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Memory work - An excerpt from a memoir Memory work - An excerpt from a memoir
by Abigail George
2010-12-11 09:49:08
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We have a mother who can talk in strange tongues. She gets up to read the gospel at one o’ clock in the morning. She sets her alarm clock to go off. I am still awake reading a well-thumbed novel. Andrea Ashworth’s memoir Once in a house on fire that lingers long after into the early hours of the next day or J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey or Sylvia Plath’s only published book The bell jar that scares me half to death. It leaves me with questions like am I going to end up like that? Steve Biko’s I write what I like is in there somewhere in the bunch.

It is as if I am reading vignettes from my own life story when I read anything Sylvia Plath has written. I pretend to smile when she is funny in her book but I know better than that. I know I shouldn’t smile but I go ahead and do it anyway. I slide under the covers and pretend I am still asleep but she, my mother still checks up on me, switches off my light and I can hear her praying for all of us; the four of us. But I know better than that. I have not yet exorcised all my demons and all my preying monkeys on my back.

Pain is painful. Living through it, even breathing hurt and all you were left with were stern lessons in an arena that demanded everything of you. When one of my mother’s latest running commentaries on my life hurts me, this I know for sure is that it will linger long past midnight like the stories I marooned myself in. My parents spun an intricate web of lies and intrigue as my siblings and I grew up. To live like that, all day, everyday was alluring. When my mother was sad she shrieked at us. When my mother was happy she screamed at us. When my mother was depressed she never showed it. She was made of sterner, stronger stuff than that and she showed it. It fit her like a glove.

My mother is a gem. Like any diamond in the rough she has rough edges that need to be smoothed over time and time again. She takes a lot of work to put up with. When I was younger, growing up I didn’t think it was worth it. I didn’t think she was worthy of it but as an adult I grew to appreciate her more and more. She was gifted, she was talented, she could cook a leg of lamb until the meat fell off the bone, her roast potatoes were always crispier than mine, the yellow, runny moons of fried eggs came out perfectly every time, she was pretty and good at a lot of things I was not.

This is another story about your mother my father says with that tone in his voice. A minute ago he was laughing as if we were in cahoots with one another; as if we were co-conspirators. Now he was serious, frowning and wearing a crease between his bushy, exclamation mark eyebrows.

I have this thing for Marilyn Monroe and her leading men. The prince and the showgirl, Gentlemen prefer blondes and Some like it hot. What it meant for me was that even if you had all the money in the world, fame, were idolised by millions of fans you could still be miserable, be inclined to throw pity parties, hang out flying solo with your most hated self, believe in your therapist/therapy/psychiatrist/psychologist/psychological terror/relief and that it would get your through this phase of your life that refused to let go of you and surrender your hurts to the greater beyond and the shared universe.

Around me people looked sad, concerned, wholly indifferent and vulnerable as I skated through what was becoming more and more my predictable life. I had a neat routine going on as I lost my mind and all self-control with it. I was surrounded with people who had money and beauty at school. I could feel or rather sense how strong, powerful and omnipotent these girls felt. They were afraid of nothing, while I feared everything in sight. They were beautiful even when they were tense, miserable, when they failed a test, wore braces, when they were blonde, brunette, had frizzy curls that would not behave. I wondered did these girls ever get depressed.

It’s the way men are, my friend Tash was schooling me one on one on that mind trick that grown men seemed to be born with; that and their swagger, when they snubbed you for a lovelier girl who seemed to float on air, what they really meant behind the words, you don’t mean that much to me, and what was meant by their true frame of mind when it came to their wife and their children and their disheveled house and dysfunctional livelihood. Tash was street smart, independent, classy and pretty. She always had a story. As a writer I was drawn like a moth to a 60 watt bulb to that. She wasn’t a bore and she always made me laugh out loud which gave me a slight belly ache. Her mother worked at the Portuguese consulate. She was in a top job and you could tell they lived comfortably. Tash could tell her mother anything.

When I wrote it felt as if all the loveliness in the world was within my reach. It felt as if I was connected to something greater than me. When I was depressed it felt as if it was like the inviting glaze on a heavenly mouthful of honey slipping, bittersweet, over the edge of the spoon when I didn’t want it to.

You do not know what I want, I screamed at my mother. You do not own me, I screeched. I knew somewhere in the burnt bridges of my heart that what I was saying made no eye to eye contact with her world, that she did own me in a way that was conditional and that what I was doing was unforgivable and that in no way would I ever make up for what I was saying.

You are a painting, I said to my reflection in the mirror. Everybody else in the world seemed to see pretty not young, sullen adolescent girls who scribbled fragments on pieces of paper manically as if they were possessed. Who had a collection of black notebooks, journals, diary entries of what they ate and when they slept and what they were thinking. Nobody would have even guessed what my life was like outside of school.

No simmering pots on the stove for supper, a sister who locked herself behind her closed bedroom door and soared academically winning a scholarship to America to go to NASA while she was still in high school, a brother who needed attention but lived like a ghost in our childhood house, shards of glinting glass on the floor, doors with gaping holes like open mouths were smashed, bashed, kicked in. There was cursing, sneering and strangled cries were heard, raised voices behind closed doors, muffled weeping.

All of it was my doing. I convinced myself of it.

Flawed circumstances always manifested themselves in my stories. I told myself that love would find me in spaces ultimately devoid of sacrifice, make me believe in make-believe and daydreaming. I put my faith in that. When night was over, I was older. When the school day was over, I was wiser. When I finished a book, I reflected on what people wanted to see and how they wanted to say it. How some had absolutely no control over what they spoke about?

I liked Marilyn Monroe because she wrote poetry. She may have acted silly and dumbed down in her movies but she was intelligent and very, very sad. In my stories like in the films I loved and grew up on both seemed like far off magical realms where reality was suspended and possibilities and potential seemed endless.

When I was growing up my father and mother fought about everything. They fought mostly about money. I was hidden somewhere in there saying do not forget about me.

I became aware at an early age of how much everything cost and how everything that was  beautiful was so expensive.

I sit on the leather sofa, chocolate brown and balance precariously a bowl of popcorn watching television. I watch anything, even the rubbish. I like watching John Edward’s Crossing Over, Party of five, Dawson’s Creek, Oprah, talk shows. The only things I give a miss are the soap operas but sometimes I catch myself out of the blue watching All my children. Television made the words ‘emotional abuse’ stop ringing out like a rumpus in my head. Talking heads soothed me.

I liked that word ‘memoir’. It released me from all the hateful things that I loathed.

Pillows of steam escape in gusts from under the shower curtain. I pinched the cigarette between my lips and blew out a whirl of smoke. I felt something move in my gut. Something awesome and frightening on the surface but below, underfoot it no longer made me feel as if I was a drowned girl, a neglected and abandoned thing by my own kin.

In Port Elizabeth my aunt dared to behave in a way that she did not on her home turf near my uncle and my other mother’s sister’s wavering eyes, our aunt Sheila. She drank until she behaved like a stammering fool, slurring her words together. She got away with her teenage behavior every time. As she came teetering on her tiptoes, three sheets to the wind up the stairs leading to our front door and slipped and my mother said the words, ‘Serves you right. You deserved that.’ as she landed with a smack on her bum. My father and I stood there lending each other moral support watching this spectacle unfold night after night wishing we had put her days ago on the bus back to Johannesburg. Auntie Sylvia is dead drunk again. She has lost her shoes; soft, white sandals; the cheap kind.

“Are you misbehaving again?” I asked my mother eager to start a fight, to blast her with words, my frenemy.  A word I had made up combined with the words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

As children after a school day we cruised through the gates of hell and turmoil not knowing whether to see the smiling faces of our parents or to be let down with sinking hearts.

Words left me euphoric. They came on a heady high like a rush, blistering under my fingertips, sticking like glue to the page, like glitter or sequins. The curls of paper on the floor that I scrunched up into tight balls reminded me of the grace that origami animals took on. They had a grace of their own; a perfection. Miracles came with reading and writing.

No, I thought with a sinking heart. She couldn’t possibly be thinking I would actually wear this out of the house, I thought to myself as my grandmother handed me two billowing shirts with huge orange flowers in patterns that hurt my eyes. One came complete with eighties shoulder pads. She in turn had got it from auntie Evie – her favourite child amongst three sons and another daughter.

I was skinny as a rope and flat- chested and no match for either but she insisted that I take them. Only know when I can look back without cringing at those painful days from high school do I recognise the love that came with that gift that I was too selfish and proud to admit to at first. Perhaps she had seen something of herself in me at that age and had wanted to reach out to me in my loneliness.

Perhaps she didn’t want me to starve away completely. Now there is nothing tangible I can remember about her except for her milky teas, split pea soup and gooey sandwiches rich and thick with knotted fig jam, chewy stews and bredies she used to make my father and me for lunch after school. I hated those sandwiches. I hated the way they felt in my mouth. I tried to nibble at it and make it go down but it was useless.

One day, naughtily, I pushed them into the soft, plush side of the chair and wiggled it in further with my fingers until it was out of reach. When I visited my grandmother again it was gone. She had found it and I never got fig jam sandwiches again. I must have disappointed her in so many ways.

One Christmas I got a book from my grandparents. I didn’t even know they knew I loved reading. Everything was alright in my world again with them. It was a hard book. The words were smaller and closer together. It had words in that were long and difficult to understand. It had excerpts from other books; exciting books for teenagers that I had yet to land my eyes on. How did they know? I never found out. When I was sick she smudged Vick’s vapour rub under my nose. I breathed in menthol.

Now I miss her. I miss trudging up the hill past the church for the Assembly of God that she went to on Sunday’s, a dishevelled looking soccer pitch with goal posts that had no nets, the Muslim butchery and the café when I finished writing an exam. I watched television, CNN breaking news with my grandparents in the afternoon on a school day.  I would play with my cousins. Now they’re all grown and most of them have moved away, got married and had children. They’re busy with the machinations of their own humdrum lives and couldn’t care less about mine.

This is also a story about falling in love with people who have flaws, relationships that keep you grounded and realising that when you older, you are more forgiving and stronger with built in, stored up reserves of energy that you didn’t know where it came from, empathy for loved ones and compassion even for strangers. Angels come in different shapes and sizes, varying blueprints but they must always be defended.

“Daddy, don’t. You’ll only make her angry.” I knew my voice was whiney but I didn’t want there to be another altercation that I couldn’t put a stop to and so I lost my adolescence in books with racy titles about men who paid for hotel rooms with voluptuous women in slinky lingerie on the covers but their big bosoms were wasted on me. There was no intensity behind the words of the dialogue. I was not one of those kids who put up pictures of rock stars, actors, actresses and models against their bedroom walls.

I learnt how to repair a mother and daughter’s broken relationship time and time again and to convert the sin committed into something that was precious. I channelled all my energy into that as a child.

We – my mother and I –  laugh together when things are ‘normal’ (when they aren’t fighting, screaming at me at the top of her lungs, yelling out curses), I write poetry, we love each other in ways that are simple and complicated, I cook elaborate meals and cry warm, salty tears sobbing into a bunched up pillow at night. I learnt to evaluate her moods. Sometimes I failed to see it coming.

The world is filled with so many people in search of and wanting love, approval and acceptance; words whose meanings feel like darts flying through the air aiming for a flailing target that you eyes could hopelessly not meet with and that was not always in reach.

There is a strange, combatant beauty in making lists of words that are full of meaning and purpose to you. It has become a numbing, pressing habit for me to fill little notebooks and diaries from cover to cover like this.

I wanted to have hair like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There was nothing I could do with my limp hair except scrape the strands back together and tie it with an elastic band. I had skinny legs like a praying mantis. I was never completely comfortable with myself until I could string out words, pearls of wisdom from an aloof adolescent.

As children we had to spend so much energy on making a home life for ourselves that would make us productive citizens one day. We did it magically. We transcended the experience of having a father who suffered from bipolar and a mother who had terrifying moodswings. We survived and at the end of the day that was all to it. To the outside world we were the perfect family. There was a father who was a community leader, a mother who was lovely and a committed Christian and three bright, adorable children who were highly intelligent. 

I loved being chained to the still air, the silent rooms I traversed in my mind that I found myself in when I was reading. I discovered and explored new futuristic worlds and environments; Judy Blume. While our lives could have been hellish at the worst of times, paradise bloomed for me between the secret pages; my own pain felt like poison as it weaved its way into my heart in intricate, beautiful patterns like a tattoo. I pushed these books and films on my brother and sister hoping they would find their own answers and they did.

They grew up while I still felt like a little girl, lost and bereft. I needed the comfort of my parents’ home even though it was haunting, the rules that I had to live by made no sense, gave me no comfort, stunned me into a disquieting silence.

Nobody talked about mental illness or emotional scarring or emotional baggage when we were growing up. It wasn’t spoken about in hushed tones or whispers. If our family was gossiped about we certainly didn’t know it. Living in our house, growing up as a child was living in one made of false interiors, without clarity or peace of mind, tinged with a surplus of emotions that were boxed in, locking us away from the prying eyes of relatives. Our shared history as siblings is intense. As grown ups we tend to shy away from it. ‘Emotional’, ‘too depressing’, ‘disconcerting, ‘intense’ are some of the words that other people have used to describe my work. I only felt welcomed and inspired when I was grappling by the overwhelming

It made me happy. It put a smile on my face when I was selflessly reaching out to hear other people’s voices of growing up with abuse or neglect or abandonment in books I found I could not put down like Running with scissors or A million little pieces. I held onto the kaleidoscope of problems they posed with care. My fear was no longer multiplied, schizophrenic, a self-portrait suggestive in anyway of not being cohesive, tidal or in a gestation period. This wasn’t just one girl’s, one woman’s journey. It has been the journey of three children into the painful growing pangs of being teenagers, of reaching adolescence anxiously always being in panic mode when needing comprehension when they had accomplishments, hit success minimally at first then afterwards success after success; into adulthood.

I would stiffen like glass in pleasure working on my doppelganger, my adult persona, showing off to the world at large while I wrote what became poetry and short stories. I was no longer a textbook case shown to a group of discerning medical students at a hospital for lunatics and crazies; a hospital where people went to rest because they were tired and wrecked consciously by life as they knew it. I was no longer a worry for my parents, a concern for my siblings and a case study of the history of mental illness in my family.

The end.


    
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