‘It seems like someone else’s dream of my past.’ For Emma Neale, the painting ‘Wanderlust’ by Dunedin artist Sharon Singer stirs memories of her childhood, and new understandings of guilt and forgiveness.
There were gifts from my father when he came home from overseas trips. Love offerings; a bit like those a cat might bring home after night revels. Placations. Mixed messages. Guilt trips. Gilt traps.
Top 40 albums and band memorabilia for my younger sister. Leather pants for me, the anxious girly swot he called ‘Stude’ to rhyme with ‘dude’, to make praising my studiousness — and maybe that studiousness itself — seem cool.
After unwrapping the leather trousers, I went to a school social with my bottom half dressed like a biker chick; the top half in a turquoise T-shirt borrowed from my mother, which sported a black panther and swirls of gold glitter. The ensemble was a look I wasn’t sure how to carry, though I still drew a lot of attention from the senior boys. “Are you really a junior?” “Whoa, hot pants.” “Hey, Olivia Neutron-Bomb!”
My svelteness was wasted on me, at that age. I couldn’t see it: I just felt awkward, uncoordinated. Even if I had seen it, I was probably still too sensible and bookish to flaunt it, cash in on it, or let it give me confidence. The attention was just unsettling. I got the same feeling in my throat as when I’d seen an aggressive male pigeon treading a female — the flutter and scramble of it, the poor hen hard-scrabbling to get away. There had been no preamble dance of bobbing beak-link, glossy necks shimmering at each other, like panels of sequins. It was all panic, claw, shake, the female’s coos like bottled sobs.
From the pod of my teenage awkwardness, however I could see that my mother absolutely knew how to cut a figure; elegance was, if not a weapon, a kind of armour. When Mum unwrapped her own gift from Dad that year, my sister and I thought it was hilarious — and dizzyingly bold. He had given her a slim-fit boiler-suit in a light denim fabric, its colour the pink of smoker’s candies. It had fake gold ventilation grommets, a long front zip; and I think it had stitching in a batwing bust. Usually Mum wore deep plums, aubergines, black, russet-red. They were the shades of polished piano wood, tooled leather hardback book covers, candlelight, the heavy, hushed velvet of theatres: colours with body and weight The colours of thought, and of night. The suit was racy, playful, youthful, almost saucy — and she looked stunning in it: dark and sultry like Anni-Frid Lyngstad, from ABBA, with a shiver of haughtiness.
We crowed at Mum when she tried on the new outfit. “You look great! It’s fabulous!”
“Are you brave enough to go out in it? Don’t you like it?”
Her quiet reply: “I’m not sure about it yet.”
“Do you think it’s too tight-fitting?”
We knew she and our father often worried about their weight. Weren’t the ‘80s a decade of extreme food weirdness? Hadn’t they tried the bread diet, the grapefruit diet, the cottage cheese diet, the Jane Fonda workout, skipped meals, taken up running, talked about the Lebanese Army Food Diet (which I think involved eating only eggs or chicken)?
Dad sometimes made dark jabs at Mum about her figure. “If only your [x or y] was smaller, you’d be perfect.” His nickname for me was Lumpy. If he found me and my sister eating, he often said with acerbic, Basil Fawlty-esque disdain: “Having a little snack, are we?”
I became anorexic when I was 17. As a schoolboy at Nelson College, Dad had been harassed for his own weight, so his attitude had a backwards logic, even for a man who could be deeply empathetic. He was a close listener, and loving enough that, if I think too hard about his sudden death at age 48 (from a heart attack while he was out jogging), it feels as if a trench is being excavated in my stomach. He repeated what he knew, I guess. He criticised us to pass on the urgent and venomous message he had received from that all-boys’ boarding school culture: fat means failure, slender is status, beauty is, yes, narrowly defined.
Mum stood side-on to the mirror, hand swiping quickly over her stomach, as she pulled it in: as if women’s bellies should at least sit level with the hip-bones, the way lager should sit level with the rim of the glass, Mum’s swipe a bartender’s beer comb trimming the foam head. She turned this way, that way, a whether vane in the mirror: should she wear it, should she not?
“You look lovely, Mum!” We wanted her to be wedding-day glad at Dad’s return from his travels; we wanted the normal routine to have landed with him. We wanted that ordinary rhythm to mean we were safe: safe to be as selfish as kids need to be, to get on with the job of growing up and eventually, wanting to leave… which makes no sense, it makes no sense, but what does, when…
“I’m just not sure how your father really sees me,” Mum said.
I don’t know if I put two and two together then — the candy-pink overalls and the other time I’d seen her taken aback by a gift. I think it was about five years earlier, when we lived in America, but memory shuffles together events and settings from different packs to come up with a stacked deck. Dad’s not here to contest the dealer’s version.
One Christmas, he gave her some jade and silver jewellery. She loved nephrite; we kids were far too ‘70s-expat-Pākehā-Kiwi to know the word pounamu then. We were busy learning to hide our accents and swap ‘cookie’ for ‘biscuit’, ‘bug’ for ‘beetle’, say ‘jerk’ and ‘turkey’, ‘Get off the grass’, ‘No duh’, ‘Catch my drift’, ‘Mondo bizarro’… And maybe because my dad was a nephrologist, the word nephrite drew the family language to it. The words share a relationship: the root links them through the Spanish piedra de (la) ijada or yjada (1560s), where ijada means loins or kidneys. Jade was thought to have healing properties, for kidney and lumbar complaints. Even the thought of pressing a cool, polished jade amulet over an ache seems soothing.
I suppose if this scene did happen in America, the jade was unlikely to be from Te Wai Pounamu anyway, given jade is also found in California, where we lived at the time. Either way, when Mum opened the gift there was confusion and collapse in her face, which she fought against.
There was something going on here that we hadn’t seen before. I only recall seeing her cry one other time, and that was when she was in pain, from a minute shard flicking into her eye as she clipped my baby sister’s toenails. I had never seen her look so stricken. American TV in the build-up to Christmas hadn’t revealed this kind of reaction in all the seductive ads for toys, toys, toys … Presents were meant to be opened in great communal teeth-baring, group hugs, a festival of cleanliness, perfect skin, efficiency, friendship-joy and great hair. We were all in our dressing-gowns, three of us no doubt with bed-hair, Mum probably the only one who’d brushed hers for the occasion. I can remember looking at the Christmas wrapping to try to figure out what had gone wrong.
Something was very awry. The jewellery was already broken? The jewellery had something missing? It seemed elegant, queenly to me — but the sadness in Mum’s face made me think, are the necklace and bracelet really so ugly? How do I find the ugliness? How do I understand it?
I thought the gifts would look enchanting on her. My mother has very green eyes: she really does. She tells me that green eyes are more common in fiction than in real life. I wonder if that might have subliminally helped to make her a writer?
When she found her image in novels, saw her statistically exceptional eyes and her difference reflected, was that unconsciously affirming?
Mum hid her face in her chestnut brown hair. In the Californian sun, her hair bleached ginger on the tips, which she hated, though she loved candied ginger, and my sister had a giant teddy called Ginger Bill, and ‘gingerly’ was a beautiful word, but what was wrong with the present?
Perhaps I didn’t truly begin to understand until I was 16, when a boyfriend brought me gifts after he’d been away overseas: gold fan earrings, gold fan charm on a necklace, a tropical flower perfume: frangipani or hibiscus, the name lost, now along with its thin sugary fragrance. When I received them, I was confused about what to feel; the offerings weren’t at all to my personal taste, but the gesture seemed wildly generous, and it gave off a thin buzzing edge of a new experience, even though it was also conventionally, stiflingly romantic. Yet as soon as I’d unwrapped the gifts, the boyfriend went at me with a force and insistence that seemed to say I owed him something. He was extracting payment; pushing me down on the bed, so that I felt like the poor flustered female pigeons I’d seen, pecked and trampled and somehow, at the same time, bizarrely, completely ignored by the grinding bull of a bird.
I must have understood it, then, as now it feels as if the two events are filed in the same memory compartment: terrible, terrible presents.
Mum’s jewellery was a kind of hush money. Or an apology. Or a bribe? They weren’t a gift of time. They weren’t companionship. They weren’t home when he said he would be; home at the weekend.
The gift was also a celebration of her beauty, of course: which is fine, and human — don’t even babies spend longer looking at symmetrical features? But that isn’t enough to underpin and make-good the architecture of love.
I also seem to remember that part of the shock was the expense; the gift can’t have really been within our means. The sense of disproportion was all part of the strange scene. If it had been books, or notebooks, pens, typewriter, foolscap, or even a cheap T-shirt with a favourite author’s portrait and some bad but forgivably literary pun printed on it, the gift would have said more about Dad listening to Mum, really knowing her.
I think I remember my father’s devastated expression, too, from that day, and him hugging her as she cried. I’m in the child’s position of feeling for them both; a bad place to be when there are irreconcilable differences. He just wanted to show that he loved her. He thought she would be happy. He thought the receipts for the jewellery were like … billets doux, a love letter.
What can anyone outside a marriage really understand about what goes on inside it? When I said as much to my paternal grandfather once, when he was in his early 90s, he answered, ‘Sometimes even the people inside the marriage don’t have a clue what is happening, either,’ and he told me an extraordinary tale of a house call he had made once, as a GP in Wellington in the 1950s or 60s. When he arrived at the house, the woman patient reported severe abdominal pain. Gramps examined her and told her that she was quite far advanced in labour. She insisted — with real vehemence — that he must be wrong. The husband fully backed her up. He told my grandfather, privately, that it was impossible as there “hadn’t been marital relations for some considerable amount of time”. Gramps was confused; he doubted himself. As he prepared to re-enter the bedroom, to examine the woman again a ‘poor little frightened probationer nurse’, as he called her who had accompanied him that day, called out, “Doctor, I can see a tiny hand!” My grandfather helped the mother deliver a live, healthy baby. He said to me, “I’ve always wondered what on earth became of that poor couple. I’ve thought about them, all down the years.” And, shaking his head, “Not every child is a gift, though it should be.”
Every Christmas and birthday my own husband says the best gift I can give him is nothing. I think about that, too when I see Sharon Singer’s painting, ‘Wanderlust’, and its arid, red-planet setting. I feel dread at my own covetous impulse to have the painting, partly because I’m not sure I can explain the impact of the strange sideways slipping trail into memory it’s leading me along.
The image itself touches on everything from a scorched earth, to climate refugees, perhaps even to the avoidance of infection. (Sharon Singer has other creepily premonitory paintings of people socialising with face masks in outdoor settings.) It also suggests space exploration; a sense of adventure; threat and fragility; the ludicrousness and the tenacity of so much human aspiration. Yet it also seems like someone else’s dream of my past.
The child in the painting could be my dark-haired little sister, her sweetly rounded limbs when she was under five. She could be in a child’s androgynous, asexual version of the strange gift overalls from the 1980s: a little like a child dressing up as a superhero. The image brings back memories of our guinea pigs: we sometimes carried them in the kind of pet transport cage seen in the painting, and of course, they tried to escape us. It brings back the time well before them, when I tried to run away, with a small, brown, ginger-nut textured zip-up school-case. (I sat happily on a street corner, telling the adults in a car that stopped to ask if I was all right, that I had left home forever. I had a book, a warm jersey, a toy rabbit and maybe an apple so I was going to be fine.)
The small child astronaut in the image, with her long, untied shoelace (such a loving, funny, apt detail) trails its own clouds of meaning: vulnerability, inattention, slap-dash, innocence, the tiny hazards that persist amidst the colossal breaks from the norm and the known.
Those shoes and the carry-case also make me think of my sons, their pet rabbits, my boys’ laces trailing like mouse-tails, the constant reminder, you’ll trip up! (I would still be saying it on the moon, on Mars, on the moons of Mars … ).
None of this has anything to do with a husband in the 1980s imagining his wife in tight-fitting, distinctly non-utilitarian coveralls. My sister points out that the gift was telling Mum she was gorgeous. Was that so out of the norm by then that it unsettled her? It seemed to set off detonations of silence, anxiety, disapproval, contraction, retreat, mystery and the unspoken — which, of course, is different from the silence.
But what if our real life is lived in the silences? The thoughts, and the in-between-the-thoughts, not what we manage to put into words? What we intuit, intimate. (The visual arts and music can both exquisitely, expertly, seep into and explore these interstices, I think.)
The people close to us can never truly know us, and we can never truly know them. Maybe real love is when you feel you do understand the silences — when it’s in what you don’t say that you agree to meet. What if the person you share that with isn’t someone you live with? Or, to complicate things, what if the main way you fight in a family is actually the silent treatment, when it seems as if you are all wearing opaque glass masks, air-locked in the head-gear of your own hurt and anger?
It doesn’t make sense that this dumpy little cosmonaut with her luggage, her pet travel crate, her heedlessly undone basketball boot, brings back memories of my tall, slender mother standing in front of a full-length mirror, looking intent and also a little crushed, trying to smooth her stomach and hips away as she strokes the fabric over the planes and curves of her body.
But what does, what does, when your father buys your mother a parachute suit, a flight suit, a jumpsuit, and then reels with shock, when finally, she makes the leap, she bails, she decides to leave?