“But we always took her on family holidays !” became the familiar retort espoused by my mother in an attempt to defend her ‘excellent parenting skills’ around the time I finally sought help to leave home. She’d tell anyone who cared to listen… the family doctor, priest, police, social worker, judge…man on the street. She even tried the defense on ME as she barricaded me from exiting the front door on my eventual day of exit from the madness. It was an attempt to paint me as a spoilt, ungrateful teenager; which in hindsight was of course as transparent and feeble as the ice queen was herself.
I had neither the opportunity nor resolve during that period to illuminate those whose opinions may have mattered regarding the truth of what a ‘happy family holiday’ realistically entailed; yet the physical reaction her comment evoked within me was palpable. The inner turmoil in response to her audacity broiled inside each time I heard the defense repeated. My breathing accelerated and the veins in my neck and arms were hit up with intense shot of adrenaline. Yet at that time, even as a sixteen year old I still did not have ownership of the release of expression from my lips. Subsequently they remained in their locked pose, except on the handful of occasions when I simply knew my future depended it. Somehow then, I found the words.
“You’ve ruined my make up !”, she screamed, the accusation sweeping through the two bedroom cottage like the scream of cyclonic wind signalling an encroaching storm. “What have you done? You’ve ruined all my make up”.
I was eight or nine years of age. My parents had agreed that I could invite a friend from school on our trip to the Grampians, a rugged mountain range in the Victorian countryside. I looked at the figure of my friend Siobhan who sat on the opposite bed in the small room we had just begun to settle into after finally arriving following the long car drive. Her small frame shrunk back into the shield of the curtains, surrounded in the late afternoon light that filtered through the ominous mountain ranges surrounding us. The eerie fall of dusk across the vast national park had already set the tone for the first night of our stay. I had tried to shrug it off as my regular “doom and gloom” outlook that must have snuck into my suitcase as I packed that morning. Perhaps it too wanted to have a holiday from the oppression that typically created it, unaware it was hitching a ride with the perpetrator.
Coming to my senses, I quickly leapt up from the bed and stepped into the hallway, urging my school friend to stay put. Poor Siobhan sat frozen with a stunned expression, utterly flawed at my mother’s sudden outburst. I had no idea what I was walking into, but experience told me it was best to try and shield my friend from at least some of the commotion and just get it over and done with.
As I closed the bedroom door behind me, a hand clasped my shoulder and I was spun into the front room of the cottage where my mother had started to unpack her things. I blinked and tried to gather my bearings, unfamiliar with the wooden paneled interior of the holiday cottage.
“You touched my make up and now look at it. It’s ruined. RUINED”, she screamed hysterically, both hands now upon my shoulders.
My body rocked back and forth to the rhythm of her ranting but my consciousness sat squarely within my head which was spinning metaphorically as I struggled to make sense of her accusations. Whilst I concentrated on anchoring my feet to the floor, as the room swirled around me, I retraced my steps from the moment we had arrived at the cottage. We had all brought various pieces of luggage in from the car, my mother, father, Siobhan and I. Did I pick up the make-up case ? I couldn’t recall. Could it have been tousled about in the boot of the car enabling the contents to end up in the strewn about fashion they now resembled ? Possibly… but dare I suggest it ? I was exhibiting text book behaviour of a victim of abuse at eight years of age by questioning my own actions and sense of responsibility for my mother’s distress.
“But I didn’t touch your make-up!” I cried…then instantly regretted it.
“Don’t lie to me ! You lying, dishonest child” she shrieked as the sting of a open palm reverberated across my face.
I spent the next hour ‘cleaning up the mess I had made’, painstakingly attempting to filter bits of powder back into little bottles whilst Siobhan sat bewildered and most likely quite frightened, in the bedroom. What would I want with your make-up ? I thought to myself angrily as I worked, As if I’d want to paint myself to look like you !
I wonder why my father does not feature in these memories at all. I believe at some stage he emerged from the shadows, by which time the scene had played out and the damage done.
Needless to say, Siobhan was not the only friend to regret agreeing to accompany me on a ‘happy family holiday’. There was more such fun to be had…
(To be continued…)
Like a needle
Pierced straight through the heart
Patterns that bleed
Through each year
Of the tapestry
My Childhood Story
in my stomach
…Stitched so tight
Leave gaping holes
In my core
My sense of love
So intrinsically linked
Forgive me Oh Mother
For I am your child
I am heartily sorry for having offended you
By daring to ask
To be held in your arms
And in your heart
Bless me oh Goddess,
See me bow my head
As I revoke any longing for your approval
I detest all my childish neediness
For I dread the locked gates of heaven
and the pains of hell
Hear my confession, Oh mother
I have been impure of mind and body
For I have looked in my heart
And am no longer afraid
Release me Oh Mother
Watch my spirit soar !
Towards all who are good and deserving
of all my compassion
and all of my love
I firmly resolve
with the help of my inner grace
to honour my choices
to turn fear into love
and to cherish myself for who I am
“Good night Baby Bear”.
“Night Papa Bear”, I respond as the closing door takes with it the last sprays of golden light that radiate from the hall-way beyond.
As a pre-schooler of three or four years of age, this was the comforting exchange that would end my day. On this note, I would be happy to snuggle into the added comfort and warmth of my soft toy as I drifted into slumber. It was as it should be…a father comforting his child as she relaxes into the knowing that all is safe and secure in her world, with him there to protect her. This was of course, how things were before I had learned to shut my door, turn the music up and suck in my breath.
For a very short period in those early years I looked to my father as a soft, rounded, reliable figure. I recall being perched on his shoulders at a circus, his thick hands gripping my ankles reassuringly as I strain my neck to peer above the crowd. I am Safe… in the knowing he will not let me fall. I feel the pride swell in my four-year old chest as I follow him faithfully up and down the white chalk lined boundary of a soccer field, whilst he yells directions to the boys chasing the round ball within. I am Secure… in the knowing he will not lose me in the crowd. It was as it should be. This was of course, before I learned to hunch my shoulders and shrug out which ever response was expected as he carried out my mother’s business.
Numbness connects these memories of my father. A blank white wall confronts me. I stare and stare but can’t seem to find the detail. I cannot distinguish the surface from plaster, timber or brick…I have no idea if its’ finish is gloss or matt. Impressions of my father have simply become a white-wash of nothingness. Over the years, each experience of betrayal I encountered caused the illusion of my father as an ally to dissipate into a languorous puff of indifference; his role as my mother’s accomplice in the game of manipulation gradually exposed.
On so many many occasions when I needed a voice of strength and authority to stand up for what was right and fair and normal, his silence ricocheted from ear to ear, echoing in my head with voluminous discord. At other times his outbursts of rage literally shook the floor boards beneath me, and saw me scream “Stop it…Just Stop It !”, only to be ordered to my bedroom by my mother. The fear and confusion incited by my view of the limbs of a father and his sons entangled in a violent scuffle on the rumpus room floor, soon transformed to disgust and eventually contempt. As the dynamics between my four brothers disnintegrated, cruelly orchestrated by my mother, I came to despise his placid allowance of her manipulating behaviour that had turned the males in my household into virtual putty.
Interestingly, acceptance of my father’s role as silent conspirator settled easily within me as a young child. I did not struggle against it. Generally, I did not question it, though at times I did ponder how he could adjust to the world beyond our front door …the real world…as an employee and colleague in a high profile company. That he did exit the house every morning to maintain a seemingly well functioning professional persona, made his betrayal of his children even more unforgivable. Yet his incongruous existence did not consume me. I simply grew to see him as a pathetic figure who had succumbed to a life riddled with false premises espoused by an emotionally corrupt woman, that even an eight year old could detect.
When I was around the age of ten or eleven, I witnessed a scenario that cemented my understanding of him as a conscious conspirator in the madness that was our family life. I recall a commotion one evening that lead me to quietly inch open my bedroom door, just enough to provide a view to the top of the hallway. I saw my father standing with his hand on the door knob, a brown leather suitcase at his feet. “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving”, I heard him say. Good I thought Go Go…She deserves it. My mother was on the floor, hysterically grabbing at his legs. Maybe if he leaves, the bars of control that trap us in this existence will melt away freeing us from the poisonous happenings within. Yet I see him pick up the suitcase and retreat back into the front room. Weak I thought, shaking my head in disgust. Yes that’s him…Weak.
The mirror at the end of the hallway is old and disused. Smudges of finger marks and sprinklings of dust sit comfortably in the crevices of the gold leafed frame, almost smirking with a self-assured confidence that they will not be disturbed.
I’m tall enough now to see my whole head and shoulders in the reflection, although it’s dark here at the end of the hall way. The tacky timber panelling along the wall shrouds the mirror like an ominous shadow. It appears as if to swallow the creamy carpet up below and branch up through the ceiling above. I reach for the light switch near the door that leads to the kitchen and glimpse over my shoulder to check the sliding door to the living area is closed. The familiar tones of a news program slip through the gap under the door to escape down the hallway towards me. Click. A golden hue illuminates the space.
I am eleven.. twelve… thirteen. The face before me is ever changing. Loosening the hair tie, my long auburn hair falls with relief around my shoulders. Tucking strands behind my left ear, I think of the girls at school who always look so radiant and bouncy. I wanted to look relaxed like them but as much as I tried, I couldn’t. I always felt tight inside, my insides bound by a knot that wound together the nerves connecting my chest and stomach. I suffered from constant attacks of hiccups and was forever attempting to drink a glass full of water with my head tipped upside down. It was a major feat this magical hiccup cure, which usually eventuated with half the water gushing up one nostril and the rest of it running down my shirt. Or sometimes, the tension within me would creep even into my lungs and I would actually forget to take a breath and have to gasp for air. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even notice the short, sharp breaths until someone sitting next to me at school would comment, “Are you alright? You’re breathing funny. “
Leaning slightly closer to the mirror, I acknowledge that my skin is quite nice …bright and golden. I run my finger down the bridge of my nose, landing on the silky smooth tip. There are no signs of the bumpy oiliness that oozes forth inconsiderately from many pre-teen pores. My friend’s mother used to say it was because I drank plenty of water. Her words made me feel good. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but her acknowledgment felt so comforting. My cheeks filled with a warm glow and my lips opened to expose a grin that beamed so bright, my friend squinted back at me, shrugged and left the room. She didn’t understand. Couldn’t. I wanted one like that…a mother who would notice my clear skin and commend me for drinking lots of water. I wasn’t asking for much? Was I? Some people seemed to manage to get one like this. What did I do to be given such a raw deal?, I used to think.
Combing my fringe to the side with my fingers, I wondered if I was morphing into the kind of girl that a boy would look twice at. I stared into her hazel eyes seeking to lose myself, if only momentarily into a place over the rainbow. Here a Johnny Depp look-a-like would ride in on his motorbike, offer me his leather jacket for protection and burn off into distance as I draped my body around his in complete and utter surrender. I tell myself to quit being ridiculous. No-one will want to look at me that way. By the time I was sixteen, my visions had darkened somewhat to paint escapism scenarios of a different kind. I imagined stepping out into the path of a moving car or wading into the ocean until it covered my head.
With a sigh I reach to towards the light switch but it is too late. My mother steps through the kitchen door. In one swift movement I scoop up my hair pulling it tightly back into a pony tail. She seemed to have an uncanny ability to always know where I was and what I was doing.
“What are you looking in the mirror for ?, she sniggers, “Think you’re some kind of model do you?”
“No”, I mumble and retreat back into my bedroom, shutting the door behind me.
Have you ever experienced the sense of being watched from afar, a lurking shadow catching your eye only to vanish as soon as you bring your attention to it? Or have you felt that prying ears only metres away were hanging on every word you said, such that you could almost feel the salivation of expectation moisten the air around each word you uttered before it had even rolled off your tongue? I have.
Sitting at the kitchen table with Jayne we chatted frivolously about the endless possibilities that lay ahead of us upon our graduation from school. As fourteen year old school girls, the thought of freedom from the mundane environment of a classroom and from the desexualisation enforced upon us by thick, dowdy private girl’s school uniforms…was invigorating. Jayne was a friend from a new school I started in year nine. The daughter of a well-known football coaching identity, she was also a new student to the school as her family had relocated from country Victoria to the big smoke. She was a country girl through and through, more comfortable in a chequered shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat than woollen tights, ankle length skirts and collared white school shirts. Actually, if it weren’t for the broad Aussie strine that haplessly spilled forth from her mouth, the clone like impact of the uniform may have assisted her to blend right in to her new upper middle class suburban environment. However her family’s status in the football world did nothing to rehearse her for the dance that is required to initiate oneself into private school girl culture. It was quite fitting then for the foreign girl from the country and the girl who felt like a foreigner in her world, to become friends.
So there we sat, blissfully planning a post graduation adventure. True to the great Australian tradition, we proposed a trip around our vast and exciting county in a Kombi-van. Delighted I had found a friend to sit and romanticize with about my future, the conversation truly transported me into another realm…one of hope and thrilling expectation that life could and would be different. Then something shifted in my friend’s demeanour that brought me hurtling back to a place I would rather not have returned to. I noticed her stiffen in an instant, and as she leant ever so slightly towards me across the vinyl tablecloth, her head slightly tilted to motion over her left shoulder. She uttered through barred teeth, “Colleen, is that your mother?”
My eyes darted over her shoulder towards the rumpus room behind us. There was no-one there. I knew we were alone. My mother was the only other person in the family home that afternoon and she was somewhere in the front of the house, probably in her bedroom. I glanced back at Jayne again, the quizzical look upon my face prompting her to roll her eyes back in the same direction over her left shoulder. Once more my eyes flittered back to the room, suddenly catching the slightest movement from behind a glass sliding door that lead to my brothers’ bedrooms. My eyes adjusted to focus on the outline of my mother’s form pressed up against the wall, shoulder…and ear…to the glass.
It was moments like these that made it very difficult for me to sustain friendships. How do you explain such happenings, let alone justify the motivations behind them to a wide-eyed teenage friend? Typically, the pit of my stomach would just fall through the floor whilst a swirling “here-we-go-again” motion circled in my head.
Perhaps the most excruciating example of my mother’s penchant for spying occurred the following year. For reasons still unclear to me I had moved schools again in year ten, to an all girl Catholic college in my local area. Happily, I would ride my bike to school of a morning. I enjoyed the sense of independence and the opportunity for some quiet reflection. My legs took the controls allowing me to “zone out” whilst I scanned the tree-lined streets, my thoughts wafting away with the morning breeze to merge with the clouds above.
This particular morning, I happened to be ready for school earlier than usual. The house was quiet, my father had left for work already and my older siblings who were still living at home had their own routines, quite separate from my own. As usual, my mother had not emerged from her bedroom. So off I set on my path to school, happily meandering along my way. With plenty of time to spare, I followed the curve of the asphalt road before me, navigating through different streets for a change of scenery. Soon I found myself approaching the busy suburban centre made up of shops, cafes, a train station and bus stops. My school sat ostentatiously at the crossroads, the old bell tower of what used to be the school’s chapel that now housed class rooms, rearing up to the heavens above. At this time of the morning the streets were abuzz with throngs of teenage students making their way either by foot, bike, bus, car or train to one of the four schools in the area. The footpaths were literally a sea of green, brown and blue blazers, all rippling along in the one direction.
Then, like a tidal wave, the calmness was unexpectedly rocked by a vehicle that swamped me from out of no-where. Catching me completely off guard, it appeared from behind and swerved in front of me, forcing me to steer my bike into the nature-strip that lay between the road and the footpath. Quite ungraciously I landed, legs entangled in bike, in full view of what at the time felt like and could have literally been hundreds of school children. Within an instant, a couple of girls who recognised me from school stepped forward to ask if I was hurt and if there was anything they could do. Already on my feet and re-positioning my helmet, I had somehow found a millisecond to capture a glimpse of the yellow volvo out of the corner of my eye, thus leading me to identify the driver.
Sheepishly, I found the words “No, it’s ok thanks. It’s just my mother”.
My crime that morning it appeared was to leave the house twenty minutes earlier than usual. This provoked the surveillance that lead to my road-side obstruction and public interrogation. The lighter side of me…the survivor inside…use to ponder if she had antennae micro chipped in her head. But these thoughts came to soothe me usually of a night time as I would reflect upon the maddening ludicrousness of it all. It did not help soothe or shield a sensitive teenage self-esteem from the effects of the behaviour that would act as a repellent to a peer group for whom such bizarre displays were not acceptable, let alone comprehensible.