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The Car Trip January 9, 2010

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Writing prompt:
include the following items: river, stranger, sock, idea, pack
and at least one of the following: a chicken, an aardvark or a donkey.


“She used to walk down by the ri-i-ver, she loved to watch the sun go downnnn …” Lachie yowled from the back seat, singing along with the radio in off-key, dramatic tones that were designed to drive his older sister and mother to distraction.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Lach! Shut up, will you!” Keely screeched eventually, unable to take his wailing any more. He was absolutely desecrating her favourite Richard Marx song!

“But it’s one of your favourite songs!” Lachie objected. “I’m just serenading you because I lo-o-ove you!” He was being a pain, and he knew it. He was mimicking the way that Oliver had serenaded Keely last New Year, with the help of the karaoke SingStar contraption that Lachie had so considerately taken along to the joint family barbeque. If Lachie could remember what the song was that Oliver had sung at that time, he’d have been singing that, for sure. Keely had been embarrassed enough at the time to realise that Oliver was singing to her, but it hadn’t prepared her even a tiny bit for the proposal that followed.

“Just ignore him,” Sarah suggested, keeping her eyes on the road and wondering how long it would be until Hamish woke up from his nap and vied with Lachlan for attention. “You know he’s just reacting.” She flicked the radio off, in an effort to maintain a semblance of atmospheric conviviality between the car’s occupants.

Keely sent a grateful look in her mother’s direction. There were eight years between her and Lachie, but sometimes it may as well have been eight decades. Sometimes it felt like there was a bigger generation gap between the two of them than there was between their mother and either of them. Their mother was right – Lachie was just reacting. He was used to having her and Hamish around all the time, and after tonight, they wouldn’t be any more.

“That’s a weird song,” Lachie mused from the back seat.

“How so?” Sarah asked, slowing down for a hairpin bend.

“Well, the guy doesn’t actually say whether he was guilty of killing the girl, or he wasn’t. I mean, he might just have been a different sort of bloke, and the sheriff just assumed he killed her. But it sounds like he was her friend, so why would he kill her? Maybe it was some stranger that killed her, and the sheriff was just framing the guy.”

Sarah laughed. “There’s no doubt about you, Lachie my boy, you do think deeply about things!”

“Yeah, well I’ve been thinking deeply about a lotta stuff lately,” he retorted with uncharacteristic darkness. He reached across the back seat and straightened Hamish’s sock, as if it was something to do to distract him from his sudden moodiness.

“Oh, okay,” Keely sighed. “I’ll bite. What have you been thinking so deeply about?” She turned around and grinned at him teasingly over her shoulder. “Don’t tell me! You had this mad idea that Oliver is really some closet serial killer …”

“Don’t be stupid!” Lachie snapped. “You’ve known him since you were in primary school. Nah, it’s more that I was wondering how I’m gonna keep being a proper uncle to Hamo, here. I mean, who’s gonna teach him about Albert the Aardvark? Who’s gonna sit there and remind him that A can say ‘a’ as in apple, ‘ay’ as in mate, ‘ah’ as in raft, ‘aw’ as in talk, and ‘o’ as in what? I mean, you and Oliver will both be working, and Mum’s not gonna to be around to pick him up from daycare …”

Keely frowned at him. “We’ll both be spending lots of time with Hamish, before and after work, and on weekends,” she said, perplexed. “We’ve met the lady who’ll be caring for him and taking him to pre-school, and she’s really lovely.” She felt a bit defensive, really – it was as if Lachie was accusing her of neglecting her own son. “And school will teach him about phonics!”

“I bet they don’t! And anyway, I won’t be spending any time with him!” Lachie sighed. He stared out the window, and after another furtive glance, Keely gathered that he was somewhat choked up.

She glanced at her mother, who just raised an eyebrow and kept her eyes on the road.

“You can come visit us every school holidays if you like,” Keely offered.

“Huh,” Lachie grunted. “Ollie won’t like that!”

“Why on earth not?”

“He doesn’t like me since I punched him!”

Keely laughed out loud at that. “You were ten!” she exclaimed. “You were defending my honour!”

Lachie just growled something under his breath in response, and it was Sarah who spoke soothingly to him.

“Darling, I’m sure that Oliver has long forgiven that. We’ve all grown up a lot in the five years since that, now, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” Lachie could actually remember as clearly as if it had just happened, how Oliver and Keely had arrived in his parents’ kitchen and said that they were expecting a baby. They’d both looked so scared – Oliver was nineteen, but Keely hadn’t yet had her birthday, and they were both just starting into their second years at universities in different cities.

Oliver’s parents, who were old friends of Sarah and Wayne, were sitting at the breakfast bar having a glass of wine while Sarah cooked dinner. Oliver’s mum, Diane, had spilled her wine and begun to cry.

“You’ll have to get married,” Peter, Oliver’s father, had declared, attempting to take charge of the situation. “You can probably get your job back at the hardware store. At least rent’s cheaper here than it is in the city.”

Wayne began to berate the pair for their stupidity. They’d both grown up in the church. They both knew better. How could they shame their parents like that! Blah, blah, blah.

Lachie distinctly remembered his mother turning towards the stove, and almost in slow motion, turning off every hotplate, one after the other. Then she turned back to the horrified little gathering, put her hand on Wayne’s arm, which was always a signal for him to hush, and said calmly, “No darling, we’ll have no more talk like that. Oliver and Keely didn’t plan this, I’m sure. Now we’ll all just have to grow up and deal with the situation that is. Won’t we?” She looked around meaningfully, meeting every pair of eyes one after the other, until she had a consensus.

“It was during the Christmas break,” Keely wailed, crying now. “It was at Davo’s party – we’d both had too much to drink …”

“And you were raised better than that, too!” Wayne bawled, but Sarah silenced him with a look.

“Hush now,” Sarah had instructed firmly. “That’s not our business. Now, we all have to be very practical and grown up about this.”

And Sarah – goody-two-shoes, never did anything wrong, never even had a sinful thought in all her life Perfect Sarah – outlined a plan that left everyone gaping. There would be no wedding! There would be no ‘doing the right thing for the sake of appearing like the wrong thing had never been done.’ As comfortable as Oliver and Keely were with each other, they didn’t really know if they had the kind of connection that would endure a lifetime. This wasn’t an event that they’d planned, but this child was never to be treated like an accident. This child was precious in God’s sight, and every one of them had a duty of care to ensure that the child was raised with love and unity, to the very best of everyone’s ability.

Numbly, Oliver had asked Sarah how that was even possible.

Sarah told him that he would finish university, and he would be as involved with the baby as he and Keely were comfortable with. Keely would continue with her studies for as long as she was able, and after the baby was born, she would continue via a distance program. She would have the full support of her parents and Oliver’s parents, and Oliver was free to come and go as he or Keely chose.

Lachie had been aghast at the proposal. It would mean that there was a squalling baby in the house, getting into his personal things and wrecking everything! That was when he stood up, walked over to Oliver, and punched him square in the nose.

In the back seat of the car, Lachie chuckled. It was kind of funny, in retrospect.

“So, you’re not gonna be a chicken and back out of this?” he asked Keely. “I mean, you’re marrying a bloke who works in an office. That’s gonna be bo-or-ing!”

She smiled around at him. “No, no chickening out,” she said with certainty. “Mum was right all those years ago. If we’d married out of obligation, we’d have probably hated each other. As it is, we’ve had time to observe each other as the parents of our amazing little boy, and we’ve got to know each other as real friends. What we’re doing now … it was worth waiting for.”

“Yeah, well if you’d reckoned it was worth waiting for at the start, you wouldn’t’ve even been in this mess,” Lachie mumbled. But then Hamish began to stir, as Sarah slowed the car to begin the steep gravelled ascent to the farm-stay where the wedding would be held.

Something shifted in Keely’s heart as she was about to snap at her annoying brother. She turned and saw him grin at her. “Yeah, well, look at all you’d have missed out on if I hadn’t been stupid way back then. Now you’re complaining that we’re taking him away from you!”

“Yeah, there’s that,” Lachie acknowledged softly, with a sheepish grin back at her.

Hamish gave a start, with all four limbs jerking stiff for an instant before his eyes flew open and he sighed, relaxed and smiled. He always woke up like that. Lachie picked up Eeyore, Hamish’s tattered Winnie the Pooh stuffed donkey toy, and handed it to him for a cuddle.

“Hey matey,” he said gently, reaching to give the little boy’s hair a ruffle. “Did you pack your trucks? I bet this place has heaps of dirt for us to shift around.”

Keely turned back to her mother, after greeting her newly awake little boy. Her own eyes were suddenly prickling with tears. “How am I going to do this without Lachie?” she asked quietly. “Or you? Or Dad?” Her father had been at the venue for hours already, making sure that everything was set up properly.

Her parents had been amazing throughout all her pregnancy, Hamish’s birth, and her frustration as she struggled to get the hang of breast-feeding and sleepless nights and endless nappies. Then there were her efforts to finish her studies and cope with a toddler who slobbered over her papers and tore her textbooks and refused to sleep long enough for her to write coherent assignments. Oliver’s parents had remained too horrified to be very involved, clearly blaming her for leading their innocent son astray. Her parents, though, had just smiled knowingly and said that they’d had hormones too, so it wasn’t like they had no idea how it had happened.

Sarah was slowing the car now, into the car park of the farm-stay. She turned off the engine and twisted to clasp Keely’s hands.

“Darling girl,” she said with a gentle smile. “You will cope with this change just as you’ve coped with everything else. One step, one breath at a time. And there is no doubt that there will be times when it’s tough, just because that’s how life is. It won’t be perfect, but your dad and I are confident that it will all be good. You and Oliver have learned to work together, to put your son and each other before your own desires.” She leaned forward and kissed Keely’s wet cheek. “Here’s Dad now, to help us with the bags, darling. Let’s get you married, shall we?”

The rest of the day was a blur, as Keely dressed and walked down the rose petal strewn lawn aisle between rows of white be-ribboned chairs, towards a rose festooned arbour where Oliver waited, handsome in his suit and looking both certain and nervous. Keely clutched her father’s arm and was preceded up the aisle by her suited-up small son, and her three best friends resplendent in fushcia. She exchanged vows with Oliver, the father of her son, the man with whom she had come to share such a deep and abiding love. She held his hand, they laughed, they ate, they danced. Blur though it was, all day Keely’s heart sang.

Praise you Lord, for you have turned the darkness into light before us and made the rough places smooth. You have worked all things together for our good. You have turned our mourning into dancing, given us garments of praise and joy in our hearts. Thank you, Lord! Praise you, Lord.

As the wedding car drove off down the driveway, crunching gravel beneath its tyres, Lachie stood in front of his parents, holding Hamish’s sweaty little hand with one of his, and waving an enthusiastic farewell with the other. The car disappeared from sight, and he turned to face his beaming father and teary but widely smiling mother. “I suppose it’ll be alright,” he conceded reluctantly. “Who knows. They might even let me be an uncle again one day. It’s not like they make horrible kids, or anything.”

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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.

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.

Multiflorabundance August 24, 2009

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My big sister in Western Australia and I both have an interest in writing, and to my delight, she has suggested we do a trans-continental writing exercise each week. Nothing like having some impetus to get to do the practice you’re longing to do!

This week we chose the letter M and each suggested three words, so that we had to weave six words altogether into our story. Our words were: multitude, myopic, memories, mystery, multiflora, mentor.

This is my effort – please tell me what you think. It took about 20 minutes.

 

Ali clutched her canteen-bought sandwich and bottle of orange juice and battled her way through the incoming hungry hordes back out into the fresh air and sunshine. The multitude only dispersed somewhat when she reached the courtyard, and she was well down the path to her favourite grove of trees on the university campus before she felt like she was all clear of their pressing and pushing.

She didn’t mind university life unduly. She was making friends slowly, but she still thought her father was completely myopic in his insistence that she needed a degree behind her before she followed any of her dreams.

Even she knew, though, that the number of her wild and fanciful dreams had dissipated – more and more, the further she aged away from her childhood. She was here now because really, she had nothing better to do.

All morning, all through the boring lecture on the psychology of persuasion, one word had been going through Ali’s mind. Multiflora. It was an odd word to have parading through your mind, when really, you should be contemplating the vagaries of Maslow and Jung. Ali knew where the word came from: Auntie Pearl.

Auntie Pearl was her father’s great aunt, and she’d been one hundred and two years old when she died a couple of years back. The woman had been a national treasure as far as Ali’s family was concerned. A maiden aunt, she had actively coaxed and coached Ali’s dad’s generation of cousins through their awkward years, and they all referred to her fondly as Our Mentor.

Her heart flooding with memories as she chewed her sandwich and sipped her juice, Ali savoured the peace from under her favourite tree in the grove. It was a beautiful place, really – a wide variety of trees planted higgledy-piggledy, with some fruit-bearing, some bearing wildly coloured flowers and some purely ornamental.

Multiflora. Multiflora, multiflora, multiflora. They were the last words Auntie Pearl spoke from her deathbed. “Poor dear’s losing her mind,” Ali’s mum had said sadly.

For herself, though, Ali knew that wasn’t true. Auntie Pearl’s mind was as sharp as it had ever been, and Ali knew, somewhere in the depths of her being, that the old dear was saying that word purposefully, and directly to her. What she meant by it though, was still a mystery.

Ali knew that the word actually meant plants that were characterised by many single, relatively small flowers. That’s not what Auntie Pearl was saying to her, though. One of her fondest memories of the old lady was flower arranging, and that was an activity that always caused the Auntie Pearl to mutter multiflora under her breath while she worked. She’d take barren twigs and ostentatious leaves, and weave them into magnificent creations that would wow the whole family. In that context, Auntie Pearl had spoken to Ali about making sure that her life had diversity woven through it – vivid colours and heady scents, but also structure and form.

From her sacred position beneath the tree, Ali looked upwards, past the fruit trees that were in blossom, beyond the massive pines that marked the university fenceline, and to the towering city skyline beyond.

It was odd, the sensation that took place within her as she looked. Scrunching up her empty sandwich bag and holding it with her empty juice bottle on her lap, Ali held them there while somewhere in her depths a coin dislodged from a place where it had been stuck for many years, and rattled its way down to the depths of her soul. It almost felt like she was one of those Sambo money-boxes that her father had from his childhood, where you put a coin into Sambo’s hand and lifted it so that he swallowed the coin, which then sat with its companions in his depths until you had enough to buy your treasure.

Ali looked at the skyline. You’ve got to have form and structure – it’s the backbone of life. She looked at the trees. You can only be one species – not a plum tree one week and a banksia the next. She looked more closely at the trees. They all had trunks. Structure. They all did their one thing, but they did a variety of things on the way to doing their one thing. Diversity. The fruit trees were bare, then budded and blossomed and finally bore fruit – they certainly weren’t boring in what they did or what they produced. At the base of the trees grew flowers, and they too had a structure and process before they went wild with abandon.

Glancing at her watch, Ali realised she’d have to rush to get to her next lecture. As she ran along the pathways of the university to the lecture hall, though, she understood what her father had been getting at. When you’re young, it’s important to concentrate on building a strong core – you can’t choose what your natural giftings are, or what background you’re born to, but you can make sure that you build the core of your life strong and true, so that in future, whatever fruit or flowers you produce will be magnificent. And you can surround yourself with interesting people and do fascinating things so that life is never dull.

Ali slid into her student seat in the lecture hall next to a couple of her new friends, smiling broadly at them. The lecturer entered and took his place at the podium, and Ali took out her books to take notes. Across the top of her page she wrote multiflorabundant and smiled. Auntie Pearl would be proud. Maybe her dad would be too.

“What’s that?” her nearest seated friend hissed, pointing at the word and frowning.

“That’s what my life’s going to be,” Ali hissed back, smiling broadly, before concentrating on the lecturer’s words. She had to squeeze all the goodness out of this lecture and every other that would come for the rest of her life. It was all part of the fertilizer that would build the strong core for her multiflorabundance.