While I am away in New York City for a couple of weeks, a fantastic group of elderbloggers and elderblog readers agreed to fill in for me. Today it is Gillian Bouras, an Australian writer who has lived in the Peloponnese, Greece, for many years. Her journalism has been published in six countries, and she has written eight books, the latest of which, No Time for Dances.
When you’ll never see sixty again, it’s a ludicrous business, that of having to deal with a Wicked Stepmother. But there you go: life just keeps on getting stranger. In fact, my WS, as well as being just plain impossible, is impossible to deal with.
She didn’t kidnap my father precisely, although she snapped him up very soon after my mother died, but she certainly confiscated his paternal emotions, and then locked them away somewhere inaccessible. She also either stole or destroyed our family history. The books, the family Bibles, my mother’s embroidery and china have all disappeared. And so have the photographs.
I thought I’d never see any of the old snaps again, the more so as I live in Greece, so that the tyranny of distance complicates matters. Always. But then, out of the blue, a very old uncle sent me his rather battered album, a padded grey affair, bound in faded red cording, so that at least I can see my child-self, and remember my sister and cousins the way we were.
And I can observe how absurdly young my parents were to be parents. (The idea of my 28-year-old son having a four-year-old child is almost as ludicrous as my having to cope with WS.)
The informal wedding photos are there: groom in uniform, bride in a borrowed dress too short for her. And I can smile over the little snippets of recall: That bouquet weighed a ton, Mum would say whenever the wedding photos were trotted out.
There are pictures of our paternal grandparents, on whom we doted, and even some of the great-grandparents we never knew.
I’m glad I have this album, but in a sense I do not need it. Going back is easy: one blink and I am there, seeing not rocks, tufted mountains, olive trees and cypresses, but a maze of Melbourne’s suburban streets edged by clipped nature strips, each of which had a clipped prunus tree planted dead-centre.
At the heart of the maze is a wide bitumen road along which the milkman’s and the baker’s horses still clopped when I first went there, and where Nana, five feet nothing and in her night clothes, once held tightly on to the reins of the milkman’s horse, which had bolted, leaving a dawn trail of splintered glass and greasy milk.
At the end of that bitumen road there was another, threaded by tram track, an indicator of a different world. Every morning Uncle Lionel, Nana’s brother, walked to the Number 57 tram. My sister and I, visiting, heard its faint rattle as it bore him away to The Shop. We heard its clack as it brought him back again to the same greeting every evening.
“You’re late, Lionel.”
“Am I, Harriett?”
Nana and Uncle Lionel, both widowed, lived together in No. 7, an austere place, I now realize. We didn’t realize it then. On the mornings of our visits we were permitted to watch our great-uncle while he shaved with a cut-throat razor, an old-fashioned tool even at that time.
This ritual took place in a very basic bathroom: the bath itself had a permanent green stain trickling downwards and clawed feet, and was filled by means of a lethal weapon: a gas heater. This monster was activated by a lit match, often held in trembling fingers: sixty years ago, mini-explosions were an inevitable part of cleanliness.
We stood in the doorway and watched. Uncle Lionel’s razor strop, worn black with use, hung on the towel-rail, and the slender blade, ivory-handled, whished and swished along the leather before carving tracks through the foam on that white-skinned bony face. We held our breath as the wickedly sharp implement passed over his prominent Adam’s apple. But nothing ever happened, except the accomplishment of a perfectly smooth face.
I don’t need photographs to recall all these things, as I do quite often when sleep eludes me. Then I check off the details of Nana’s room, which was not as austere as the rest of the house, but rather reflected the tension in her, her dual nature with its clash between worldliness and other-worldliness.
On her chest of drawers resided her tortoise-shell vanity set: brush, comb and hand-mirror with matching tray, home to real hair-pins, not “those new-fangled bobby things.” A cheval mirror stood in one corner and on a satin pouffe next to the mirror reposed a most magnificent doll, dressed like Marie Antoinette down to the last detail of fake powdered wig and glittering high-heeled slippers.
But on the wall above the doll hung a print of Durer’s Hands of an Apostle, all ascetic fine lines, and near it was another, much larger picture: a tall Christ, be-robed and wearing a spiky crown of thorns, carried a shining lantern held low. His hand knocked at an ivy-mantled door, and beneath His feet a scroll unfurled itself and proclaimed the predictable message: I am the Light of the World. Holman Hunt, beloved of the Victorians, was the artist.
I tick all these things and more (the Bible, the Promise Box) off in my head, as it were. And before I finally drift off into sleep, I think: Time and decay may rob me of these snapshots of memory, but no Wicked Stepmother can.
EDITORIAL NOTE:While I am away, The Elder Storytelling Place is on hiatus. You can read past stories here. And if you are inclined, you could send in stories for publication when I return. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.