Saturday, December 30, 2017

What the actual #@&, 2017?

Been doing a bit of an inventory of you, 2017. But it's not really you. You're just a year, one of those 365 day cycles during which life happens. But in the absence of anyone else to sound off to, 2017, you'll do. (I'll give husband, Al a rest. He's been living the dream anyway.)

2017, you began well and had me feeling euphoric. I had to remind myself that this was perhaps 'tourist excitement' before the inevitable 'culture shock'. You know that theory? Change can feel good at first, until the rot sets in? Given I'd quit my day job, I was wary of my initial elation, keeping an eye out for signs of ennui.

But, dear January 2017, I allowed myself myself to experience the joy, soaring along the Otago Rail Trail on my rented bike on the south island of New Zealand or remarking, with awe, the snow-capped mountains in Queenstown, the wineries of the Marlborough region. Ah, that trip augured well for more to come. Western Europe in May for a few weeks sounded enticing. Would have to organise someone else to do for mum, of course, but we'd managed in the past.

I aimed for a little structure in my work-free life, just in case. In early February I joined an elementary German class at Melbourne's CAE and a community choir.

I was feeling ecstatic, back then, 2017. Even that night after choir when my car wouldn't start. Remember? I had music in my heart and lungs under a velvety clear star-studded sky. Who cared that I was waiting by the road side for a bit of assistance from the RACV? I was home an hour or so later anyway, bursting with passion for life, amazed that I'd been out alone in the night, managing an inconvenience without swearing once. You know, by 2016, so drained was I from teaching that I rarely ventured out in the evenings except to compulsory school affairs.  Yet there I was on a Thursday night, February 2017, having shrugged off the mental load, soaring.

Worked on Al then. Why should I have all the pleasure? So incredulous was he to witness my transformation, he also packed in his job.

But February 23, before Al had a chance to savour his freedom, you were there in the diary all along, waiting. The end of peace; the start of an agonising story that's not mine to tell. Will just say that Al was not the first of my loved ones to be diagnosed with cancer this year. Quickly found a heavy door in my mind, wrenched it open, shoved my fear inside and with all my strength forced the door shut. There's no lock though. Have to guard that door and keep it secure.

So, 2017, you presented the opportunity to discover how resilient we all are; how brave. We've been up close and personal with the random nature of our lives, two old mums languishing with dementia in nursing homes, well, until my mum died in September;  our daughter's young, vital man battling cancer, Al getting prostate cancer - the 'good' one.

Suppose the rest is chicken shit, Reggie. (Note to absent sister.)

So long and thanks for the memories, 2017. By the way, despite everything I've had a worthwhile year. It turns out both learning a language and choral singing, especially in French, are really mindful pursuits. Hard to think about anything else when you're focused on acquiring a third language; practically impossible to sing in a choir without feeling gleeful when that harmony is produced. As a bonus, they both came with a phalanx of new like-minded friends.

See you tomorrow, 2018  Let's hope we can do better.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Clench. Hold, 2, 3, 4. Release. Repeat.

Here's an update. Al and I no longer work. We quit our day jobs - me at the end of last year; him in March this year - to explore what would happen next. I'd convinced Al to retire as I was having such a good time not slaving away at work. Well, it hasn't quite turned out as expected. 

I've written the following with husband, Al's permission. Hard to have any privacy when you're married to a blogger.

The other day, I was cutting out a paper pattern for a dress for my daughter. Sepia tissue paper off-cuts fell in a loose pile on the floor on my left, Dust motes shone through the afternoon light in my gemütlich kitchen - gemütlich - German word meaning cosy, warm, welcoming and more, according to my German teacher  Do we have an English word that conveys so much? Ed Sheeran's heart-breaking yet uplifting music was playing on Spotify, reminding me of how I felt listening to a young James Taylor back in the early seventies. Seems to me that as young singer-songwriters, both have/had wisdom beyond their years. Ah, makes me wish I was young again. I popped back to about 1972 in my head. When I was a nascent seamstress  I spent many a weekend cutting out paper patterns and making my own clothes while listening to music. It's still a lovely, easy and productive occupation.

Amidst all this, Al came in to stand, as he often does behind the kitchen bench:  cook, thinker, observer. I didn't take much notice of him. Just registered that he was there; hoped Ed with the sound up wasn't bothering him.. I sang a bit of a chorus with Ed, lowered the volume a tad, then offered Al a random thought from my mind-bin.

''You know one thing I regret?'' I asked as I continued my cutting. No response from Al. I looked up at him. He was a soldier behind the bench, standing very still. He's used to me prattling; sharing my inner monologue. Facing me, he had the light behind him, handy at our age. I couldn't see what his face was doing. I noticed the outline of his bald pate, his ears, then resumed my cutting.

''I no longer have a waist,'' I lamented, cutting carefully around a sleeve. Something about making a dress had prompted the thought. ''I know my lips disappeared in the early 1990s; in the Kennett era,'' I said. ''Simply couldn't go out without lipstick from then on in. My waist disappeared more gradually though. In my late forties maybe? Early fifties?''

Thought he'd acknowledge that one, perhaps a brief humph; a little chuckle. Silence, well, apart from the music. I pressed on then, pushing for a reaction. ''I used to look good back in the day, Yeah?" Nothing. "Could have been a model if only I hadn't decided to devote my life to education.'' No comment. ''I didn't have the teeth. Hate my teeth. But I sure had the boobs,'' I was really plastering it on, in case you hadn't realised. Well, maybe not about the teeth and the tits.

Not even a tiny guffaw? What the...? I looked at him again. He hadn't moved. He remained at attention behind the cutting board; stock still. I put my scissors down. Was he all right? I stood and walked slowly around to his left so I could see his face. Sheesh. Was he having some sort of transient ischaemic attack? Do symptoms include apparent paralysis?

Suddenly, I realised what was happening and I was instantly hysterical and perhaps you had to be there, but I was. Bent double - I won't say at the waist - I steadied myself with one hand on the bench under the microwave, tears streaming, and relished the belly laugh. I'll avail myself of any opportunity for healing mirth.

'Glad you're amused,' he muttered quickly like a six foot ventriloquist's dummy, still frozen, trying not to lose count. Clearly he can't move his mouth and count at the same time. 

You see, he was doing his pelvic floor exercises. It's a clench, hold, release thing and he needs to count out a few reps a couple of times a day. 

About five months ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a prostatectomy. Didn't see that one coming. Turns out we're a cliche; the couple who retire and discover that one of them has a potentially life threatening illness. Well, it was found in time, and, just three months after his major surgery he's made a remarkable recovery and is even back on his bike. For a few weeks after surgery he was frail, but since he's been able to he's religiously done his pelvic floor exercises, albeit without an easily entertained audience. 

Glad we quit work when we did. We had a lucky break. Turns out that had he not retired, had he not felt a bit light-headed after riding up a hill in top gear on our first big post retirement cycle, I wouldn't have forced him to see a doctor to check his haemoglobin. (It's not enough for me to be paranoid about my own health.) He went along with it, pretty much to shut me up. That's when the elevated PSA - Prostate Specific Antigen - was discovered. It all happened really quickly. Cancer diagnosis, major surgery, and happily a bit later, an all clear. Wouldn't mind a dollar for every time someone told me it was a good cancer to get. Didn't feel like it, but in our case they were right, given it was found in time.

So that's what happened when we retired; a bit of bedlam that neither of us imagined. 

What's more, in an awful coincidence, Al had his op two days after my beloved 86 year old mum collapsed, broke her arm and femur and sadly, subsequently, died two weeks later.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cleaning the cupboard. Netheredge, Sheffield, 1956

This is my mother's memory, not mine. Its appeal, for me, is in that little family of three, with me waiting to happen. My father paid for that house and told mum that's where they would be living. She trusted his judgment. Love the whole romance of my young parents, mum 25 and dad 27, taking horse-drawn transport from Ripon, North Yorkshire, to Netheredge, Sheffield, albeit in a blizzard.  Mum would never have called herself a writer. She wrote loads of letters home - back to England - but didn't embrace 'creative' writing until she was in her early sixties and joined a writing group. This is something she wrote:

We'd changed horses at the inn where we had stayed overnight, but after the long ride over the Yorkshire moors this last long incline had almost beaten the willingness from these once fresh beasts as they stamped and sweated, snorting at the entrance to the drive.

We arrived by carrier, together with bits of furniture, at dusk, in a snowstorm in February 1956. The driver, Miles, was so eager to seek out a friendly place to stay overnight he barely paused for a drink after delivering his load, so pressing was his need to depart.

My need, too, was desperate: to investigate inside this huge stone terrace house I had never seen. I was somewhat dismayed at the size of the bare, unwashed windows blinking a reflected firelight of welcome in the gloom.

It was a route march from the brass-kerbed step inside the front porch down the bare wooden floors to the distant kitchen and my first acquaintance with 'the cupboard'. When in haste I opened the door, thinking it was another room, I bumped into smelly shelves. Later we realised how fortunate it was that I had tried the cupboard door first as an almost identical door led to the cellar.

It is another story entirely, that first year in our first home, that mausoleum of a place we never quite converted into a comfort zone. The task was daunting, but we were too young to know that and we were in heaven.

The kitchen cupboard, however, haunted me. Its cleaning was just too big to tackle. But after we discovered that the slightly sulphurous smell, which occasionally permeated all the rooms, emanated from within its depths, I recognised the time had come. No two ways about it.

Meanwhile I had established nodding terms with the woman next door. Her back door faced ours, and I ventured to discuss the job in hand and she offered, on loan, a step ladder to ease the task. On noticing my advanced pregnancy she sent her son round with the ladder and possibly to get him to suss us out.

The ladder was a help. We literally moved mountains.

The cupboard, on investigation, was stacked with all the things the old man, the previous owner who had lived alone, didn't want or couldn't sell. Jars were leaking or smashed and stuck. Packets were opened and moving! The wretched smell was everywhere. The top shelf was stacked with blocks of white Windsor soap, hard as rock, and rusted tins of mustard and pepper powder. There were four shelves, four feet wide and three deep in the top cupboard, and one shelf separated the darkened abyss below.

The cleaning and subsequent sterilization of the cupboard became our project; our raison d'etre. Remember there was no radio or television. What was a threat to our existence in the beginning became a challenge. We worked on it together, my husband and I, in the early evenings when Reggie was in bed. It became our leisure time when we plotted and schemed and made plans for the future after the baby was born. Sometimes we were cross and raised our voices in frustration, angry that anyone could have left all this filth, not just in the cupboard but the whole house, for someone else to move. More importantly, could it be done before the baby was due to be born at home in September?

One time when we were both in the cupboard we heard a voice. We were more than shocked, but stayed close and silent, keeping even the noise of breathing to a minimum. It was a strange sound but definitely a voice; a tinny voice. What was it saying in that Punch and Judy animated fashion? Was it really saying, through clenched teeth 'Doyouwantacupoftealove?' How disappointing, we thought and laughed fit to burst.

We heard the same question over and over. During the day, on my hands and knees, wedged inside the cavern, I took comfort in the closeness of the unexplained voice. As I discarded ancient shoes and smelly slippers of pre-war vintage, some with socks still in situ - I never looked for feet - I never felt alone. The mud, muck and grime of years came forth and was vanquished. Afterwards when the scraping and sanding was over, of course we surmised that our inside cupboard wall was one and the same as the cupboard wall in our neighbours' home, now with visible cracks as we had scraped the paint and mortar away.

We did eventually finish the cupboard cleaning. Of course we did. It was beautiful, painted flat white inside and out, and sterile, oh so sterile. What a boon it proved to be in our less-than-furnished kitchen and dining room. We were left with a dilemma though. Should we make it known we would love a cup of tea?

The happy ending came after Judith was born at home in September. I was out in the back yard when a face appeared over the wall; a smiling face with clenched teeth. I introduced ourselves, the new neighbours from way back. Straight away she invited us to visit, and then and there, in her kitchen, I came face to face with the voice from the cupboard.

Mrs Baker had a budgie in a cage hanging adjacent to her kitchen cupboard door. Much to Reggie's surprise and delight and my almost suppressed mirth, the budgie said with no prompting, in perfect mimicry of Mrs Baker's speech, 'Do you want a cup of tea love?'

We could hardly wait.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Life long impressions: 1962 to 1964

Child years are like dog years. Seems to me that one year in a child's life equals seven, or perhaps more, in an adult's. Brief episodes in my childhood informed the person I became. They have lasted for ages in my memory. Yet my own children's lives, seemed to flash by. 

It's a few days before Christmas, 1962. I am six. Mum has a surprise for us for. It's cold outside and the three of us are in the sitting room in our new house. I'm in the armchair by the pretend fire - an electric heater with black plastic coal and an orange glow from a concealed light. The electric bars at the front of the fire are bright orange and warm the room. A television is angled into the space across the carpet beyond the heater but there's nothing on. Reggie is sitting on the long settee facing the heater. Mum is tempting us with a surprise. 'But if I give it to you now,' she warns, 'you won't have it for Christmas. Are you absolutely sure you want it now?' I'm a little scared of spoiling a Christmas surprise. What if we make the wrong choice? But our excitement wins out; we can't resist temptation. Mum relents as though it wasn't her idea in the first place. We're left in delicious fearful anticipation as she leaves the room before returning with our surprises. There will be no going back. It will be our fault if we've spoiled Christmas Day.

Why was I worried? Our gifts are wonderful. We each receive a small lidded cardboard box. Inside is a painted wooden cotton reel. It has six 'nails' protruding from its top. They're equally spaced. There are also a few small balls of wool and a plastic crochet hook. Mum shows us what to do. You thread a strand of wool down through the top hole until you can hold it underneath the cotton reel. You wind the wool at the top of the reel twice around the outside of the nails, hold the wool in place, then hook the lower strand of wool over the upper strand on each nail. You keep doing this and in no time at all a snake of knitting emerges and grows out of the bottom hole. You can tie on different coloured wool. Make sure the knot is in the middle of the circle of nails and you can have seamless stripes. Once your snake is long enough you can cast off. Mum shows us how to do this. You can make little dolls' hats from your snake by coiling it and sewing the coils together. It is immensely satisfying. I knit for ages and make hats for my dolls.

My dolls already have hand-sewn tops and skirts. We regularly visit my maternal grandmother in Goldthorpe, about a half-hour drive away. Big Nanna, we call her. She has a work basket full of fabric pieces and we make dolls' clothes from these. I cut and wrap oblong pieces of fabric around unyielding plastic bodies to get the fit right. My skirt creations are  pieces of material, tacked with running stitches along a single seam. I join the ends of the fabric and begin to sew with a piece of cotton knotted at the end. You moisten the end of the thread in your mouth to help it through the needle's eye. This takes a while. Then in through the top of the fabric, back up through the bottom. But sometimes I forget and go in through the top again and make a loop over the edge. It doesn't really matter. I just keep going. I finish with back-stitches as Big Nanna has shown me. I try the finished product on the doll. It slides on and fits. The doll's top is a piece of material with a split up the back and a hole cut for her neck. Big Nanna has shown us how to fold and sew the edges of the fabric to neaten them. The top is sewn under the doll's arms on both sides. Can't really sew up the back because I won't be able to get it on and off. It just gets tucked into the skirt. It looks fine. I look at what Reggie is doing. She's very neat and tidy. Her stitches are all straight and even and there aren't any loops around her seams. I don't care. I make more clothes. It is immensely satisfying. I love sitting at Big Nanna's table with my sewing. I sew for ages.

We love Big Nanna. Her kitchen has flagstones and there's a peg bag hanging on the pantry door. It's full of balls. When careless children lose them over Big Nanna's hedge, she collects them and keeps them for us to play with. She gives us fizzy drinks of Dandelion and Burdock. There's a lovely rag rug in her sitting room and on the sideboard, near the picture of my dead grandfather, George, there's a red tin filled with sweets. We're always allowed to eat a few.

When we stay with Big Nanna, Reggie and I sleep with her in her double bed. We giggle at her massive flesh coloured bra and corset as she undresses in front of the mirrored dressing table. It's all right to think she's funny. She likes to make us laugh, often reciting amusing poems and telling stories in her 'broad Yorkshire' dialect.

She lets us choose a book each to keep. They're on a shelf in a light, bare upstairs bedroom. I think it was our uncles' room. I choose The School of Poetry by Alice Meynell. Mum had pencilled her name inside the front cover when she was young.  Robert Louis Stephenson's The Sick Child resonates deeply. It also disturbs me. I love reading Going Downhill on a Bicycle When you read it aloud you have to think about the punctuation. I learn Wordsworth's To Daffodils by heart. (Later, when I'm in grade five, I write out the first verse, thinking I've made it up. I'm pleased with myself and show 'my work' to my teacher, Miss H, the dark-haired pretty but nasty opera singer, who's sitting at her front table. She glances at the piece of paper I hand her, quietly sneers and sends me back to my place. It's not that I've plagiarised. She just doesn't like me.) I treasure this old blue cloth-bound book. (I keep it in a plastic bag now. Its spine has disintegrated, as has old sticky tape that held it together. Its pages are brown. It's still a terrific anthology and I like what it says about the kind of child I was.)

Big Nanna is a frequent visitor in Sheffield. She comes 'through' on the bus. She wears a hat and keeps it on if she's not staying over. On demand, and we always ask, she dances a little jig to Knees Up Mother Brown holding her skirt up at the front. She makes the house smell of warmth, buttered tea cakes and ironing. Big Nanna is smiling, white-haired, tall, round and soft. She wears a pinafore to protect her dresses. It makes her knee slippery. When you sit on her knee you can easily slide off. But it's nice on her knee and she holds onto you. Big Nanna puts warm oil in my ear when I have an earache and strokes my head. The earache goes while I rest my head on her lap.  

When I last see my Big Nanna it's at the front of her Goldthorpe home. Mum is there. And Reggie. We say our goodbyes. Reggie wraps her arms around Big Nanna's waist and sobs hysterically. 'I won't leave you, nanna,' she weeps. Mum has to drag her away. Tears pour down Big Nanna's cheeks. I have never seen her cry. I am determined I will not cry. We drive away. I never see my Big Nanna again. I am eight.

Copyright. Judith Middlemarch, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

I can fly.

I'm on my haunches with my hands splayed open on my legs just behind my knees. There is a row of dark - I'm not sure of colours yet - houses behind me. I'm willing myself to take off. I'm making an inner effort; clenching my body. I'm unaware of muscles; it's just me and my determination. Then I'm in the air surveying the sloping roofs of that row of dark houses. I'm flying. Somehow I've flown - levitated vertically, I know now - above my house and it was wonderful and easy. I explain this to other people my size, perhaps my slightly older sister, Reggie, perhaps Jane, the daughter of one of mum's friends and a regular visitor, maybe everyone in Sunday school. If they follow my instructions, they too can fly. I'm not yet three, but I can fly. Surely.

When you go back more than fifty years to try to sort out your memories you wonder whether something you imagine was a real memory actually was. Well, this is a real memory. Interestingly, I was younger than three when this happened. It was wonderful to be that age. It's also wonderful to know that I've kept that same consciousness throughout the rest of my life. She was me; my essential self and she is still in my head. Nothing bad had happened to that little girl who knew she could fly, even if she hadn't sorted out the difference between dreams and reality. She was happy, carefully dressed, well-fed and loved. I can see it in a few photos.

 My first three years were lived in a double storey stone terrace house in Netheredge, Sheffield, in the north of England. In 2010, on my pilgrimage to Sheffield, a place I left because my parents sought and found another life in Australia, I returned to that house in Netheredge so I could see where I was born. In the front room. There was no one home or I would have knocked and asked to see inside. Perhaps I was lucky I didn't. I still have my memories.

This is my memory of the room I was born in. I used to think I could remember being born, but even I'm not that ridiculous. Both of my parents, especially mum,  kept the stories alive. But this is me, less than three. I'm standing in the doorway and looking into a high-ceilinged light-filled room, with a fireplace to my left and a bay window to my right. The floor is covered in livid maroon felt. I know now it was a felt underlay. We didn't go into this room much. I can't remember there being any furniture in there. Certainly there was no longer a bed. Prior to my birth, it had been brought downstairs by my very pregnant mother and my father. She was already in labour, so the story goes, and they were awaiting the arrival of the midwife. According to family legend, when my mother was groaning in agony on the floor, dad had made her screw the legs into the bed, seeing as she was already down there.

The Netheredge house was narrow with steep stairs along the left wall as you walked in the front door. In this memory, I'm upstairs in my parents' bedroom. I'm in a cot because I can see, through bars - I trust it was a cot - my parents across the room, facing me in their double bed . I can't sleep. Every time I shut my eyes a frog bites my toes. I don't like it and I want to get in with them. I don't remember being comforted. Instead they seemed amused, surprised by my complaint. 'Don't be so silly,' they say. They're sitting up a little against the bedhead, or wall, mum clutching the bedclothes up over her chest. They must have had a light on. The frog keeps nipping my feet, scaring me, waking me up. Wonder what sort of stories I'd been read.

My dad is holding me in his arms. It's morning. 'Dry daddy,' I tell him. My nappy is dry. I'm proud of this accomplishment, for I know that it is, not that I had any control over it. I am the important one, held against his chest in his arms, my face close to his chin. It is a warm time as he shares the news with mum, who praises this achievement. This story is often repeated to me by my mother. My other first words, much acclaimed in subsequent stories were 'Daddy, slip-slips.' I needed my slippers before I could be put down. So there she is, that adored kid; in those instances, the total focus of her parents' attention.

Another light colourful room in that house is the kitchen. It is huge. On the far wall is a window that looks out into the back yard. There's an enamel sink below this set into benches. To the right of this bench is the back door. On the shelf below the sink is a ceramic mixing bowl, smooth white on the inside and with a woven sand coloured glaze on the outside. One day, Mum quickly fills it with hot water and pours in something that makes the water go cloudy. Reggie has just been run over by a young man on a pushbike. He'd sped into us as we got off the back of a double decker bus and knocked Reggie over. In the kitchen, Reggie is lifted onto the bench. I watch. Mum is comforting and efficient. She swabs and dresses Reggie's grazes.

Reggie found a box of matches in the sitting room around this time. Not on the same day. She wasn't that accident prone. She'd emptied the matches and gripped them in her left fist and struck them against the flinty strip of the match box. She'd probably watched dad doing this, with a single match of course, as he lit his pipe. She got burnt and that fixing bowl came out again. I don't know if I remember watching Reggie burn herself or whether I'd heard the story. It was a big deal and a huge warning to be careful with matches. Didn't stop me, in some involved match play, setting fire to a couple of back gardens some time later when we moved to our brand new house on an estate in Gleadless Valley. That new house was half of a duplex and a couple of wires separated our 'garden' from our conjoined neighbours'. Must have been a dry summer day because that fire took off so quickly it terrified me. Mum and a neighbour suddenly appeared to put it out  before any real damage, apart from blackened grass, was done. Interestingly, I didn't get into much trouble, so clearly dad wasn't there. By that stage, he was an angry man of about thirty who scared the neighbourhood kids, and sometimes Reggie and I. That fire gave me a fright. No chance of pyromania for me.

In Netheredge, there's a cellar off the kitchen, just to the right as you enter. There's a closed door and behind that steps descend. The cellar is a bare, cold, storage place. There's an uncovered electric light globe swinging down into it. I haven't been down there much. Once or twice. I see it more from the top of its stairs.  It didn't hold any horrors that I knew of but it's not a place to play.

It's tea time on another day and all four of us eat in the kitchen. I'm at my place along one edge of the square painted table. Dad is on my right, mum facing me, Reggie on my left. I look down at my food just as one of my cooked mushrooms changes into a slimy, slithering creature and starts inching towards me on my plate. 'It's coming after me,' I cry, terrified. My parents pause in their eating, cutlery stilled in their hands. They laugh. 'Don't be silly,' they chuckle, not unkindly. They are sure of their own rightness and my silliness. I'm not, but I look again at my plate and find, simply, cooked blackish mushrooms in a little heap. But I didn't trust those mushrooms and they remained uneaten.

I've seen tiny photos taken in the back yard of that terrace house. There's a black and white picture of a smiling baby, me, with light hair sitting happily in a huge black pram outside the kitchen window. The same pram feels perilous when I am tipped forward from it when Reggie is swinging on its handle at the front gate. Another snap catches a joyous me running down the backyard path towards whomever is holding the camera.

Mum and her friend are in the kitchen. Reggie, Jane and I are sitting on the backyard path deep in concentration. We have a tin of watercolour paints open on the ground, a jar of water, paper and paintbrushes. We are all three wearing white sandals with cross bars and closed toes. Our shoes have tooled cutouts and white stitching. We briefly confer about whether we'll get into trouble before deciding to do it anyway. We carefully paint our white sandals with swirls of watercolour. Jane and Reggie leave me and I continue to paint my shoes, one foot in front of me at a time because I'm still wearing them. Total absorption in a lovely creative activity. No consequences. Suppose the watercolour washed off easily enough.

Until 2010, that house was huge. It satisfied all the needs of my three year old self. The back yard was enormous. I've explored its space in my memory for years, trying to get even further into its depths. My actual visit revealed a narrow single fronted two storey row house; front door on the left, bay window on the right. I went to the front window and peered into the tiny room into which I was born. It could barely contain a chair, a couch and coffee table in front of the fireplace. The back yard was just that. There weren't any structural changes to the house but the yard had been paved and a barbecue sat just outside the kitchen window. I could have walked to the back door in four strides.

Copyright Judith Middlemarch 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

So mum needed a haircut.

Went to see mum today and it was incredible. Maybe someone gave her a shot or something; music therapy? A magic pill? She instantly recognised me. And she was happily alone in her room in her recliner chair, feet up.

I know, most unusual. The other residents were doing art. Mum was watching the ABC. She looked bright-eyed; her teeth were gleaming and white; her clothes were spotless; coordinated. She was wearing that white linen shirt with her jet and silver necklace. Clearly, she’d looked out of the window, seen that it would be a lovely autumn day and she’d dressed accordingly. She’d matched her shirt with a pair of black slacks. Her ankles weren’t swollen like they normally are; they were slim and tapered nicely into her shoes. She’d done her make-up and her eyebrows were beautifully shaped. I wish you could have seen her. I know she’s 86 but she looked vital and fresh.

‘Hello, it’s our Jude! How are you?’ she asked. ‘Two visits in two days. Must be my lucky day. It was good to see you yesterday when we went to the podiatrist.’

At this stage, amazed, I had my mouth open, remembered to close it; breathed. Mum was back. You know what she’s like these days. By the end of a sentence she usually can’t remember what she started out to say. And yet she remembered going to the podiatrist yesterday. Reggie, I know. I couldn’t believe it either.

‘Are you taking me out?’ She lowered the footrest on her chair and flicked the TV off with the remote.

Yes, Reggie, the same remote that she talks into because she thinks it's her phone.

‘Yep, we’re going to the hairdresser’s,’ I said.

‘Oh, thank the lord,’ she said. ‘I’m sick to death of this place. Yes, I know. I’ve got to live somewhere and the food’s generally good. There’s the occasional day when the cook’s off and we might get something a bit congealed but mostly it’s good and I’ve got nice people to sit with in the dining room.’ She was very talkative.

Next, she darted - yes, I know, but she did – out the door and down to that breezeway where her friend, Joyce, was sitting with the others, painstakingly colouring in a photo-copied outline of a butterfly. Joyce didn’t look up or acknowledge her but mum gently pinched the top of her arm as she does.

‘Joyce,’ she leaned down and spoke into her ear. ‘I’m just going out with our Jude to have my hair cut. I’ll be back by dinner. I’ll see you then.’ She kissed the top of Joyce’s head. ‘Come on, Jude,’ she said.

You know how we normally have to hold her hand? Well, today, she just slung her bag over her shoulder and set off. In the right direction.

I raced after her. She’s got those long legs and I had to half trot to keep up. She was holding the lift door open for me when I got there. When we got down to the ground floor she went over to that desk with the visitors’ book, looked back over her shoulder at me, pen poised, and asked me what time we’d be back. She signed herself out, Reggie, and then she undid that security bracelet they wear, slid open the glass window at the nurses’ station and put the bracelet just inside on the ledge.

She stepped past me – Reggie, I’m telling you I haven’t seen her move that quickly in years. But this is even better. She keyed in the security code and was off down the road and standing by the passenger door of my car. I'd parked in one of those three hour spots close to the main street. I couldn't believe she knew which car was mine.

‘What time’s my appointment?’ she asked.
‘Two-thirty,’ I said.
‘Come on then,’ She looked at her watch. ‘We’ve got twenty minutes.’ Yes, she worked it out. Hard to believe.

On the way over, she filled me in on Dorothy. You know Dorothy. The writer. Well apparently she’s dropped about twenty k since she gave up her wine and now she’s lost the will to live – yeah, ha, ha - and is refusing food.

‘She’s not long for this world,’ mum said. ‘I think this is her time. Sad.’

I know, Reggie. I couldn’t believe she was taking any interest either. It’s been ages since she has.
She greeted Danielle, the hairdresser, like an old friend. Gave her a hug and wished her Happy Easter.

‘You’re having Easter at the same time as us this year,’ she remarked. Danielle's Greek. Couldn't believe mum remembered.

‘How did you know that?’ Danielle asked.

‘I read it in the paper the other day,’ she said, walking ahead of us towards the salon at the back of the house. Danielle and I looked incredulously at each other and tripped along after her. Danielle has only ever seen the confused mum. Mum automatically sat in that hair washing chair and leaned forward while Danielle wrapped a cape around her shoulders. While Danielle washed her hair, mum closed her eyes and relaxed. She was almost purring. When Danielle had finished, mum got up, unassisted, and sat in the other chair facing the mirror.

Danielle took about an hour to do mum’s hair and as usual, after she’d finished mum looked brilliant. She preened a bit, smiling at her reflection in the mirror.

‘Beautiful!’ she said. ‘Hasn’t she done a good job, Jude?’ I agreed that she had.

After I’d paid, Danielle told us to wait a second. She went inside and returned with a plate of Greek pastries dusted in icing sugar, and a couple of eggs that her kids had painted. Mum was rapt and gave Danielle another hug before we left.

Then, Reggie, mum amazed me by asking if we could pop to the shops and buy her a new handbag.

‘This one’s donkey’s years old,’ she said. ‘It’s ready for the bin.’

We went to that shop in the mall. She chose - yes, mum, not me -  this black travel shoulder bag. Well, I can’t think how else to describe it. It’s light and practical; It’s got lots of compartments; $80. Yeah, she doesn’t spend money on anything else.

Later, back in her room, she carried the rubbish bin out of the bathroom and put it next to her black chair. She sat down with both bags and sorted through the old one. You know how she carries dad’s wallet and comb around? She took them out of her old bag and put them in a side compartment in the new one. She swapped her lipstick, brush, wallet and specs into her new bag, upended the old one and tipped the detritus into the bin. She placed the old bag onto the floor beside her and, smiling to herself, she spread her long fingers out and enjoyed the feel of the new one, pleased with it and herself.

It was getting close to five and that announcement came over. ‘Attention all residents. Dinner will be served in ten minutes. Can you please make your way down to the dining room?’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely starving. So, I’ll see you soon then?’ She got up out of her chair and ushered me out the door.
‘Don’t you want me to take you down?’ You know how lately she doesn’t even know where the dining room is?
‘No, love. There’s no need. I’ll see you next time. But thank you. I’ve had the most glorious afternoon.’

She gave me a hug and kissed me on both cheeks, you know how she does, and waved me off.
That was all bullshit actually; a story I fabricated to help me get through the rest of the day after mum didn’t end up getting her scheduled haircut. Given her advanced dementia mum no longer has control over mind or body and sometimes grossly undignified accidents happen. Yesterday, one happened just as we arrived at the hairdresser's.

Sure, we can do a smoke and mirrors thing with mum and make her look ‘great for her age’ in that instant when a photo is taken, if you don't look too closely into her eyes. 

(With apologies to Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi.)

You can read about an earlier trip to the hairdresser's with mum here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A baby boomer recalls...chores.

Chores: an old-fashioned word meaning an odd, menial or routine usually domestic task; can be unpleasant and repetitious. Back in the day, the spare hours of the suburban lives of my older sister and I were filled with chores. We had to help with the dishes, make our own beds and be tidy, of course, but there were other duties. 

One mid-sixties summer, huge cracks opened in the baking greyish weed ridden grass in our Avondale Heights front garden. Black crickets - which scared the hell out of Reggie and I, a couple of English children who'd seen nothing bigger than lady birds, bumble bees, bottle flies, daddy long legs and wasps - scooted into and out from these cracks. Skies were big and blue; the heat fried exposed skin. Dad had planted lots of young trees around the garden of this newly purchased fifties two bedroom weatherboard. Would have been the second year since we'd emigrated from England. It was our first real experience of heat. 

The chore? Due to the drought, there was a ban on using garden hoses. Reggie and I had to water those saplings. Two buckets of water on each tree, said dad. Fill the bucket, which took forever, then heft its sloshing contents around the various trees, prickles stabbing into the soles of our bare feet. We were nine and ten; skinny girls. Took it in turns. It was hard work. I resented it at the time. Knew we were being put to work. In no way did it look like fun. But if dad told you to do it, you did. Dare say I whinged about it, but I still did it. Dad was fierce.

Later, when we were teenagers there were more chores. Well, we'd been trained up to do them. Mum and dad worked and we were labourers on minimum wage pocket money: $2.50 each a week. Everything we wanted had to come from that: bus fares; anything other than the staples - food, basic toiletries, basic clothes and school supplies and uniforms - which mum and dad were working to provide. (I'm getting bogged down now thinking about what you could buy for $2.50 in the early 1970s. Move on.)

After school, the chores began. The first was walking from the high school in Essendon, via Mary Street and Rosehill Road - emphasis placed on the hill - through East Keilor to Avondale Heights to collect Janey from where she was being minded after school, then back home to East Keilor.  More than six kilometres. Reggie and I took it in turns. Good legs. Resented that chore too but loved the chats with Janey on the way home. Janey remains seven years my junior. Funny that.

Next chore was preparing for dinner. Peel and chop the potatoes and put them in a pan covered with water for the inevitable mash. Prepare the runner beans and carrots. Sweep the kitchen floor. Vacuum the carpet with the Hoover upright. We'd sweep whatever detritus was on the kitchen floor onto that bit of mustard coloured carpet where it met the tiles and vacuum it up. Every day. We had to.  Mum would cook whatever meat had been defrosted when she got home close to seven. 

Resented looking after Janey. Once Reggie and I opened a tin of Campbell's bolognese sauce and cooked a batch of spaghetti because we were hungry. We just made two bowls, despite Janey's protests that she wanted one too. We didn't want to reduce our greedy portions by sharing with our spoilt brat sister**. Our spaghetti was ready to eat when mum, wearing her blue district nurses uniform, walked in on the fight we were having with Janey. She'd driven from St Kilda Road, Melbourne, to East Keilor in peak traffic after a twelve hour day. Janey immediately started complaining to mum that we hadn't made her a bowl. This ended in a face off between sullen, fifteen year old Reggie, with her face set, 'staring mum out', and exhausted, livid, mum who still had a trick up her sleeve. She calmly picked up the dark brown melamine bowl of spaghetti and blithely tipped its contents between them on the floor. Can still see the splashes of sauce on mum's navy court shoes. Reggie, wisely conceding, quickly cleaned it up. Mum could be fierce too.

As a consequence, I didn't hammer the 'chores' with my own kids. They were certainly expected to clean up after themselves - a chore for me, making that happen - but they didn't suffer the after-dinner washing and drying dishes painful ritual. We had a dishwasher; something my parents bought for themselves after we'd all left home.

Janey can't remember the spaghetti on the floor incident but does recall the smell of white rice and soy sauce, another after-school snack we'd prepare occasionally. She says we wouldn't share that with her either.

**You weren't spoilt at all, Janey. Belated apologies.