Sunday, September 23, 2012

Memoir - 1st story Mexico 2008

The first of the pieces from my memoir project. For a backgrounder on this project see earlier post 
 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken
 At the moment the memoir consists of a series of leaves or postcards that slip between time periods without following a chronology or trying to tell a structured story.
 Appreciate feedback, reactions and suggestions.

Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see
 Blue Echo

Leaves of My Past – Snapshots from an unfinished journey
Leaf 1 “Happy Birthday” November 2008 Mexico
It’s an early November evening and I’m walking down a colonial cobblestone street towards our hotel in Puebla, Mexico. The Camino Real is a grand 16th century building converted from a monastery where the bodies of nuns, many rumoured to be pregnant, are in the walls.  The building has a large open air courtyard ideal for recreating a scene where Zorro would be ducking from second storey stone archway to archway dodging sword thrusts and bullets fired from the courtyard below. On the eve of my 50th birthday, I am a hemisphere, ocean and continent away from home, wife, children, and seemingly, several worlds away from my birth in a small coal mining village nestled in the hills of the east coast of Tasmania. I am in Mexico as an invited guest of two warring factions involved in Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression. Though unsure of the causes or history of the rift, I can sense the deep animosity between the two groups and the problems caused by my close and personal links to key people in both groups. In the luxurious foyer of the Mexico City Sheraton, my first host, a Mexican City Information Commissioner, hands me over to the representative (a future postgrad student of mine) of her sworn enemy. Like a scene from a black and white cold war movie, I am made to walk from one to the other in a silent handover between antagonists. The Commissioner is a beautiful, feisty, flamboyant, long haired woman who seems to have high level contacts everywhere. She is cool, urbane and bejewelled. My future postgrad carries with her the revolutionary spirit and proud gait of Pancho Villas.
I am in Mexico as part of a travelling troupe of speakers from Canada, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Spain and Mexico. In return for our expenses, we are required to speak at a  number of  conferences and events in Mexico City, Puebla and Cuernavaca. At each town, we roll from our small min-bus, set up camp at a new hotel and then wait to be told where and when we are performing our freedom of expression show-pieces. In sharp contrast to the much smaller and more subdued gatherings I encounter in many counties including my own, the audiences often number several hundred passionate and interested people. 
As we navigate, through Puebla, on time worn cobblestones, I start to relate my story to the Spanish academic alongside me. Rumours at breakfast  suggest she is an Opus Dei associate.  Yet against the backdrop of the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuat, it is more the catholic grace of her smile that draws me into conversation rather than the form or depths of her beliefs.  My story is one I never wanted to tell before but now it seems eager for airing, even if only as a collection of poorly recalled fragments. Maybe I am prompted by the pending milestone of my 50th birthday or maybe it is the surrounding and deep layers of Aztec, Spanish and Mexican history that encourages me to approach my own heritage.  In this gathering of foreigners – to Mexico and each other – maybe I feel safe to hesitantly retrace experiences and stories I had thought long dismissed from my life.
My story begins with a young and beautiful woman with flaming red hair. She is holding the hand of a small boy on the steps of the Launceston post office in the early 1960s. In photos and my earliest memories, she could have easily graced the salons of Paris or the Bohemian bookstores of 1950’s San Francisco but it was her fate (and maybe my birth), which restricted her to a much shorter journey from the back blocks of Elizabeth Town to the socially constrained streets of early 1960’s Launceston. In that era of Tasmania’s history, she was out of place: a young woman with two young children and no husband. The missing husband, my birth father, was someone I only encountered in limited ways. This stranger’s name appears on my original birth certificate. My middle name is his but I have rarely drawn attention to it. The first seven years of my life are bookmarked by a surname I no longer wear or identify with and one I freely surrendered at first opportunity. The replacement of the name also seemed to close the door on my early years. 
As the memories faded, I made no attempt to hold on or to test my mother’s silence on the past.  My birth father has remained a stranger who appears in a couple of black and white photos in my mother’s old tin box. My only other encounter with this man was a couple of years previously, date forgotten, when reading the death notices in The Mercury, a newspaper often flimsy and unsatisfying in its content but accurate in its lucrative death announcements. I had cut the notice out, intrigued by the mention of other children, and other unknown family members but that clipping was quickly neglected and is now lost. The rough landmarks I have in my memory would place my parent’s breakup around the early months of my little sister’s life when I was 3 or 4 years old.
No questions were asked about this stranger because my mother never seemed to want to talk. For many years I didn’t realise he was missing. When I was around eight years of age my mother met the only man I have ever called dad, and whose surname I embraced eagerly and still wear with pride. For many years I didn’t feel fully entitled or worthy to wear the name. Only as my reputation as an academic, teacher and law reformer grew, did I feel I had repaid a very large gift.
In the 1960s, ‘broken families’ were not uncommon but were treated as failures and rarely spoken of and then, only in whispers. In contrast, when my own children were in school, Esther and I belonged to a minority of married couples still in their first marriage and or family grouping. I bore my background as a secret, although well known by everyone in our small town, whereas my children knew automatically which week or day their friends would shift from one family setting to their alternative, and even at times their third or fourth alternative household.
My broken story, teased out by some gentle questioning and encouragement, only took a few blocks to tell.  It was like opening my own old photo tin but my pictures were more fragmentary and less complete, than my mother’s. They were like old deteriorating film off cuts, without a narrator or scriptwriter to provide the storyline. 
As I listened to my companion talk about her recent travels across Europe, facts, impressions, glimpses and other half recalled scenes of my past floated like bubbles struggling to the surface of a thick and opaque liquid. In one scene, I am looking after my young sister, who was less than 4, while my mother worked in a low paid job in some nearby factory. The other fragments are of constantly moving between houses, cities, towns and states so that no place ever anchored itself as ‘my home’. Within these scenes, are encounters in different places with a set of relatives and friends who seemed as unsettled and transient as we were. We constituted a group of people descended from the wandering and drifting poor, who James Boyce writes about near the end of his Van Diemen’s Land. These early arrivals were men and women (and children)  forced to the periphery of both the landscape and society of Tasmania in the late 1840s and 1850s. By the 1960s, their descendants were still poor and drifting. We remained locked into an educational, economic and social periphery, living in small towns, the poorer streets of Launceston or on a circuit between friends and relatives, employed as labourers or semi-skilled workers in forestry, farming and mining while supplementing periods of unemployment with roo and possum shooting. I remember looking at the missing fingers, and finger joints, of an older relative who seemed to have fortuitous workplace accidents when drinking funds started to dry up. It took a long while for my interpretation of his ‘accidents’ to change from a tale of besting the system to one of hopelessness.
That brief period of openness in a warm Mexican evening started to release over time other stories. In particular, I recalled stories of walking to and from different primary schools, constantly alone, conjuring up mythical visions of my past and connections.  In those long walks, a remoteness and a stubborn self reliance was forged that still erodes at all my bonds. The photographs of this period show a serious young boy, not unhappy, but wary, alert – taking all around him in, just in case it is whisked away.
As we approached The Camino Real, the ghosts of entombed pregnant nuns and the darkness of the night  filled the colonial streets. In that darkness, and surrounded by the thick walls, I hid my story away again surprised by what I had brought out to share with this stranger in the early evening light of this beautiful but foreign country.
 My story stopped before getting to the little boy with a severe speech impediment, an impediment that added a deeper and more complicated layer to his feeling of being an outsider. It’s an impediment, that still lingers in the background and determines many of the things I do. The King’s Speech reminded me of the lingering sensitivity, indeed the rawness of this legacy. Now in late middle age, or early old age, I struggle  to stretch my vocabulary to new areas or multi-syllable words and I am unwilling to try to learn new languages. The stuttering and word mangling were compounded by a tendency, still a feature, of speaking at a million miles an hour when excited or engaged. A constant wonder for me is how a stuttering, syllable stumbling motor mouth has forged a career and reputation that relies heavily on public communication. Maybe my art of keeping things concise and simple – to accommodate my own limitations – has reaped unexpected benefits.
The unreliable tongue and voice led the young boy, with no books at home, to endless hours sitting in the small school library devouring every book from non-fiction series on World War II battleships to an entire twenty-five plus collection of books about a wandering young cowboy with his trusty palomino who signed off every story with ‘hasta la vista’. Hours spent in isolation where my tongue could not betray me and the magic of word combinations seemed achievable via the written word.  Its a legacy that dogged my every step through high school even to the leaver’s dinner, where I arrived full of dreams and bravado dressed in a purple flared suit, floral shirt and tie brought during a rare family trip to Burnie, in those days and in my family’s eyes a distant 113 miles away.  On the tables at the Leavers Dinner were nameplates and a caricature for each person drawn by a talented and perceptive classmate. Despite being a House Captain, school representative in cricket, basketball, badminton, athletics, proud under age drinker and feared fast bowler, my image was a picture of a cute bookworm with glasses. Forty years later I can appreciate the foresight and accuracy of that drawing, but throughout that special night and for many years later, I felt it was a denial of a large part of who I was. Books were constant and close companions but there were other stories, other parts of what was or who was ‘me’.  In a mining town, the translation was simple – being into books was simply ‘weird’ and undermined your creditability. Only the pace of my cricket deliveries and my drinking capacity rescued me from being treated as a total pariah.

to be continued  - Leaf 2 “Returning to Erin” Ireland April 1999

Leaves 2-6 -  Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia


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