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And Then Like My Dreams
By Margaret Rose Stringer
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2013 Margaret Rose Stringer
All rights reserved.
ALL OF IT
I dwelt in interior darkness, when I was thirty-one. I lived inside my head without any idea of what was happening to me, fear my only companion.
And then there was light.
Out of nowhere, as if by magic, when I was as low as I had ever been or thought it possible to be, someone came to save me. He offered me unconditional and non-judgemental love, and hoped only for the same from me.
The best part was that I was saving him, too.
It was 1 anno Carli, and the world began.
* * *
Another thirty-one years passed before the light failed.
Very late one terrible night I stood beside the one who had saved me, he who was everything I had ever wanted or needed, my hand resting helplessly on his shoulder as he lay on a wheeled stretcher in a little room off a corridor near Emergency. They had just released him from there, and his back was propped high so that he could breathe.
A few tears drifted slowly down one of his cheeks; and what little measure I had of ability to process thought started to eke away, even as did his tears.
I had no comprehension of how we had got to this: where had my husband gone? — who was this person undergoing such dreadful suffering ...?
I was unable to speak to him.
He had so little time left; and I stood there, unable to speak to the man with whom I had stormed heaven.
All I knew was that half my life had been bound to this joy, and it was about to fly away forever.
A gossamer thread of sanity touched me, the contact brief.
I bent and kissed his head.CHAPTER 2
BACKLIGHT AND FILL
One April day in Melbourne, a bit before the world began, my second-eldest sister summoned me. She knew I was on studio duty that week and not out on film crew, so she phoned me at work and — well, yes, summoned me . As I was then flatting in South Yarra and she and her husband living in their Warrandyte (semi-) rural idyll, it seemed a bit strange, for these two suburbs are at more than a little distance. But I, with an awful lot of stuff going on in my head, didn't dwell on the strangeness once having remarked it to myself: I merely took a couple of trains and a bus and puffed up the hill, arriving just in time, I hoped very much, for dinner.
Jo wanted to let me know, face-to-face, that on that same ordinary workday morning, over in Perth where we were born, our father had laid his head gently on his desk-blotter and given up the struggle.
He was sixty-four.
There was a long history of cardiovascular problems: no one could be surprised. Our mother had nursed him during the previous ten years, on and off; and I later learned that last rites had been performed on him more than once.
He had been the axis of my unstable world, as my sister, the person to whom I was closest and whom I loved only secondmost to Dadda, understood very well. But there wasn't much she could do for me, for her heart, too, was broken. She had a husband and new baby to look after and, being unable to afford herself the luxury of deep grief, couldn't share mine in other than thought.
The sun was setting as my brother-in-law drove me all the way back to South Yarra; and by the time I trudged wretchedly into my flat, darkness surrounded me.
Home had ceased to exist.
* * *
Father's genes had manufactured nothing but X chromosomes, and our extremely clever but emotionally incompatible parents produced nothing but daughters. I was the fourth of five, and for nine years the baby. When the last arrived there was maternal suspicion that she had stolen the wind of 'the littlest' from my sails, but such was far from the case: I adored the beautiful little creature — everyone did.
My mother didn't like me very much, her dislike springing from the unacceptable fact that I was fat. I was the only one to carry excess poundage: the other four were, as well as clever and good-looking, without physical failing. My 'avoirdupois', as it came to be referred to in pseudo-tactful family fashion, varied between regimens: I launched myself or was thrust by Mama upon many, with unfailing success — until I stopped dieting, when every lost ounce would almost instantly reappear and rush to reclaim its old familiar spot, bringing along a few friends.
It seems that from the time I was put into a highchair for my meals I displayed an impressive ability to put away food; and keeping track of the top end of my range developed into a family amusement. In fact, my appetite was often presented as an act when there were other people eating with us:
Last time Mummy made galuptzi Margie Rose ate five! — she might eat SIX tonight!
I revelled in the attention, and it provided me with an ongoing excuse for being a greedy little girl: Mama served up her amazing meals and I put them away with encouragement and gusto.
I can say with absolute honesty that in my earliest gormandising years I don't remember anyone telling me not to make a pig of myself. That was saved until I was old enough for the avoirdupois to have settled itself with a grateful sigh into all nooks and crannies, creating general convexity — when attempts to be rid of it became very hard yakka indeed. By then cuteness had faded and my hair had stopped being a mass of curls; and it was generally agreed that for me to be fat was not normal — for such was the general view, back then.
Yes, I do have a memory like an elephant. For some things.
* * *
I don't mean to paint a picture of a miserable childhood: in fact it was a time of fierce family loyalty. Self-identification was as part of my family, and I was intolerant of those who didn't match the cleverness with which I was habitually surrounded. There was no deliberation on the part of our parents to set up this situation (at least, I don't believe so); but we grew up without mixing with others — except for the family who, by a quirk of fate, lived next-door: being equally intelligent and well-educated, they were totally acceptable.
My family was a kind of closed shop, into association with which only those of a certain level of intellectual capacity were admitted. We children had our school friends, of course; but our parents never socialised with theirs, and we assumed that was how all families operated.
I suspect that, really, my parents' only true common ground was their enormous intelligence; and because of it they put too much emphasis on their children's.
It's from within this very small circle that come all my memories from childhood. There are flashes, for instance, of us kids putting on concerts, for which we erected a kind of curtain across one end of the lounge room: I would stand in front of it and sing, vamping to fill for as long as was required while sisters changed costumes, props, etc., then emerged to perform.
All my childhood joy, I realise now, belongs to that period when I was young enough for my size not to matter.
I was truly happy as a little girl; when those I loved would brush my hair and kiss me.
* * *
Years later, old enough to understand the baggage that came with being fat, I found I could cloak my shame through force of personality.
My beloved father was one (unwitting) source of this, furnishing me with a lifelong covert: he made me understand that the whole world comprises merely multiples of one person; that it doesn't matter by how many others one is faced, because the sum total is actually just one individual replicated by
But my mother's declared dislike of my outward appearance must have made me resentful, I suppose; and eventually I started to counter the didactically-pronounced opinions she was in the habit of uttering, thus breaking the unspoken family rule of going along with her for the sake of peace. I have no idea of the source from which I derived the strength to do this, and it didn't come about until my midteens; but at some point I found that smiling and nodding, and then rolling my eyes when her back was turned, just wasn't enough for me. I took to the barricades. So it's probably understandable that she felt as she did: she must have seen me as not only fat and therefore unattractive, but also disagreeable and argumentative. I don't know if my mother ever considered the possibility that my being fat had made me who I was.
Her interpretation of the maternal rôle was to give us every material thing we needed — often at cost to her own ease or leisure — and I will readily admit she never stinted. She was a cordon bleu cook; a top-class dressmaker, who made most of our clothes; she cut our hair; she came up with everything we needed for our many and diverse school activities; she dragged us off to the family doctor to have our little arms jabbed with preventative needles for everything she read or heard about — oh, there are far too many things she did for us for me to remember them all! She went back to work in her middle years: with a University of Western Australia arts honours degree and a Dip. Ed. from her youth, she was a brilliant linguist and had mastery over several European modern and ancient tongues. She was awarded the Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French government for services to that country's language . She later taught it at our school: I studied under her for my last two years, and my much younger sister throughout her education, and she was a very good teacher indeed. My mother was without a doubt the cleverest and most able woman I have ever known.
But I had to find out about puberty by writing to someone without a name, a so-called nurse at a pharmaceutical company, whose address I found on the side of an empty tampon packet discarded by one of my older sisters. And I wasn't provided at home with a single 'fact of life'.
* * *
Father, during his leisure hours, was wont to swan about amongst his women — wife, daughters and always a live-in maid — being doted on and scattering the largesse of his formidable wit and charm. Not long after the youngest had become one of the company his audience shrank; for the eldest left to study how to become holy, the second-eldest to teach others how to study, and the third to study how to be married — the rates of success varying. After these departures, Dadda had only me and my little sister for audience, and I suspect the radical change in statistics was hard for him.
The first four of his children adored him (further on in time, the youngest was left on her own, at twelve, to be raised by parents then middle-aged — a whole different ball game, and one that drew her closer to our mother), so I don't know that I can say I loved him most. I liked to think I did. Many years later I decided that his favourite had been my sister Carole, the next one up from me, with whom I shared a bedroom until I was — oh, something like fourteen, I think. She was 'a problem' for most of her short life; and I wondered if he had perhaps filled that rôle in his own family. I don't believe any of us was ever told about his childhood, so that's only surmise.
It was I alone, however, who shared something with him: a particular — I can't think of the right word ... failing? weakness? Whatever it was, he discovered it and understood, doing his best to help me without exposing me to the common gaze (for I think I held up to my father an imperfect mirror). This can only be explained by relating a small anecdote from a period somewhere before my puberty.
The family was on the point of going out to dine at a local hotel — a most unusual event in the context of Mother's brilliant cooking. There's nothing in my memory about why we were going to do this; I know only that matching the strangeness of the imminent outing was what was happening to me — for I was feeling really weird.
I went to the kitchen, got a glass of water and swallowed the pill; and within quite a short time I felt perfectly normal again, all strangeness gone. No other family member had noticed anything.
Whatever that pill was, it must have been his own lifeline to the world, and he threw it to me.CHAPTER 3
INTO THIS HOUSE WE'RE BORN
Our parents loved us in their fashion. I have to write it like that, for I don't remember them actually saying as much – and yet I feel fairly sure that they did. There seems to be an enormous gap in my memory about all that kind of thing. I can only summon up images like that of myself at sixteen, swearing I would never, ever have children, for I might have a daughter who would think about me as I thought about my mother! – but I'm unable to remember the subject of the bitter disagreement of that day.
I do know they were good people and did their best to be good parents: Father was the provider, the senior partner in a Perth legal firm started by his own father; and Mother not only performed all the chores mentioned but assisted with the providing when she went back to teaching in her fifties. I suppose I'm saying I wish I could remember physical contact throughout this good parental care – hugs and kisses given and received as an ongoing part of life. Or that I could look back and see myself as a genuinely loved and wanted part of the family dynamic, rather than having that black hole in my memory with echoes of critical remarks about my size bouncing off its sides. Well: there must be many pleasant memories lurking, and presumably they'll come flooding back before long if what I hear about getting old is true ...
One thing I remember now, and very clearly, was parental drive for us all to achieve. After I gained a less than brilliant matriculation, they made it clear that I had failed them: I was not allowed to go to university, and my father decided on librarianship as a career for me. I'm obliged to admit that after initial brief raging I forgot about what might have been, and settled perfectly happily into my not outstanding career. For two years I had a great job at the public library in Fremantle, followed by another couple of years at the library of a teachers' college not far from where we lived, studying, the while, for exams – passing the first easily, failing the next and then not even sitting. Father attributed this to the boyfriend I by then had (whom he didn't like, so the attribution appealed). If he'd known that my boyfriend had decreed we were to be virgins when we wed but was screwing the wife of a married couple who were part of our group for almost the whole time we were together (as I and the young woman's husband discovered after a couple of years), 'didn't like' wouldn't have covered it.
Nevertheless, he arranged the purchase of my first car: it was a brand-new Mark I Mini – light green, and the pride of my life. I gave no thought to how long it would take to pay off the £763 : it was never my habit to think further ahead than about half an hour. But after several months I pranged it – not entirely my fault, I insist to this day – and split my face open, having to be carried off to hospital, fainting, by some Good Samaritans. My father, driving home from work that day, saw my Mini on the side of the road with its front caved in before anyone had contacted the family: when he eventually arrived in my hospital room he appeared to have aged ten years. This puzzled me a lot, for a while; then I simply forgot about it.
I'd been out of school and working for those four years when he decided to send me away to earn my living in 'the Eastern States': Mama and I had been growing daily more irascible with each other, so irresistible logic says she would've egged him on in taking this fairly draconian step. I'd shown that I wasn't going to be successful at the less interesting aspects of librarianship, and he remained deeply worried about the cause of my accident, believing it associated with my boyfriend. As well, his own poor health meant he needed peace and quiet; and there was parental consensus that all these problems would be solved by the simple expedient of locating Margie Rose somewhere else.
But in spite of breaking up with the boyfriend and facing the ongoing difficulty of living with Mother, I had no wish to go: I fought my eviction with everything I had.
It wasn't enough.
Some time after the big party for my twenty-first I was packed off, wanting only to continue living in the loved house in which I'd spent all but my first two years – though there was an undeniably attractive element in getting away from Mother (on both sides, to be sure).
Excerpted from And Then Like My Dreams by Margaret Rose Stringer. Copyright © 2013 Margaret Rose Stringer. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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Table of Contents
ALL OF IT,
BACKLIGHT AND FILL,
INTO THIS HOUSE WE'RE BORN,
INTO THIS WORLD WE'RE THROWN,
ONSET OF WINTER,
IN THE COLD DARK,
HERE COMES THE SUN,
SHALL WE ...?,
HOW NOT TO WHISTLE,
TO THE ISLAND,
HAND TO MOUTH,
THE WAY WE WERE,
GIOIOSI IN ITALIA,
TURNING INTO TRAVELLERS,
THE TINY SUBURB,
AGAIN BUT NEVER AGAIN,
THIS IS HOW IT IS,
AND THEN LIKE MY DREAMS,
PRAY, LOVE, REMEMBER ...,