Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Wildflower Dreams - A seventy year story

Do flowers have memories? Do houses have memories? Or perhaps more to the point, what memories might they hold for us. I recently re-read David Malouf's "12 Edmondstone Street", his remembering of his childhood home in West End, Brisbane. To my surprise this piece, published in 1985 was much more than a piece of nostalgia. It was about memory itself and the slippery and very personal nature of it. Malouf begins as if this is a charming evocation of his parents house in which he grew up and ends talking about its homo-erotic connections. His growing awareness of himself as separate from his family. An early coming of age story. It covers the period of the early 1940s.
     My mother had her version of a coming of age experience also in the 1940s. In her case it took place in Western Australia, far from her home town of Sydney. She was in Perth towards the end of WWII working for the Post Office, driving delivery trucks, she told us. She would have been 26 - 28. It was her big adventure.
     The only remaining evidence of that adventure is a book of wildflowers that she collected and pressed. They have sat in various cupboards for more than 70 years. And I am now their guardian. But what meaning do they have? What is the point in keeping them? Can they tell me anything about what was my mother was like in 1946 when she collected and pressed them?      
     They are beautiful and beautifully presented - despite the brittle backing paper which is beginning to disintegrate. Disintegrating faster now that I have taken an interest in them. Ironically they seem to want to disappear from my view as if to make a point. Her neat handwriting adorns each page naming each flower. The writing is as delicate as the flowers they describe.
     I am aware that there is a risk here of being drawn into sentimentality; to ascribe qualities to her that reflect well on her; to remember her as I'd like to. An innocent young girl visiting a girlfriend in Perth. A hardworking and funloving kid in her mid twenties. A shy, cautious girl. For all I know she might have been a hellraiser, dating a different boy every night. A wild girl. As a son who only knew her as a devoted mother that seems out of character; beyond my experience of her but.....
     And then there's the wildflowers. On the surface an innocuous hobby. But people are never one thing. A wildflower fascination might have been the counterpoint to something altogether different. Without other evidence I am stuck.
     But what took 'Tottie'  (her nick name) to WA? I'll never know. She's gone. We heard this story of little 'tottie', all 4ft 11in of her, many times but I can't remember asking her why she was there. Perhaps we did, but I can't remember her answer.
     I did something similar twenty five years later. Perhaps we all have that story. The time we enter adulthood. In my case I ran away to Tasmania. I was having my existential breakdown. I was lost. Confused as to my place in the world. I had just read Jean Paul Sartre. Nausea. It all made sense. Alone in the world. Make your own way. So I ran. I stood on the side of Ipswich Road, Brisbane, stuck my thumb out and began my hitch hike south. My adventure. Tasmania turned out to be my destination but any other would have sufficed. At the time it seemed to be as far away from my Brisbane reality as was imaginable. It was only accessible by sea. Anywhere other than Brisbane and my old familiar connections and friends. Tasmania saved me.
     My mother chose Perth. The other side of the continent, similarly as far as possible from her home. Was that what my mother did. Was it her existential crisis? Her coming of age?
     She loved her adventure. I got the impression it was her leap towards independence. She joked that she could barely reach the brake and clutch pedals of her delivery truck, let alone see over the steering wheel. It was a period when Australia needed women in the workforce. The men were at war or recovering post war or just gone. It was a window of opportunity for her. She loved work. That is one thing that these wildflowers help me remember. Unusually for a woman of her generation she worked throughout her life returning to the workforce after we kids were off her hands at school. She was fiercly proud of that short period. It helped define her. Strangely she never drove the family car over the next fifty years but was determined to retain her drivers licence for that long duration. God help us if she had needed to take her place behind the steering wheel in an emergency.
     Strange that these flowers are here and she is absent. Despite the fact that these bloomed for just one season they have outlived my mother. And now I struggle with how best to create a memory with some meaning for future generations. What will they make of it? That she was a flower lover? She was much more than that.  She was a terrible gardener. And this is part of the conundrum.
     Did I ever really get to know my mother? The honest answer is no. She remained an enigma to me. Her inner life is a mystery to me. I'm sure she had her own dreams, some she fulfilled others she failed to. But she only ever shared those dreams with me in tangential ways. Sometimes I was just not alert enough to hear her story in a way that would help me know her. Even enter her world for a moment.
     Her love of literature is a case in point. She made much of the fact that she had passed the Intermediate level in NSW (the equivalent to year 10). Quite an achievement for a girl from a working class family in Kingsgrove in Sydney. She loved poetry and literature. The English poets. We had few books in the house but among the few was a copy of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" (which I never saw her open ), a collection of English classic poetry that she would occasionally quote, and a copy of Dickens "David Copperfield" dated September 6, 1935 (a seventeen year old). She wrote. I never took her seriously. In fact it was a small embarrassment. She would occasionally share her writing but the reality was she had no one to share this with; no one to care; no one to encourage her. Ironic that I have, many years later, taken up writing, something she might have enjoyed and perhaps been good at.
     I sense that in a household of men with a husband who was an avid reader but not of the classics (my father left school at year 8 to work in the cane fields of Northern NSW), she was stuck in a literary limbo.
     So I have her wildflower collection. A statement left by her to assert her presence in the world. Her insistence that the world around her was something she was connected to. She was a good mother. Loving. Generous. Patient. Living in a house 1000 kilometres from  her two sisters. I suspect that ultimately she was alone despite my father's deep love for her. Both Malouf and Satre explore this reality. Malouf by exploring his inner and outer life of himself as a child; Satre in his novel creating the classic existential character.
     Perhaps the message these flowers have sent me is like life, full of contradictions, confusion, uncertainty. 'Look at me and enjoy my beauty but don't interfere with me or I will disappear';  'Allow me to conjure up memories but don't mistake memory for truth';  'I'm still here but in a different form. Life is transient'.
     My present task is to preserve this link to my mother for the next generation.  Will they be interested? Will the collection simply get dumped in the big cleanup when I go. I will be here for maybe another twenty years but these flowers could last another hundred years. Maybe longer. It's a task that requires some belief in continuity. In a humanity that values the past as well as the future.