Archive for January, 2009
Ursula Le Guin says: Offer your experience as your wisdom.
This is my country. This is where I am from:
I was born twenty miles from where this photograph was taken. I swam and fished in that water throughout my childhood. I rode my horse across those hills. I love this place beyond the telling of it. Today I am sitting in my office in San Francisco and missing my country right down to my bones.
Everything you see is stolen.
On this day 221 years ago, George Johnston stepped out of a boat and onto the sand of Sydney Cove. “Johnston received extensive land grants in areas of modern Petersham, Bankstown and Cabramatta… Johnston’s other grants included land which is now the suburb of Annandale, named for his property that was in turn named after the place of his birth. He and Ester Abrahams farmed and lived on this land with their children until the 1870s when it was sold and sub-divided for residential development.”
George’s daughter Blanche had a daughter she called Isabella, whose daughter also called Isabella had a daughter Brenda whose son Robin is my father. My family prospered and I was given an inheritance and an excellent university education. The people from whom the land was stolen have not prospered.
“Over the period 2002-2006, Indigenous Australians died from diabetes at nine times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians and from kidney diseases at four times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.”
“Over the period 2002-2006, Indigenous Australians died from hypertensive disease at four times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians died from rheumatic heart disease (which predominantly affects children) at 9 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.”
“Indigenous males and females died from avoidable causes at around 4 to 4.5 times the rate of non-Indigenous males and females.”
When we went to see Ric the day before we left, he was completely alert and present as he had not been on other visits. As soon as he saw me he wanted to talk about how much he was enjoying his book, and once we’d got him installed on the verandah with a cup of tea and some gingerbread men the girls had made for him, he turned out to be willing to answer questions he’d never wanted to answer before.
His mother’s name was Mildred Lyons. Richard’s grandfather Grantley Hyde Fitzhardinge was a NSW judge and himself the grandson of an earl, so there appears to have been some question about whether Mildred was Good Enough for the judge’s son, Ric’s father. The marriage went ahead, perhaps in the face of the judge’s disapproval, and turned out to be fairly unhappy. Mildred languished in Girilambone.
It’s remote today and must have been incredibly isolated then, although Ric points out with some pride that they did have a quite magnificent car. This was driven by everyone, over unsealed roads and recklessly, until its steering wheel came apart in Ric’s hands and it was abandoned to rust near the railway station. He liked the car. He did not, however, like horses or cattle or dogs, preferring books. He was not at all a country boy.
(On another memorable visit this trip, Lulworth had arranged a petting zoo. We found Ric in the garden gazing with considerable distaste at a calf, some goats and a poddy lamb. I dandled a sweet rabbit on my lap, and asked him: “Vermin?” “Oh yes,” he said, in his courtly way.)
Richard said Mildred was a wonderful mother, musical and artistic, and that she encouraged him in his interests and fully supported his desire to flee Girilambone. He went to school and university in Sydney and was halfway through an architecture degree when he had a great falling-out with his professor. This was in the late forties, after the war, and he managed to get a berth on a ship to London at two weeks’ notice. His family rallied round in and a terrific scramble supplied steam-trunks and a passport. His mother was still alive when he returned to Australia years later, but she died before Ric met Jan.
In this one conversation Ric spoke more about his childhood than in the rest of the thirteen years I’ve known him. Once he’d taken his degree in London he went on to have a lovely and interesting and productive life all over the world. Looking back on this life seems to afford him great pleasure, which is lucky, because old age and infirmity really have nothing else to recommend them that I can see.
The hardest thing to accept about Ric’s predicament is that this is about as good as it gets.
My dear old friend Garfield is back in Sydney after a decade in Russia working for Bloomberg. I asked him what it’s like to be in Australia again. “The trickiest part,” he said shrewdly, “is that Australia’s not the paradise we could imagine it was, before we came back.” Obama is saying more or less the same thing. I am still struggling with it. This is the happy ending? This is it? I made a life for myself in California, but Australia still tugs at my heart? I still need to clean out the cat tray? Ric doesn’t get any younger? We don’t get him back the way he was?
I watched as Barnaby and Jeremy helped him back into his walking frame, their hands so tender on his thin back. Ric raised good sons. He made meaning in his life.
It’s not enough. But I think it’s all we get.
I have a big post brewing but in the meantime, have you noticed how much better things are under an Obama administration? There is life on Mars, and when people fall out of the sky over New York City, they live.
These days when I get noticeably emo around the blickets, even Julia blinks at me with her lemur eyes and says “Do youse miss yours mom?” I say that I do, because missing my mother is as good a synechdoche for what I do feel as anything else.
Ever since my very happy week in Barraba, my pointed longing for Mum and Sarah and Kelly has taken the form of mah jong mania, since that’s all we did over the break: eat my Dad’s Christmas cake and play and play and play. Jeremy had to pry me away from the tiles to go to the airport.
As part of my efforts to fall in love with San Francisco again – efforts in which San Francisco and the Bad Cat are colluding, the city by turning on the fragrant lemon-yellow angled winter sunlight I can never resist, the Bad Cat by sitting on me and purring loudly – I wandered up Grant Street to buy myself a mah jong set. I knew exactly what I wanted: brocade, trays, finely carved tiles, a good lurid bird for One Bamboo. My Dad’s set, in short.
It quickly became clear that mah jong has fallen out of fashion in the new China. There were lots and lots of blobby ugly plastic tiles in plastic boxes. There were a few more interesting bone tiles in boxes apparently lined with old Chinese newspapers. There were no sets I wanted.
I walked halfway to North Beach and found an antique store, transparently covering some kind of money laundering operation. The very helpful Russian gentleman who ran it dug up an original 1950s E S Lowe Bakelite set, complete with the marbled plastic benches. It was marked for sale at $8,100 but he offered me a deal: “You pay cash? Visa? $1500?” I told him I would have to go away and think about it. “How about $500?” Ordinarily I would be very pleased with a $7,600 markdown, but it’s selling for $26 right now on eBay, so…
My set was in the last store I looked in, almost back at the office, long after I had given up hope. It’s not perfect and I devoutly hope the sweet Chinese woman was incorrect when she told me the tiles are ivory and bamboo – it’s almost certainly bone. The case is shabby and sun-faded and frayed, but hey, so am I. Who wants to play?
We had the annual Three Rachel Dinner this evening, and the restaurant was sweltering. I sat next to Rach H, who is pretty and delicate and who has little blue birds to help her get dressed in the morning, and I felt like a sweaty elephant. Still, the food was good – roasted figs and goat cheese, kingfish with potatoes fried in duck fat – and the company was even better.
Jan looked after the little kids. They all baked together, and when Jeremy and I got home the children were sprawled asleep and Jan was a little floury and frazzled, but happy. We sat in the playroom with the door open to the terrace. When the weather changed at midnight, a great cool mouthful of blue-green air stroked my back like a friend’s loving hand.
Be kind to Jeremy and the girls.
Be cheerful and competent at work.
Have dates with my girlfriends.
Count my blessings.
On our way back from collecting Jeremy in Tamworth, we passed a huge sand monitor on the southbound lane of State Highway 95, also known as Fossickers Way. I thought it was alive; Dad and Jeremy said it was dead. Dad turned around to look. I was all “Be careful!” but my big atheisticky skeptical papa said “He’s my totem animal,” so that was the end of that.
The goanna was dead of course – half his poor head was gone – and he stank to high heaven, but he was so beautiful, his patterned skin almost unmarked, the green double-chins still iridescent in the sun. Dad got a little shovel out of the back of the Terios and put him over on the side of the road, so that the carrion-eaters who fed on his carcass wouldn’t also be hit by cars.
Dad says they are called racehorse monitors because they can run so fast, and that he once knew a pet one called Phar Lap.
I am going to make some New Year’s Resolutions, any day now.
Ickle wickle twin-prop plane to Tamworth, the girls striding out resolutely across the tarmac, bless. Major turbulence over a glorious view of the harbour, filling me with terror lest I plummet back to French’s Forest in flames. Bumpy landing at tiny Tamworth. I got the sleepy girls dolled up in their sunglasses and hats, and there was my Daddy in the terminal. Hugs, bags and carseats into the little Terios, and the girls slept peacefully as we drove the hour and a half north to Barraba, Dad and I plotting to save the world.
Barraba is far more beautiful than I imagined. A little basin in wooded hills with a river running through it. Big big sky! Last night’s sunset was all gold and apricot and pink nimbus and cirrus against a glowing indigo. I have seen fantail doves and galahs and cockatoos and rosellas and lorikeets. And there were two lovely green frogs outside my sister’s house last night. My sister’s children Kelly and Ross are fabulous, and the four kids all piled on top of each other squealing with joy to be together.