“I was abandoned on the side of a hill as a baby.”
I suppose I had a kind of reflective, forlorn sound or tone in my voice when I told Jacqui that, as she stopped doing what she was doing, let her hands drop to her side and sympathetically gazed at me …
“Oh … that’s really sad … Were you left there by your parents because you were seen as a weak child and they were testing if you could survive a night in the open fields … like the ancient Pagans would do to a crippled baby?”
“No! … no!” … I was shocked at her suggestion … though I thought I detected an edge of cynical doubt in her voice … “They were just out on a picnic by the Onkaparinga River and forgot about me when they left to go! … it wasn’t for long … they stopped the car and rushed back! … ”
Jacqui expressed a cynical snort and went back to her work with, I now noticed, an agitated manner … a little annoyed that she had expressed a modicum of unwarranted kindness toward me.
We were sorting through a tippled out box of correspondence to my mother … My mother had passed away six months or so before after a long illness and I was given a big box of these things to sort through and separate. I finally got around to it one Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t long before some of the personal letters from aunts or distant relatives caught my eye like seeing familiar people go about their everyday lives without them noticing you … a voyeur on domesticity.
“Oh … this ones from ‘Aunt Daphne’ … in England,” I announced. Jacqui cocked a quizzical eye at me. “She’s a half-sister of my grandmother … from her father’s second marriage … after his first wife died … a bit of a scandal really … she … the new wife .. was his secretary and many years younger than he,” I enlightened … “Daphne’s long dead now, like most of these people here, I imagine .” I looked down at the spread of letters on the carpet.
I started reading from the letter:
“Dear Tess.” Most of them called my mother ; ‘Tess’ … “Dear Tess … So nice to get your long letter, it is always grand to hear from your distant home. Over here, England is having one of its worst droughts on record now … I suppose those sorts of things are not that unusual out there in Australia … but it makes so much more work to keep the garden going … we are only permitted to use the hose at certain times of the day. I am enclosing post-cards and pictures which are always nice to have … ”
They were great on post-cards in those days … I offered as an explanation … you could take a family photo and get it turned into a post-card … Here she says she got all the snaps of her mother’s when she died and the father came to live with her, Daphne … ” … otherwise I would never had got a thing as he hates me … ” Crikey! … she continues … ” … in fact, he hates all children and never wanted any more and it was only that my mother threatened to leave him that they had me! … ” sounds like he was a terrible bloke … I folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. I read the post date on the front …
“That was from nineteen seventy five … that’s a long time ago … she’d be long gone by now.”
“How can a parent hate their child?” … Jaq’s reflected … ” … throttle the little blighters sometimes … certainly … but to actually, physically hate them?” She shook her head not wanting (nor getting) an answer … She sat back up straight as she read another letter … and then blew out a push of air in disbelief …
“Flamin’ ‘ell! … and I say THAT in shock and surprise … cop a squizz at this letter!” … she pushed my grabbing hand away and proceeded to read from it …
“Dear Mr. Howes … Please accept my deepest sympathy in the sad loss of your dear wife and mother. I was shocked and saddened at her sudden passing, she was a lovely mother devoted to her family and home AND ABOVE ALL (her bold underlining) to her church and teachings. She was a DEVOUT CATHOLIC … ” … Wow! … this is really full on Jesus stuff! … Who is it from and to?“
“Giz a look” I took the letter … “Oh … it’s to my grandfather after gran’ died … back in the eighties … I can’t quite make out the surname … but it’s Ellen S … something … must be one of gran’s fellow parishioners she chummed up with while at church … ” … I gave the letter back to Jacqui and she read some more emphasising the underlined words …
“ … she will REST IN PEACE with her loved ones to AWAIT the SECOND COMING of our BLESSED LORD on the RESURRECTION DAY … ” Christ! … the whole letter’s full of it! “… in the BEAUTIFUL COURTS OF HEAVEN, with our Lord and Saviour. He died for us ALL and was hung on a CRUEL CROSS and rose again so that all who believe in HIM will inherit ETERNAL LIFE with HIM in HEAVEN and so what a joy to LOOK FORWARD TO … “ … oh that’s enough! … I can’t stand it anymore! “ and Jaq’s thrust the letter back into the envelope.
“I don’t know why my mother ended up with that letter, seeing how it was addressed to my grandfather … except that I think he couldn’t read or write very well … or couldn’t be bothered … like many Methodists, religion wasn’t a big thing with him … I remember them having a huge blue one night back when they lived with us for a while … grandpa had wrenched a bottle of ink from gran’ and they wrestled toward the back door and grandpa broke free and hurled the bottle of ink into the night toward the chook yards, while crying out: “ You and your bloody letters … ”
Speaking of the devil, I picked up one envelope which had a script in my grandmother’s obvious precise hand-writing : “Read then BURN!” … I giggled aloud at that instruction as I read it to Jacqui … ”It’s a letter from Aunt Harriet, Uncle Kevin’s wife … Gran despised her … said she was like a wrung-out dish cloth … but really gran hated her because she took her son away from her ambitions to see him enter the presbytery as a priest … she never forgave either of them for that and cut uncle Kev’ from her will … not even a mention of his name … pretty vicious.”
“Well, no-one knows how to hate like a good Catholic, I always say … ” and Jacqui smiled her cat smile … Her family were from Methodist stock.
“I think it would be telling how much one is respected by the words carved onto one’s tombstone when you die … I recall my grandmother getting more consideration than my grandfather by their children … probably because, in truth, he was a narcissic sort of chap in life … and they paid him back in death. I can recall that when my grandmother died first, on her tombstone there was her name, place and country of birth, children’s names and a short reverence for the Lord and Saviour and that eternal life thingy … but then when granddad passed away a few years later, and was buried on top of her in the same grave (some said it was a terrible burden that having “carried him” all their married life, she now would have to support him into eternity), they simply inscribed on the same headstone under her testimony:
“Here lies John Howes-loved husband of the above” … and that was it … brilliant , eh?”
Then I pulled a type-written letter from the scattered lot … I unfolded it and perused the contents:
“Oh, this is an interesting one,” I said. “It’s a form-letter from one of the daughters of this old lady my mother did house-cleaning for … It’s notifying every one of the old lady’s death; ‘Dear friends of Helga Rosen’ … and it gives details of the last days of the old lady’s illness, where she died and when she died … of course, my mother knew all about it, as it was she who called the ambulance … ”
“Oh … and was the woman a very wealthy lady?” Jacqui asked.
“Well, they weren’t extremely wealthy, but they were comfortably retired … secure middle-class, I would say … My mother worked for her for over twenty-five years … became her confident and close companion … in a mistress – servant kind of way.”
“What … close companion between a middle-class woman and her house-cleaner? … How would you know that? … Were you there?”
I was a bit put out by Jacqui’s doubting tone, seeing as how I was also employed by some of those customers of my mother’s when they needed a bit of maintenance done about the yard or house … I was a handy sort of young fellow when it was needed …
“So how would I know of the relationship between middle-class women and their poorer cleaners? … I know because my mother was one of those poorer cleaners … for most of her working life … She used to take me with her when I was a child … and she continued way past the time I was a young man, when she then used to take my younger siblings with her … She would tell me the everyday events in the lives of her “Ladies” .. as she used to call them … though she was not a gossip and the women would confide in her to an almost embarrassing depth that sometimes shocked her.
Many of these Ladies were from the professional class that needed a cleaner to keep on top of the housework that their two-bit husbands didn’t do … lazzeroni! … I remember many tales she later related to me when I would visit her as she got older …
I remember her telling me that one wealthy woman from an elite address confessed to her that she made it a point to NEVER pay any account until she had got the third threatening letter just in case the company wrote the bill off as a lost cause …
But most of all, I remember this one here she was devoted to … My mother even near retirement age herself, would walk the two kilometres to the woman’s place on a Monday evening to put her rubbish bin out for the Tuesday pick-up … at no cost … just because she was such a long term client … twenty-five years in fact … and in all that time, I can only recall my mother telling me once in surprise that:
“Oh … I was given an extra dollar for my cleaning at Mrs. Rosen’s on Friday … she pressed it into my hand and whispered (though there is never anyone there but her and myself) that in future I can look forward to that little bit extra … and she patted my hand … ”
But she was devoted to that old Mrs. Rosen, a retired professional who “had rooms” somewhere in the city … The husband was a university professor in some faculty … I did know once, but I have forgotten … Anyway, after he died, my mother became almost, from what I could gather, the closest companion of that old Lady … They had a couple of children, also now professional people, but they were never around much .. shades of that Harry Chapin song … what was it? Oh yes!: “Cats in the Cradle.”
As a matter of fact, my mother saved her life a couple of times by climbing through the small (my mother was always a slight build) bathroom window to assist the woman who had collapsed on the floor ..
One time, however, when my mother was not there, the woman had a fall and was not found for several days until my mother came to clean her house … She was in critical care in hospital in a bad way … My mother went to visit her a couple of days later and though Mrs. Rosen had her eyes shut, my mother told me she was sure she was aware …
“I sat next to her,” she told me “… and said hello and told her I had cleaned the house and attended to the cat and taken out the rubbish bin and whatever … I knew she would have wanted that … and she reached for and held my hand … I could feel she hadn’t long to live and she held my hand so tight … even for the frail little thing she now was. She held my hand so tight … so that when the nurse came in to check on her she saw she had my hand and asked me in a whisper if I was her daughter … it seems that I was her first and only visitor, and her children had not been … and I had to say that no … (and my mother shrugged her shoulders and grimaced somewhat at the thought of the moment) I was her house cleaner … ”
So yes … Mrs. Rosen did die and after the funeral and all was settled, the children gave my mother five hundred dollars in recognition of her services for twenty five years … my mother was delightfully surprised.“
Jacqui sat up straight on her tucked-in legs and frowned:
“They’re such a sad lot of letters in the main … all about loss and scandal or missing from action fathers and husbands … isn’t there any cheerful ones we can read?”
I had just that moment happened upon three envelopes bundled together with a rubber-band around them and my mother’s neat hand stating: “Granny Kreiger” on them … I opened one as Jacqui was complaining … I read it and had to laugh ..
“Something funny at last!?” Jacqui lent in to me.
“Yes … well, funny in its telling … but just a general whinge from old Granny Krieger when she was in the local hospital getting treated for a re-set broken arm … Here, listen to this bit:” Jacqui leaned over my arm and nestled into my neck and read silently as I read aloud
“ … my arm has not improved much and even after I go to the Fizzo Ferapy treatment it is not better the doctor that has treated me for my arm should go jump in the lake old doctor Drever from Calvery sent me back to this jolly place before I was finished treatment down there now it is nearly my birthday and I’m still stuck in this bloomen place. Well, dear, I have the wireless on an while I am waiting for Hilda I just heard the Electric and Postal strike is over thank heavens for that wonder what next will be strike all they think about now is bloomen strikes and living off government relief a useless lot of robbery going on all over the places like when old man Ziedel got broken in an had Anteek Furnicture stolen … ” … Oh dear … that English really was a trial to those old generations of pioneers … no punctuation or anything … it was no wonder they had a twisted outlook on the world around them … but ah well at least their personality shines through … I suppose they managed”
I put the letter back in its envelope and consigned it to the “miscellaneous” box … and I had to agree with Jacqui that all these letters were so old now, written between people who were even then quite aged, my mother being one of the younger ones and now she too had passed away at the ripe old age of eighty six years … so all these people were gone too … and after all … who writes real letters anymore, it’s all Skype or email or whatever.
“Have you noticed that it is mostly women who write these letters … not men … perhaps it is worth a reflection that while men write the official histories of a people, it is really women who write the deeper stories of those people. They are like echos from years ago … the remaining cries of their spirit departing and when I have their letters all sorted and packed away, they will be finally laid to rest I suppose … forgotten … perhaps I should just throw them all back in one big box together and mix them up … all the pages loose and mixed together and then they could “talk” to each other again and again forever and ever … like letters from the dead to the dead … ”
“C’mon,” I said wearily, “time for some afternoon tea.”
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