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Posts from the ‘Memory’ Category

Research on the road

December 5th, 2016

Eleanor

Now that it is summer here in Australia I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have two summers this year, and that I have yet to write about the research I did for my novel in the United States in July. I have taught a few seminars about researching for writing and spoken to many writer friends about this over the years, but I haven’t written about how I use different types of research while writing a novel. So here goes.

My initial purpose of travelling to the US was to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop, but once I was well into the draft of this novel I realised how worthwhile it would be to research the gaps in my story as well. I am writing a novel about a war bride from Australia who meets and marries an American GI during World War II and subsequently moves to the US. Through Dr Robyn Arrowsmith, author of the fascinating social history All The Way To The USA: Australian WWII War Brides, I was introduced to several WWII war brides, two of whom I was able to visit with during my trip.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

First I flew into Los Angeles, for the dual purpose of visiting an old friend and to see the Queen Mary,
a retired ocean liner from the Cunard line which was used as a troop ship during WWII and also transported war brides from the UK to the USA after the war was over in 1946. While the Queen Mary was never used to transport Australian war brides, the original art deco interiors were similar to some of the ships which Australian war brides sailed on. The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach now as a hotel and tourist site, and my friend (who was eight months pregnant and had a two-year-old in tow) was kind enough to share me with the ship. We stayed on board (though she had heard it was haunted). We didn’t see ghosts, but I was delighted to see that the cabins were largely unchanged, with original built-ins and taps in the bathroom for seawater or freshwater. Read more

Easy versus hard won

March 17th, 2016

Eleanor

I saw Brooklyn a few days ago and I am still in its thrall. Those neat drab streets of Enniscorthy, the mother and sister at the wharf, the transformation of Eilis (played by the divine Saoirse Ronan) from girl into woman and oh yes, that yellow dress.

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

But it was also the sense of being torn between two places which I thought Brooklyn communicated so beautifully, so viscerally, through Eilis’ character. Colm Tóibín wrote about the filming of the adaptation in the Guardian recently, saying it was about feeling the pull “between the easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

I’ve been waiting years for someone to say that so succinctly. Thank you Colm.

And here is my shameful admission: I have not read the novel the film is based on. I tried six or seven years ago and put it down after a few chapters. Why? I can’t even recall. I promise I will try again.

The plot of Brooklyn is an age-old one. Young person leaves home for new opportunities. They return changed, and must decide which path their life will take, pulled in two directions. They are forced to stop being a child and to become a person accountable for their own decisions. Eilis goes to Brooklyn from Ireland to find work, her sister has organised it for her through an Irish priest she knows there. She isn’t certain she wants to go but there are no chances for her at home. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis is brought to her knees by homesickness, but this abates when she meets Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorelli (played by Emory Cohen) at a dance. Called back to Ireland for family reasons, she is torn between whether to stay or return. Between the “easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

In other hands, this film could have become trite, I can almost hear the sappy violins crescendo, but luckily the director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and the scriptwriter (Nick Hornsby) allowed the quietness, the focus on Eilis’ internal life and the small visual detail which was nostalgic without being twee.

This film does not have grand messages but small, familiar ones. Eilis is a woman of the 1950s and while she gains independence with her travel, this is ultimately a story about love. She is going to be a wife and mother. She is just not sure with whom.

Ellis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Meanwhile she is disloyal, she keeps secrets, she has a dark moment during which she does not know which way to turn. And when turn she finally does, I realised I had been holding my breath. How close it all was. How real it felt.

Maybe part of my love of Brooklyn is because it mirrors my own struggle with homesickness, being torn between countries, having moved to Australia for love. The America I know is changed now, not least because I have changed too. But still every time I return I feel the pull. That easy familiarity. As simple as driving again on the right side of the road. Creamer in my coffee. Lemon in my tea.

At one point in Brooklyn the priest tells Eilis that homesickness is like any sickness: you get over it more quickly than you anticipate.

I would say it is more like a broken bone, even years after it has healed it will suddenly, without warning, begin to ache.

The blind joke

February 1st, 2016

Eleanor

A man came to my house today to install new blinds on the windows, and I was reminded immediately of a joke that my Grandpa Bob used to tell. I’ve always been a terrible joke-teller – I forget the punch line or some other crucial aspect which makes it funny – but this joke I remember perfectly.

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, circa 1982

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, 1982

My Grandpa Bob died when he was in his seventies and I was about 16. He died of prostate cancer. Before that, he was a lawyer, a cigar smoker, a martini drinker, a motorcycle aficionado and a sharp-witted, gruff, sarcastic man. His nickname for me was Dingbat, because I was a scrawny kid and when he looked up the definition of dingbat it said “object suitable for throwing”. He was not (obviously) the hugging, praising, affectionate sort of grandpa. When the grandchildren came to him freshly bathed and pyjama-clad for a goodnight kiss, he gave goodnight chokes. It sounds strange (maybe I should be telling this to my therapist?) but he’d wrap his leathery, gin-and-tobacco-smelling hands around our skinny little necks and give us the gentlest, barest little squeeze, complete with choking sounds from us and growling sounds from him. It was a superb piece of bedtime theatre and probably served to hype us up rather than calm us down, but it was Grandpa Bob at his finest.

So was this joke. Inappropriate, of course, and not in the slightest bit politically correct, which is probably why I’ve remembered it all these years.

A woman is having a shower when the doorbell rings. She gets out to answer the door but can’t find her towel, so peeks through the blinds. There, standing at the front door is a man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads BLIND MAN. “Well,” she thinks, “doesn’t matter about the towel, then,” and she goes to answer the door naked. She opens the front door.

The man says: “Nice tits, lady, I’m here to fix your blinds.”

I still can’t believe that my adolescent self used to recite that joke. I can’t believe I’m telling it to you. I wish I could remember if he told it to me, or if he told it to the other grown-ups and I just overheard it. I almost repeated it to the man who came to install our blinds today, but using my better judgement I decided not to.

I guess you can tell how much I adored my Grandpa Bob. He was never going to conform to anyone else’s expectations, but in his own way, he let you know how much you were loved.

Snails

October 21st, 2015

Eleanor

snail-1550752-640x480When I was a girl my sister and I had pet snails.

We were living in Berlin, West Berlin, because the wall still cleaved the city in two. My father was working for the U.S. State Department – he was a Public Safety Advisor and did things like negotiate prisoner trades between East and West. We had a brick house with six bedrooms across the street from the Botanical Gardens. Before moving to Berlin my parents separated, my father had been having an affair, and he moved out of the house. We were going to live without him, just the three of us, my mother, sister and I. We were going to be fine. But then my parents reconciled and we were all moving to Berlin, packing our life, leaving our friends and home and beginning again in a different part of the world.

Next door to our new house lived a white-haired couple in a place resembling a castle – with actual turrets. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was very kind and had a beautiful garden with ponds and an aviary with parakeets. She grew gooseberries, plump green globules which – if eaten raw – caused the whole face to pucker. In the front of her house she grew lilies of the valley. She showed me how the tiny white flowers clustered and were protected by dark green, shiny leaves. She would bend down to instruct me to smell them, they were sweet but not cloying, a ethereal fragrance.

While gardening this neighbour collected the snails and gave them to us one day in a cracked glass terrarium which her children had once used, long ago. “You might want to cook them, in butter,” she said to my mother, smiling.

My sister and I insisted we would not. We would keep them as our pets. There were at least ten or fifteen snails in that terrarium, some large, some small, all with shells in varying shades of brown. Simply to watch them climb the glass wall was entertaining, the ripple of the muscle in their single foot as it moved, propelling on its own slime.

We took them out one by one, letting them climb us. They left shiny trails of snail mucous along our arms and legs. Snails are curious creatures, once they have figured out you are not a threat they poke out of their shells, tentacles first, then those long stretchy bodies, and explore. Touch a tentacle and it shrinks, but then extends again, seeking what it just repelled from.

We gave them lettuce and let them try different garden plants, watching their reactions, noting their favourite meals. If you are very, very still and quiet you can hear a snail crunching its dinner. There are few more delightful sounds. It is also a pleasure to lie in the grass with a snail slowly climbing your body, imagining yourself a mountain – a slime tracked island of eight-year-old girl. As for snail poo – it’s not even disgusting. Just black odourless pellets to flick away.

Snails make good friends when you have none, as do books, and elderly neighbours. But gradually my sister and I made friends with other children and moved beyond our backyard. I don’t remember what happened to the snails, but fortunately the terrarium had no lid. I imagine them escaping and making a slow trek back to the neighbour’s garden, to her beautifully tended plants and ponds. Our garden was the low-maintenance kind designed by embassy staff – a few thorny rosebushes, a swathe of lawn and hedges with prickly leaves – designed to repel rather than attract.

But I remember those snail bodies rippling against the glass, leaving shiny paths on my skin, showing me my own power, the things we see when we are still.

Now, in Australia, snails find their home in my mailbox, they seem to love the combination of damp, dark and junk mail. They make quick work of Domino’s flyers and coupons for maths tutoring, leaving paper pellet poos in their wake. I can’t bring myself to remove them. I just know that I have to collect the important mail within a day or so if I don’t want to find it riddled with holes, masticated by a ravenous snail mouth.

And I dread coming home, in the dark, and hearing that sickening crunch on the garden path. In the morning, a fragmented shell, a shrivelled body already black with tiny ants.

They always remind me of that time, the upheaval of my small world, the sense that everything can change in the blink of an eye.

Step carefully, they say. Don’t forget the power you hold.

Running away from home

February 11th, 2015

Eleanor

Last night after dinner my seven year old decided that she was going to leave home. She had been arguing with her brother and when I asked her to take a shower it was the last straw.

‘This house is so boring! This family is so boring! You are so boring!’

‘You’d like a new mummy then? A more exciting one?’ I regretted the words as soon as I said them. They sounded petty and childish.

She showered, put on pyjamas, grabbed her blanket and announced that she was running away.

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said, but she stomped outside.

‘I’m going to Melbourne,’ she said. ‘You can see me if you ever come to Melbourne.’ Read more

For my mother on her birthday

December 11th, 2014

Eleanor

Today* is my mother Nancy’s birthday – she is 67 years old. A few years ago she took up Zumba and she’s in great shape, her physical energy matching that of her mind. She reads nearly every word I write in some form or another, and she both encourages and critiques me.

Right now she is proofreading my 340-page doctoral thesis. Luckily for me, she has a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley, the title of which I remember after all these years seeing it in her basement, gathering dust: Repudiating the Self-Justifying Fiction.

My mother, centre, with kids, grandkids and her husband Rick.

My mother, in red, in Colorado this year. Surrounded by kids, grandkids, and her husband Rick.

Mom finished her PhD between giving birth to my sister and giving birth to me 18 months later. This was an 18-month period where my father was undergoing radiation therapy as he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ Disease. He was cancer-free by the time I was born, and while my mother did teach some English literature classes later she never took to academia. Instead she taught herself computer programming in the early 1980s and began working in information technology.** My father’s job was always the one which determined where we lived, since he was a foreign service officer, but my mother always found work of some sort of another, and combined that with the work of raising my sister and me.*** Read more

The small miracle of travel

August 8th, 2014

Eleanor

I have been away from my desk, visiting dear friends in the United States and taking the children to see their grandma and grandpa in Virginia. I was raised the child of a diplomat, with a suitcase in one hand and a passport in the other. (Figuratively, not literally – I was not trusted to hold my own passport until I left home!) To be en route somewhere else is one of my favourite places to be. What thrills me is to see this excitement in my children as well, they love adventure at five and seven years of age as much as I do at 37. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments of complete exhaustion and tears, and times when they missed the dog and their own beds.

Most of the time, though, they were:securedownload

Jumping off a diving board. Seeing a skunk. Watching their first fireworks on the fourth of July. Sitting in the cockpit of an commercial airplane (pilot and copilot) just after landing.Kissing their 91-year-old great-grandmother on her soft, loose cheek and holding her veiny, swollen hand. Read more

The imprint of a father

November 7th, 2013

Eleanor

I was moved to post this piece that I wrote in 2011 by what I heard on Radio National today. On Life Matters they were talking about tomorrow’s topic of how our expectations and perceptions of fatherhood have changed. I’m definitely going to tune in. This was originally published in Sydney’s Child, and won the 2011 Parenting Media Association Award in the category of “Personal Essay”

Highs and Lows

I can’t help but watch the white-haired man holding my friend’s newborn son in his arms. He is giving the baby a bottle, cradling his tiny head. “Who’s that?” my daughter whispers, following my eyes. “His grandfather,” I say, the noise of the birthday party receding around me. To my daughter it is an unfamiliar word. Something she has never known. Read more

To up and leave for love

July 1st, 2013

Eleanor

photo-11Friends who have read What Was Left have commented on some of the parallels between the novel and my life. There are a few. However, while I might have fantasised about it in darker moments, I’ve never abandoned my children. When I knew the topic which I wanted to write about (a mother who does abandon her infant) I needed to understand this character better in order to get into her head, and one of the ways I did this was by making her an American transplanted to Australia, making her a person who moved here – as I did – for love.

Her story is different from mine, very different, and you’ll have to read the novel if you want to know how. But here’s a fragment of my own story: Read more

Salve

April 13th, 2013

Eleanor

This week I witnessed a close friend’s brother die suddenly and far too young. It’s the sort of event that makes you stop for a moment and think about the constancy of death. We are either going to lose the ones we love or they will lose us – there is no way around it. There is not much that we can say to our friends when it happens except be there for them, be present and offer what support we can.

photo-4

My dad and I, circa 1986

I went to my friend’s brother’s funeral not because I knew him – I had never met him – but because I wanted to be there for her. My own father died (suddenly and far too young) eleven years ago and I still remember, at the memorial service, the friends of mine who had never met him, who came just to support me. My memories of that day are dreamlike and patchy but I can see the faces, still, of my friends. I didn’t realise for years how much I appreciated them being there. Read more