What’s your first memory?

I am lying on a sink in thin pure cotton pyjamas. The shorts have elasticised bands around the thighs. I don’t know they are called bloomers. All I know is that I love the pattern and the feel of the cloth. Maybe I am a toddler or at kindergarten. The sink is hard and not very comfortable. There is a single small basin with a wooden surround, by the kitchen window, facing south. It is the window where my mother signals to my father to come inside by simply banging on the glass. Later when we are older, as he becomes more distracted, or less interested in the goings on within the house, we are sent to get him from deep in the yard.

The sink is high and far from the floor. I have been lifted onto it and told to lie down with my head over the sink. My head is like a too heavy flower on a not strong enough stem. Head back. Head back, says mother. From a cup she pours tepid water over my head. It falls in a gentle stream. A hand shields my face from the flow. She is shampooing my hair. Her fingers back and forth on my skull. Kneading. The lather is white and soft. It dribbles down my temples and pools in crevices of my ears. Water is flowing back down into the sink.

I don’t like it. I don’t hate it, either. I don’t remember crying or protesting. I like the warm water and the firm touch on my head. I don’t like the trickle of liquid into my ears or the soap finding the corners of my eyes. I don’t like the hard sink at my back. I like being lifted down and placed on the floor. I like a towel piled high and wobbly on my head.

The sink is the same sink in the same kitchen that I must clean as my mother prepares to leave the house she has lived in since the 1960s. She is entering a nursing home to be reunited with her husband, my father, who is already there, having been accepted straight from the hospital after his fall. The sink would not do these days. It is not deep or wide enough for the mountains of dishes that a household goes through.  It is a simple single shallow sink. Not a double with one for rinsing. No large draining boards. Its cupboards beneath are made from chipboard and have swollen and buckled from water damage over the years. There is still old lino covering the shelves that my father laid back in the seventies. On the windowsill sits a battered steelo my father would use on the pots and pans.

The sink looks not long enough to hold a child’s prone frame. But it did.

I look out a hibiscus bush; watch a bee find its way inside the trumpet of the flower. Then, back out on the petal, it staggers around.

Washing my hair now in the shower, the stinging of the shampoo in my eyes sends the memory flooding back.

I am sitting in the kitchen on a chair so high my feet are swinging above the floor. I am under a home hair dryer. Hot air rushes in under the cap and puffs it out. Hot, hot air all over my head. My mother has put my hair in curlers. It has taken an infinity. Her bending in front. Her pulling and snapping the bands. The clips scraping the skin of my skull. I will be the spitting image of Shirley Temple, my mother tells me. She is a favourite of hers but yet to be seen by me. For we still don’t have a television and it will be a few more years before we sit down on Saturday afternoons to watch her movies. My hair is blonde and pliable and loves to curl. Each ringlet is bouncy and like a spring. Close your mouth and your eyes. Pinch your nose. Like preparing to bob under in the silty Swan. She sprays a mist of hair spray. Now the hair has been glued into position. I am fogged by a strange metallic smell. My mother holds up a hand mirror. Her face is hidden behind it. Under my hand I feel the hair. Stiff, unwavering curls. Mother says, it is Shirley Temple hair.



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