Tag Archives: childhood

The sun also burns

Where to begin? More travels (to Canada and the US – blog post TBC), more questions, more sunshine? More indecision.

I suppose I should pick up from where I left off; that turgid post of doom in which I lamented a misfortune of my own making. Indeed, I felt horrible. I felt trapped. I felt stuck back in a city that I had longed to escape since childhood, and I felt physically and emotionally constrained by our choice of home. There were days where I cried and cried and missed my grandparents, and thought of all the stupid shit I have done in this town, and returned day after day to my trailer park home, where my boys were tanned from a day in the sun, and I was fatigued from a day of trying to wrap my head around laws that protect children from parents worse than my own, and systems that exist so that the State can be your parent when your own cannot.

I don’t know why I described myself in the above paragraph as struggling to understand the legislation I am tasked to review. This is something that is not difficult for me. The problem of course is that what we are skilled to do, and what brings us joy, are not always one and the same. This is complicated even further when a thing we are capable at, but which does not guarantee emotional satisfaction, also brings with it a steady stream of income. The choices are too many for me to compute at times.

Do something you love which pays little? Feel emotionally sated but perpetually poor?
Do something you can tolerate because it pays well and allows you the freedom to spend you income on things that satisfy you?
Do nothing but explore the world, funded by years of work at mundane jobs, in order to allow yourself to build bonds with your children and husband that 40+ hours a week in an office can threaten to erode?
Buy less, love more?

In an earlier post I wrote about finally figuring out – years later – that my reasons for studying law were always flawed. I was always one of those bright and annoying children, whose vocabulary surpassed my elders – a similarity I now witness in my son J. My personality and intellect, like everyone’s, was partly genes, partly nature, and partly situational (because my grandparents read to me often). I was always included in adult conversations and I performed on cue the role of precocious, entertaining child. I brought home certificate after certificate – art, writing, reading, public speaking (maths was noticeably absent from my skill-set) and my grandparents loved it. But while they heaped me with praise for my report cards that were littered with As, for every positive remark, there was a small jab. They were not happy with B grades. They were dissatisfied with the comments that always followed on my report cards about my apparent refusal to work to my potential. They were dismayed that I did not seem to take anything academic particularly seriously, and they asked me regularly what I planned to do with my life, suggesting along the way that with my love of words and performance, journalism or law would probably be a perfect fit (spoiler alert: it was not).

But why does all this come up for me? Why are all these issues at the forefront of my mind?

Because, Brisbane.

In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa begs Chief Wiggum to not eat the clues. She appears to him in a backwards-speaking, Twin Peaks-esque scene where he is trying to solve the crime of who shot Mr Burns. Lisa appears to guide Chief Wiggum to the answer he already has. The evidence he needs is in his possession, he just hasn’t realised it yet.


Now, a month after my last post, I have figured more out about the evidence before me, and instead of eating the delicious, tropical clues, I feel like I’m finally making sense of them.

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This sunny, water-lined scene is the life I grew up in, with the islands of Moreton Bay my backyard (note: I have only been to Stradbroke Is AKA Straddie TWICE, such was my grandparents’ disdain for the Shire they called home). I grew up around families who went camping on these islands, whose parents threw barbecues poolside, and who spent their sunny weekends taking the family boat out on the bay. And now, as a parent myself, I see the cohort of names I remember repeating the lessons learned in childhood, played out before me on Facebook. Sand, surf, sea, sun. Rinse and repeat.

The life of sunshine and sea-spray could have been mine, but it wasn’t, and it was never going to be. My Nanny couldn’t swim. My grandfather despised the Queensland beaches, only ever surfing in Yamba. It was a shame I didn’t feel part of this scene because I was a reasonably good swimmer and I tanned beautifully in the sun. But I was so hell-bent on ruining my life before it even began, I didn’t pay much attention to all the beauty around me, and how lucky I was to call this place my home.

So now, some 20 years later, where I watch my children play every day in the pool, where my son turns brown in the sun as I do, and where I can walk to work from my apartment in South Brisbane, no longer needing to battle the daily commute, I am again trapped in this familiar sense of disconnection, because I could have everything I want here, but I can’t.

This place would give me everything familiar. Everything, except happiness.

I can’t stay in Brisbane, my home town. There are too many scars. The wounds are still raw in places, such was the force with which they were inflicted. I am re-truamatising myself continuously – with wonderings about the could-haves and what-ifs and the ongoing sense of guilt and shame for all I have done. And it’s not that I ever did anything particularly horrendous – I didn’t rob any one at knifepoint (or otherwise) or steal a car. I just view my past as all being missed chances to have been a better person, a kinder granddaughter, to have been more present, nicer, more caring. But I wasn’t that person. I’m playing catch-up now trying to become that person. So all Brisbane tells me is that I will never get that time back, and being here, in this place, is a constant reminder of what I have lost.

Family. Friends. A different kind of life.

I try to be kind to myself, and to console myself with words like, “Sarah, you were young when you were here. You didn’t know any better. You did the best you could. You didn’t have support or guidance. Everyone makes mistakes.” But the problem is that I am, and have always been painfully, frighteningly hard on myself. I have never understood the self-love movement as I am mired somewhere between dislike and apathy. I have tried for years to remedy this, but I fear that when you are told in your formative years that you are a burden, a mistake and a failure, a future in which you outwardly champion your own existence is asking a bit much.

As I alluded to in my last post, D and I decided to bite the bullet and make a financially stupid but psychologically astute decision to rent an apartment near the city and forego our caravan for a little while. A borrowed queen sized bed is our only furniture, other than a small coffee table and a little kids table for the boys to eat at. Our boys are sleeping on mattresses from the caravan; we have pushed the two single mattresses together and sometimes when we are lucky, little N will snuggle up to his big brother and leave us in peace for a whole night.
We borrowed a television from my best friend and a bar fridge from her aunt. While I am at work the boys hang out in the nearby parks playing outdoors or swimming the pool. Sometimes they will go to GoMA, or play in South Bank, or walk through the museum. The local public school – pretending I was to send J to it – is down the road, and I have heard coworkers speak of it glowingly. D’s boxing gym is a short jog away. We spend our weekends catching up with friends we have missed since moving to Melbourne seven years ago, or we drive to the beach. We are healthier than we ever were in Melbourne, thanks to almost endless sunshine and fresh air.

We could have been really happy here.

And, yet.
It’s me.
It’s not you, Brisbane. It’s me.

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There are days when I feel irreparably broken. When I believe with abject certainty that I will never be fixed, that I will never be ‘normal’ and that my father was right in all he ever said about me, and that my mother was right to flee. How could a parent not want to cradle the smooth, perfect skin of the life they created? My only answer for that is my own utter lack of worth, visible since I was merely minutes old. I can grow older, amass a new family, develop coping strategies and self-awareness, gain employment, earn a wage, buy nice things, but it means nothing if underneath it all I am undeniably ruined.

Does this come up more for me because I am back in Brisbane, the scene of so many crimes of the heart (and a few garden variety street offences)? Or is it because of something more sinister, something within me that I can never change? The creatives in the world are often the ones cursed with thoughts like these. I take comfort knowing I’m in good company.

But putting aside my oscillating thought processes, the other burning issue at hand is of course what we should do next. In no particular order, here are the options D and I have narrowed down for our family.

1. D goes back to work, I stay at home with the boys.  We want to be with them but the past 5 months of D being the stay-at-home parent have been fraught. He is a wonderful father and plays with the boys for hours. But he isn’t a great housewife, even if he looks good in an apron.  So if anyone is going to work, it will be him. And yet despite knowing this, and agreeing to it, I still complete job applications to random employers all over the world, because I am addicted to rolling the dice.

2. Stay in Brisbane. D would be happy with this. I would be happy for a few weeks before descending into some kind of psychotic break that paralyses me until I can be brought back to consciousness with a plane ticket.

3. Return to Melbourne. D is not keen on this idea, for reasons that make complete sense, namely that if it didn’t feel right a year ago it’s probably not right now. But yet, I do miss Melbourne. To me it feels like home, but that could be just because it’s the last place we were settled.

4. Find a smaller town somewhere and buy a big block of land. D claims he would love this. He wants to repair old motorcycles and have a shed again. We want our dog back. But I am terrified and unsure if my immediate response is a valid one or just one that has been honed from years of telling myself that I needed to live in a major city because that was the only way I would escape the small town mindset I came to view as normal.

5. We go somewhere rural. D is a country boy at heart, and assures me that the boys would have plenty of space and we could do cool stuff on the property to make it AirBandB worthy when we aren’t there. But how would we travel when we would have animals to look after? And how does a vegetarian get by in dairy and cattle farmer territory?

6. We try a new Australian city, e.g. Darwin. We like the idea of the tropics without the familiarity of the Eastern seaboard. We like the proximity to Asia. We like the multiculturalism. D could find work easily. Baby N could eat mangoes all year round. And we could have our crazy cattle dog Clancy back with us again. It’s an unexpected front-runner at the moment, though with everything we discuss, that’s subject to change at a moment’s notice.

7. We go overseas again and do some volunteer work. What better way to teach our kids about the world? We could find a villa in Bali, help with turtle conservation and help little kids to speak English. I have thought about doing post-grad study in education for years and for some reason I always back out. Maybe this would be a nice way to test the waters given that I did a 6 year double degree only to set foot in a law firm and realise I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I worry about the kids, and mozzie bites, and illnesses, and how we would manage it all. I want to challenge my children, but I don’t necessarily want to scar them for life.

8. In addition to all of this, I should add that D has a job offer in Vancouver. It would be a great job – perfect for him and would also let him work from home for most of the week. I love the idea of taking the boys out every day exploring a new city. But – Visas. We don’t think he can get a Visa without the assistance of the company, and for them to hire a foreign worker involves a lot of work on their part to illustrate that they tried to find a Canadian to do the job and could not.

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9. D could find a job overseas (Australian company with an international posting). But D will only go if it helps advance his employability; he won’t go if it is going to cost us money and makes no financial sense after you take away accommodation expenses/cost of living etc. I’m no mathemagician but he has a point.

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10. We pack up our lives again and just drive with the van. D is happy with this, and I am as well, although remembering how cramped I was in that tiny bed wedged between a sideboard, a toddler and my husband is not without its concern.

11. We go back to what is safe, D gets a job, I get a job, the boys go to school/daycare, we buy a nice house in a nice neighbourhood and we have a walk-in pantry and a big fridge and I drink wine in a coffee cup to quell the burning realisation that I had a chance to do something amazing with my children before they got too big, and instead I got scared, and returned to what is familiar. Maybe I could save turtles during school holiday breaks?

So there it is, Launderers. Now you know everything. Feel free to pass on your worldly advice because each day the weight of these decisions are eating away at the usually calm soul of my indecisive Libran husband, and are threatening to drive my erratic nature to doing something impulsive. Like, announcing to my employer that I will finish up in June.

Which I have already done.

But before I finish this post, let me stress that having options is a wonderful thing. We are blessed to have so many possibilities we could explore. We are fortunate to be educated such that we can find employment in various locations and forms. And above all of that, we are so very lucky to have two little children who are healthy and happy, and who could not care less where their crazy parents take them, as long as we are all together.

And that – that, I can promise, we will be.

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You were loved

Tomorrow is your birthday, Nanny. I don’t remember the last one we shared together; the last birthday of yours that is clearest in my mind was when I’d just moved to Melbourne. I knew you liked flannelette nightgowns so I posted two new ones to your home – the home I used to share with you – along with several of those marshmallow filled chocolate bunnies that you stockpiled every Easter.

You didn’t receive them on your birthday, even though you should have; I sent them in time. By then, you didn’t actually know it was your birthday, which is probably a blessing, given that you celebrated your 82nd birthday with a fractured cheek bone and so much bruising to your face that by the time I found out you were in hospital, your husband told me emphatically, Don’t go, not yet. She doesn’t look very good.

You had woken early that morning – maybe you thought it was your birthday, and in your ever-present quest to locate your mother and find your way ‘home’, you had embarked on a search for your birthday gifts. For whatever reason, you left your home that day, sneaking out the side gate like a wayward truant, wandering down what were once familiar streets to you, until, sadly, you lost your footing and connected your face – your beautiful, kind face – with the corner of the gutter and the road.

We don’t know who called the ambulance; who got you to safety. Just like we don’t know who called the police when you were found wandering through West End one summer afternoon, or the name of the man who drove you home when you decided to walk to ‘the beach’ one morning. We don’t know the names of any of these people. If we did, I would tell them one thing.

You were loved.

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In a blood-stained nightgown with an unchanged adult diaper and hair that had not been permed for months, the person who found you on your last escape might have mistaken you for someone that had been forgotten. An old person condemned by her years, waiting to die; for whom life and the promise of living had escaped.

That was not you.

You were the brave non-conformist who divorced her first husband less than a year after you’d wed, because you discovered he had a violent temper.

You were the 5” ebony-haired spitfire who hurled abuse at two men while you were on holiday in Taiwan in the 1960s, such was your horror at learning that a monkey you’d talked to lovingly as you passed it in the street, was actually en route to have its brains removed for a delicacy.

You were the mother and grandmother to a scared little girl, who is now 34 years old and who at times feels consumed by loss, but who clings to these memories of you instead of the memories of your descent into darkness.

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It is your birthday, Nanny, but I don’t know what I will do to mark the occasion, because I can’t bake you a cake and I can’t buy you nightgowns and I can’t take you out for lunch. I can’t do those things anymore; those things – just like making you laugh,  driving you to the club, placing my head on your shoulder – died when you did.

So I will do what I can.

I will spend the day with my children and I will just be present with them. I will kiss their chubby faces, I will let them have another slice of cake (there will be cake), and I will tell them I love them. I will do all of the things that you once did for me. And although they cannot understand the ache I feel because of how much I miss you (I can barely understand it myself), I know they will hold me just as close as you once did.

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Sometimes when I think of you, I remember your intonation; your phrases. A few days ago, I was buying groceries. I happened to be wearing black pants and a black top, along with a hat (mainly because my hair looked bad). I’d picked up a bottle of milk and noticed the use by date was your birthday; I put it back.

Moments later I walked past an elderly woman who smiled at me as I wheeled my trolley out of her way.

“You look very smart!” she said.

Your words, Nanny. Your standard compliment if I had dressed up – better than being beautiful, or cute: Ooh! Don’t you look smart?

A couple of weeks ago I was feeling the loss of you more than usual, and after I had put my eldest son to bed I heard him making noise in his room. I went in to tell him to be quiet, but instead he called me over to his bed. I complied, and he wrapped his arms around my neck.

“Mummy, I always wanted you,” his words.

But they were your words, Nanny. The words you spoke to me every time I doubted my worth or questioned your role as caregiver: I don’t care what anyone says – you were my baby; I always wanted you.

If you’re around, Nanny, in whatever form that may be, I hope you know that I always loved you, I always wanted you, and I would endure every day of pain my upbringing gave me, again and again, if it meant one more minute of comfort from you.

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So happy birthday to you, my beloved, loved, Nanny.
Tomorrow, I’ll have your share of the cake too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For the long run

It has been 49 days since my last post; words I type that are almost confessional. Much has changed since then, but much more is still swirling with the flavours of uncertainty, excitement and anticipation.

I quit my job. One day after my last post, I wrote my letter of resignation.

When I was pregnant with J and approaching my last day of paid employment, I was in a panic. Giving up my job was akin to independent suicide, or so I believed. It would make me wholly dependent on my husband. My years of fighting to be financially secure and reliant on no one for myself would come to an abrupt halt.

Where did this need to be self-sufficient come from? I suspect it became ingrained around the time I had finished high school, when I knew that the only thing that would allow me to flee my relatives – at least in a theoretical sense – was the ability to book a plane ticket and fly far away. To do that, I needed funds at my disposal, funds which were eaten up quickly in a flurry of petrol/alcohol/food/textbook purchases. The fact that escaping my relatives would also mean being away from my grandparents was the worst kind of juxtaposition I could imagine, but the sense that I could leave if I wanted to was often the only thing that kept me in one place.

This need to be able to run away formed a large chunk of my ideology.

If you are unhappy, leave.
If you start something you hate, quit.
Nothing is permanent.

These are the thoughts of someone who believed her world to be always, painfully, frighteningly black and white.

So the sense of being able to escape – and being in a position to afford to escape – has always been at the forefront of my mind. I felt I belonged nowhere, so I always needed to get to that next place, because maybe – maybe – I would belong there.

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As I continue to muddle through the causes for my various mindsets, I have found myself undertaking a Diploma in Mindfulness Therapy. Mindfulness as a concept dates back thousands of years, but can be found in Buddhist teachings, yoga and general meditative practices. Mindfulness as a tool for cognitive well-being is arguably still in its relative infancy, but there is mounting evidence supporting it as a mechanism through which busy minds can be calmed, and stress reduced.

Oh mindfulness, where were you twenty-eight years ago? When I lay awake in bed for hours playing a game I liked to call ‘Worst Case Scenario’? When I imagined night after night the exact moment of discovering my grandparents’ deaths? When I played in my head the image of someone coming to take me away from my home, my small limbs flailing as my throat became hoarse from screams? When I imagined being placed with my disinterested father; when I made plans to run away and live under bridges. Mindfulness, what would you have said to me then?

Without any kind of coping mechanism for these kinds for thoughts, eventually I developed my own.

Don’t you realise you don’t need to struggle through any of that? If your grandparents die, you can always kill yourself! It’s the perfect plan! You will be okay, because you always have that ticket out of here, and no one can ever take that from you.

And so, night after night, year after year, I made plans for my own death.

Of course over time the need to book a one-way ticket to the afterlife became less pronounced, mainly because as I got older I grew less dependent on my grandparents for security. By the time I had finished university I had a full time job and qualifications that could not be undone. So on some level, I felt as though if I needed to, I could survive *most* things the world might throw at me.

But still, if you have consistently calmed yourself with thoughts of ending your life, old habits can quite literally die hard.

As part of my mindfulness studies, I am required to commit to regular practice. This involves being seated, usually in a cross-legged position, closing my eyes, and focusing on my breath: the inhales and the exhales. The sounds of breath entering and escaping the body. The sensations of my body as it sits quietly and calmly, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A time to bring awareness to the body. A time to notice thoughts without judgment. I have done yoga for several years, so this process is not entirely foreign to me. Of course, in yoga it is usually only for 10 minutes and when I am in savasana, well aware that class is almost over.

It is Tuesday night in my mindfulness course, and we are all asked to complete a silent, seated, 27 minute guided practice. I sit on the ground, a friend to the right of me. The class comprises of all females, including the teacher. I find nothing threatening or scary about anyone or anything in that room.

And, yet.

I sit still, and I breathe. I try to calm my thoughts. I get to what I imagine is the halfway mark of practice. My mind is wandering, as is normal, but I focus on my breath. Then I notice more. My feet are beginning to tingle, a sensation that rushes up to my knees. Pins and needles, that prickly annoyance that has plagued me since I was a school kid, leaving me open to teachers chastising me for not sitting still in my seat; for having my legs out in front of me in a cramped school assembly space instead of folded beneath me like everyone else.

This sensation has come to me before in practice; I asked my teacher for advice and she said to remember it will pass. She said to try to imagine breathing air into the affected areas. I did this once, and it worked – the feeling went away.

But not this time.

I sit, and I sit, growing ever more pained and uncomfortable. I try to breathe slowly, calmly, but in a room of silence am trying desperately not to draw attention to myself. Then, panic. I cannot move; the tingling is now numbness. I cannot move my legs, I cannot feel my feet.

I cannot get out of here.

I am breathing and breathing but I am stuck on the floor and I can’t fucking get out of here.

I feel faint, clammy. My heartbeat is racing, my palms sweaty. I cannot stop this sensation and I cannot move. My breathing has all but stopped. I notice that I am quite literally holding my breath.

In Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, he explains how trauma and its resulting stress harms us through physiological changes to body and brain, and that those harms can persist throughout life. Family disturbance or generalised neglect can wire children to be on high alert, their stressed bodies tuned to fight or flight.

And here I am – the girl who always has an exit plan for when things became too hard –  literally unable to move.

As someone who knew she would flee even before she knew what the concept of fight or flight was, it is something of a breakthrough to realise that in moments of stress, my body is still geared to wanting to run away, even if my brain logically knows I don’t need to. I also think it is remarkable that for years my pins and needles might have suggested more than simply a pinched nerve to anyone who had cared to scrape more than just the surface of my home life. I always believed that I needed to be able to escape, meaning that I always had to sit in a way that would let my legs carry me away from a perceived threat as quickly as possible. In my world, pins and needles, however fleeting, were not an option. They were an impediment to safety.

I had a brief flashback during practice. J’s birth; that same awful tethered feeling of complete terror that one cannot leave. Trapped in a hospital room, connected to machines, unable to flee. There were other images too; I am not ready to go into them, not yet, when I don’t know what they mean.

I am slowly unraveling the story of my life. Through writing, through making a mind-body connection. I need to do this so that I don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, or fall into old self-destructive patterns that for so long were all I knew.

I don’t know where I am going, but I am hopeful that I will learn from the journey.

I will keep writing.
I will keep breathing.
And I will try to remind myself that I do not always have to run.*

*Unless rocking out to this tune:

 

 

 

 

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Smile like you mean it

In four days, I will have been without my Nanny’s embrace for two years. Without the gentle pat of her soft dainty hand stroking mine as she spoke. Without the scratchy rubbing of her knitted cardigans on my skin when I clutched her tiny frame in my own. Without the smile; the baffled-by-the-end-of-it-who-is-this-nice-girl smile, that used to light up when she saw me, even if she had forgotten my name.

Two years.

In those two years without her, I have watched my son grow from a toddler to a small man. I have stopped having single word chats with him where he pointed to a train and said traingo. I have stopped hearing him sing the Thomas and Friends theme song using the words “Thomasischeekyway” (instead of Thomas is the cheeky one, believing that Thomasischeekyway was the full name for Thomas the tank engine). Now, he considers things as he says them, remarking “You know what, mummy? We never seen a talking train before.” My beautiful, rambunctious boy, who squeals with delight when I carry out the most important acting role of my career – the monster/crocodile hybrid that chases him around the house. Who responds to my questions with the conjunction actually. Who tells his little brother every day, “I love you, cute little baby!” and who similarly scolds his brother when he destroys painfully precise car alignments, shrieking “No, giant baby! No!”

Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.
Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.

In those two years without Nanny, I watched my body grow another human; the giant baby who is now twelve months old. Who has gone from gulping at my breast constantly to happily chewing on pears, cheese and bread. Who pats my face with his pudgy hands, squealing and drooling as he smiles; his eight little teeth like pebbles sticking out from sand. A little boy who is in awe of his big brother and the unexpected hugs he receives from him, even when the ferociousness of the embrace literally knocks him over. Who just wants to be cuddled, all day, by everyone.

In addition to these moments of exquisite joy, over the past two years I have also had the agony that tempers the ecstasy. Just three months ago I saw the body of Nanny’s life’s companion dressed in a suit and tie, somberly waiting to participate in the last ritual of death, the cremation of flesh and bone into dust. I saw the relatives who created the illusion of caring at death but who were noticeably absent from caring during my grandfather’s life. I saw the crows circle, their talons poised and ready to swoop, eager to ensnare any item of value left below. And in time, I felt the piercing sting as their claws ripped at the belongings, the mementos, the stuff, anything and everything that remained a reminder of the life he used to live.

Two years.
In two years, I have, it seems, seen it all.

Rare is the night where images of my grandparents don’t pervade my dreams. A few nights ago, I dreamed that my Nanny’s death resulted not from dementia and its associated ailments but from an act of violence at the hands of my grandfather. In my dream, my grandfather had grown impatient from years of stifled frustration at being the caregiver to a woman who no longer knew his name, and had snapped, strangling his wife of over fifty years in their marital bed. My role in the dream was bystander; unaware of my Nanny’s passing I visited my grandparents’ home, and upon entering the bedroom saw the body of my grandmother, her pink nightgown draped over the torso that bore two children and raised one more, her crinkled skin crumpled and pale, awkwardly stuffed between the sheets. And worse –  in the depths of my psyche, I created a scenario where my grandfather not only was responsible for his wife’s death, but had also been sleeping beside her body for days, so assured was he that she would wake from death, and literally come back to life. The image in my dream, of my Nanny dead for 48 hours, is not one I am willing to describe.

I went to a friend’s house last week and witnessing a seemingly benign act of affection between mother and child caused me a quickening breath and gulping of saliva in an attempt to retain composure. The scene: a mother walking past her adult daughter, who was seated on her lounge room floor. As she navigated alongside her daughter’s frame on the carpet, the mother reached down her hand, and lovingly ran her fingertips through her daughter’s hair; ruffling the follicles in a playful, friendly gesture. An acknowledgment that this woman on the floor, this adult, was still her baby, and a nod to the special bond they share, for to whom else could one conduct such a display of cheeky fondness without fear of reprisal?

My friend glanced up; smiled. Her mother stepped over her and smiled back. No words uttered; just a shared moment where words were unnecessary because the bond needed no description. And as I sat there, holding my enormous drink bottle in my lap, glancing around the room at unfamiliar but welcoming faces, it struck me that I will never know that expression of convivial, maternal closeness ever again.

One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.
One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.

What prevents me from truly grieving the loss of both of my (grand)parents is that I am still wading through matters related to finalising my grandfather’s estate. I now have confirmation that my aunt discharged her bankruptcy in 2008; conveniently enough the same year that she landed on my grandparents’ doorstep with a suitcase and an assurance that she wouldn’t stay long. There is a palpable sense of injustice I feel while making sense of all my grandfather’s financial investments; reading letters he had written to various entities with whom he held shares, unclipping bulldog clips that had remained firmly in place in his folders of information, the small square of rust at their corners a testament to their longevity. He was a man who was at pains to be self-sufficient, to master his own wealth and to fund his own retirement. Newspaper clippings from the Financial Review alongside letters requesting dividend payments be made in differing units of currency, buyback offers, scrips, dividend re-investment offers, proxy nominations for shareholder meetings – this was his life. After retiring he threw himself into mastering the stock market. This man, who never received a government handout, who never asked for help, produced a daughter who elected for bankruptcy instead of paying her debts.

My grandfather used to ruffle my hair. I think he did. I recall a photo that lived on the mantelpiece in the dining room of my grandparents’ home – a room no one ever used for dining because it was instead housing an inordinate amount of furniture and Nanny’s extensive crystal collection. The photo, my grandfather used to remark, was one of the few with the five of us. My father in the centre, shirtless and playing the bagpipes in my grandparents’ backyard. My Nanny stands beside him, beaming proudly as she looks up to her son. My grandfather standing squarely on the other side of my father, with my aunt to his left. And me in the front, all eight years of me, stuffed into this family photo against my will; my hands over my ears to silence the deafening bleat of the instrument my grandfather loved. My grandfather’s smooth, tanned hands, cupped around my face, attempting to get me to smile for the photo.

I am not supposed to be in this photo. If you looked at it, would you know who was the odd one out? Would you mistake my aunt for my mother? Would you think she was my primary caregiver? I am Nanny’s child – she told me again and again. She said I was like her half daughter.
“Is that because the other half of me didn’t come out properly?” I used to jest.
“Don’t be revolting,” she said with a smile.

I have come to physical blows with my aunt before. Looking back, and remembering the proximity to the kitchen at which the melee erupted, I am surprised that we did not reach for knives. Of course knowing my grandparent’s dislike of household maintenance in their later years, one can safely assume any knife I grabbed would be blunt and useless. I do not like weapons anyway; a fight should only be with fists. Better yet, don’t fight at all. In those moments of blood warming rage, walk away, as I should have done.

I don’t know how you can sleep at night, I said, in reference to her mooching ways.
“I sleep fine,” she said, “I sleep fine at my parents’ house. My parents, not yours. You wouldn’t know anything about parents, would you? Because neither of yours want anything to do with…”*

*Note: this is when I should have grabbed my aloo saag, a handful of naan, and left. I did not do this. Instead, I became consumed with rage, desperate to inflict pain on another. I pushed my aunt onto a chair, and essentially began strangling her. No time wasted with a punch or a slap; let’s just go straight for suffocation. Of course my Aunt fought back but I was unharmed. My grandfather broke up the altercation. I apologised to my Nanny whose dementia kindly allowed her to register very little of what was transpiring before her eyes, and then stormed off to my car; desperately holding tears back until I reached the privacy of my Corolla.

My grandfather followed me outside, imploring, “Don’t go; you haven’t even had any of your dinner!”
“You are my parents, right?”
“Of course we are.”
“She doesn’t think so,”
“She is an idiot. You were the last to the party but the best of the bunch.”

I hold onto these words now. I hold onto them; those words uttered under a starry sky with the smell of pappadums in the air. I cling onto the belief that he meant what he said, even though there is a part of me that suspects my kindly grandfather would have said anything to keep the peace. I choose to ignore that tug of negativity, instead telling myself that I was supposed to be part of his family, and Nanny’s family, because I was in some way, the child of my grandparents. No matter what the biology says, or the turmoil we endured, or any of the other shit that got me there, I was theirs.

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In the two years since I lost my (grand)mother, my role as mother has come to define how I respond to and act within the world. I would have loved nothing more than to go on an alcohol infused bender in the days leading up to my grandfather’s death. I can taste the shots now; all sweet and sickly, burning my throat as I throw them down. When my Nanny passed away, I wanted to sit alone in the dark and cry, pausing only to cradle a bong, or a bottle, or anything else that would just make the pain fade a little. Of course I didn’t do this; I couldn’t, and deep down I knew it would only make me feel worse. So instead I waited for my son to fall asleep, then I sat on the back deck, Malboro between my fingers, playing 10,000 Days by Tool in my earphones as the tears ran down my face.

I was meant to be in that family photo; the one with the five of us. Even though I look uncomfortable, as though I am desperate to break free, I still didn’t want to move away from my grandparents. Of course, then there came a time that I had to. And even when I fought what was best, just like in the photo, I smiled because I had to. They wanted me to.

On the 19th of October, the day that marks the day that Nanny’s heart beat for the last time, I will hold my boys, my family, close. I will ruffle the hair of my three year old and I will tell him he is loved. I will tell him that being mum to him and his brother makes me so happy, even if it looks as though sometimes I am not. And I will smile, proudly, defiantly, because that’s what Nanny would want.

10,000 days (Wings Pt. 2)
(MJK)

We listen to the tales and romanticize,
how we follow the path of the hero.

Boast about the day when the rivers overrun,
How we’ll rise to the height of our halo.

Listen to the tales as we all rationalize,
our way into the arms of the savior.
Feigning all the trials and the tribulations.

None of us have actually been there,
Not like you…

Ignorant siblings in the congregation.
Gather around spewing sympathy,
Spare me…

None of them can even hold a candle up to you.
Blinded by choice, these hypocrites won’t see.

But enough about the collective Judas.
Who could deny you were the one who illuminated?
Your little piece of the divine.

And this little light of mine, a gift you passed on to me
I’m gonna let it shine
to guide you safely on your way.

Your way home…

Oh, what are they gonna do when the lights go down?
Without you to guide them all to Zion?
What are they gonna do when the rivers overrun?
Other than tremble incessantly.

High is the way,
but our eyes are upon the ground.
You are the light and the way.
They’ll only read about.
I only pray heaven knows,
when to lift you out.

10,000 days in the fire is long enough.
You’re going home…

You’re the only one who can hold your head up high.
Shake your fist at the gates saying,
“I have come home now…!”
Fetch me the spirit, the son and the father.
Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended.

“It’s time now!
My time now!
Give me my
Give me my wings…!”

You are the light, the way,
that they will only read about.

Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance.
Burden of proof tossed upon the believers.
You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence,
Judith Marie, unconditional one.

Daylight dims leaving cold fluorescence.
Difficult to see you in this light.
Please forgive this bold suggestion.
Should you see your maker’s face tonight,
Look him in the eye.
Look him in the eye and tell him,
I never lived a lie, never took a life,
But surely saved one.

Hallelujah
It’s time for you to bring me home.

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Thursday Throwback #11 – Record for posterity

My baby is one-year-old today. Our littlest man, the baby created in a rare moment of spontaneity; whose addition to our family was unplanned but not unwanted. We knew we didn’t want J to be an only child, at least I did. I say this only from my own experience of navigating a dysfunctional family on my own; what I would have done to have a companion along the way, someone to hide under the bed with when the yelling was too loud, or to help me pack my bag when I needed to flee from the drama. Someone to act on occasion as my conscience, saying, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Someone who, even now, I could look at and say “Remember the time that…” or “Remember when we used to…” for these are sentences that I can never say, as the only family who shared these moments with me are gone.

As some of you may have read, I have been responsible for going through mountains of paperwork as part of my role as the executor of my grandfather’s estate. I was on the floor surrounded by share certificates, bank statements and the occasional tax return when I came upon this:

It is my baby health record, kept by my grandparents, from when I was a baby.

baby1

From what I can deduce, this is basically all the information given to parents back in the eighties when facing the arduous task of raising a child. Compare this to the “green book” we get in Victoria with tabs, and guides, and all kinds of information, and one cannot help but wonder which is the better approach. Can too much information be a bad thing? Or is knowledge power? Either way, both my boys have portfolios of information about them – how much they weighed; how tall they were; if they were crawling; how they are eating; are they sleeping; do they smile. In the unfortunate event of both their parents exiting from the world stage left, I feel a degree of confidence in believing that they could unravel the mysteries of their earliest days without us. They could see my posts on Facebook, that marked special occasions or lamented days from hell. They could scroll through a litany of photos, from the day they exited the womb to the present, and could notice how they changed as each day passed. And they could read my words; the blog I have kept and my other writing, if they wanted to piece together how life looked at a time when their eyes saw the world but could not yet register the memories.

Like many people who have lost their parents or who are estranged from them, I don’t have that ability. I have a handful of photos; some dusty paperwork and the memories of moments to which my mind clings. But I don’t have the narrative – the shared narrative of family life in the trenches. I don’t have anyone to drink a beer with and say, “I can’t believe you got an Emjoi Gently for Christmas! Way to give a 15-year-old a complex; what were they thinking?” (Side note: Emjoi Gently was NOT gentle). I don’t have anyone to give me new information, to offer insight into the photos – when I am riding a bike for the first time, did I fall off? Did I cry? Was I scared to get back on? Was I scarred by experience before I even knew what a scar was? And what about my parents; was I always hopelessly anxious around them, desperate for attention but resentful of it when it arrived in a less-than-pretty package? Was I constantly clamouring to be noticed, to be appreciated, was this always in me or did I develop it after years of their apathy? Why did I carry the constant anxiety with me; the stomach-heavy sense of dread that things were going to get much, much worse – was this something you noticed when I was young or was it just considered a lovable quirk of the precocious yet neurotic child?

My birth record says that on my 1st birthday, by which time I had spent almost 11 months in my grandparents’ care, I weighed 11450 grams. At the same age, my eldest son weighed over 12 kilograms; my younger son today weighs over 11.1kg. These are all numbers; they don’t really matter, but yet they do. I want to ask my Nanny if her maternal health nurse was nice; did she offer help to the kind grandmother who had stepped up to aid her irresponsible son? Did Nanny go to these appointments on her own, and if so, how did she get there when she couldn’t drive? Did she have to take a huge pram on a bus and lumber her way across the flat expanse of suburban Canberra to get there? Or did my grandfather come along – or was he the one who took me while Nanny went to work?

Nanny, was I as fussy over food as my now-three-and-a-half-year old was? Or was I happily shoving everything in my mouth like my little N? Did I sleep well, and often, or did I struggle to shut down like both my boys do? Did you balance me on one hip while unloading groceries (you said once that you used to count as you removed oranges from your netted grocery bag, helping me to learn numbers) and curse the pain in your back? Did you rock me until I slept on your chest, wondering if your arms would ever be free again?

baby3

There is a note in my records; it says I had colic. A colicky baby is difficult to settle and can easily fray one’s nerves. Were your nerves frayed, Nanny? Were you at your wit’s end, calling my grandfather at work, and begging him to come home early just as I have done to my beloved D? Were you wondering what in God’s name possessed you to sign up for this job, had you forgotten how hard it can be to raise a baby, much less one that wasn’t your own, who you hadn’t planned for and who you didn’t even know if you would end up keeping? Nanny, did you struggle too? Were there days that you didn’t want to be around me? Days that my crying was too fierce, too loud, my neediness too constant? Did you ever lash out at me, Nanny, only to feel immediately consumed with guilt and shame? Or were the moments always as joyful as this one?

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I miss you, Nanny, I miss you with an ache that winds me and that I stifle every single day. And I miss you, Gran, in a way my brain is yet to fully realise. I miss asking you both questions. And there are so many questions I wish I knew the answers to, and the trouble is, when I had the chance to ask both of you, I didn’t even know I wanted to.

I hate giving unsolicited advice; far be it for me to think I am the repository of knowledge for anything, much less parenting. But I feel compelled to say this. For those of you with mothers/fathers who are still in your lives, please ask these questions now. Even if you haven’t had children yet or aren’t even planning to have kids, find out these answers, learn what you were like as a baby; as a child. What your interests were; what your quirks were, did you roll everywhere like my N does, or did you crawl backwards like my J? I don’t know when I started to walk because I have no one to ask. The truth is, you are likely to outlive your parents. Find out as much as you can from them now, before the chance is taken away.

And to my two little boys, who give me more joy than I ever knew possible, thank you for joining our family and for being a companion to each other on this journey through life. Even if your mum and dad can’t give you the answers one day, I have faith that you can help each other to fill in the blanks.

And to my baby N, happiest of birthdays, my littlest love. Today at your 12 month checkup, the maternal health nurse said that you are thriving.

bub

But I already knew that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thursday Throwback #9 – Write on

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I was speaking to a dear friend of mine today, who is also a writer, about whether the act of writing is one pursued with the fundamental purpose being to tell a story. Do we write because some of us have this insatiable urge to share a tale, be it truth or fiction, in the written form? And if so, do you choose to write or does writing choose you?

When I was a child, being a writer when I grew up was not an option – people grow up to become doctors, teachers, lawyers. But a writer? A writer of what? And although I eventually “became” a lawyer, looking back I know I did it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to make my grandparents proud of me, and I knew a law degree was a sure-fire way of achieving that. Also, I wanted a little sense of superiority over those who had written me off when I was a teenager. Too stupid to make anything of myself, hey? Well, now who’s laughing in billable six-minute increments? The other appealing part of the law career was that in my mind, it let me use the only two skills I had – speaking and writing – which I reasoned could be combined in such a way so as to make me squillions of dollars. I had watched LA Law; I knew those legal eagles were on easy street. Sure they had alcohol dependence issues and significant relationship dramas, but look at those offices! And a secretary! Where was my goddamn secretary?

Of course the truth of my legal career is so very different to the one I had envisioned – yes, I had a secretary, but she was probably getting paid more than I was. And yes, for awhile I had an office with a river view, but all this did was distract me from the task of looking at things on my desk by giving me things to look at out the window. I simply wasn’t ambitious enough to want to schmooze clients and take files home on weekends, and although I enjoyed my stint in criminal defence, I grew tired of wondering if crimes I saw on the news at dinner would be on my desk to deal with after breakfast the next day.

The disturbing truth about all of my professional career is that it has always been punctuated with a need to write. I had a (now defunct) blog, I carried a notebook around with me anywhere I thought I might need to jot down memories of a moment in time, and for years longed to have the chance to just dedicate my time to simply writing. Even as a child my compulsive need to keep diaries each and every year of my schooling was founded on this long-held belief that writing was just something I needed to do. Like brushing my teeth before bed, I felt the same urge to – often semi-consciously – scrawl “Went to school. Bludged. Had Indian for dinner. Was good” for no other reason than to document my day. It was my way of saying “this is another day I lived in the world, and this is what happened.”

As I was an only child, I often relied upon my own strengths and abilities to entertain myself when I was young. Writing thus played a huge part in my childhood, giving me something to do for which I needed no companion. My grandparents were not really into playing “with” me, which looking back probably helped me develop a number of skills. For example, the ability to amuse myself at the expense of others.

Given my fondness for writing, and my even greater fondness for laughing at my grandparents’ mishaps, on a whim one day when I was 11-years-old, I decided to draft them a letter. I even typed out our address for the envelope and placed it in our mailbox, wishing that time would go faster and that my grandparents would make one of their frequent trips to the mailbox to see if the postie’s been.

And then finally, after hours of waiting, I watched gleefully as my grandparents read the following:

Dear Mr and Mrs X,

I’m sure that you are aware of the terrible droughts in Africa and all of the people desperate for water. We have been pondering on this situation for months and have reached a conclusion. Due to these dreadful circumstances, we have decided to donate water to the victims. Unfortunately, we need to stop some people receiving water in order to give water. From Wednesday, 29 September, to Friday, 1 August 1993 all water supplies to Redland Shire residents shall terminate. Because we all need water for drinking two litre bottles of water can be purchased at the Community Hall for three dollars each. Since everybody needs to keep their personal hygien in tact, showers will be available for seven dollars for five minutes also at the Community Hall.

We hope that this will not effect you alot.

Yours Sincerely,
R.M. Wheately, Executive in Charge

Ignoring the fact that I confused August with October and some significant grammatical errors, I considered this letter to be perfect. How hilarious! I thought to myself. How I will laugh when my grandparents show up at the local hall – Nanny with her shower cap and my grandfather with his can of Brut 33. Unfortunately it did not take very long for my grandparents to realise the letter wasn’t legit. For a start, I hadn’t used letterhead. Secondly, I didn’t know what an Executive in Charge was, but I thought if anyone had this as a job title, it would be someone from the local Council.

But what finally gave the game away, was me. All the drama lessons in the world couldn’t help me to keep a poker face when I wanted to laugh. And so, just as my grandparents were shaking their heads and trying to figure out what on earth would possess someone to stick this oddity of a letter in their mail box, I started to giggle. Which became a laugh. Which became a confession.

My grandparents weren’t angry at me – they thought the whole incident was fairly amusing. They just had one question – why? Why would anyone do this?

At the time, I didn’t have an answer, but more than 20 years later, I now do.
I did it because I wanted to write.

And I still do.

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It’s my birthday and I’ll whinge if I want to

It’s been a week since I was hung out to dry by an entity claiming to promote women’s interests, but I weathered the storm and managed to steer myself away from the masochistic urge to read all the criticisms of my character. But I did read a few, and even though I have a fairly thick skin, one word stood out to me as the most cutting of them all.

Whinger.

Argh! How I hate this term! It was the phrase dolled out by high school boys when I asked told them to stop trying to lift up my already dangerously short skirt. Have a whinge! They’d retort, as though my complaint of their behaviour outweighed the very behaviour in which they were engaging. My father, always minimising the distress he caused would often lament how women whinged. His ex-girlfriend, his sister, and his daughter – all whingers of the highest order. My ex-boyfriend ironically use to whinge about my whinging. For example, my statement of “gee it’s pretty hot today,” was considered by him to be whinging. But where’s the line? When does an observation become whinging? Clearly, I have no idea.

As I have discussed in earlier posts, my writing is about me, for me. And I think the reason that being called a whinger bothered me is because I KNOW I AM WHINGING WHEN I WRITE. That’s the whole bloody point! I rarely whinge to people who know me in real life because quite frankly, whinging annoys me. This is why I have this outlet – so that I don’t actually ever have to say any of this stuff! These words are the way I make sense of things and figure out my point of view, and with each keystroke I come a little bit closer to understanding my own flaws (and those of the people around me).

With that in mind, over the past few days I have noticed myself to be a little anxious and unsettled, and I knew it wasn’t solely because of the events of the previous week, nor due to the staggeringly tiny amount of sleep I have been getting care of my smallest man. It was something more, but try as I might to figure out what was causing this heavy unease in my stomach, I could not put my finger on a reason.

Then a few days ago I got a text from one of my friends – she was excited because it was nearly my birthday.

A-ha! Bingo! It’s my freakin birthday.

I don’t consider myself the spokesperson for unwanted children of the world, but in my experience, a birthday is the anniversary of the date in time where my parents’ mistake became undoable. The accident that was my conception had materialised in a very real and scary way. I was now in the world. Someone would have to look after me. Not the people who made me. Someone else.

When my birthday rolls around I find myself imagining what that day, and the days before and after my arrival were like. Did my mother have anyone in the room with her when she pushed me out? I know nothing about my birth, except that I needed forceps to be removed, such was my reluctance to face the world. As I was born to a mother who didn’t want to keep me, was my slippery, squirmy little body held at all? Or was I just popped into a bassinet and wheeled into the nursery in the hope that a nurse would come along and cradle me in her arms? Was I in hospital for long, or was I put into foster care immediately – and how did I get there? What about my mother – did she call people to tell them I had been born? Or was her labour just thought of as an interruption to the public holiday the day before?

Regardless of what happened on that day, over the course of my childhood, my parents usually called me to wish me happy birthday. My mother was more reliable in this regard, phoning late of an evening when the London time zone allowed, checking to see if her gift had arrived in the mail. These gifts were thoughtful, and would have no doubt been perfect for a little girl who was nothing like me. Boxes arrived on my doorstep wrapped in brown paper covered in stamps, concealing clothes that were too feminine for my tomboy tastes, or – on one eerie occasion – the exact same board game as my father had given me for Christmas. And just as a side note: Board games are the enemy of only children. Who the hell are we supposed to play with? I won Pictionary Junior so many freaking times I eventually just stopped trying to beat myself.

And my father – well, he was often “busy”, so my grandparents were forced to suggest we can just call him! He usually gave me money, which my grandfather placed in a card and signed on his behalf. I should mention that in an uncharacteristic display of involvement, my father actually came to Wet n Wild waterpark with me for my birthday when I turned 8 years old. I think this was at my grandparents’ behest, mainly because they were so sick of me begging to go even though –
a) my Nanny couldn’t swim;
b) my grandfather refused to go on any rides with me; and
c) I wouldn’t be seen dead in public with either of them wearing their bathers.

Post Wet n Wild adventure. Note that my father has already sourced alcohol to help dull the sound of his child singing Happy Birthday to herself.
Post Wet n Wild adventure. Note that my father has already sourced alcohol to help dull the sound of his child singing Happy Birthday to herself.

My grandparents tried very hard to make my birthday special for me, but they need not have bothered. Because the day always caused the same sense of unease that sits with me as I type this, when I was a child I did what any neurotic loser would do and completely overcompensated for my anxiety with hysteria. My birthday would not be celebrated; my birth MONTH would become a festival for the sole purpose of giving me attention. I placed little handmade signs up around the house notifying my grandparents that it was “only X days until my birthday!” changing them every day to denote the ever-looming deadline. I helped my grandparents hang up my personalised HAPPY BIRTHDAY SARAH foil banner that deteriorated at the edges with each annual use. I chose the restaurant we would dine at for my birthday dinner; gleefully chatting with my grandfather about what meals we would order on the night. And if I was having a party during the day, I would request matching plastic bowls and plates for my guests to eat the ice cream cake I had also demanded.

Nanny may not have made the cake, but she was responsible for the awesome chocolate crackles on the table.
Nanny may not have made the cake, but she was responsible for the awesome chocolate crackles on the table.

Then, without fail, the night before the day I had seemingly looked forward to with such excitement and joy, I would fall apart. Nanny would come into my room and find me crying in bed, where I would whinge about disclose a raft of issues included but not limited to:

  • I don’t want to get older (because)
  • I don’t want you to get older (because)
  • I don’t want you to die!

When I awoke the next day, eyes still puffy and bloodshot from the meltdown of the evening before, I would be presented with a card from my grandparents, often of the musical variety, which played Happy Birthday to You upon opening. Written in my Nanny’s beautiful cursive script, it would say “To our Sare Sare” or “Dear Little Pet” and would make me forget anything was wrong.
I am special to them I told myself. Today, I am going to try to feel special instead of feeling like a mistake.

Nanny hasn’t been able to write cards like that to me for almost ten years, as her dementia and subsequent passing robbed me of those sweet little moments. But I know if she were here, Nanny would want me to have a nice day. She would insist that I go out for a special lunch at a fancy restaurant. She would want me to wear a piece of her jewellery. She would tell me I am special, and she would ask me to remember that she loves me. So that’s what I am going to do tomorrow. And I will do all of those things with a couple of handsome men in tow. Nanny would most certainly approve of that.

And as for the mysteries about my parents’ feelings towards this date, I have accepted that I don’t have answers to my questions, and I doubt I ever will. But despite the logic of knowing this, there is still part of me that is searching for clarity and wondering if my parents think about this date as I do. Do they glance at their calendars and furrow their brows, trying to work out why that date seems so familiar? Or does an absence of celebrating this day mean that it stopped being familiar many years ago? This is one day of the year that is burdensome in its legacy – reminding me that my first taste of the world was the act of being rejected. And while I have made peace with it, the discomfort remains.

You can call it whinging if you like.
I call it being human.

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You better not shout, you better not cry.

There are three times in my life when I can recall being completely deceived by my grandparents.

The first time was when we had just moved to Cleveland. My grandfather went on an early morning drive of the area and returned home to announce his delight at the discovery of a misspelled suburb street sign. Apparently, the sign saying CLEVELAND had been mistyped with an errant R added, meaning it now actually said CLEVERLAND. My grandfather found this hilarious, and thought it a good omen of our decision to relocate to an area known only for strawberry fields and the muddying of a governor. How Nanny and I laughed at this typo, joyfully exclaiming our collective surprise at such a funny mistake. Although I was only seven years old, I knew how to laugh like the grown-ups; head tilted back and mouth ajar, flicking my hand with the occasional Oh, my! thrown in for authenticity.

When we went for a drive a few weeks later, I insisted my grandfather show me this sign he had found. He explained many times that he couldn’t remember where he had seen it; that it was lost to the ages and that we didn’t have time to hunt for it. I refused to relent. Eventually my grandfather confessed he had made the whole story up – that it was just a joke which I had obviously taken too seriously. There was no discovery, no misspelling, no sign. It was a lie.
It was just a fib! he retorted indignantly.
Not to me – to me, it was a lie.

The second time involved the death of my uncle. After receiving a late night phone call, my grandfather announced that Uncle Rob had passed away. My aunty had found his body in the garage of their home.
The cause of death? Food poisoning.

Looking back, this should have raised my eight-year-old eyebrows. At the very least, I should have asked what kind of food was ingested to cause a fatality. But as a child, I believed blindly whatever my grandparents told me, so a random death via questionable food consumption was taken as gospel. Only it was another lie.

My uncle didn’t die from eating a dodgy oyster or some undercooked chicken. He died from gassing himself in his car. Suicide – not food poisoning – caused his passing. I would not learn the truth surrounding his death for a few years, and only then because a slip-of-the-tongue by my grandfather who unexpectedly stated Well yes, depression is a bastard of a thing. Just look what happened to poor Uncle Rob. Of course this caused me considerable confusion. When I started screaming angrily Do you have any idea how careful I have been with food? my grandparents eventually lied again, by saying they thought I had always known the truth.

But the third lie – the one that caused me the most damage – was the seemingly innocuous tale of Santa Claus.

As a young child pre-TD (truth discovery), Christmas was a time of wonder and excitement. Like every child, I would leave treats out for Santa (Errr, Santa might like beer on such a hot night, my grandfather suggested as I poured a glass of milk), usually some of my Nanny’s fruit cake. In the morning I would gaze at the crumbs on the plate with wonder. He had been! There was proof – tiny little specks of cake were all that remained from his visit. And more proof – the reindeer! There were clear bite marks on the carrots I left out. The tale of Santa was real, and I was good, and I was being rewarded with a big sack of presents.

Of course the problem with this tiny little lie was that it morphed into something quite unexpected. Because I was so desperate for something – anything – to help me navigate the minefield of being a neurotic child, I started writing to Santa in an attempt to get him to be my friend. I wasn’t religious, but given that this was a bloke who knew when I was sleeping and knew when I was awake, I had faith in him, and I wanted him to have faith in me. I figured he might like to be friends – I could help him watch over children, judging good from bad, and maybe (when he felt comfortable with it, of course) he could take me to the North Pole to meet Mrs Claus and the elves. I could assist with toy inventory or gift wrapping. And, Santa – I am a great public speaker, perhaps I could assist team morale with a few encouraging festive pep-talks?

But I didn’t stop there. If Santa and I could be friends, then why not the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as well? Surely they all hang out together? I started to leave out letters for all three of them, gently suggesting without coming on too strong, that we could all be friends and I wouldn’t tell a soul. It would be our secret. An elite, safe little group where I was a valued member. How could they not want to be a part of this?

After months of waking to find my notes in exactly the same place that I left them, I started to lose hope. Maybe I wasn’t good? Maybe some other kid beat me to it by offering themselves out for friendship? Or maybe – maybe – they weren’t real at all.

I decided to ask my source of truth for all things – Nanny – whether the three mystical reward amigos were, in fact, real.
Of course they are! she replied. If you believe in them, they are real.
You promise? I asked.
I promise, she said.

That settled it. I believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, therefore they were all real, and one day, my letters to them would be taken by one of their assistants, and I would be allowed to be part of the cool secret magic group.

A few weeks later, I woke to found my letters gone. Gone! So they had been collected by some magical creature of the night! I knew the time would come where I would belong somewhere safe and powerful. And it was going to happen soon – why else would they have taken my letters? Good things were going to happen to me; I just knew it.

By the time I was nine years old, kids at school were already laughing hysterically whenever anyone mentioned their belief in Santa and his cronies. I however refused to be mocked, retorting that My nanny never lies and she told me they were real. Plus, they took my letters!

Oh, how the other kids laughed, doubled over, clutching their stomachs and shaking their heads at me. You wrote to them? one boy asked, his eyes squinting as a mop of untamed fringe skirted his eyebrows. But I didn’t care what they thought; if anything it just strengthened my resolve. Nanny didn’t lie, and she said they were real. End of story.

Of course, it wasn’t the end of the story. The end of the story came about a year later when I was putting away my Nanny’s folded hankies in a drawer of her dressing table. I opened the wrong drawer, and instead of folded pastel linen triangles, I saw something else.
The letters. All of them. Nanny had taken them from me. This meant that Santa wasn’t real, the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, and the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. None of it was real. Except the lie, of course. That part was very real.

Naturally, upon this discovery I descended into a blubbering heap for which hospitalisation would not have been unwarranted. You lied to me, you lied! I screamed, as my exasperated grandparents tried to placate me with less than comforting words such as It’s for kiddies, Sare. You’re a big girl now.
But you lied to me! I cried, You said you’d never lie!

It may seem excessive, but from that moment, I simply no longer trusted anyone. My faith in adults had already been ripped to shreds because of my parents’ caper, so this was really the final straw. If my grandparents – the people who claimed to love me, to want what was best for me, and who looked after me when my own parents bailed – couldn’t be trusted to tell me the truth, then no one could. Plus, my grandparents had taught me that lying was wrong! When I got busted lying about my age at my ballet class in order to get a teacher who offered lollies as part of class rewards, I got in trouble. So why was this lie okay? Their lie was much bigger and it seemed like the whole world was in on the joke.

I couldn’t undo the lies my grandparents told me, but I could ensure I never repeated them. So I vowed to never, ever lie to my children this way.
Never.

***

More than 20 years after my discovery of the truth about Santa, I am faced with his lingering presence again. My son J knows all about him, mainly thanks to child care and my mother-in-law. He knows there is a bloke in red who brings presents, and he has had his photo taken sitting on the old dude’s lap. I am not anti-Santa to the point of fanaticism, so we can read stories about the myth of Santa, and learn about the historical basis of Saint Nick and his charitable endeavours. We can sing Christmas carols and do all the festive bullshit that I once adored, only to learn that it was part of a giant fallacy perpetrated by adults against kids. I have even extended myself to the point of saying that some people believe in Santa and I have given J and his brother a small stocking each, in which i will place a few small and inexpensive items. But I won’t be getting out carrots for reindeer, and I won’t be pouring glasses of milk for Santa. And I sure as shit won’t be filling giant sacks full of expensive gifts, because i would hate for my child to be the one in the playground telling everyone how Santa brought him an iPad, while some poor child tries to rationalise why – when she was so good – she only got a colouring book.

But that’s it. If I am ever asked the truth, I won’t lie. And I don’t know why I would ever need to.

J – like most children – is already waking on Christmas Day to far too many gifts under the tree; gifts given by people without accompanying mythical tales but whom are no less special. He will also get to spend the day surrounded by people who love him, and he will be plied to the brim with sweet treats by family members who don’t understand the phrase I think he has had enough. If the weather is warm, he will get to risk back injury by gleefully hurtling himself down his cousins’ Slip n Slide. And he will get to give almost as many presents as he will receive, which really is the point of Christmas after all.

We won’t be feeding Santa and his reindeer this Christmas Eve. But we won’t be feeding our boys bullshit either.

Merry Christmas xo

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Days in September – Part Two

It is the night before my first day of holidays with my mother. I cannot sleep, and I don’t want to. Sleeping makes the time pass quicker, meaning that before I know it, the morning will be here, bringing with it everything I have tried to avoid for the past twelve months.

I am being taken away from my grandparents.
I don’t know where I am going, or when I will be brought back.
There is no escape.
You’re going.

Day one is a sunny, clear September day. When my grandad comes into my room to open the curtains as he does every morning, he sings to himself Oh what a beautiful morning! almost sarcastically. While I find clothes to wear and pack my black Benetton shoulder bag, my grandad makes me breakfast – a plate of fruit. I stomach a few pieces of apple. I am not hungry. I feel sick.

It is warm today. I choose to wear a blue cotton sleeveless playsuit with little white checks on it and tiny pink flowers. On Nanny’s instructions, I pack a cardigan as well. Have you got your puffer? Nanny asks, referring to my Ventolin. I do. I also have a towel, a phone card, sunscreen and my wallet. In my wallet I have two $50 notes that my grandad has given me in case of an emergency.

But what if I can’t tell what is an emergency? It feels like an emergency now.

I overhear Nanny telling my grandad that she doesn’t want her in the house. My grandad says that he will wait with me in the lounge room until she arrives; we will hear her car when it pulls up and I can meet her outside. Nanny is upset, but trying hard not to show it. She tells me she is going to her bedroom to have a lie down, and read her book. What she really means is she is going to the room farthest from the lounge room, because she cannot bear to see or hear me in distress if I start to cry. Don’t worry, love – we’re not going to have a repeat of Canberra, my grandad says to Nanny, reassuring her as he shuts their bedroom door.

Canberra. The place where I first lived with my Grandparents. The place where I first met my mother; where she first took me “out” for the day.
The place where my grandfather carried me over his shoulder to my mother’s car, while I flailed my limbs and begged him with my four-year-old vocabulary please let me stay.

Now, some seven years later, history is repeating. I don’t want to go anywhere with my mother, but I have to. There will be no kicking and screaming.
There is no point.

My mother is due to arrive at 9am. To pass the time and to ease my nauseating anxiety, my grandad and I play “balloon”. Balloon involves hitting an inflated balloon back and forth to each other, and counting how many times you can do so without the balloon touching the floor. I am good at balloon. Balloon is fun.

My grandad and I don’t hear my mother’s car arrive, as we are too busy counting as part of our balloon rally. But through our venetian blinds, I see shadows form as the figure of a slim woman walks briskly to our front door. The doorbell rings.
This is it.
Please let me stay.

I give my grandad and kiss and a cuddle goodbye. I am pleasant to my mother and say good morning, although I cannot make eye contact. I try not to flinch as she awkwardly kisses my cheek; instead I close my eyes and wait for her to pull away. I walk to her rental car, which is parked on the road in front of my house  – the house to which I am unsure if I’ll ever be returned. I sit in the front passenger seat and clutch my Benetton bag on my lap.

You can put that in the boot if you like? my mother says.

It’s okay, I say. I know I need my bag nearby. I need to be able to grab that money and run.
In case of an emergency.

****

We drive for 45 minutes. I don’t remember what we talk about. I soon learn that we are going to Seaworld. I have been to Seaworld before; once, when I was nine years old. I went as part of a school excursion when we were learning about marine life. In a poor exercise of judgment, my teacher allowed about 12 year four students to ride the Pirate Ship. We all stupidly listened to the loudest girl in the class who told us that it was “best” to sit at the very ends of the ship, for maximum swinging effect.

pirate ship

When the ride started, we all soon realised we had all made a mistake. We weren’t supposed to be on this ride. It was too big, too fast, too scary. As momentum increased, our little bodies lurched back and forth, shunting against the metal bar that harnessed us to our seats. The ride wasn’t just scary; it hurt. We wanted to get off.

There were tears and screams from everyone on that day, including our teacher who clearly recognised the error of her ways moments too late. And despite our pleas to the operator to STOP THE RIDE! there was no reprieve. We just had to tough it out, close our eyes, and wait until the ride was over.

I am not going to ask to go on the Pirate Ship ride today. I have already survived it. Instead, I will focus on surviving this holiday.
And then, I will never think about my mother again.

****

My mother and I arrive at Seaworld and the first ride we go on in the flume ride. When I went on the flume ride when I was on my excursion, it was scary, but fun scary. I sat at the front, with three of my schoolmates behind me, and I got saturated as the boat nosedived into the water.

flume ride

This time, I am sharing the flume ride with my mother, and a Japanese couple. Once again, I sit in the front. My mother climbs in behind me. As we approach the summit of the ride, my mother sees for the first time just how steep the drop is. She says to me Don’t worry – Mummy’s here. You’ll be okay! and wraps her arms around me.

As we plummet to the water, I am not frightened of the ride at all. I am confused by what was just said to me. It should have been reassuring; comforting. It wasn’t.
My mother’s words mean nothing to me.
I know I am getting through this on my own. That’s how I am going to be okay.

Throughout the course of the day, I see lots of marine life, and go on a few more rides. I am not palpably scared anymore; I just want to go home. I ask to go to the gift shop before we leave, because I want to buy Nanny a souvenir teaspoon to add to her collection. I want Nanny to know I am thinking of her, even when I am not with her.
I also want my mother to know this.

My mother drops me at the front of my house around 4.30pm. I go inside and hug my grandparents. I give Nanny her new teaspoon; it has a dolphin on it. Nanny loves it.

****

Day two. Yet again, my grandad and I pass the time before 9am playing balloon in the loungeroom. As she did the day before, Nanny stays in her bedroom. And I still have $100 in my wallet for the emergency situation that I am constantly on guard for. As I see my mother approaching my front door again, I wonder if that day will be today.

It is an overcast day today; it looks like it will rain. To avoid the elements, my mother takes me to Carindale shopping centre, a 20 minute drive away and the location of the closest cinema. We eat lunch in the food court, and I save half of my spinach and feta filo triangle for my grandad. I wrap it carefully in my serviette and place it in my bag. I will give it to my grandad when I get home. I feel bad about not getting him anything from Seaworld yesterday.

My mother takes me to see the movie Coneheads. I feel sorry for the Coneheads – stuck on a planet where they don’t belong and desperately trying to fit in despite being so unlike those who surround them. But I enjoy the movie because it gives me a whole two hours of not having to make small talk with my mother. I decide to suggest another trip to the cinema for one of our future outings.

That afternoon, we go to the Plaster Fun House. I paint a frog which I intend to bring home to Nanny. I know I am rubbing my loyalty to my grandparents in my mother’s face, but I can’t help it. It feels disloyal not to show her how much they mean to me, so I find myself looking for every opportunity to illustrate to my mother who has primary importance in my life. I want her to know that it’s not her.

While we are painting, my mother mentions Norman. Did I want to meet Norman? He has come out to Australia with my mother and would love to meet me.
My mind races. Who the hell is Norman?

Then it dawns on me; I have heard his name before. The phone conversation from a few months ago; the weird one where my mother was slurring her words and didn’t make sense. When she said Norman was her better half and I didn’t know what that meant.

That Norman.
Did Mummy tell you that she and Norman eloped? We got married on the sand in the Seychelles; a tiny island off Africa. And mummy wore no shoes!
I hate how my mother refers to herself in third person, as though she is trying to remind me that the word mummy has some significance. It doesn’t.
So, would you like to meet him? my mother asks.
Maybe
I say.
As with most discussions about my feelings that I have with my mother, I am lying.

diaryA 2

****

Day seven. I have survived a week of this holiday. I have not enjoyed any of these outings, and my commitment to putting on a brave face has wavered. I am polite to my mother, but quiet. I am not quite me around her, because I just want this to be over and I am sick of pretending that I am enjoying myself. Plus, my mother’s initial enthusiasm at spending time with me has clearly disintegrated. Despite originally claiming she wanted to see me as much as possible, she has now given me a few days “off”. She says things to me like You know what? You can have the day off tomorrow and just stay at home!
I think she knows that spending time with her feels like work for me.
Or maybe it’s because spending time with me feels like work for her.

diaryC

I have now met Norman, my stepfather. He came with us to Wet and Wild. He tries to make conversation occasionally but is largely mute. He has a big head and floppy dark hair. He looks a bit like a frog.

My mother collects me from my house at 9am again, as has been the usual arrangement. This time I don’t get to sit in the front passenger seat, as Norman is already sitting there. He is wearing a loose cotton collared shirt that is bright red and hurts my eyes. I sit behind my mother who drives the car to the Gold Coast.
We’re going to the beach, she announces.

I don’t want to go to the beach. For a start, I don’t have my togs. I explain my wardrobe issues to my mother, hoping for a reprieve.
That’s okay, she says curtly, we can buy you some new swimmers.

The idea of standing semi-naked in front of both Norman and my mother, while I parade my awkward, 11-year-old body under fluorescent shop lighting is more than I can deal with.  I decide to take a different approach to getting out of this situation, by lying.
I have a cold, so I probably shouldn’t go into the water.
My mother smirks at me in the rear view mirror.
Well, you’re going to be very bored at the beach then, aren’t you? she says.

****

We arrive at the apartment my mother and Norman have rented for their visit. It is opposite the beach and their balcony has panoramic view of the ocean. The cool breeze blows in and the loungeroom curtains flap wildly. Even if I’d had my togs, I wouldn’t want to swim. It’s too cold.

My mother leaves the door open to her bedroom and changes into an orange bikini, rushing past me as she looks for her sunglasses. Once she has returned to the safety of their bedroom, Norman follows her in, leaving me standing uncomfortably alone in the lounge room, surrounded by wicker furniture with beach-themed upholstery.

My mother and Norman talk to each other in their bedroom as though I am not here. Am I supposed to follow them in there? Or do I just stand here and wait for them to come back? Before long, my mother and Norman are whispering. I know they are talking about me. I don’t know if I care or not.

We leave the apartment and walk up to Cavill Avenue where we find a café for brunch. My grandparents don’t eat brunch. Every morning they eat fruit and cereal for breakfast by 7am. Then they eat morning tea around 10am – a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits. Then for lunch they each have a sandwich (Nanny cuts the crusts off hers). It’s almost always the same and I like it; it’s predictable.
I don’t know what brunch is. I have never eaten brunch in my life.

My mother and Norman order bacon and eggs for their brunch. I don’t want to eat because my nerves make me feel sick, so I just have a strawberry milkshake. My mother has insisted we sit outside to enjoy the beautiful weather; I of course find this logic absurd. The wind is whipping off the beach with such ferocity that I take my towel out of my bag and wrap it around my head and shoulders for warmth. My mother says You look like a little grommet.
I don’t know what a grommet is. It doesn’t sound very nice.

After brunch we cross the road and my mother finds a spot on the beach and rests her rattan beach bag in the sand. She and Norman roll out their towels and take up position, eagerly disrobing in order to lap up the sun. I unfurl my navy blue towel with Sarah embroidered on it, a Christmas gift from my grandparents. I sit on my towel but keep my jumper on. Even though the sun is warm, the wind chills my face and I bury my head into my arms.

My mother doesn’t bother with sunscreen. Her body is slim, athletic, and covered in freckles. Her stomach is flat and her limbs are lean. She lies down on her towel, and pulls a paperback novel from her bag. Norman tells us he is going for a swim, and heads towards the ocean. I sit in silence and run my fingers through the sand. I feel like I am in trouble. I just want to go home.

My mother eventually asks me what I am doing.
Drawing in the sand, I reply.
What are you drawing? she asks.
Nothing. I say. I am just a bit bored.
I don’t look to see my mother’s reaction to my comment. Instead, I just hear her say Well, you obviously don’t have a very good imagination now, do you?

Later, my mother takes a turn going for a swim, leaving me on the beach with Norman. Luckily for Norman, he has also brought a paperback so is able to disappear into another world, almost forgetting that his new wife’s illegitimate child is mere centimetres away from him. My mother eventually returns from the surf, beads of seawater glistening on her torso, joyfully reporting that the water is beautiful and that I have really missed out. I don’t care. I just want to get home and change out of my sandy clothes. I am sick of being friendly and polite. I am silent for the rest of the day, speaking only when spoken to. I’m not making any more chit-chat.

On the drive home, we travel in silence. Norman and my mother make occasional small talk. I may as well not even be there. Then, about ten minutes away from my house, my mother speaks to me.

You know, Sarah, I’ve decided I don’t want to see you tomorrow. You can spend the day at home.

That’s fine with me I say, barely suppressing a smile. I want to fist pump the sky, but I don’t. I just stare out the window and wait for the familiar streets of my suburb to appear before my eyes.

****

Day nine. I wake up knowing today will be a bad day; my stomach feels sicker than normal. The hostility from two days ago can’t have disappeared, and even though I had the day “off” yesterday, the animosity from our visit to the beach is the back of my mind.
I feel like I will pay for my rudeness today.

My mother barely acknowledges me when she arrives to collect me in the morning. Her good morning is robotic; irritated. I walk dutifully to her car, and once again sit in the back as Norman is in the front passenger seat. I clutch my bag on my lap. In case of an emergency I think to myself.

It starts immediately. As soon as my mother has shut the door.
I hope you’re in a better mood today she snaps. I am silent.
She repeats herself. Norman says Sarah, your mother is speaking to you.
I want to punch Norman in his fat frog head. I respond with a non-committal Yep.

My mother angle parks in the main street of Cleveland, and tells me that she and Norman want to get coffee. I am annoyed. I am so sick of travelling blindly with these people. I never know in advance where I am going; I am just expected to adapt to whatever whim they desire. And although I’ve lived in Cleveland for the past five years, I have never been in the café to which they’re taking me. I sit at a table with my mother on my right, and Norman opposite me. Norman and my mother order coffees. I ask for an orange juice.

My mother starts up again.
Why are you so angry? Why are you so against seeing Mummy all of a sudden? I hope you realise that you are you being very ungrateful.

I tell myself to ignore it. Don’t bite.

I know that they’re telling you what to say to me – you don’t have to do what your grandparents say, you know. My mother is trying to reach out to me; to win me over. But I am not going to make eye contact with her. I just look straight ahead.

I can tell my mother is getting frustrated. She raises her voice.
Just tell me what they’re saying to you! What are they telling you to do? Are you just going to sit there in silence all day? We can wait all day if we have to!

I finally say They’re not saying anything, spitting on my mother as the words fire out of my mouth.
My mother says Keep your voice down. I notice that Norman has turned his chair away from the table. He looks more uncomfortable than I am.

I try to calm myself, even though I can feel my heart pounding through my shirt. I explain again to my mother that no one has told me to say anything, but I know it is pointless. She doesn’t believe me. I can tell from the way she rolls her eyes and laughs at me while shaking her head.

Then my mother says What have your grandparents told you to say? Have they been saying bad things about Mummy? I know they have!

I want to stay silent, but I can’t hold it in anymore. I have been so passive for so long, and kept my thoughts to myself when inside my head I was screaming JUST LEAVE ME ALONE. And when the accusations were against me, it was tolerable. But now my mother is insinuating that my grandparents have done something wrong, when they haven’t. And I can’t let her speak about them that way – not the people who have loved me, who have tucked me in at night and who have cuddled me every morning. The people who have raised me while she has been on the other side of the world.
Not them.

IMG_5155

I am so angry I can barely speak, so I struggle to shout that No one has said anything bad about you! My voice quivers. I start to cry.

My mother either doesn’t notice my tears, or doesn’t care. She continues, saying Well it must be your father then, what has he been saying?
My mother has waited months for this. I know she isn’t going to stop, even if I am in tears. Even if we are in public.

People are looking at us; the scene we are making. There’s Norman playing the part of the disinterested husband, idly staring in the distance, looking away from the spectacle in front of him. Then there’s my mother, frustrated and furious, demanding answers from her insolent, disobedient child. It is a standard family moment.
But it’s not.

The coffees and orange juice arrive. I wish the waiter could read my thoughts: Please call my grandparents; I need to go home. He places the drinks on the table and walks away, and it occurs to me that no one is going to come to my rescue because they will think my mother is actually my “mother”. They will think this is a family tiff. That I am being a brat.
That I deserve what I get.

My mother is still ranting at me. I am trying to block out her words. Instead, I take a look at my surroundings.
I know where I am – the suburb, the street. I could walk home if I had to.
I can see a pay phone outside.
Get to the phone.

I decide this is an emergency. I still have the $100 my grandad gave me.
I slowly grab my Benetton bag from the floor. I place it on my lap.
Then, I run.

Norman, stop her! my mother shouts, and just as I am just about to reach the foothpath outside, Norman grabs the collar of my shirt, and drags me back to the table. I am still crying. I try to shake him off, lurching towards the cafe door again, but Norman is too strong for me. I am choking from my shirt cutting in to my neck. I look like a child having a tantrum. I look bad.
I realise that no one is going to help me get home.

When I am returned to the table, I see my mother sipping her coffee. She has regained her composure. She is no longer flustered; agitated. She is eerily calm.

My mother puts down her coffee cup on the table and leans towards me, forcing me to make eye contact with her.
You aren’t going anywhere, she says.

****

My mother gets up from the table and grabs me by my arm. I am dragged to the car, my wrist clutched in my mother’s hand, while Norman trails awkwardly behind after paying for our drinks. My mother instructs Norman to sit in the back of the car. You can sit in the front with me; I’m not finished with you she snarls. Before the car pulls away, I make an attempt to undo my belt and open the passenger door.
Don’t even think about it, my mother says, activating the car’s child-proof locks.
I am literally trapped.
I am terrified.

I don’t know where my mother is taking me. I can’t see properly because I am crying so much that my vision has blurred. I am so annoyed at myself for snapping back at her – I should have just said nothing. Keep the peace; just be polite – that’s what my grandparents told me to do. I didn’t do either of these things. Now I’m going to pay for it.

My mother speeds the rental car along the streets of my suburb, angrily changing gears and shunting us forward in our seats. She continues to rant at me, demanding answers that I can’t provide. Questions about my father. More questions about my grandparents. Questions about me. Norman says nothing. He just sits silently in the seat behind me.

Do you have any idea how much money you’ve cost me over the past year? my mother asks.
I am still crying. I just want to go home I blubber.
She almost laughs at me. Oh, you’re not going home, she replies, smiling.

I am crying so much I can’t breathe. I am literally gasping for air. I know I am hyperventilating, because this is what happened when my mother called me at school that day. I know what “hyperventilating” means because when my grandparents came to collect me from school, the deputy principal told them I was so upset on the phone – just hyperventilating by the time I got to her.

Noticing my gasps, my mother kindly instructs me to breathe properly!
I tell her I am trying. Then I rummage through my bag for my Ventolin.

****

My mother is relentless in her criticisms and accusations. She tells me repeatedly that I am ungrateful. That she knows I am lying for my grandparents. That I have ruined everything.

I am still sobbing. I don’t reply.

My mother turns off the highway and drives past the Chandler swimming complex. She parks far away from buildings, in an area completely surrounded by bushland. She unlocks the doors, and tells Norman to get out of the car. He complies. I can see him in the side mirror, leaning against the boot of the car.

I don’t know what is happening. Is Norman keeping look out? What is he looking out for? There is literally no one here.

Oh fuck.

My mother locks the car doors again. She unfastens her seat belt. She turns to look at me. I am paralysed with fear, and have stopped crying. I stare straight ahead.

Just survive.

****

 

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Ten Days in September – Part One

This is a photo of me from when I was 10 years old. At that time, if you’d asked me about myself, I’d have happily told you anything you wanted to know. I would have started with the usual I’m good at drama, swimming and public speaking before moving on to what I had already deduced was the elephant in the room: I live with my Grandparents. When your face inevitably turned from a smile into a pitying down-mouthed frown, I would quickly add that I am special that way; Nanny says so all the time. She says lots of people have children but that she and my grandad chose me. She says I am just like a daughter to her. Then you would smile again. You would think that no harm had been done – that I was happy. And you would be happy that I was okay.

Sometimes, you would think I was so confident and bubbly that nothing bothered me at all! So if you asked me about my parents, I would cautiously explain that my dad travels for work, but I don’t know what he does. You would nod in response as a gesture of understanding. Good for him, you would think – travelling for work so he can provide for his young daughter.
You would think of my father as a good man.
You would be wrong.

What I would want to tell you is that he rarely calls us, but that I know when he is on the phone, because Nanny answers by saying “Oh, g’day, Man!” I hate that word – man. It is scary and big and strange. I would want to tell you how it confused me that my grandparents are always so happy to hear from my dad. I would stop myself from saying that I don’t understand why everyone thinks he is so great.

If you pressed me for further details, I would tell you that I don’t remember the last time I saw my dad. He doesn’t visit very much. But as a show of loyalty to the family who gave me a home, I would avoid telling you that when he does visit, he usually has a girlfriend with him, and they lock themselves in the spare room and only come out to watch the cricket or eat my grandparents’ food. I certainly wouldn’t tell you that sometimes my dad scares me. He has a temper and can be mean, like when he locked me out of the house when it was raining because he thought it was funny. When I told Nanny about it, he called me a “dobber”.
Once he hit me so hard I fell over. Nanny didn’t believe me.

But I know you wouldn’t want to hear any of that.  So I wouldn’t tell you.

Your questions would then turn to the other absent figure in my life. In reply, I would explain to you that Yes, I have a mum too, but she is away. I used to see her pretty often when we lived in Sydney, but then she moved to London. I don’t know if she is coming back.

Satisfied, you would smile and think what a good job my grandparents are doing raising me. You would be right. They give me love and affection and stability. I am happy with them. If you asked, I would tell you that When it’s bedtime, my grandparents kiss me goodnight and Nanny tells me she loves me. When Nanny leaves, I cuddle my favourite toys – Mummy Frog and Glo Worm. And I always sleep on my tummy. If I sleep on my side or my back, I get nightmares.

This would throw you a little, but you wouldn’t press for details. I am grateful that you don’t, because then I would feel compelled to explain that the dreams are always the same. The scene is always a train station, where I watch powerless as my grandparents are killed. I would go into specifics, noting that sometimes it’s only one of them (usually Nanny); sometimes it’s both. They fall from the platform in front of the train. Or they slip as they are getting on the train, and become trapped between the platform and the train itself. I try to drag them to safety but am too weak, and the doors shut on me. Sometimes I dream that they fall from a height onto the tracks, after slipping from an overhead bridge. I watch from the train platform as their bodies drop to the tracks below. Then, just as the train is about to run over them, I wake up.

But you would think I was weird if I mentioned any of that.
So I don’t.

I also don’t mention that although my constant nightmares of train-related fatalities are scary, they are nothing compared to the fear I have when faced with the prospect of being taken from my grandparents every year, for at least two weeks at a time, by the person I call my Mum.

You don’t know about that, so you don’t ask.

***

It was August of 1992 when my mother visited me and suggested we take a holiday together. It was the first time I had seen her in about two years. She had come all the way from England to see me and was staying in our house – my grandparents were always hospitable and kind that way. We picked her up from the airport, and dropped her back when it was time for her to leave. I can’t recall how long she stayed with us, but I do know that she had waited to the last day of her visit to ask me if I wanted to go away with her.

I should have been honest and told her that I was too frightened and too weak to be away from my grandparents for any amount of time. But I didn’t want to be rude or ungrateful. So instead I pretended to be excited. If I had told the truth, maybe things would have been so different for all of us; but instead I fibbed to be nice. And then, when I was alone in my bedroom, I screamed into my pillow while clutching Mummy Frog and Glo Worm in my arms.

The night before my mother left to go home to England, she tucked me in and had tears in her eyes. I can’t remember why she was crying and I can’t remember what I said to comfort her, if anything. I liked my mother, even though I felt a strangeness around her. She was pretty, and nice, and she could braid my hair. But something didn’t sit right with me, and I didn’t know what it was. This made me feel guilty, ungrateful and mean. I didn’t want to be mean to her. She was trying so hard.

Did I feel disloyal being close to her when it was my Nanny who had loved me in her absence? Or was I scared that if I allowed myself to love her, she would just leave again anyway? I couldn’t figure it out, but I shouldn’t have worried.
By the time I was 12 years old, she was gone from my life again. And I didn’t blame her.

***

Shortly after my mother returned to England, my grandparents received a letter from my mother’s lawyers. It was called an affidavit. I didn’t know what this was, but would soon know far more than most 10-year-olds about the inner workings of the Family Law Act.

My grandparents let me read the affidavit, and all the other letters we received from the solicitors. I wonder if they should have kept me in the dark, but I was so precocious and bright that it would have been near impossible. So, moments after my grandfather read the affidavit, I did too.

1. I am the applicant mother.
2. The respondent father and I entered into a serious relationship at the beginning of 1980.
3. As a result of the relationship Sarah Catherine was born in 1982.
4. At the time of Sarah’s birth I was 19 years of age. I was studying full–time at X university and working part time to support myself. I was of the belief that I could not provide the proper parenting skills nor could I financially support Sarah at that stage in my life. The respondent father and I, after a number of discussions, decided to terminate our relationship in early 1982.
5. Following Sarah’s birth I signed adoption papers. Contested adoption proceedings were commenced in the Supreme Court in 1982 by the respondent father. Those proceedings settled. I could not recall whether any orders were made in the Supreme Court.
6. As a result of the search of the Supreme Court files, I have been informed that Orders were made in the Supreme Court…wherein the respondent father was granted sole custody and guardianship of Sarah. His parents agreed to assist him in her upbringing.
7. At the time of the proceedings I requested the respondent father to sign a deed evidencing the reason why I could not look after Sarah so that Sarah would know when she was older why I had tried to put her up for adoption. He would only do so if I agreed to change Sarah’s surname from my maiden name to his surname.
8. I believe that at the time the orders were made the respondent father informed the court that it was his intention to move to the ACT where his parents were living so that they could assist him in the upbringing of Sarah. This did not happen. Following proceedings the respondent father placed Sarah in his parents’ care who were at that stage living in the ACT whilst he remained in Sydney. I remained in Sydney and continued my university degree.
9. Between February 1982 to November 1984 I had no contact with Sarah. I then commenced to see Sarah in November 1984. From November 1984 through to 1986 I travelled to the ACT normally every second weekend to see Sarah at her grandparents’ home. I would telephone her every other day. During access periods I would stay at Sarah’s paternal grandparents home. She knew that I was her mother and called me Mum.
10. In 1987 Sarah’s grandparents moved to Sydney. Sarah continued to reside with them and I was able to see her every day between the hours of 6pm to 8pm and would read to her then put her to bed. I also had access to Sarah one day every weekend and would take her out to the park, to the beach, to see my mother and grandparents and for outings with my friends.
11. In mid 1988 I resigned from my position and went on an overseas trip. I remained overseas from approximately mid July 1988 until October 1990. During that time I telephone Sarah every week and for approximately 15 to 18 months sent her a postcard every day.
12. Just prior to August 1989 Sarah had a serious asthma attack. On or about August 1989 I had a telephone conversation with Sarah wherein she said words to the following effect:
When are you coming home?
By this stage Sarah’s grandparents had moved to Brisbane. As a result of that conversation with Sarah I booked to travel on the first available flight home to Australia and went immediately to see her at her grandparents house in Brisbane. I remained in Australia for approximately three weeks before returning to London.
13. In October 1990 I returned to Australia. I remained in Australia until 1 April 1991. I visited Sarah frequently during that period at her grandparents’ home three or four times sometimes staying for up to a week. I spoke to Sarah every other day on the telephone.
14. In early 1991 I was offered a job in London. I accepted the position and left Australia in April 1991. Whilst I have since that date resided in London I have spoken to Sarah each week on the telephone and written to her. I have not until recently been able to leave London due to work commitments. I believe that Sarah is at this stage too young to fly to London to see me.
15. It is my intention to return to Australia every year in order to see Sarah for an extended period of time during her holidays. I believe that Sarah and I have a close bond as a result of the regular contact we have had with each other since November 1984. I believe that Sarah would benefit if we went on holiday together not only because we enjoy each other’s company but also because she would be able see my family.
16. On 29 August 1992 I visited Sarah at her grandparents’ home in Brisbane. At that time I had a conversation with her grandparents words of which were to the following effect:
I said: I’d like to discuss the possibility of taking Sarah on holidays next year.
The grandmother said: Oh, no I don’t think so.
The grandfather said: When would you like to take her.
I said: I would like to set aside time each year mutually convenient to you and in order to fit around Sarah’s schooling. I then said to the grandmother: What problems do you have with me taking Sarah on holidays? Why won’t you let me take Sarah away on holiday?
She said: I’m concerned with her health is Sarah is an asthmatic.
I said: You take her on holidays. It was only last July that you took her to Hong Kong for three weeks.
I said I would like an organised time for about 1 to 2 weeks a year so that everyone knows that’s my time with Sarah.
The grandfather said: That would be quite good.
The grandmother said: I would like Sarah to have some input. If she wants to go then she can. I think we should also talk to her father about it.

17. On 30 August 1992 I had the following conversation with Sarah:
I said: I’ve been discussing it with Nanny and Gran about you and I having a holiday next year. They have said that’s okay with them as long as you want to go with me. How does that sound?
She said: That’s great!
I said: The holiday will be just you and me. You can choose the holiday or we can go to Sydney to see my family.
She said: Can we go to the Gold Coast?
I said: Yes if you want to.

19. On 31 August 1992 I made enquiries at the respondent father’s place of work to locate his telephone number. On 31 August 1992 I had the following conversation with the respondent father, words of which were to the following effect:
I said: Would you be able to talk to me during the week about Sarah.

He said: I have no time.
I said: I’ll come down and see you.
He said: I’m staying in Wollongong. If you come down I can get you a complimentary room through the firm.
I said: Fine. I will be there on Friday.

20. I arrived at Wollongong on Friday 4 September 1992. The respondent father and I had arranged to discuss my access to Sarah at dinner on Friday night, but the respondent father had made other arrangements. His girlfriend and her friend were to attend dinner as well. I did not believe that it was appropriate to talk about Sarah’s welfare with other people being present. I arranged to have breakfast with him the next morning.
21. On Saturday, 5 September 1992 I had the following conversation with the respondent father, words of which were to the following effect:
I said: can we discuss Sarah’s schooling. Have you thought about it?
He said: What is the rush. It’s a bit early isn’t it?
I said: I asked you in Christmas 1991 about her schooling. Remember I rang you to locate Sarah but you said that your parents were taking her away for 6 weeks and you didn’t know their whereabouts and didn’t have a contact number. She’s 10 years old. If we’re going to enroll her in private education we need to place her name on a list. I know she is doing well at the local school but I believe that if we were to place into a private school it would be more challenging for her. Do you have any views as to which school?
He said: As long as it doesn’t push the academia. Talk to mum and dad about it.
I then said: Will I get a list of schools and send it to you?
He said: Yes and get mum and dad to look at it.
I said: I’m prepared to pay for her schooling.
He said: I’d like Sarah to choose.

I then spoke to the respondent father about being able to take Sarah on holidays next year. We had the following conversation words of which were to the following effect:
I said: Is it alright if I take Sarah on holidays next year?
He said: I’ve got no problems with you having access each year for a set time.
I said: Great I’ll get my solicitor to set out the agreement.
He said: I’m not signing any f…. documents.
I said: Why are you prepared to allow access to Sarah on the one hand and on the other you’re not prepared to define access legally. Why don’t you want this to happen?
He said: I don’t agree with the law in principle. I refuse to sign anything.

22. The respondent father has not contacted me since that conversation. I believe that he does not take an active interest in Sarah’s life. I believe he only sees her once or twice a year and that his parents are primarily responsible for her upbringing.
23….I am also concerned that once I have filed this application and returned to England problems may arise with my telephone access with Sarah. I believe that if Sarah is not in regular contact with me this will be detrimental to her as she has grown to rely upon our regular contact.

***

Remember how happy I was in the photo? Smiling and answering all your questions politely? Well, that didn’t last, I’m afraid. It would be a whole year before I would actually go on holiday with my mum, so within twelve months, I went from being the bubbly ten-year-old with whom you enjoyed chatting, to someone very different. In fact, it apparently only took a couple of months after the above affidavit was filed for me to unravel into “a very confused and upset child”. Just ask my mother’s solicitors:

We are instructed by our client that she has in the past month had several telephone conversations with Sarah, the contents of which have caused her great concern about the wellbeing of Sarah.

We are instructed that in the first few conversations our client had with Sarah her comments were guarded and lacking in the same spontaneity and warmth that previously had existed. It was apparent to our client that Sarah was not comfortable talking to our client from your client’s residence. For this reason we are instructed that Sarah requested our client telephone her at school. That conversation took place and served only to reinforce our client’s anxiety about Sarah’s wellbeing. At the time of the conversation Sarah’s words demonstrated a marked hostility towards our client that had never existed in the relationship before, for instance Sarah make the following comments:

Granddad had to go to the solicitor to get advice about me going on holidays with you.
I had to take the whole day off school to go and see the solicitor with grandad.
You said I only had to go on holidays in September not in January.

As to the child’s visit to your offices in respect to advice as to access we cannot condone such an action and believe that not only was it highly inappropriate but detrimental to the child’s welfare.

It is clear that your clients feel threatened about our client’s request for access to Sarah and have made such fears known to Sarah. Sarah’s attitude to our client has significantly changed since our client’s departure from Australia. Theirs was a loving and happy relationship notwithstanding the distance from each other. The aggression shown by Sarah towards our client is most unfortunate.

We are further instructed that due to recent events it is clear that Sarah is a very confused and upset child. It would be in her best interests if she could attend an independent counsellor to discuss any concerns that she may have. We suggest that she attend a family law counsellor and seek your client’s undertaking to make the necessary appointments.

We await your urgent reply.

***

I remember the phone call my mother made to my school. Although the letter says that I asked her to call me, I am fairly sure I didn’t.  I was summonsed from class and told I had a phone call. I decided it was the police telling me my grandparents had been hit by a train and I was now an orphan (more so). But when I got to the office, the administration lady was just holding the phone out to me, barely looking up from her typing. It’s your mother, she said to me, as though it was the most normal sentence in the world.

To any other child, it would have been.

I stood on the linoleum floor of my primary school’s office area staring at my leather school shoes, while trying to respond to my mother’s accusations without raising the suspicions of the admin lady. But before long, I was in tears, begging my mother to believe me when I told her that it wasn’t my grandparents who were turning me against her. Well it must be your father then! She said, clearly distraught. I didn’t want to defend him, but felt obliged to given my grandparents’ loyalties to him. I’d inherited his problems by default, just as my grandparents had.

But my mother didn’t believe me. I didn’t even know if I believed me.

Eventually the deputy principal came out to see what was unfolding in the school’s reception area. I gingerly handed the receiver to her; tears streaming down my face, begging her to take the phone from me; to do something, anything, to make this all stop. When the deputy principal hung up the phone on my behalf, she took me into her office and asked me if I was having trouble at home.
I said my mother wants to take me on holiday.
Are your mum and dad divorced? she asked.
I tried to explain my living situation to her despite being in the throes of hyperventilation. Soon, she exclaimed Oh, you’re the one who lives with her grandparents! Oh! Now I understand! She seemed very happy with herself.

Minutes later, my grandparents had been called to collect me from school. My Nanny held me in her arms while I cried. My grandad tried to explain what was going on to the deputy principal. I tried very hard to regain normal lung functioning.

On the way home, my grandparents and I went to the local travel agency. My grandparents decided what we all needed was to get away from everything, so we flew to Sydney for a week’s holiday. I can’t remember what we did or where we went, but I know Mummy Frog and Glo Worm came with me, and I don’t think I had any nightmares.

***

Sometime after our return from our spontaneous getaway, my grandad put his thoughts down in writing about the situation that was unfolding before him. It is undated, but I suspect it would have been written late in 1992, just before I turned 11 years old. Always eloquent, he summed up my predicament with amazing poise, and a fair degree of accuracy.

1. I’ve come to the conclusion that Sarah’s mum has overestimated the strength of the bond between her and Sarah. That bond was at its strongest in early 1988 when we were living in Randwick and Sarah had virtually daily contact with her mother.
2. Absence has not made heart grow fonder in Sarah’s relationship with her mother. Indeed the lack of face-to-face contact for the past 4+ years has probably influenced Sarah’s perception of her mother and led to her being categorised as a ‘friend’.
3. Access. It is my understanding that Sarah when indicating a willingness to go on holidays with her mother thought that they would be of short duration e.g. several days at most at the Gold Coast etc. Sarah is apprehensive of a two weeks absence – that is why the initial period has been set at 10 days and even that is unwelcome to Sarah. (Remember apart from one overnight stay with her mother 4–5 years ago Sarah has never been alone with her mother other than for hours at a time. To that extent her mother is akin to stranger.)

Some weeks ago Sarah attended a sleepover. Those two occasions plus hospitalisation are the only times Sarah has not slept at home with us.
4. Telephone access. The last two telephone conversations between Sarah and her mother have caused Sarah considerable distress. That is of great concern to me. It is evident that Sarah’s mother believes we are influencing Sarah’s telephone responses hence the call made to Sarah at school (not Sarah’s request I should add). It was most disturbing to be met at school by the deputy when I came to collect Sarah, who told me of the most unsatisfactory telephone conversation that had taken place and the distress that it had caused Sarah.

The second distressful call was to Sarah at home – 9/10 days ago – when we had to intervene and bring the call to a conclusion.
It is perfectly true to say that the rapport between mother and child has eroded. It is probably equally true to say the root cause of the deterioration in the relationship is the action instigated by Sarah’s mother under the Family Law Act. Is not true to deduce from this that we have been the cause of Sarah’s reduced affection for her mother – a view obviously not shared by Sarah’s mother.
Sarah is a creature of habit. She revels in the familiar, enjoys her possessions and delights in responses of appreciation for things she makes or does. We too are her possessions. Change threatens her lifestyle and unless it is a gradual process, is resisted strenuously.

***

Something shifted in my views of the world after this chaos. I realised that at the conclusion of the war, there was going to be one winner and one loser. If I hitched my wagon to both stars, I would lose, regardless of who was the victor. It was almost as if I decided that feeling love for two competing teams was much harder than simply devoting all my love to one side, and all my hatred to another. No matter who won the battle between my mother and the family who had raised me, I was going to be hurt either way.

I had to pick a side.

On the one side were my grandparents – loving, caring, reliable, present. I got the feeling that they worried about my mother’s involvement in my life, even though they never tried to prevent us having a relationship and in many ways actually encouraged it when I was hesitant. Theirs was a concern more related to my response to my mother entering and exiting my life, and less to do with any insecurities about their roles. My grandparents became responsible for me as an interim measure that in the fullness of time was shown to be a permanent arrangement, but even after a decade with them, I don’t know if they truly thought they’d be my caregivers indefinitely. My grandad used to say that he and Nanny were in loco parentis. I didn’t know what that meant then, but I do now.

On the other side, was the woman who was trying so desperately to be in my life. She was interested in me, and thought about me often, trying hard to stay involved in my life, albeit from afar. When she visited she took me on outings and was always happy to have a chat. She seemed to like being with me, and she told me how much she missed me. When we were on the phone, she would sometimes pretend to be crawling through the phone line to reach me, so that she could give me a big kiss when she arrived at my end.

She misses you because she left you, I would later tell myself. And even though her reasons for doing so can’t be faulted, it was something I could never quite get over.

So to survive, I had to split. I decided that if my grandparents were good, and they were being upset by my mother, this must make my mother bad. This unfortunately also had the unwelcome effect of making my father “good”, albeit only through association. So from then on, my loyalty to my grandparents – for raising me, loving me, and giving me a home – would always trump any efforts, however well-intentioned, of my mother.

I didn’t spend much time trying to see this whole situation from my mother’s perspective, even though the court-appointed counsellor, who I saw for one emotionless session, suggested I should. I needed to protect my grandparents from harm, because I needed them to look after me. That meant I had to protect them from my mother, even if doing so meant harm to me, and harm to my relationship with her. So when I felt guilty about how my mother had been treated, I replaced it with anger towards her. And when she tried hard to get to know me, I gave her nothing in return.

Looking back, I have tremendous sympathy for my mother. She was forever tied to a self-absorbed asshole because she’d had a child with him. And now she was trying to remedy lost time with me, and I was resisting. I think now of the effort she expended to better get to know me – the legal fees, the stress she must have felt at perceiving herself to be ganged up on by my father and his parents in their quest to keep her away from me. She was fighting battles on so many fronts, and had no allies. Her one purpose in all of this – to build a better relationship with her daughter – ironically yielded the opposite result.

In my mother’s affidavit she stated that when she left to go overseas, she wrote to me every day. That is true. She was in her late twenties and on the adventure of a lifetime – backpacking around Europe and sending me postcards from all over the world. And every night before bed, no matter how trivial the day’s events may have been, she put pen to paper and scribbled down some thoughts to me. She thought of me every day.  When a postcard from her arrived in the mail, my grandad would read it out to me, and I would put it in a photo album to keep it safe.

I still have these postcards. They live in a container, all neatly stacked together, in a cupboard in my home. I can’t read them because when I start, tears block my vision and I can’t see the words. It is too hard to think about my mother, the one I’d decided was the bad one, and how she had missed me for so long. So instead, I focus on the fact that her choice to relocate to another country is what led her to miss me in the first place.

Thinking about things this way means I can sleep at night.
And most of the time, I don’t even have to worry about nightmares.

***

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