THERE was no sign on the door of my parents’ bedroom that said ‘keep out’, but I knew it was not a place to visit, at least not for long. There was a smell to the room, of stale perfume, my father’s cigarettes and of bodies. Even so, I was drawn to this room, as if to danger, a wish to pit my puny strength against my father’s, whose every command was law.
My mother made up my parent’s bed each day by dragging a thick maroon cover over the top to hide the rumpled sheets and blankets. She had dyed the bedspread the colour of dried blood, to hide the stains on what was once a white bedspread, which she had brought with her from Holland. The spread was too heavy for regular washing and gave off a musty smell.
On the wall opposite the bed my parents put my mother’s Queen Anne dresser. Above the single drawer and tabletop were three rectangular mirrors held together by hinges. I liked to pull together the two outer wings and sandwich my body in between. That way I could see my front and back reaching to infinity.
On the floor my father’s black shoes, dulled by walking and age, spread before my feet like open boats. I liked to try them on for size, too, careful to place my toes in such a way that no part of my body touched the leather. It was both exciting and terrifying to breach my father’s territory, all the time hovering on the edge of being caught.
On the wall of my parents’ bedroom that faced the front window was a print of a bronze cast of Atlas hoisting the world globe above his shoulders. The bronze cast gave his skin a dark complexion as if he were from some place like Africa, some place I had learned about at school where we prayed for and helped the missions through the metal black Sambo in his straw hat and red jacket who sat on top of the teacher’s table. The nuns encouraged us to slide a penny onto Sambo’s tongue and when you pressed a lever at the back, the penny disappeared.
Why was Atlas naked? I asked my mother, one day. ‘Why not give him clothes?’
‘The human body is beautiful,’ my mother said. ‘Artists like to show it off.’ I could not agree. The human body without clothes, the ones that featured in the art books my father kept on display in his library, disturbed me. Even so, I could not keep my eyes off them. I looked at Atlas and the muscles on his arms. I tried to see between his legs to where his penis hung. It was better to think of the missions.
I came into my parents’ bedroom often in search of pennies, not for the missions but to spend on lollies. I rifled through my father’s suit coats in the tall wardrobe next to the picture of Atlas when he was away at work. Money was not the only attraction. My father’s military uniform stood in the cupboard along with his dress sword, in its silver sheath with gold tassels. When you pulled it in and out it made a squeaking sound as if a balloon had been let free. The blade surprised me. It was as blunt as my brothers’ toy weapons.
I reinforce my memory of this room through photographs I found recently in a collection of negatives my father left behind when he died. I kept the negatives in a yellow lunch box and it was years before I had the courage to develop them. Among these photos my father had kept a series of shots of my mother seated on the bed in my parents’ bedroom.
In these photos I recognise the way my mother poses for the camera, her movie star look. Even today, in her ninety-third year, my mother is vain and refuses to wear glasses. She reckons she looks better without them even if she cannot see clearly. In these photos my mother is dressed in her underwear, her girdle with the bra straps pulled down to reveal her naked shoulders.
I am tempted to take these photos today to my mother to ask her about them, about why my father took them. Was it my father’s attempt at art or was it something else? Was she complicit in the process of making these photos or was she coerced?
Children find it difficult to recognise their parents as sexual beings. Other people might have sex together, characters in books, on television, the people up the road, but not their parents.
So, too, for the child in me, and even today as an adult, I struggle with the notion that my mother enjoyed sex, and yet there are signs, signs and contradictions. Most notably in these photographs, presumably taken by my father.
He bought his first camera before I was ten and set about reproducing images of his children for posterity. We lined up in the corridor outside the lounge room, which he set up as his photographic studio. Huge silver domes stood on either side of the room, like umbrellas to concentrate the light from the intense white globes he kept on for hours on end. The room became tropical hot and we each sat in turn on the high-backed Jacobean chair my grandfather had sent to my mother as a present from Holland years before as my father snapped our images.
We wore our Sunday bests for these photographs and resented the need to dress up even on a Saturday but my father was adamant we should look our best. These were the family photographs my mother would later send home to Holland and they were proof indeed of how well my family had done in Australia.
Photos lie. I remember the efforts to which I went as I took my place on the high-backed chair. I wanted to turn my head to the left to conceal my right front teeth, which were by now browning with decay. My father insisted I smile and would not let me turn to face in the opposite direction to hide the rot in my mouth. He did not notice, or if he did he did not comment.
I do not remember my mother taking her turn on the high-backed chair, although she features prominently in all the family group shots, whereas my father seldom does. He took the photos though there are a few shots of him included among the family groups.
DO I SHOW my mother these photographs I now have in my possession? Do I show her what I now see of her sexuality? It is not just the child in me who refuses to take a benign view of these photographs, a child who says of course my parents did not enjoy sex together, it is the adult I have become, the adult who looks back and remembers.
On Saturdays my mother worked in a children’s home in Burwood looking after other peoples’ abandoned children. She worked reluctantly because she needed the money. She worked at a time when most respectable mothers did not work. She had no choice. And so we children were left at home alone in the care of each other and you could say in the care of our father, who worked only during the week.
On weekends my older sister took responsibility for the running of the household. She washed clothes, load after load, a week’s washing piled high on the laundry floor, for a family of nine children. She cleaned the house, vacuumed, scrubbed, and issued instructions to us little ones about what we must do to pitch in. The boys rarely helped. They took off to play, but my younger sisters and I were expected to do more. We were girls after all.
To this day I marvel at my older sister’s determination to get the house into order, weekend after weekend, while our mother was out working and our father sat on his chair in the lounge room, drinking. By mid afternoon on hot summer days my younger sister and I made our escape to the local swimming pool, but not before we had walked past the open hallway door and seen my older sister perched on my father’s lap. He seemed to whisper in her ear. I could not bear to look much, as I have found it difficult to look at the photos of my mother half undressed.
This was my sister aged fourteen. When I turned fourteen she took me aside one day as we walked home from church and told me she had decided it was time I learned the facts of life. I shuddered. I had no desire to know the facts of life. I preferred to stay ignorant, but she insisted.
‘If you’re going to behave like that, you’ll never grow up.’ And so she proceeded to fill me in on how babies are made. She needed to tell me, she said, so that I would not need to learn these things as she had learned them from my father. My father had told her the facts of life, she said. He had demonstrated certain points to her, points on which she did not elaborate, but he had told her that our mother was ignorant about all things sexual when they got married and he had to teach her everything from scratch.
Then it became my older sister’s turn and soon it would be mine. But my older sister sensed this was not right and warned me, ‘If he touches you, scream’. It was an unsettling experience to have my sexual education rolled into an injunction to avoid touch but it has stayed with me.
But that’s another story. For now I come back to the question. Was my mother a willing participant in these photo shoots? Did she enjoy them, or was she coerced?
My mother told me once when I was in my early forties when I finally drew enough courage to talk to her about my childhood, that she learned of our father’s behaviour too late and that she had told him she would kill him if he ever visited my sister in bed again. My mother thought his visits had stopped. She wanted to believe as much, but my sister told her years later that they had not.
‘Why didn’t you tell me,’ my mother asked my sister.
‘I kept it to myself,’ she said ‘because you had enough worries of your own.’ My sister has told me the same.
My mother thought my father was under control, a strange expression ‘under control’. At school the nuns taught us that it was up to the girl to keep the boy under control in all things sexual. Boys could not help themselves. Girls, however, had the capacity to hold onto their desires. Boys’ passions ran unbridled. Only girls could say no.
Was ‘no’ enough for my father? Did my mother ever say ‘no’?
In this more recent conversation I had with my mother, a conversation between two adult women, my mother by then remarried to a man who proved a much better match for her than my father had been, she remembered she said, ‘the things your father did to me.’
I had asked her about those other times on weekends when my parents were both at home, those times when my mother was not at work. Those times when my father became increasingly drunk, when he stayed in his bedroom and called out to each of us one by one, starting with my mother.
‘Come here, Miecke, come to bed.’ My mother stayed put with us children in the lounge room hoping perhaps, at least I imagined she was hoping as I had hoped, that he might fall asleep and leave us in peace.
But no, he kept on and when my mother did not respond to his repeated demands he moved down the line to call for his oldest daughter. Did he ever get to my name? Not in my memory. I kept away, although I believe my two younger sisters might once at least have gone inside to comfort him.
For that is how I view it now. My father sought comfort in his daughters, but he had confused comfort with sexuality.
Seated in the lounge room of my mother’s new house with her second husband I reminded her of a Saturday afternoon when we children sat with her to watch television, and my father was drunk. I reminded her of how my father called and called in his usual manner and eventually she relented, to give us children peace, she said.
My mother went to my father. She closed the bedroom door behind her.
We sat, listening for all the sounds, not from the television but from behind the closed bedroom door. I had it in my mind then that our mother was in danger, that in only a matter of time my father would kill her. My two older brothers, older than me by a year and two years respectively, seemed to share this fear. We did not speak of it, but the tension in the room was palpable.
My mother let out a scream, a yelp, a cry of pain and my brothers were up out of the lounge room and into my parents’ bedroom in a flash. I trailed behind with my younger sister but did not get inside the room. My mother screamed at my brother, the first through the door.
‘Get out of here. Get out.’ She screamed at him the way a mother might scream at a child who has just run across the road in front of a car. My brother backed out of the room.
What had he seen? My brother did not say and I knew not to ask, but the look in his eyes has stayed with me. To this day I have wondered whether this incident in particular contributed to the recluse this brother became, but that is yet another story.
For now, when I told my mother this memory she spoke through misty eyes, ‘The things your father did to me. The things he did.’
HOW DIFFERENT TODAY are my daughters. Unafraid of their father, and seemingly confident in the position they hold in their family. They will happily tell their father to get lost if they feel he has overstepped the mark.
When they were little, I resolved my children should be free to play and not be overburdened with housework such as my sister had been. An overcompensation perhaps, and not without consequences, both good and bad. I have four daughters, now young adults, whose lives, difficulties and success spring out of their experience within their family, the one we share together, my husband and I. The shadow of the past looms over us, though not only from my family of origin. My husband also brings his life experience into the mix. Every marital bedroom, they say, is crowded with at least six people, two sets of parents on either side of the parental couple.
My daughters have no qualms about waltzing into our bedroom day or night when the door is open. They help themselves to my clothes, my jewellery, my shoes, as I might share theirs. They help themselves at times to the coins my husband keeps in a wooden bowl on our mantelpiece when they need tram money or a few coins to buy an ice cream. They borrow his socks in winter. They would borrow more of my husband’s clothes but none of them fit nor are they to our daughters’ taste.
My husband sometimes complains that none of his possessions are safe. That everything he owns is treated as though it belongs to everyone else. That nothing is safe from them.
As much as my husband complains, I marvel at the degree to which our daughters feel safe to invade his space and possessions. They do not see their father in the same way I saw mine. They consider he is there for them; and let him know of their displeasure whenever he lets them down.
My husband, who had his formative years during the hippie-loving seventies, now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight sexual innuendo to my ears, but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling. He once argued with one daughter and in the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart. She objected to the word. She still does. She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart. He used the term not to describe her appearance but more because he was angry about her behaviour, too long on the telephone or some such thing.
‘Bitch would have been better,’ she said to us, ‘but not tart. Tarts are prostitutes.’ My husband learns to hold his tongue.
WHEN I WAS little, I felt sorry for my brothers, all five of them. I imagined they were under great pressure to do well at school. I was under no such pressure. I was a girl. I could do as well as I might, but no one held great expectations. It would be good if I could sing and play the piano the way my older sister did, but academically it was enough for me to pass my tests at school.
For my brothers it was a different story. They needed to do well at school, or my father would dismiss them as failures. They needed to get on in the world.
This was in the mid sixties when women by and large stayed at home to tend to their families. My father reluctantly doled out a small amount of housekeeping money and arranged in time for an account at the milk bar, the greengrocer’s, the butcher’s and the chemist, all of which enabled my mother to buy the necessary foodstuffs and essentials to keep her large family going.
My three sisters and I helped her in this endeavour more so than the boys. The boys collected kindling and newspaper scraps to light the briquette heater in the early mornings, though often times it was my mother who took on this task when the boys forgot. They could be forgiven. They needed to excel at school.
Girls were useless at mathematics, at physics and chemistry, all the subjects that mattered, or so my father said. Their job was to cook and clean and to take care of the men who were the real providers.
I need not even worry about learning to drive a car, I thought then. That would be my husband’s job when I grew up and married. Women’s power I thought then, though I did not consider it in such words, was in the home. Men’s power was outside.
Like my mother, I slipped uneasily between two modes of existence, the one we lived on the outside for public viewing, the one that people saw on Sundays at Mass when my family sat together taking up most of the row, the girls with manilas on our heads – Vatican II had by then made the wearing of hats at Mass non-compulsory for women and girls, but a manila, or a handkerchief on the head, provided a respectful transition to today’s bare head – and the boys in long trousers beyond age seven.
I worried at these times that our father, whom I knew by then had converted to Catholicism when he married my mother, a devout Catholic, was not with us in church. No one commented, but I looked across to the families of other girls from my school and there was a father present in those families. My father sometimes drove us to church and simmered in the front seat for reasons I could not understand. He dropped us off at the front steps of our Lady of Good Counsel church in Deepedene then made his way back home.
It was sinful to miss Mass. It irked me that my father’s absence was so public. Other people could see my father was a sinner. Not that they said as much. Early on I reckoned there was something hypocritical in the hold my father had over the rest of us. One rule for him, and another for us. He could bypass events that needed his attention like going to Mass on Sundays without so much as protest from my mother, but we could not. Mass on Sunday was a given.
At this time my father was studying to become a chartered accountant, the last hurdle in his rise to the top of his profession. He sat on Saturdays with his books open on his lap but it was not long before he closed them, took off in the car and returned with a supply of alcohol. He drank instead of studying. One rule for him. When my oldest brother failed his final year at school my father insisted he return to pass in other subjects. Another of my brothers had difficulty with sums. My father sat with him at the kitchen table drumming in his tables. When my brother made a mistake my father took a fork and rapped it over his knuckles.
I felt sorry for my brothers. The pressure on them to succeed was enormous, but they were the strong ones. They held the power. I resented them this. One day they would take over where my father had left off. Still, I basked in the knowledge that I would never need to learn to drive a car. My husband would drive me everywhere.
WHEN I WAS little, power rested in my father at the head of the table. My mother sat to his right. My oldest brother sat opposite my father at the other end of the table. My second oldest brother sat next to my mother followed by my older sister, followed by my next brother.
On the other side I sat in the middle between another slightly older brother, and two younger sisters. My youngest brother sat in the high chair. In time we moved from the bench up to single chairs on the other side of the table, at least that was the plan as the older ones left home, but by the time enough people had left home our family had disintegrated such that meal times all together rarely happened except at Christmas.
My mother and sister served, my mother and my sister cleared away. The young ones in the form of the two little boys, as my two immediately older brothers were called and the two little girls as my younger sister and I were called, dealt with the dishes. The sight of those dishes in the tiny scullery that stood off from the kitchen in the house we rented in Camberwell, a house that the real estate agent once described as a gentleman’s residence, the stack of dishes towered almost to the ceiling, stays with me. Every meal required eleven plates, eleven knives forks and spoons, eleven drinking cups. Think on it.
By the time I reached adolescence my father refused to sit at the table with the rest of us during meals. He sat alone in his chair in the lounge room or took himself off to bed, from where he commanded my mother or my sister to attend. He exerted a weak sort of power through his absence and his frequent though unpredictable rages inspired by alcohol.
LAST NIGHT AT dinner after a day-long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had been groped six times in India in less than five weeks when she finally saw red. She ran after the man who had grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so, while squeezing a bottle of water over his head. She yelled at him all the way down the street and imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends and family.
‘It happens all the time,’ she said.
Not to me, I thought. But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the Middle East, where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes place. And I am over fifty, the age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.
Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas. I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick. The march followed closely on the death of Jill Meagher. This much publicised event took Melbourne by storm. Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented. She worked in the media. She had a profile in her ordinary day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.
There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage, which apparently made it easier for police to track down the alleged killer. When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief, the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered, I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it matter?
How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a sexual predator and a murderer? I know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters. And it sucks. It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all things sexual. And it makes you wary of relations with men. Not that I haven’t had my share of them. And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four daughters.
WHEN I WAS young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father died, when the tables turned. My mother took up voluntary work with the church, visiting impoverished families in the high-rise estates in Fitzroy. My father by now had retired. He did not like her going out while he was stuck at home alone. He did not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay at home. Instead, he drove her in and out of the city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.
The tables turned and my father, once the strong one, became the helpless, dependent one right up until his death.
And my mother grew stronger once he was gone.
In my father’s house is an extract from the memoir ‘The Art of Disappearing’, and was first published in The Griffith Review, edition 40, Women and Power, 2013.
The roots of patriarchy go back a long way. When I was young growing up in fifties and sixties Australia my father held all the power, in my family at least. He was a migrant and may well have felt powerless in the outside world of mainstream Melbourne with its conservative waspish values, but at home he was king.
‘You have to be ten times better than an Australian to do well here, my father told my mother, or so she told me years after his death, but at the time I knew none of this, only that my father was a man of hulking intellect, great stature and that his rule was law. From the seventies onwards I questioned these notions only to see them rise again with full force in the rise of extreme right wing values across the world and the only way against this is to call it out for what it is, the Emperor and his non-existent clothes. Fathers have their place in the world alongside mothers, but not ahead of them. In time, my father lost his power. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened over days, weeks and years. But he lost it before he died and yet the memory of his authority hangs over me like a bad smell. I detect elements of it in the born-to-rule mentality of those like Donald Trump who despise women, minorities and the vulnerable. As women, let’s not be silenced by them.