“I took it for granted that like most of the billions of people who are born and die on this planet I was just an accident. There was no reason for me.”
Are You Somebody?
– Nuala O’Faolain.
I often find books on my shelves that I have never seen before. Where do they come from? They pile up, literally, and having lost an entire life’s library of books and music CDs when we moved overseas four years ago I am not as attached to them now as I once was. Occasionally I pick out some of these volumes that I know we will never read and swap them at a bookshop in my new hometown for ones that we might. I did this recently with five and came back with two: Barbara Klingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? The first I chose because a very good friend recommended it and the second because the author was Irish and my literary hero at the moment is that other quintessential Irish writer, and very much alive as O’Faolain is not, Colm Toibin.
This morning, a writing morning, has not begun well. An attack of mild stomach-ache, and the resulting consequences have not inspired any creative juices; until I read O’Faolain’s introduction to her memoir and the above quote jumped out at me.
I thought immediately of my mother.
I have a favorite photo of my late parents taken about the time I was born. They were at a party although they were by no means party-people. My father liked a drink but not insurance so when he died suddenly when I was six the family suffered greatly. The party may have been at Christmas time or New Year’s Eve; I was born in late September. You do the maths. This family joke has been bandied about all my life and I am quite willing to believe it is true. The combination of the word ‘accident’ and the phrase ‘no reason’ sent me scurrying to my laptop; it is after all a writing day and if I cannot make headway with my current project (Veronica II) I must write something.
This is it.
From my early adulthood, but, really, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always had the feeling that I wasn’t born by accident, but raised by accident. There didn’t seem to be a plan, a policy, of what to do with me. I wasn’t particularly upset by this; all kids, I think, just accept their life as their life. What could possibly be the alternative?
I was the last of four children and all my siblings were in their teens when I came along.
Parental decisions seemed to be made on the spot, depending how they felt at the time. When I received good marks, which was usual – I was the teacher’s pet kind of child – my mother’s reaction was usually stern and her parental guidance went along the lines of ‘be careful not to get too big for your boots’; ‘the higher you climb, the harder you fall.’ This was normal I thought. Years later I understood this fear of being noticed came from her German background and that both sides of my family did not have a nice time during the two world wars when Germany was the enemy. She would like report card phrases like, ‘fits in well’, ‘never a nuisance in class:’ don’t stand out and all will be well.
My mother remarried when I was nine. My step-father never spoke to me. Nobody thought to tell me what I was to call him so I didn’t speak to him either, which was easy; he was deaf. I had four very much older step brothers, the youngest two were still at home, working the farm. Then the transition from teens into adulthood (late 60s South Australian wheat belt) followed a predictable path. You left school and there was a party. You got your driver’s license and there was a party. You had all your teeth out and there was a party. You got engaged and there was a party. You got married and there was a really big party.
Dentures were considered necessary and modern. The four adults on the farm went to bed each night with their teeth in a Vegemite jar full of murky Steradent water. We were a ‘with it’ family. When I came home from school one day having been subjected to a dental examination, courtesy of the government, I told my mother I had to have 4 teeth removed and 16 fillings in order to save them. She thought this unnecessary and uneconomical. ‘Get them all out while you’re at it; I’ve got plenty of empty Vegemite jars in the cupboard’ was her thinking.
I was still at school and I was already breaking the party line.
During my high school years when my step-siblings had successfully followed the party line and left the farm my music lessons by lazy teachers, spurred on by a belief that young people wanted to play pop songs, were scheduled for a Monday night which meant staying with a relative in town as I would miss the school bus back to the farm. I wouldn’t understand until I was much older that for my parents, having the house to themselves, at least for one night a week, had its own rewards.
Childhood memories can be strong but usually rest on shaky ground. I would not be surprised if science one day unequivocally discovers that childhood memories are a complete adult fabrication. However these are my memories, my fabrications, and what I have just done, it seems, is delve, briefly, for the first time into memoir.
I have plans for an autobiographical work, covering much of the above material, but written as fiction. Fiction is a great way to tell the truth, but in order to make it clear you have to lie about it a little. Not the truth of plot but of behaviour, feelings, and the reasons for things.
It would be interesting to write the above ‘report card’ scene or the ‘dental’ scene from the mother’s point of view. That would explain a lot: close writing (free indirect discourse – see previous blogs about this) would do more to colour the inner life of the mother that simple reportage would not permit. Fiction allows such literary devices, memoir does not.
So, I passed, what I thought was going to be, a fruitless day, literarily speaking, by writing a piece of memoir; and inspired by a piece of reading. There’s a lesson in that.