(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.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

My Deepest Fear

(Before I go on with my story, it’s necessary to back-track.)

My greatest fear through childhood and for much of my adult life was that I would not be free to be myself – my authenticity would be stolen from me, or forced into suppression. I can see two sources for this. 

My mother wanted me to be sweet, lady-like, well-mannered, always spotlessly clean. I must think before I spoke. If I laughed, it must not be heartily – that was ‘coarse’. It was a mystery to my mother how I could play outside and come back in dirty, or with scabby knees. She once told me that when she was a little girl, if she got the tiniest bit of dirt on her finger, she would be holding it up and crying for someone to clean it. This comparison was not meant to be in my favour! 

‘Yeah, Mum,’ my 77-year-old self growls now ‘You had an Ayah [an Indian nursemaid, a servant] whose job was to run to wipe the dirt from your finger if you held it up and cried.’ However the differences were deeper than that. I didn't notice or mind getting dirty. I wanted to climb trees, and on to the roof of the trellis summerhouse in the back yard. I wanted to crawl in amongst the shrubs and berries to watch the insects going about their lives. I wanted to go for walks in the bush.

When she had ladies over for afternoon tea, she would be sending me little signals across the room to sit straighter, uncross my legs, keep my hands still…. I became very self-conscious.

I also became quite ‘split’. Sometimes I’d scramble with my book up into a comfortable nook in the black wattle tree above the garage, and pretend not to hear when Mum called me. At other times I became fearful, inept, awkward. That side won; I became more and more timid, gauche and withdrawn. Instead of climbing a tree with my book, I’d lie reading on my bed for hours.

‘Where is she?’I’d hear my parents say. ‘Is she in her room? Why doesn’t she get out into the good fresh air?’ (Well perhaps because, when I did, I wasn't supposed to get dirty or risk a scraped knee.)

The other thread, of course, was the suppression of my natural psychic tendencies. I never could completely suppress them. I would still get little hunches that would turn out to be right. I would have what seemed to be idle daydreams about something happening, and then it would. I had dreams which were prophetic; the flavour of them was quite different from ordinary dreams, and I remembered them clearly after waking. Somehow I rationalised all these things to myself as not being crazy. I also kept very, very quiet about them. For many years I was completely secretive about my inner life. 

So the fear of losing my true self meant that I buried it deep. In effect, I did lose it, at least in all practical ways. I kept a stubborn, secret core which I never lost. I think it was my saving. But I lost conscious sight of it. I created, I now realise, a persona which served quite well. It could interact with people adequately, despite some shyness and anxiety. It could do my studies, pass my exams and so forth. (Being successful academically was not only allowed but very much approved of by my elders. And particularly for a girl like me. The family story about me was that I was not pretty but at least I was clever.) Later I could hold down a job, and even shine.

The two years from 15 to 17, living with my mad, sadistic stepmother and always walking on eggshells, had me retreat even further to the inner realms and display an even more opaque mask.

At least I wasn't ambivalent about her. She wasn't my beautiful mother whom I adored and wanted to please, at the same time as feeling that I would always be a failure in her eyes – yet knowing, resentfully, that my way of being was valid too.  No, I could hate my stepmother without any ambivalence whatsoever. 

They say our enemies are our greatest teachers. She reinforced my belief in myself and my views, because her example of how to be was so obviously flawed and her opinions so opprobrious. (Snobbish, racist, gossipy, devious, unkind … and that’s putting it mildly.) She was also an example of everything my mother had (however unwittingly) been teaching me – how to be a fake: gracious and charming in company, behaving with perfect decorum and social nous, and none of it genuine. Definitely not what I wanted to be!

What a breath of freedom, after two years, when my brother and I moved from there to my dear Aunty Ev in Pascoe Vale, a suburb of Melbourne. Her down-to-earth commonsense and warm heart redressed some of the harm that had been done. 

8 comments:

  1. Yes, as parents we do harm to our children, sometimes they get, what we never meant, in our attempt to be loving, parents....good parents, a role we never were prepared for. To guide another human being is an awsome task. By the time the job if over, we have learned a little bit of what they attempt to teach us, we just know if we could do it over, we could do it better.

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  2. Thank God for Aunty Ev! They say, and i believe, that if one adult believes in a child, that child can succeed. I think earlier generations of parents did not understand too well the emotional needs of children......

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  3. Almost read in one breath. Was your mother an Anglo Indian? From your words it seems so. I also believe freedom comes when one desperately needs it. A wonderful article Rosemary.

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    1. Yes, Sumana, she was. But there are various definitions of that term. In her case, she had both Indian and Scottish ancestry, rather than being part of the Raj. Her father's identity was unacknowledged as he had a position of some status and a wife in a mental home back in Scotland. But we know who he was. Later, on a visit to England, my Nana – a remarkable, admirable woman in many ways – married a Yorkshireman who became my mother's beloved stepfather and my dear Grandpa. They migrated to Tasmania when Mum was 15. My Nana (also Anglo-Indian of mixed heritage) was the great love of my childhood and still a vivid and cherished memory, but she died when I was four.

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  4. You walked a difficult line, but still maintained some sense of yourself as an individual. Not an easy task, but it helps explain your strong sense of self. Thanks for sharing, Rosemary,

    Elizabeth

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  5. I agree with Elizabeth. How wonderful that in spite of it all, you knew who you were. It shows in your current confidence and wisdom. How hard it must have been to have a such a stepmother.

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  6. This is interesting, well written and an encouragement to me. And, yes, it is so nice to get to know you.

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