Have you ever noticed how other people remember events in the past differently from you? I had lunch with two of my siblings recently and we were reminiscing.
I had been trying to remember a particular event, from our early childhood, and thought they could add details to my glimpse of what happened. I assumed my brother would remember more clearly, he is five years older, and he did.
My sister, three years older, had zero memory of the event. I found it hard to understand how we could all have been in the same room and remembered, or not, differently.
Reflection on my childhood often helps me understand how creativity has ebbed and flowed in my life. It helps me understand how I am wired and what influences my thinking, positively or negatively.
There are many reasons for not creating or believing in my work and most have their roots in some event or something that was said to me. The way I was socialised. I’m not blaming anyone, it’s just how it works – how we are shaped. For example, I have no childhood friends because we moved a lot. On the plus side, I am good at meeting new people. I was told writing and music were only good for hobbies. Real work was about maths and science. I worked in dreary jobs and kept creativity to the weekends. The plus side is I am able to work in left or right brain. Like a ‘lefty’ forced to write right handed. I can do both. There was a significant event in my life which has helped me to remember how it feels to be eight, nearly nine.
2023 will be the Diamond Anniversary of my family moving to Australia. I’ve been reminiscing about that trip and the little girl who didn’t want to go.
November 22, 1963, we set sail for Australia. My father was invited to Monash University, to work in the Chemistry department. The newspapers ran articles on him saying ‘Rocket Fuel Scientist comes to Australia.’ I remember mum and dad breaking the news to us.
‘How would you like to live in Australia? You’ll be able to ride your own horse to school! Did you know there are koalas hanging off lamp posts and kangaroos hopping down the street?’
The thought of having my own horse was exciting. The thought of leaving family and friends was unbearable.
‘By the way you’ll be having a new baby brother or sister.’
I’d always hated being introduced as ‘the baby.’ Now this new child would be ‘the baby.’ It was a huge relief.
Late that night, under the covers where I was safe from the monsters, I wondered, if I wasn’t the baby, who would I be?
We set sail from Tilbury docks with our family waving us goodbye. Watching my Auntie’s small white handkerchief waving until I couldn’t see it anymore, I clung to the cold, unfeeling railing and sobbed as the distance grew between us. The ship’s horn blared, deafening, mournful and final.
The wrenching heartache of leaving was right next to the bubbling excitement of the adventure of being on an ocean liner traveling to exotic places. There were swimming pools, cinemas, restaurants, deck games and activities for everyone. My sister and I had our own steward. A chain smoking, skinny Londoner in a crisp white P & O uniform. He told us a lot of silly jokes and made us feel grown up.
We ordered coke-a-cola, served at the bar, in small glass bottles with straws. The adults, including our thirteen year old brother, ate in a separate dining room at a different time from us. It was thrilling and frightening to be left on our own for meals.
We spent our days watching on board movies or swimming in the pool.
We’d had a few quick swimming lessons with our dad before we left.
Turns out Dad could hardly swim himself. The weather, sailing the Mediterranean, was hotter than we had ever experienced. On one of those hot days, the pool was full of pale white Brits trying to keep cool. Shân and I decided to see how many of the ship’s life rings we could wear. I managed about five and waddled to the pool, like a penguin and jumped in. The life rings flipped me upside down and held me under. I couldn’t get myself back up. Panicked and thrashing in the water I thought I was going to drown surrounded by crowds of people. I tried to grab on to anything and latched onto a man’s swimming trunks. He saw the problem and tipped me up the right way and helped me to the edge of the pool, where I clung on to the side gulping and gasping like a dying fish. I was relieved and embarrassed. Not because I almost drowned, but because I had pulled his bathers down.
We stopped in exotic ports and spent the days on shore. Before we disembarked our mother filled our heads with stories of white children being snatched and sold into slavery. We held hands, eyes wide in terror and wonder. Every adult was a potential kidnapper and every child was the ‘Artful Dodger,’ ready to pick our pockets. Not that we had anything much in our pockets, apart from a few shells, a pretty rock or if we were really lucky, a marble or two.
We had a six hour stop in the Suez Canal where local Arab entrepreneurs threw ropes with hooks up onto the side of the ship. They climbed up like monkeys and came aboard to hawk their colourful shiny trinkets. Mum told us we would get hook worms, from the barefooted merchants, if we didn’t wear shoes. The strange men in their white turbans and kaftans, a stark contrast with their dark skin and toothless grins, were Ali Baba’s forty thieves come to life.
We stopped in Marseilles, Naples, Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Fremantle, Adelaide and finally, Melbourne.
We arrived in Melbourne on December 18, 1963. We hadn’t succumbed to hookworms, leprosy or tuberculosis and none of us were kidnapped.
Standing at the railing looking at the cityscape of Melbourne in the distance, we practiced saying Melbourne in our thick Welsh accents. After all we were going to live here, we needed to get it right. ‘Mel-bun, Mel-bun, Mel-bun.’
The university provided us with a rental in Brighton, in walking distance to the beach. It was so hot the tarmac melted under our feet and my sister got third degree burns. Huge bulging pink blisters all over her shoulders. The local doctor glared daggers at my mother over his bushy eyebrows. We had no idea how to live in a hot country. We swam every day in the Brighton pool, which was a fenced off area of the beach designed to keep sharks out. I lived in constant terror of being taken by a shark, convinced they could slip through the net. The jellyfish made it through, why not a shark?
We jumped the waves and swam all day, thrilling in the delight of cooling off under the hot Australian sun, only stopping when mum called us in for sandwiches and ice cold cordial. We’d wolf them down hardly noticing the sand crunching in our teeth.
It was almost Christmas and I couldn’t wait for Santa to come with lots of lovely presents. I asked my sister how Santa would find us in Australia and she delighted in telling me the ugly truth. I ran to our parents demanding they put her right, only to have the story confirmed. I cried myself to sleep
Today I am able to tap into the creative energy flowing through all things and allow those feelings and emotions to be expressed in different ways. Writing, drawing and even blog posts like this one.
I am grateful to have grown up in Australia and it doesn’t feel like sixty years since we came here. Our small family of five has become a sprawling family of almost forty, including those few who have left the planet early.
With the perspective old age brings, I see the paradox. I understand myself much better. (You’d hope so by now!) I understand why I numbed myself in the 70’s. Navigating the dichotomy of feelings was exhausting. Feeling everything all at once. In those days Psychology was a very new concept and was not encouraged. Aussie culture was still influenced by British thinking. Keep calm and carry on. Now we are more influenced by America. Therapy and self expression have become normalised. We have psychology to explain everything. Permission to feel all the feelings. Thank goodness.
I look back at that little eight year old girl with so much love. She was dealing with some huge feelings. Everything all at once.
Happy and sad. Excited and terrified. Hopeful and despairing. They all live side by side in our hearts. Sometimes all on the same day at the same time.
Creativity, feeling it all and being present, then finding some form of expression, is how I roll these days.
How about you?