if descending from the sky, it released me. Then I knew my Nana wasn't really gone, even if she wouldn't be with me in the same way she had been. I was assured of her eternal love, from that moment on. 

I told no-one.