The divine Miss M

Big things come in small packages

Big things come in small packages

I LOVE how easily little children fall in love with things; their joy in new experiences and people.

This is especially true of my intense seven-year-old Amelia who hasn’t yet learned to play her emotional cards close to her chest.

She crushes hard on her toys, on newly-met kids in the park and writes passionate letters (and emails and text messages) to her teacher: “Miss S, I love you so much.”

Our home is littered with tender notes left on side tables, Valentines slipped quietly into pockets and drawers.

Then, there is M, our 16-year-old neighbour. A gentle, dark-haired girl who waves to us in the garden and once picked a red flower, passing it to Amelia over the short fence that separates our houses.

A rose by any other teenage girl would not smell nearly as sweet. And with that flower she did win Amelia’s sweet heart. Like, forever.

A few weeks ago, I found Amelia outside, pressed up against the fence, calling M’s name into the cooling night air. “M! Where are you?” There was a note of shyness in her voice, but there was hope too. Lots of hope.

Before I could wrangle her back inside, M suddenly appeared. She said, “I thought I heard you calling me! Let’s play a game.” And over our little fence, M joined hands with Amelia and showed her how to wrestle thumbs. They chatted and laughed together before parting ways.

It was a fleeting interaction, but it meant so much to Amelia. It solidified something growing steadily inside her. That longed for connection with another human being – friendship. She has so much love to give but not always the facility to show it or receive it.

Soon after, Amelia drew a special picture for her new buddy M. She spent a long time on it and together we put it into a special envelope covered in stickers and hearts. I said, “Should we go and give it to her now?” Um, is the Pope a Catholic?

M wasn’t home, so we left the letter in the safe hands of her younger brother. I forgot about it until the next day after Amelia went to school. I checked the letter box for the daily mail and instead found a small gift box and card inside.

It was addressed to Amelia, from M. I carefully took it out and held it in my hands, as though it was fragile, precious. And it was. I’d been worried Amelia’s intensity might be annoying to our teenage neighbour, but I was so, so wrong.

I put the gift inside, ready for its lucky recipient to return home. You’d be forgiven for thinking the present was for me, the way I paced around waiting for the school bus to arrive in our street, desperate to see its secret contents revealed.

FullSizeRender-1Amelia finally came home and I greeted her with the news falling urgently from my lips, “Baby, M left you a present, it’s inside!”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. “M? For me?”

“Yes, for you! Let’s go!”

We ran together into the house, jostling to reach the little box veritably pulsing with life on the kitchen bench. The card contained a beautifully penned thank you note from M. Amelia’s picture had made her day, so here was something in return. Just for her.

Inside the box was a silver chain with a pretty circular pendant depicting a tree. A thing that grows. Like the friendship between a loving deaf, autistic girl and her sweet teenage neighbour.

They are separated by nearly ten years of age and the small fence that separates our houses. M doesn’t always understand what Amelia is trying to say, and my little one misses plenty of sounds and what they mean.

But these things are not barriers; the distance between Amelia and M is remarkably short. When they touch hands and laugh and send each other letters they are just two girls reaching out to each other and finding a friend.

The kite runner

12794847_10154062443205127_6526109824158844762_oSHE ONLY let go of his hand for a moment, all the better to chase the colourful kite sailing above their heads. Her arms are raised, as though she can touch the clouds or pull the kite to her with an invisible string clasped in her hands.

The cool breeze brushes against her bare forearms, her face tilted skywards. There’s nothing so perfect as a March day when the heavens are smiling so wide you can almost see their teeth.

The kite is tethered but it is free and so is she. Tethered to her father standing close behind but out of view; free as the kite soaring into the blue.

She follows its path along the clouds, running to catch up but it is forever out of reach. No matter, the joy is in the chasing not the catching.

They had only planned on the park and slides and maybe swings, not kites. Nothing so special as that. They were a surprise bonus.

As was the wonder their simple appearance brought out in her. The thrill in her voice when she came home to tell me that, “We saw kites, Mum! It was a kite festival.” Festival. It’s a new word for her but her voice is clear and true. I understand perfectly.

And the happiness on her Dad’s face, “She held my hand for ages. She sat and painted her face with the other children. She made a little book inscribed with her name. And danced. We both danced.”

They both danced. The kite was reeled in at festival’s end but the magic went on in their heads. All night long.

 

 

In dreams, you’re mine

baby-photographyWE WERE at dinner with friends when I saw the bonny baby at the next table. A new-born covered in a light muslin wrap, protected from the too-cool air inside.

His mother was cuddling him in the warmth of her arms. She rocked him back and forth, swaying rhythmically in her seat.

Her beloved one had just woken without protest, but she was soothing him with the closeness of her body, the soft murmuring on her lips.

I was mesmerised. Trapped in a zone with them I could never truly share.

There were no tears from him, no raucous babble; he simply stared up at her with fixated wonder. His mother.

The yearning inside me was powerful, like I’d been sucker punched without warning. It hurt in a distant part of myself I’ve tried to bury. But it’s always there; it grows stronger with age.

It rears its ugly head sometimes when I pass a pram in the street and glimpse the soft skin of infant feet, bouncing with the movement created by the street. My stomach lurches; I look away.

Or like the day when I was walking behind a man carrying a sleeping child in his arms and I put my hand out as if to touch a silken baby cheek. They moved out of reach and I let my possessed hand fall back by my side.

Every so often I cross the road to save myself the heartache. I don’t always have a choice.

This night, I stopped the conversation at our table mid-stream: “Oh god, look at that beautiful baby. Just there. He’s so sweet! Look how tenderly she’s holding him.”

My companions politely indulged me for a moment. I wanted to go over and hold that baby to my chest with a ferocity of feeling that shocked me.

It took all of my strength to resist the urge, but I wrangled it, pushed that dreadful longing down into the dark where it belongs. There’s no cure for it anyway.

So, I don’t tell anyone that it’s there. It’s a private pain that ebbs and flows.

Instead when I’m asked by strangers for the millionth time why we “only” have one child, I say: “No, I can’t have any more children, but really we were happy to have ‘just’ one.”

Or: “IVF was so very hard that we didn’t have the strength to go through it all again.”

And: “Our daughter has challenges and needs so much extra help and support. It was meant to be this way.”

We are lucky. We live with grief. But we have no regrets.

Soil searching

Up the garden path

Up the garden path, with rose petals

I have something shocking to report.

Something disturbing has happened to me in the wash-up of recent traumatic events.

I never thought this would happen to me as we put the pieces of our little family back together and started to breathe again.

Okay, here goes. I have become … an avid gardener. You heard.

I’m the newest green thumb on the suburban block. A woman with soil permanently wedged beneath her previously manicured fingernails and dirt marks smudged proudly on a rouged cheek.

Marks from the earth are my new war paint. I am obsessed and there is no stopping me now I have started.

There is still no cessation of the intense energy (mania) that drives me from morning to night, but you can’t have everything. And, after all, how much pruning could I achieve without such boundless energy?

The garden has never looked so luscious and cared for in the ten years I have nurtured and neglected it in equal measure.

It started with small steps out in the backyard. My husband was in hospital and after my daughter Amelia went to sleep at night, I’d find myself sitting on the cool ground outside, tearing out weeds and overgrown tendrils of grass.

My hands needed to work so that my rattled mind could stop churning, even as the daylight faded and I could no longer see the garage for the trees. So work is what I did, for days and nights on end.

My partner in garden crime

My little partner in garden crime

I rejected gloves outright, preferring to connect with the often harsh textures of the garden. I endured deep cuts, broken nails, rose thorn splinters, and the pitter-patter of arachnid legs down my arm (eek).

The abrasions on my body at the end of the day satisfied me somehow. They were a positive sign of the exertions that were holding me together.

From weeds, I turned to the wild native shrubs that had suffered from months of inattention. They were locked in a permanently coiled dance, branch arm in tortured arm, plant figures robbed of distinct identities.

I took up my gardening shears and hacked and slashed at these shapeless masses with violent zeal. Sweat ran down my back from the effort, from the sun beating down on my pale skin. But I didn’t feel anything. I was too busy to care.

Inside the frenzy of my activity there was always method, always control. A sense of creating something new with my bare hands and sharp steel. Of taming and cultivating. Surviving.

I was an amateur gardener but I felt like an artist. I stood back to survey the landscape; feral forms had been transformed into shapely bushes with breathing space to call their own.

One willowy tree, previously choked by an untamed knot of green mess, was now free to stand tall and swing high in the breeze.

At night I would stand at the back window and press my hands to the glass, looking out at the garden. My garden. I was changing it for the better; my influence was everywhere.

In the newly planted pots of blooming flowers in pink and blue. Or the water trickling down the path post an evening soaking session for my thirsty friends.

In the dark hours of wakefulness over the next few weeks I would imagine new garden beds. And then in the morning I would set about bringing them to life.

Hanging terrariums dotted with shells collected from some forgotten beach. Plans to convert an arid corner of our property into a secret succulent garden. The movement created by long-limbed plants covered in bright blooms, tucked beneath our Crepe Myrtle tree.

Once the garden had taken root in my imagination, I couldn’t let it go.

Amelia joined me on my intense botanical mission. She lovingly tended to her own little patch of green things; her strawberry plant, the flowers, the tomatoes, mint, kale and parsley (she is a child of Melbourne’s hip northern suburbs after all).

Blooming for the first time

Blooming for the first time

And all of this watched over by a cheeky little garden gnome and a solemn statue of a girl who used to care for my Nan’s own garden before she died.

Our afternoons of toil would usually end the same way – with us covered in mud and Amelia stripping off her clothes to play under the delicious cold spray from the hose.

We grew things, re-shaped them and made them come alive again. One native shrub received some much-needed pruning and water treatment. Weeks later I spotted glorious, bright pink flowers appear on its spiky branches.

In all the years since it was planted, I have never seen those flowers before. It made me so happy to see them, such a generous response to the love I had finally given it.

And though our world isn’t spinning so fast anymore, life is returning to something approaching normal, I feel forever changed by the experience.

I need to be in the garden now, not just to distract myself from pain or worry. It’s a part of me; I’ve poured my soul into it and so we are bound together.

At night, I am uneasy if I haven’t at least dug my hands briefly into the soil or splashed some water over the beds, tucking my plants in for the night.

I step out onto the porch and take my time to look out across the garden towards our worn-out picket fence.

I soak up the warm night air and gaze happily at recent nursery additions now flourishing, and frown over a young plant failing to thrive.

Tomorrow I will endeavour to restore it to good health and hope to find some peace for myself. Just for a little while.

For VR who shares my love of gardening and is a kindred spirit in more ways than one.

Amelia’s midnight garden

She whispered me her nightmare
Crouched in the quiet of the dark
She said
A man-sized cat came out of the garden
And the dirt behind the bushes
Had shifted and lifted up to
Cover her tiny mouth.

Her dark eyes were moon-like
As she clutched my hand
Too hard
And spoke her tale of dread
Of animals not being what they should
And the dirt doing what it could
To cut her voice dead.

My own eyes looked up and out
Beyond the window to the trees
To catch
Signs of the dream in her head
Of lurking feline giant shapes
And murderous soil creeping up
To kill us in our beds.

I whispered softly to my love
It was only a movie in your mind
Not real
Then I signed away her final fears
And sang a song she could not hear
About night-time cats now sleeping
And the garden dirt forever still.

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Thursday afternoon fever

“The main challenge I’ve had is dealing with society’s belief that since deaf people can’t hear, they can’t dance. What people forget or do not yet know is that we all hear with our bodies before the sound enters our ears. This is not just through vibration but also through instinct and impulse.” – Jo Dunbar, deaf choreographer and dancer.

Leave nothing behind.

Leave nothing behind.

WHO SAID deaf kids can’t dance? Or respond to music, the rhythm in the air, their feet, or in their hearts?

Not me. Not after I saw my sassy six-year-old Amelia and her fellow classmates bring their best jazz hands and a whole lot of funk (is my age showing?) to an afternoon dance concert worth remembering. For like, ever.

We knew Amelia had been working with Jo Dunbar from Deaf Can Dance every week. Some nights she’d come home and try out some sweet new freestyle moves on the lounge room rug and I felt sure she must have been watching repeats of Breakdance (no judgement) as part of her training.

She’s no private dancer. No, she demands a captive parental audience, and as usual when her rockin’ recital is done we are instructed to clap as she bows solemnly like the most respectable English gentleman in the county.

We were eager to see how this confident home practice would translate to the bright lights of the school stage. Because every event like this, no matter how small, brings with it a new sense of who our daughter is.

Standing in front of a crowd I see more of Amelia’s true self than when she is in repose or playing by herself in the garden. The shifting expression on her face, the way she moves her hands, that tiny twitch of her bottom lip that signals shyness and something else. Something far more determined.

Like sardines, we packed into a small multipurpose room at the school; sweaty parents stacked on top of each other like a human game of Jenga, jostling for the perfect view.

Jo introduced her drumming accompanist, Koffi Toudji – a veritable man mountain with incredible command of his instrument and the 50-odd children in the room. One wave of his giant hand was enough to magnetically draw the dancers from one side of the stage to the other.

Then we watched, as mini troupes of well-rehearsed kids with painted faces twirled onto the stage, guided by Jo’s conducting hands and the deep, resonant boom of Koffi’s drum. It was a wonderfully rich sound that seemed like it was emanating from inside the walls.

We felt it reverberate through our own bodies, and saw its impact on the smaller bodies dancing on stage. The beat was powerful and intoxicating, pounding in my chest alongside my heart doing the rest.

If my smile had stretched any wider it might have fallen off my face.

And the dancers. They came in all shapes, sizes and abilities, but they held nothing back. Deafness was no barrier to their instinctive feeling for the music, nor their sense of rhythmic movement in response to it.

If one performer lost their way, another (or a patient teacher) would quickly gather them back into a carefully choreographed circle or tap them with a reminder of what to do. They danced with passion and with pride, in themselves and each other.

Warrior #1

Warrior #1

Finally it was Amelia’s turn. I couldn’t get a clear view of her, but I did see her little hips swinging with great verve and her intense concentration as she executed the steps she’d been practicing for weeks.

Sometimes she would get lost in her search for our faces in the crowd, but the distraction was only fleeting. She quickly got her groove back.

Then it was time for Amelia to bang on her own little bongo and I saw the raw delight on her face when it was time to pause and shout a barbaric yawp at the rafters. She looked like a warrior and she sounded like one too.

My husband and I clutched each other’s hands and laughed loudly with pleasure at how free Amelia was, how open and entirely herself. It felt like we were stealing a glimpse of something she didn’t mean for us to see.

At the close of her last performance, Amelia stood and did her uniquely refined doff and bow. She held no feathered hat in her hand but her gesture was so expressive I imagined I saw its soft, wide brim brush the floor.

She danced with sheer joy to the thunderous beat of Koffi’s drum, and more joyfully still, to the one you can’t see; the one that beats inside her, ever constant and true.

Remembrance of things past

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

A FEW months ago I was in the car with my parents when my Dad started telling me a story from his adolescence that I hadn’t heard before.

I thought I knew all of his stories, but that day I discovered there are some tales not so easily told, even some 50 years after they happened.

Even my Mum, who’s known him her whole life, had only learned about it the year before.

If you flew a helicopter over the landscape of my Dad’s teenage years, it would look a bit like a war zone in the aftermath of a most terrible battle.

Smoke rising from shattered structures once recognisable as buildings. Emptiness. Despair.

He grew up in a corner terrace house facing Windy Hill in Essendon, with his loving grandparents, parents and two siblings. By the time he was 14 years old, nearly everybody was gone. Dead, dying, disappeared, lost.

The disintegration of his family unit was startlingly rapid, most of it vanishing quickly in the space of only two years.

By the summer of 1965, my Dad and his younger brother were alone in that big terrace house once filled with the sounds of familiar voices and adult footsteps on the stairs.

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Dad surrounded by his grandparents and father (1951)

Within a few weeks they would be turned out of this home, but for a short time it was still theirs. An anchor to a simple family life already past, never to return.

Around this time, my Dad remembers a family friend would visit most days, drink beer and chat to him. He was an Army man like my grandfather and Dad began to regard this man as a father figure in the absence of all others who might fit the bill.

Dad told me that his family had a dog then who had become pregnant and had given birth to three tiny pups.

My Dad has a tough exterior but he’s actually a massive softy when it comes to animals. I’ve seen him hand-feeding magpies and worrying over the welfare of their young.

He watched over his little canine family too, taking special care of them. I can see him now, his sweet face hovering over their sleeping spot out the back of the house. He would have treasured them and wanted to make sure they were alright.

But they weren’t going to be alright. Not in this story, pulled from the wreckage of his teenage years. I couldn’t see his face as he told it but there was something in the tone of his voice that made me sit up straight.

I leaned in despite myself. I didn’t want to hear anymore but it wasn’t for me to stop him in the telling.

The family friend was visiting late one night. He went out to use the outdoor loo and came back with a story of his own.

He’d killed the pups, he told my Dad roughly. With the back of an axe. They had distemper, he said.

I’d known something bad was coming but hearing the worst thing is different to merely imagining it. Hearing makes it real and you can’t wash it away no matter how hard you might wish it.

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My Dad can still remember reeling in shock and horror as he took in this news. That this man who he’d begun to trust and rely on should commit such an act of senseless violence was shattering.

He didn’t think that his pups were sick at all. Killing them was about something else. Something darker inside the man’s mind.

Looking back, Dad can see that during this period he was trying in small ways to survive the things that were happening to him. Going to school. Playing footy and cricket. Tending to the newborn animals.

But stripped of the protective forces of his family, he was as vulnerable to the impact of an axe-blow as those poor, defenseless pups. Who could he tell anyway? There was no one left to listen.

And we can’t ask the man why he did it, no matter how often my Dad has tried to understand; the dead take their secrets to the grave with them. Let them stay there.

Not for the first time, I wanted to reach across time and rescue that lonely, young boy. Take all of his pain away. I can’t fathom it, what his life must have been like then.

I wish that I’d been there to protect him, to help him somehow. But the past is the past and Dad knows and accepts that better than anyone.

Dad in 1961.

Dad in 1961

I’ve asked him so many times why he isn’t more sad or angry about this time and he shrugs enigmatically as though the movement could cast off all the hurt he experienced as a boy.

I project my own pain for the boy he was onto the man he is today. But it’s not my story to shape, I’m just passing it on with his blessing.

My Dad is passionate about family history now, collecting and cataloguing hundreds of wonderful ‘lost’ images for all the family to see. They’re a joy to him and a gift to us, so we can remember his people as they were and connect with his life before and after the reckoning of 1963-65.

It’s a more recent project for him, starting only in the last few years. I think he uses the pictures to reconstruct the life he once had and make it whole again.

The happy times, when all of the people he loved were still together and he could just be a boy who loved aeroplanes and playing sport and had his beautiful family wrapped around him, holding him tight.

* For my brave, wonderful Dad, thank you for trusting me to write about your life. I love you.