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Isolation December 26, 2009

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Writing prompt: “Write about what you didn’t say.”


They arrived a few days before Christmas.

“Oh! You people are so good to me!” she exclaimed, hugging them all closely. “To drive all this way!”

They smiled and made cups of tea and opened the biscuits they’d brought. They put up a small tree that had fibre optic lights on the ends of the branches, and which sparkled and shone as soon as they plugged it in. They got a list of errands she wanted to run, and asked about her expectations of Christmas Day, and then they went off to their lodgings.

They came again the next morning, and flitted in and out and around about during the day, running her errands, taking her places, and generally making everything ready for Christmas. They brought food and they chatted with her, and she drank in all she could from the adults. The children stayed quiet for the most part, and when they did speak she ignored them. This wasn’t about them.

They went again of course, to their lodgings overnight. They wouldn’t have all fitted in her tiny space, all stretched out to sleep. She felt an emptiness when they left, but it would only be a few short hours until they returned again.

She went shopping the next day. They had asked which shops she wanted to go to, but she did not say which shops she wanted to go to. Instead, she said what she wanted to buy, so they took her to the best places to buy those things. Those shops were not where she wanted to shop, however, but she did not say that. Instead, she politely explained why the shops they’d taken her to would not do. When they finally figured out her preference, she brightened visibly. “Yes, that will do,” she said, and they took her to her favourite shops.

Christmas Day dawned, and when they came, everybody was on their best behaviour. They brought all the food with them and got busy creating a festive Christmas lunch. Everyone wore tinsel in their hair, they played carols and other Christmassy tunes on the CD player, and at first there was a lot of laughter and noise.

They gave her a glass of wine, and they all sat around together opening presents and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over each other’s treasures. Her pile was the biggest, and she was well pleased with that. They handed around bowls of nuts and cherries, and she stockpiled her chocolates and books and clothes and perfumes and photos and gadgetry. It all felt very Christmassy and she felt very special. Someone even tied some tinsel in her freshly-dyed platinum hair.

While they ate the Christmas feast, tightly seated around her small table on an assortment of borrowed garden chairs, she regaled them with stories of her neighbour’s childhood in a concentration camp in Germany, another friend’s bowel cancer, and her own incontinence. The trays of honey-glazed ham, stuffed and roasted turkey, and mountains of baked vegetables, jugs of gravy and dishes of cranberry sauce steadily diminished as she talked, but when the children could take no more doom and gloom, and one of them showed her their cartilage piercing, she was affronted.

She could not have said exactly what it was she was affronted about, but clearly they were not enthralled with her stories, as indeed they should have been. Mavis’s horror stories were fascinating, as was the saga of Wanda’s rapidly progressing cancer. And they should all know what dramas they might face regarding incontinence in their old age!

She feigned an interest in a mobile phone function, but by the time the explanation was complete, she was tired and very miffed that the attention had not remained on her.

She did not say that she was tired and would like a rest. Instead, resuming her place at head of the table while dessert was being prepared, she said loudly so everyone would hear, “Right! As soon as we’ve eaten, you people can go! I’ll do the tidying up. You people have done enough.”

Calmly they explained that they had brought dishes from their lodgings, which they would need to clean and take with them. They assured her that they would clean up swiftly and be gone as soon as they could. She was not pleased at their disobedience, however, and repeated her edict.

Her son, her precious, perfect son spoke sharply to her then, rephrasing the reply she had already been given. She did not soften, saying that she was just tired, but understood the requirement for them to return their borrowed dishes. Instead she snapped, “All right! I heard you the first time!”

Between themselves, they restored the affable atmosphere that had been destroyed, somehow sweeping her along and into it again. The dessert, a frozen ice cream pudding covered in chocolate, was delicious, and that probably helped her to resume a pleasant countenance. Soon after dessert was consumed, they were indeed gone, and she was left to finger over her gifts and ponder the lovingness behind each gift choice. “Ah, how they love me,” she sighed into the quiet. “They did all this for me.”

They took her out to a restaurant for dinner, on the last night of their stay.  She was not pleased with the choice of restaurant. She said several times that she liked this place or that place, but she did not say outright which place she did want to go to, and there were dietary considerations beyond her own needs, and so the choice was made.

“Oh, I don’t much like the range on this menu,” she said. “The place down the road has a lovely lazonya.” The children tried to correct her pronunciation of ‘lasagne,’ but she just smiled at them patronisingly and added. “Or the Club has a lovely schnitzel. The Chinese place does a lovely sweet and sour. Or there’s that seafood place down by the river. I hear that’s lovely!”

The didn’t get the hint, however, and stayed where they were. She finally made a selection, and worked hard to keep the conversation centred around Mavis’s horror childhood in the concentration camp in Germany, Wanda’s aggressive bowel cancer, and her own inconvenient incontinence. Rudely, the children kept popping up with other topics, and it became increasingly difficult for her to tell them again about poor Mavis’s horrors, Wanda’s suffering, or her own bladder issues. This time, even the parents didn’t help.

The food arrived, and clearly it was below par. “Oh, I don’t go much on this!” she exclaimed. “Look at the pink in that steak!” she charged her son, poking her knife towards his plate. “You should send that back!” When he refused, she solicited agreement from everyone else around the table that their meal was not the best they’d ever eaten, either. “Even that meal on Christmas Day was better than this!”

Perhaps she had meant to elevate the Christmas Day fare over restaurant quality food, and she missed entirely that her words did not sound like that.

“Mum’s a very good cook,” a child said quietly.

“Oh, there’s no better cook than your mother!” she said, offended that they thought she might say otherwise. She was focused, however, on making it clear that their choice of restaurant was at fault on this particular occasion. “We had a meal once, at Circular Quay, do you remember?” she aimed at her son. “The schnitzel at that place was just beautiful!” She said it loudly, inferring that the chef should hear and understand that he really had some work to do to get his efforts anywhere near that superb standard.

She would have liked dessert, but nobody else seemed keen. Not wanting to appear greedy, she declined too. “Oh, you’re probably right,” she said to them. “It wouldn’t be worth the money to have dessert in this place. You’ve wasted enough of your money already!” She rather hoped the staff might hear that comment too, and improve their service and menu in future.

“Will we go for ice cream?” she asked brightly as they headed back to the mini-van.

“No, we have to be out of here early in the morning,” they replied. “It’s a long drive home.”

They took her back to her place. They hugged her. Her son walked her to her door and saw her safely inside. When the door closed, she felt strangely alone.

They had not said how much they would miss her. They had not said what a beloved grandmother she was. She had said how much she would  miss them, and how wonderful they were for coming all this way just for her. No matter how hard she tried, they just did not adore her in the way she longed for.

They did not say to her that the joy of a meal shared, whether in a restaurant or at home, is enjoying the people you share it with. Perhaps, as someone older and supposedly wiser, they expected it was something she would already know.

They did not tell her that she had behaved like a self-centred, ungrateful brat. Good manners did not permit speaking to your elders in such a way.

In the car, on the way back to their lodgings, one of the children did say, “Dad, can we go for a drive?”

Usually, he would have just said no. Instead, he asked, “How come?”

“I feel like I need to detoxify!” the child replied passionately.

They all agreed. They knew the prettiest sights around the place and drove to those, purging their souls of the unavoidable nastiness they had endured all evening.

They bought gelato from a late-night roadside stall and enjoyed licking icy sweetness from the cones, all huddled together at the end of a pier.

“It’s good to be us,” someone ventured.

They all agreed, and hugged each other close.

“Dad, how come Grandma isn’t part of us?” the youngest child asked.

“I don’t know, mate,” he replied. “We’ve tried every way we know how to include her. And be a part of her life. It’s just that it’s always got to be about her, and she gets upset the minute that it’s not.”

“I know that Christmas is about others,” a teenager put forward. “But next year does it have to be about Grandma? She sucks all the joy out of it.”

“Selfishness does that,” another child responded with downcast insight.

They all held each other close, and the adults smiled over the children’s heads at each other. Whatever they did next Christmas, they would not bow to anyone’s selfishness.

Selfishness is isolating. This Christmas, make a vow to yourself that you will not be selfish, and you will not allow your life to be one of isolation. Love others.

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Casting the Spell November 2, 2009

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Writing prompt: Write about casting a spell.

 

Nanny hadn’t been retired very long when I went to live with her. To be honest, I don’t really think she wanted to resume parenting at the age of 61, but both my parents were dead, and the alternative, as far as Child Services were concerned, was a family on my mum’s side of the family who lived up at Nyngan on a property, and Nanny wasn’t at all sure what they grew there. All she really wanted to do was play in her garden and grow proper plants, but as she always told me, “blood is thicker than water.”

I’m told that I was with a foster family for a couple of weeks, but I don’t remember much about that. I just remember walking off a plane holding the hand of a big woman who smelled of stale cigarettes, and into a large echo-y room that was the lounge area of our local airport. It’s long been refurbished, but the way I remember it, it was huge and terrifying.

The big woman handed me over to a kinder looking woman with grubby jeans and paint splattered shoes who smelled of freshly turned earth and gardenias, and I drove home with her to a weatherboard cottage with a brilliantly blooming garden. It was spring in the garden, and I moved from a season of winter loneliness in my heart, to one of life and vitality, freshness and sunshine.

Nanny kept me home with her for those first months. I dug in the garden with her, and climbed trees and had afternoon tea with her friends. She wasn’t much of a cook, she said, but I remember sitting down every afternoon on the verandah with a cup of ‘tea’ and either a biscuit or a piece of slice or cake that Nanny and I had made, and we’d talk. I would tell her about the things I’d seen, and she would tell me … oh, all sorts of things. I heard about my daddy when he was a little boy, or what brave reporters he and my mummy were, going into war-torn countries like they did. I heard about Pappy and how he used to have grand ideas for the garden, and sometimes I heard about when she used to go to work.

Perhaps I was hard to impress as a small child, but it only dawned on me in my mid-teens, that my Nanny had led a very adventurous life. As an archaeologist, she’d spent months in exotic locations at digs, years writing papers and giving lectures, and then, as she began to feel her age and Pappy (who was much older than her) died, she took on lecturing at one of the universities. She had published a number of books, yet somehow managed to remain quite unfazed by her own remarkableness.

What seemed to stump Nanny, however, was my education. When I started at kindergarten, it quickly became clear that school and I did not get on. I was always getting into trouble for fidgeting in class, or ducking outside to run around the building a couple of times, or talking when the teacher was talking or had commanded quiet.

“You could educate him at home, you know,” a friend of Nanny’s told her as they sat on the verandah. They didn’t think I was listening, but I was digging in the dirt, and my ears were burning hot with the tales of woe I was hearing about myself.

“Oh, I doubt they let you do that, these days,” Nanny told Gail. “They’ve got the whole system sorted; there’s no room for renegades.”

“No, my niece is teaching her kids,” Gail told Nanny. “She assures me that the government know about it, and so long as you can show that the child is progressing, it’s all fine.”

I didn’t go to school on Monday, and Nanny spent a lot of time on the phone. The next day, she sat me down at the kitchen table, and started teaching me herself. I’d like to say that it was all fine from then on, but it really wasn’t. Nanny was used to teaching university students, and I didn’t like to sit still. Most days, she’d get fed up and send me outside to play, and then after a while, she’d come out and start digging in the garden too.

One afternoon – I was about eight, I think – I came in from playing with the boys down the road after their school had finished, and Nanny was sitting at the kitchen table playing with an odd, rubbery, spiky ball.

“What’s that?” I asked, sitting down with her. It looked interesting.

“It’s called a koosh ball,” she said, looking me directly in the eyes. “You know James, I think I owe you an apology.”

“You do?” Nanny was very sweet and kind, even though she got mad at me a lot about my education.

She nodded. “I’ve been puzzling about how to help you engage with your studies,” she said. “Today, I remembered a seminar that I went to some years ago.”

“What’s a seminar?”

“It’s like a class for adults,” Nanny said. “You go to learn about things that will help you do your job better. There was a woman speaking at the seminar I went to, who had been an educator for many, many years.”

“Really?” I was puzzled that someone would want to try to educate kids for a very long time. None of the kids I knew liked learning any better than I did.

“Yes, and she was very wise. She talked about how everyone learns differently. People all take in information in their own unique way, but there are three main ways: seeing, hearing and doing.”

I stared at Nanny, who was still playing with that funny ball. “What’s that got to do with the koosh thing?” I asked.

Nanny smiled. “James, I’d like to tell you a story,” she said. “I want you to play with the koosh ball while I talk. You might feel like it’s annoying – if that’s the case, just put it down and keep listening. If you feel like playing with the ball isn’t annoying you or helping you, put it down when you realise that. If playing with the ball helps you listen, keep playing with it.”

“Okay,” I nodded, and took the ball from her when she held it out. It was rubbery and soft, and it felt interesting while she told me about a dig she’d been on in South America, and how she’d felt when she began to unearth metal implements that weren’t made out of any sort of metal that modern-day metallurgists know how to make. When she finished the story, I was still playing with the ball and although I was quite oblivious to it in that moment, the spell was cast.

She began to ask me questions about what she’d just told me, and I kept playing with the ball while we talked. Finally she said, “James, I’m really sorry. You’re what’s known as a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve been trying to make you learn as if you were an auditory or a visual learner.”

“Okay,” I said. I was eight, and I didn’t really know what she was talking about. All I knew was that in the wake of that, I did a lot of origami while Nanny talked, or I built things or drew things, and somewhere along the way, I became curious and began to entirely relish our discoveries and adventures together.

In about half an hour from now, my own son will get home from school, and I am preparing myself to have a conversation with him while he plays with a koosh ball.

After the Christmas holidays, my wife and I will job-share a role as engineers with our employer, and we will also share the home education of our son. It’s funny, but sitting here at our kitchen table, I have no doubt that as we share with Toby and enjoy him, we will capture his imagination, just as my Nanny did with me, helping me to love learning and figure out how to turn my passions into practicalities and still enjoy them.

Nanny died about ten months ago, and one of the things she specifically left me in her will was the koosh ball. She was indeed a remarkable, insightful woman.

Back in the Day October 12, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: “In those days …”

 

In those days Gina walked a lot. She walked from home to the bus stop, from the bus to the train, and from the train station up the hill to work. Occasionally she caught the bus for the last leg of the journey – when it was raining or she was just tired – but mostly she walked.

Those were the days when she went home to an empty flat, cooked a small meal just for one, and pondered the inconvenience of having a cat. She never took the plunge and bought one, though. She liked her independence.

Then came the days of being a newlywed, walking the stretches between public transport to and from work, but also walking hand in hand with Paul through parks and on beaches, or even walking holidays through bush land with packs on their backs. They’d discovered so much in those days, as much about each other as about the countryside and the forests and the cities.

Of course, parenthood followed, and walking was replaced by running. Running behind a pram, running behind a slippery toddler, running around after a thousand schedules, running kids to ballet and football and drama classes and shopping trips and interviews and jobs. She certainly hadn’t put on any weight during her full-time mothering years – she’d been too busy!

These days were different, though. They’d moved from their busy city life to ‘retirement’ in the country. Paul had his longed-for back shed, where he could play with model planes, and a paddock where he could fly them. Gina didn’t.

Gina didn’t have her children, or her grandchildren, or her friends, or her committees. She just had Paul. Who was already happily occupied. She had a lovely home, and a very beautiful garden, but still she felt empty.

That’s when the weight began to creep onto her hips, and her thighs, and her arms – oh dear Lord, those arms! Gina heard Oprah call them ‘angel wings’, but to her, they were ‘bat wings’. That’s what she felt like – a cranky, ugly, fat old bat.

Of course she tried to talk to Paul about it, because they’d always talked about everything. It wasn’t very useful, though, because now, without the pressures of work and children and juggling finances, he didn’t have distractions to keep his head out of his models, so that’s what he thought about pretty much all the time.

Gina wailed about the loss of the old days – the children growing up and getting their own lives, the grandchildren not needing her, the committees replacing her easily, the friends who still caught up without her.

Paul did pat her hand and nod sympathetically, but all he said was, “These days are not those days, Gina. These days are these days.”

She watched him head back out to his shed, anger welling inside her so that she didn’t know whether to scream at him or cry. Instead, she had a flashback. She and Paul had had almost the very same discussion when she’d first given up her job towards the end of the first pregnancy. She was bored and lonely then, too, and he’d pointed out that she had to figure out how to make this phase of her life work. Just like he was doing now.

Gina knew she was a go-getter. She always had been. She wasn’t a wallower, and she wouldn’t allow herself to be now, either. It took her a few days, but the next time they drove into town, Gina pinned a brightly coloured notice to the community board outside the supermarket.

GRANNY’S WALKING CLUB  the heading proclaimed. Beneath, Gina elaborated. New to the area granny would love regular guided walking tours with other local grannies, or if you’re like me and you haven’t yet discovered the hidden treasures of this wondrous part of the planet, come with me and let’s do it together. Coffee and cake afterwards, my place, your place, or the café in town. Of course she put her name and phone number too, and by the time she and Paul got home with their groceries, there were already three messages on the answering machine.

Gina’s club became a regular thing, and it wasn’t long before half a dozen grannies or more knew that when Gina was just a young woman she’d loved walking, and those days had sowed the seed for the camaraderie and laughter that they were now starting to share together.

The Grannies Walking Club proved to be the beginnings of some very beautiful friendships indeed. Oh, and fitter grannies too, although their shared enjoyment of cakes didn’t do much do diminish any waistlines.