Father’s Day

When I’m being harsh I think of my father’s love as one of those oversized Easter eggs – the kind wrapped in gold foil, with red ribbon tied around the middle – exciting to receive, but a hollow shell containing nothing of substance. He loves me in an abstract way, worries about me and for me, has told me that he is proud of me, but he doesn’t know me, not really. He has said more than once that I am the most honest person he knows, but as much as I enjoy the compliment, it is not true. I can be, and have been, as mendacious and deceitful as anybody else.

He doesn’t know the real me, and I suppose I know as little about him, in spite of listening to his stories, told to captive audiences at dinner parties across the decades, of his days in the Ulster Constabulary and the merchant navy, of being ordered to fish a dead body out of a well only to have the slippery corpse escape the rope and land on top of him, pushing him under the fetid water. Or when he and his fellow constables bury barrels of confiscated poteen in the garden of the station house instead of destroying them, and then dig them up and go on a bender for Christmas. Or the time he crosses the road to avoid an encounter with the writer Brendan Behan on a London street.  

Like many men in their prime during the sixties and seventies, the meat of my father’s life takes place away from the home, in board rooms and offices, restaurants and bars – places of wood panelling and ashtrays and fingers of Scotch.

When I am a young child, the ritual of his homecoming includes being lifted and held for a moment in a miasma of cigarette smoke and alcohol vapour before he deposits me and retires to his chair in the living room, where the television captures his attention for the rest of the evening. After an adequate dose of news and current affairs, he watches sitcoms from England or America, and I sit as close to him as he will allow. We laugh together at the hapless idiots of Dad’s Army or Gilligan’s Island, and it is a sharing of a sort.

On family holidays, we drive from town to town, staying at low-slung motels with bare brick walls and chocolate-coloured décor. My sister and I sing out the names of the towns like incantations – Dookie! Yackandandah! Badaginnie! Nar Nar Goon! Dad is the tour guide of the obvious, but his enthusiasm is infectious. ‘Look, there’s a cow! See that horse?’ In one motel a goat eats Dad’s suede jacket. In another, I celebrate my birthday and receive a doorstop edition of the Concise Oxford dictionary as a present.

Each year in summer we rent a house in a different seaside town for a few weeks. At the beach Dad wears the same pair of tiny faded blue shorts year after year and refuses to put on sunscreen, so that by the end of the first day he is unfailingly ablaze with sunburn. Despite having been a merchant marine he has never learnt to swim, so instead he stands in the shallows and stirs the water with his arms, or else wades into the breakers and lets them crash against him.

For a brief period in the eighties we are drinking buddies. I have returned from a year’s exchange in America too late in the year to return to school to do my HSC. In limbo, I am available for marathon lunches and pub crawls with AFL stars, TV journalists and others who are free of nine-to-five commitments. My father is proud of the way I hold my liquor and of the attention I attract, although he circles the wagons after a close call with a now-notorious former entertainer who tries to pick me up outside the toilets at the Hilton Hotel.

It’s not the first or last time he rescues me or warns off an unsuitable suitor. There are fisticuffs with a deranged composer who has been haunting me, long before I have heard of the term ‘stalker’. There are threats made to the randy neighbour who gropes me at a local street party. There are hindsight mutterings in the wake of my disastrous first marriage, which is ironic considering my ex-husband’s sins mirror my father’s in ways that border on the Shakespearean.

I lose his attention again when I have children. Their radiance casts me into such deep shadow I feel obliterated, but in the same way that we watched television shows together in the days of black and white, I can imagine that we share the experience of adoring my children. At the very least it gives us a topic for conversation. But even that is gone now that failing sight and hearing, along with the progression of dementia have severed the last shreds of any bond we may have shared.

His attention now is given over to benign hallucinations of babies, and visitors from who knows where, who bring him gifts of ribbons and flowers. His eyes roam unmoored around the room, mostly blind to the television that nonetheless still transmits its news and current affairs, its quiz shows and cops shows into his sightless eyes and deaf ears. He is confused now about how many children he has, and what their names are. He has more of a relationship with his GP, his podiatrist or the nurse who gives him his chemo infusions than he has with his daughters. But he still remembers that stinking well, and the Christmas poteen, and probably the name of the street where he avoided Brendan Behan. Those stories and so many more like them are the fabric of his real life, his coat of many colours, and for whatever reason, being a father is just a pocket in that coat – a pocket with a hole in it that his daughters have fallen through.

Cheers, M’Dears

Today is my birthday. I’m 57. I had to think about that (and count on my fingers), because it’s not a ‘big one’, except for one thing – it’s the first birthday I have spent sober in forty years, not counting the three times I was pregnant, and I probably snuck a few mouthfuls of champers on those birthdays too.

Forty years. Four decades of woozy, fuzzy, booze-cocooned birthdays, not to mention the countless other holidays, high days, weekends and weekdays when I would have registered a reading on a breathalyser test (not that I ever engaged in drink-driving). Forty years of self-medicating my social anxiety with booze. That’s a lot of giggle water under the bridge.

Just over three months ago, I quit drinking. I thought I did it for my health. All those dire warnings and new studies saying there is no safe limit for alcohol consumption. I tried to stay within the two-glass daily limit (and often failed), unless I was socialising or celebrating, but I drank every day. Happy Hour was doing the slow creep forward from five o’clock to four-thirty to four, and if I was eating lunch out, it wasn’t complete without a glass of pinot noir. In fact, no social occasion was worth it unless there was going to be grog involved, preferably cocktails.

I thought alcohol made everything fun and glamorous and romantic, made me feel euphoric, confident and gregarious, but I was wrong. Booze was my anaesthetic. It made me numb to my crippling self-consciousness. It made me deaf to my inner critic. It dropped a veil between me and the world, so I didn’t have to deal with reality and be vulnerable. Shameful admission: I even had a hip flask of vodka stashed in my bag when I was selected for jury duty in my twenties. Thankfully I didn’t get chosen for a trial. Talk about blind justice!

But what I have discovered since being sober is that being clear and present isn’t scary to me anymore. The fun and euphoria is in the people, the conversations, the experiences, the food, even the mocktails. It’s in being able to tell my friends and family that I love them, and know it’s not just the booze talking. It’s about being able to drive myself home after a night out, and wake up the next morning without a hangover. It’s about sleeping better and having more energy.

I know, I know, big eye rolls all round. I get it. There’s nothing worse than a reformed drinker going around evangelising and being a bloody great Pollyanna about everything. I’m not trying to convince anyone else to quit. But, today is my birthday. It’s my party and I’ll sober blog if I want to!

And yes, I still crave a drink now and then, but it’s a craving for some fantasy that never really existed. I just wish I’d worked that out forty years ago. But, I’m a late bloomer in most things. It is what it is.

Cheers, and Happy Birthday to me.

Aren’t you Curious?

Recently I’ve noticed something strange has been happening to me – people have stopped asking me questions about myself. When I pointed this out to a woman friend of a similar age, she quipped, ‘Welcome to the world of being invisible.’

I had heard of this phenomenon, but it is another thing to experience it. At first, it felt like a relief to be out from under the male gaze – to be able to move about in the world free from the wolf whistles, the cat-calls and other animal-themed behaviours. It happened so gradually that I barely noticed.

But, after a recent social event, where I had chatted amiably to around twenty different adults, I lay in bed that night, replaying my various interactions, and reviewing my performance (a topic for a whole other blog post), and I realised that not one of those people had asked me a question about what I was doing, or what I thought about anything. If I hadn’t been asking the questions, we would have stood in awkward silence, and I had to wonder, what had changed about me that nobody seemed curious about me anymore? The answer seemed to be that I am a middle-aged woman.

This is not a grand epiphany. It is just a melancholy awareness that I have reached and quietly passed another milestone, and I haven’t quite accepted it or decided what I should do about it yet. Because there is a certain irony in the fact that I am trying to emerge as a writer and be noticed by agents and publishers just at the time when the rest of the world, apart from my family and friends, can no longer see me.

I could fight back with purple hair, eccentric clothes, statement jewellery, and oversized owl spectacles to increase my visibility, but that has never been my style, and I wouldn’t be able to pull it off – I’m no Iris Apfel. Or, I could embrace the cloak of invisibility like a super power and become a silent observer, passing unnoticed among the carefree young, granny-ninja style. Except that sounds like a rather lonely life on the sidelines, and as much as I love my own company, I do need human interaction now and then.

When I look to other women who have gone before me, I am inspired by my own mother, who only retired from her career as an editor a year ago, at the age of ninety, and whose social diary is still so full I have to book ahead if I want to see her. But, she claims to feel invisible too. Elizabeth Jolly was in her fifties when her first novel was published, and there have been other late bloomers in the literary world, but I need to get a wriggle on, nonetheless.

And if my physical presence no longer commands attention or elicits curiosity, then I will have to make my writing voice stronger so that it can’t be ignored. I will make my readers curious about my characters at least, and through my writing, perhaps I can reclaim my place in the world.