Two women in their forties are in the house of their childhood. Once they shared a bedroom. They made a cubby between the Jacarandas with jarrah pickets and hessian wheat sacks. They are sorting for a garage sale. Already so much has been dumped in a skip and thrown on the verge. They are hoping gold bars may be unearthed. Instead they find dried apricots, turned black. Neither of them wears much makeup. Both need glasses to read. One chews her nails. One has the start of grey streaking her brown hair. They both have wrinkles, but they have congratulated each other on their flawless necks.
They find old school reports. They find christmas decorations, made in kindergarten, when children were still permitted to use toilet rolls for craft activity. Of course the house feels shrunken, or else they feel giant-sized. So much of it is unchanged. The smell of their parents bedroom…
I hear my sister walking up the hallway, taking the steps in an easy stride. She is wearing corduroys. We are both practical, sensible people. Or so we like to think. Neither of us is too sentimental. We don’t wear high heels. We are going to sell the house. The one thing we hope is that they keep the tree. A hundred foot tall Lemon Scented Gum in the backyard. She is enormous and gracious. Her trunk is grey and smooth with muscular branches stretching out from her sides. She can been seen from streets away. She is scary during storms when she hurls her canopy like a mad woman shaking out her long locks. Both my father and mother loved the tree. After all it was living.
I am in the front of the house. We sisters can call to one another. Oh God look at this! My mother has kept her wedding dress. The once white lace is yellowing. We find hand embroidered baby dresses wrapped in tissue paper. Who would have thought our mother had the patience and skill for smocking? On high shelves, where they could no longer reach or see, we bring down all sorts of decaying and rotten matter. Moths have gone to work. The remnants just paper away. We come across the diaries of my mother. She is still living. It is wrong to read someone’s diary, right? Not until they are dead. But my mother is not a detailer of emotions. It is not a journal. It is more a list of what happened when. She would not have written down something she wanted hidden. She is also the type who stops herself thinking, to make it not so. I think she believes that pain and death can be erased by the not speaking of them; a child only seeing a smidgen between the fence of fingers that hide a face.
She read aloud from her diary at night, to my father – trying to get him to remember their holidays; in an attempt to will away his dementia. On finding the box of diaries neither of us hesitate to open them. We don’t ask her, perhaps believing we know she won’t mind. Or else feeling some kind of ownership over them. We think they are about us, after all. We are interested most in the oldest diaries. The ones from when she was more our age. When perhaps we shared the same fears and anxieties. What did she think as a mother with toddlers? We look for a version of ourselves in her. Will we end up the same? What’s in store? Perhaps an understanding of the past will make her more knowable to us…
My sister takes ownership of the one from the year of her birth and I have the one from mine, 1964. So much of it is blank. I have to make up my own imaginings of her daily life. She tells so little in it. She plants ranunculi. Her mother is ill. That much I can tell.
January 13, 1964: 28 days since last period. 2nd babe on the way. How do I tell if she was happy? I know she miscarried many times. Perhaps she doesn’t expect the baby to stick. Why write that you are excited when it could be swept away from you all too soon? Growing up we heard the stories of her driving herself to the hospital, blood running down her inside thighs, a boy baby delivered, formed enough to have a sex, but never given a name.
Then about my sister, who is about 15 months old, she writes; January 31st 1964: Lisa’s eye teeth at last through. Will be 14 teeth. Trying to stand.
Then on February 25th she writes again about her pregnancy with me – told Mama and Aunt. Again I will never know what they thought. Maybe they thought it was too soon. Maybe they feared the pregnancy would slip away.
On March 5th 1964 she writes; Leila killed accident-road. Alice F died. Nothing more. I think about my own accident. In a diary somewhere has a sister written; Nicole car accident – paralysed. A mother written; Nicole accident-road – might die. What tears are hidden beneath the blue fountain pen scrawl? Who was Leila?
March is a bad month. On the 12th and 13th there are entries; Alex heard bad news re job. Gone to see Spencer re job. Alex lost job. Terrible blow – but may get one with Dept Agriculture. Alex v.brave. Terrible blow – it means more because it says so little. Dad struck like the pin belted by a bowling ball. Topple. Fall.
On Easter Sunday March 29th Lisa walked by herself.
9th April 1964 she writes; To Safety Bay, one week’s holiday. Yummee! Lovely cottage all mod cons and we are v happy. Is yummee a code to herself? A word she reads and knows the true meaning of.
On Friday 24th of April they saw Lawrence of Arabia. Wonderful! Peter O’Toole really memorable. And then on Anzac day Baby’s movements, felt quickening. Lisa walking well. But she must have been concerned about my sister’s walking since the next day she visits her doctor at the nurse’s suggestion and she writes; Dr thinks she is alright but she would have to be xrayed for surety. He will see her later.
The following day there is lunch with her mother; Mama lunch. She seemed tired and hectic, to say the least. To say the most, did she argue with her mother?
April 29th 1964; Lisa walking a lot more and going down steps by herself. Looks like rain.
May 5th 1964; 9st 6lbs, 2lbs gain. Dr Pixley, all clear, no wait at all. Fundus correct position. Lisa walking v.well. Seedlings planted. Sweet peas by garage. So in a time before ultrasound a simple measurement of the uterine fundus height suggests the baby was in a normal position. A mother is relieved enough to spend time on her knees in the garden.
May 7th 1964; Alex has job Agriculture Dept. Starts 25th May South Perth. It is a relief. Salary 1011 pounds per annum. He stayed in this job till he retired. His superannuation still funds my mother’s nursing home fees.
June 10th 1964; Dr Linton Lisa eye appoint. Lisa’s eye good. Hooray!
I imagine my mother, pregnant with me, worrying about her toddler who has a funny eye and is slow to walk. Her husband has been out of work and he is earning money doing odd jobs for neighbours, like cement edging for Mrs Elliott. She writes when they receive a hundred pounds from a Dutch relative, Aunty Zus. She visits her mother and her Aunt and plants annuals in the garden. She takes the toddler to the doctor and waits for me to arrive…..
1964 To be continued….