A heart-warming story about how it’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with

We came back from Berlin on the Monday after New Year, and stopped off in Pruszków to give back the car, boast about our adventures and let Babcia and Dziadek fondle their youngest grandchildren.  In the morning it was -10, with bright sun, and that powdery crunch to the snow. We decided to go to Warsaw with Grandma, Marcin’s brother and his wife and the cousins, and chase squirrels for 5 minutes before everybody got cold and wanted to go home.

On the way we fell into a pothole, tore off the mirror on a roadside pole and got a flat tyre. Our expedition ended at the petrol station, where it transpired that the jack didn’t work. We took a stroll around the car park and then all climbed into the van and ate pretzels while we waited to be rescued. The children whined. Boy cousin insisted in taking off his nappy and peeing in the potty, even though it meant removing and replacing 16 layers of clothes. It got colder and we turned on the engine so the heating would work.

After about an hour, we were saved. But I didn’t really mind any of it at all. After 4 years I have an unburdensome intimacy with Marcin’s family which makes them almost like my own. I like our Sunday meetings, the lack of demands made on me, the fact that there is no necessity to perform. Being stranded at a petrol station with them in the middle of winter was almost fun.

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Annual visit to my oldest friend

A. is my oldest friend, or at least the oldest that I still have contact with. We have known each other since we were 11 years old and starting high school, that big new world full of strangers and unprecedented social negotiations. Our friendship then was one of those horrifying teenage hybrids- passionate letter writing in the night one day, the cold shoulder the next, that potent, disturbing mix of envy and admiration.  Many years later I would find out that her father had a violent temper- our mutual confidences clearly didn’t stretch that far.

When I moved away, we lost contact. One day, many many years later, I was living in Sydney and studying. I was riding my bike to the beach, slowly and without expectation, when who should I see but her. It turned out she lived just down the road from me, with a chicken run in the backyard and a long-distance lover in Canberra.

And some more years later, after meeting the long-distance lover, many dinners and films and discussions about life together, they moved to Berlin, just as we were about to leave on our roundabout way to Poland. Another 2 years passed before we actually arrived in Poland and began a tradition of yearly visits.  Not long afterwards, it turned out that she was expecting her second child, due on the same day as my kids.

We have just been to visit. We have now known each other for over 25 years. The teenage  competition has slowly faded- since she is clearly richer and more ethical , with excellent teeth and a 2 year old who can already be trusted to cross the road without a lassoo, there is really no pleasure to be gained (for me) from making comparisons. So instead I just contented myself  with enjoying her graciousness and warmth and  eating excellent meals and trying to stop my big mean children from killing her small gentle one.

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On this winter’s morn, everyone asleep, this is what I found.

  Ah,  behold, there’s poetry in motherhood!

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Meditations on 2 years of motherhood

Janek and Maja have just  turned 2. The night before they were born, I was  watching Skyfall with Marcin in Złoty Tarasy and intentionally avoiding meditating on what awaited me. 24 hours later, I was off my head on morphine and a mother of 2. This system (no baby one day, baby the next) never fails to amaze me.

And they’re still here, 2 years later, changed beyond all recognition. The fact of them stretches out to colour a time before they ever existed- sometimes when I think about the cycling trip we made to Poland, I catch myself wondering where they were- what did we do with them while we were sleeping in an Iranian caravanserai or crossing a pass in Tajikistan? The things they have learnt in these 2 years stun me- I don’t know if they will ever have another time in their life where they come to grips with so many new skills.

It seems clear to me that I love them more now than I did then. The fact that I just let somebody else take care of them on their first night on earth now horrifies me, to the point where I would like to have another baby just to redeem myself. When I think about the 10 days we spent in hospital together after their birth, my memory is full of horror-film special effects- the dressing gowns, the groans and wails, the night walking, the fear and confusion in the air. The icicles dangling in the yellow lamplight. And so forth. The sight of newborns, with their veiled, sleepy eyes and creaky wails, fills me with a complicated mix of tenderness and fear.

In these two years, I have spent plenty of time feeling either judged or self-righteous. Who knew that parenting was such a competition? Maybe it’s because there’s so much at stake that the thought that you’re doing it all wrong is unbearable. There’s a small, sneaky satisfaction that I can’t deny in seeing someone else lose patience with their child, or palm them off with an electronic device to get a bit of peace and quiet. If I had any plans to become a better person, I would start by trying to eliminate this Schadenfreude.

 

 

 

 

 

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My mother’s eulogy (don’t panic, she’s not dead)

For her 70th birthday, my mother has asked for her eulogy. Initially my mind flinches from such an enterprise- I don’t want to contemplate her death. But I see some sense in her request, and once I forget what a eulogy is, I get great pleasure from contemplating her life.

My mother in her time has been many things. The first feminist in Broken Hill, the first wearer of miniskirts in Temora. Housewife, separated mother, market gardener, teacher, consultant. Mother of four, sister of two. Photographer, blogger, traveller. It’s a measure of her energy for life that she is 70, and I still expect her to be many more.Last week, she was painting frogs for the first time. They looked like they had been run over by a truck. I can’t think of anybody else who would decide to do this at the age of almost 70.

She sees new things, endlessly, in the landscape she sees every day. Instead of fading to a backdrop, this world is constantly explored and renewed by her- its shapes, colours, plants, animals. She photographs this world, inexhaustibly, never repeating herself, dividing it endlessly into different categories. With her 10 year old grandson, she seeks out the shapes of numbers in pebbles and seagrass on the beach. Fungi, orchids, sea-ripple and sun-dapple. This ability to see new things in known places never fails her. Garlanded with cameras, she steps out into a world she has known for 40 years and it never looks the same. When she comes to Warsaw, she sees things I have never noticed before.She is never bored and never boring. The theatre, the cinema, exhibitions, reading, conversations with others- they are all fodder for an active and reflective mind. She loves paintings and can see all the detail and all the grandness in them, a range of vision which always impresses me.

She also has a talent for friendship that I have rarely seen equalled. Now, at 70, she is still building new relationships, and cultivating those that have lasted a lifetime. My namesake, a friend from primary school, visits her once a year or so and they go out into the scrub and photograph orchids.I admire this talent so much that if I could inherit one thing from her, this would be it. When she comes to visit me in Poland and hurts her leg, she makes friends with her physiotherapist and next time she comes, makes a side trip to visit her in Poznan. Renting a flat when she is here, she befriends the owner and thinks of him, months later, watching a documentary about a woman whose story is similar to his mother’s story. At work, moving to a new town, moving back again- she never ceases building contact with the people around her. When her children end their relationships, she stays in touch with their exes. My father’s sister is like her sister. When she moved to Broken Hill, she was soon surrounded by lively women, and organised a women’s group. For her 50th birthday she organised a champagne breakfast at the Sundown Trail, and people actually got out of bed and came.

My father dismisses them as ‘your mad friends’ – I think this collection of (mainly) women is a life’s work. The love and energy that have gone into establishing and maintaining these relationships is inconceivable.She never forgets a birthday, no matter how many extra hangers-on we acquire. Her generosity and prodigious memory extends to our partners, who are never forgotten either.

My father himself has benefited from her loyalty and capacity for investing in relationships. Their own relationship stretches back now over 50 years- first as a friend of her brother and churchmate, later her husband and father of her children.After a 10 year hiatus- rapprochement, and a kind of harmony- weekends together in the bush, a shoulder to lean on in the wilds of Warsaw. I love thinking about the two of them together before we came along- riding the Russian motorbike out around Wiseman’s Ferry (later my own stomping grounds). I remember when a friend of theirs came to visit once on his own motorbike, and they roared off on it while we watched, excluded, from the hillside.

She has been a teacher by calling and not just by profession. She taught us to read before we ever went to school, so that it’s difficult for me to remember a time when I was illiterate. One of my earliest memories is of doing a reading exercise about some kids who went to the coconut shy at the fair, and her telling me what a coconut shy was. Later, when I became a teacher myself, I appreciated her imagination and enthusiasm even more. I especially admire the lesson where she took her year 11 class to the spiky Eden of the Broken Hill Regeneration Area and got them to fondle the various plants and pebbles and write a haiku about it.

She also read to us, prodigiously, throughout our whole childhood, until our own reading skills finally matched our ambitions. The books that she read to us have stayed with me into my adult life. The Hobbit, Watership Down, Playing Beattie Bow; my memory of these reading sessions is almost entirely devoid of any recollection of the physical reality. I don’t remember where we sat, I barely recall anyobody else being there, though I know we all were. I don’t remember what she looked like- all that I remember is the feeling of utter, breathless involvement. Almost once a year I read Moonfleet and hear her voice reading the final lines. Thirty years later, the frisson never fails to repeat itself.

Of physical artefacts, I do remember the things she made us. She is a whizz with the sewing machine, which I remember again when I see the 2 beautiful outfits she has made for my own kids. She used to make our school uniforms and I have a strong memory of putting on my new one at the beginning of the school year, in the middle of summer, and the mingling of excitement and trepidation which surrounded it. She made us library bags- mine was blue-checked , with an applique of Strawberry Shortcake, and later acquired the inevitable brown stain caused by a festering apple. I remember visiting the pattern-and-material shop with her in Moruya, the long rolls of cloth and the crackle of the thin pattern paper, and I remember the outfits she made me when I was 12 or 13 to celebrate my teenageness.

Thinking of these things now, with my own children clamouring at my ankles, it finally really comes to me HOW MUCH WORK it must have been. Cooking pikelets, making playdough, helping us make space scrapbooks with cut-out pictures of the first monkey in orbit, teaching us to read. Cooking for us, reading to us, and still finding time somehow to cultivate her own friendships. I don’t recall her seeming harrassed at all, which now seems nothing short of a miracle.
There are four of us and I think that we all feel equally loved- and I’m sure that it is not just maternal fairness, but a genuine big-heartedness that means she loves us all according to our needs.

Walking to the park one day in Warsaw, my mother tells me that she never knew her grandmothers. Watching my children with her- seeing her read to them, hearing them shouting, “Meck! Meck!- I feel what a shame it is. She is a doting but not interfering grandmother- I watch her letting my children be, watching over them without trying to scare them into submission or control them, and think that this was also a gift she gave to us. She’s always made me feel that she trusts me- never criticising or knowing better, always being proud of us even when we make unconventional decisions. By the time I was 17 I had no doubt that she trusted me to run my own life- I only realised later how rare this was.

Although her grandmothers both died when she was little, she did have strong ties to her aunts- she often told us about trips to the theatre with one of them, and spending the night in her flat when she was at uni. Later, she visited these aunts with us- I remember the dim coolness of their house (where she had spent a vast portion of her childhood), and a feeling that I could not quite penetrate her intimacy with them. Years later, when the aunts and uncle were all gone, she had to say goodbye to this house, with its hothouses and tough, springy southern-hemisphere lawn. When her mother went into a nursing home, she also had to say goodbye to her parents’ house, with the little shed in the backyard where she had holed up to study when she was at school. Years later, working in Ryde, I used to drive past the old places with a contraction of the heart. But it was only thanks to her that I felt any connection at all- she was the bridge between generations, and her love and stories gave us a tenuous line back to the old world of Sunday School picnics and genteel relations betweeen neighbours who called each other Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Wright.

My mother also has the enviable talent of not feeling regret. When I ask her if she was ever sorry that she had left her Sydney life and moved to the bush, she looks perplexed. She has saved herself a lot of torment over the years by simply accepting the status quo. She isn’t passive, but I’ve never heard her lament the past. It’s another talent I want to inherit from her.

She is not afraid to rethink her history. In many of our Warsaw conversations, she returns to the relationship of her own mother with Franki, and her own thoughtlessness in leaving Sydney with Franki while her mother was out of town. She talks about her father,too, and her slowly growing realisation that far from being an uninterested working-class man, he was actually a time-poor breadwinner with an active mind. She tells a story which I love about reassessing the past. Her mother (who had 3 children and was not always healthy) used to sit out on the back step in the evening. My mother would go to join her, sure that this was a precious moment of bonding for both of them- Nana later confessed that she actually groaned inside when her tiny moment of peace for the day was disturbed.

She came late to travel, but has been making up for it ever since. Her first overseas trip was to visit me in Cairo in 1996- a few years later, not put off by a forced cycle through the valley of the Kings in roasting heat, she was back in the middle East, backpacking in Jordan and Syria, volunteering on an archaeological dig in the old Roman city of Pella. For her 70th birthday she arranged herself a trip around Europe- Croatia, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia.

She also has a flair for the flamboyant gesture and the unexpected act. In her mid forties, not long separated from my father and booked in for a hysterectomy, she threw herself a Goodbye Uterus Party. Throughout most of the early 90s, she defiantly met a range of strange (and less-strange) men through that precursor of internet dating, the personal ads. At 60, she decided to take up smoking cigarettes- having smoked 3 in a month and told everyone about it, she then peacefully gave up again.

Writing this, I also recall suddenly that she has a leaning towards the macabre. At the butcher’s window, as we climbed up onto the stainless steel shelf in front of the display case, she would tell us to get down or we would end up inside. When we asked why the dry sand at the beach squeaked when we walked on it, she told us it was the death agonies of a thousand little creatures being ground under our feet. Two of her favourite expressions when we were children were ‘Bag your head’, and ‘I’ll slice your ears off.’

When I think about my mother, or read her blogs or look at her photos, her life looks full, shapely, and varied. Her parenthood, her working life and her retirement have all been lived with inspiration and enthusiasm. I’m glad to have a chance to write this while she can actually read it.

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Half marathon

This year, I have finally entered that mysterious, closed world of running, a sport which I have never liked or understood. When I finished my summer course in July, I decided to test my mettle and train for a half marathon in October, though I privately thought that running 21 km was an insane proposition.

So all summer, I train. Every week I run further than I ever have before in my life. I see all Warsaw- the  great green cathedral of Las Kabacki, the peacocks and squirrels in the King’s Gardens, the big brown river. My shadow bobs companionably along the embankment beside me. Over near the workers’ quarters by the power plant, an old man shouts after me, ‘You should run on a soft surface!’ I primarily feel both unwilling and disbelieving, but I trot slowly and stubbornly through my training program.

And lo! The great day dawns. It’s one degree in Kraków and a grainy grey smog is clamped down over the city. It’s so exciting to run in a  big crowd that it doesn’t even hurt. In the last kilometre I get such a big rush of endorphins that I almost give myself a stroke running as fast as I can. It’s a whole new world. I’m now a runner.

 

 

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Obsession

My blog is falling by the wayside because I have become obsessed with teaching. If I am not doing it I’m planning it or thinking about it. I am clearly not very talented or I wouldn’t need to spend so much time on it all, but I am fascinated by trying to find the tricks and magic formulas which make things go well in the classroom. I have never had a job that absorbed me like this- it’s simultaneously exhausting and exciting.

Part of the excitement is just the onset of the school year after a long, slow summer. Part of it is that I did the extension to CELTA for teaching kids at the beginning of September, and now I have my own classes of 10-year olds to contend with, with their ever-shifting social alliances and wild enthusiasm for giving answers and their very involved parents. It’s a different universe to the classrooms I have inhabited until now, with their jaded accountants and teenagers who will do anything to fly under the radar.

For the first time I have to impose a system of rewards- initially I thought, with my almost 40 year old system of priorities, that nobody would do anything to get a star next to their name, but it turns out I was wrong. I try to remember being 10 myself and suddenly recall my desperate contortions at Friday aerobics, trying to get the free drink from the school canteen that was given to hard triers. It’s a trip back in time for me, and a foreshadowing of what is to come with my own children. The time is fast approaching when I will stop worrying about their eating and sleeping and start to worry about their social life and education, a far more complex set of problems.

 

 

 

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Filed under childhood, children's brains, English teaching, happiness, language acquisition, memory