In logic, a counterfactual is a conditional of how the world would be, if, in an if/then statement, the antecedent were true. A ‘what-if’ kind of world, a world in which there are alternative histories. In this paper I will examine the possibilities of writing this kind of wish-story where a mother is a morals crusader on a mission to save children, and a daughter finds a way to break the silence and rebel. What does a daughter owe her mother? Is it possible to write your body out of silence? Can this written body become poetry, food for living?
Keywords: Memoir – poetry – mothers – education – death – intimacy
When my mother died five years ago in Brisbane, in a palliative care ward on the top floor of the Wesley Hospital on Coronation Drive, a nurse sticky-taped a recipe to the wall above her bed. My mother must have given the nurse this recipe; they must have been talking: my mother’s last stab at cooking. Angel’s Irish bread and milk—
I can imagine the two of them talking about this recipe—my mother taking the nurse back to Ireland to a time when she was a little girl growing up, to when her mother made Irish bread in the old farmhouse kitchen on a hill overlooking Portrush in Northern Ireland, to her being tucked up into bed for the night with a kiss. I imagine my mother and her nurse confiding in each other in low whispers, laughing too, talking about whether or not to add whisky, a strong malt at that and an Irish one for sure: Jameson’s, Paddy’s or Black Bush. Whether it would taste better with a dash of alcohol. If it might help my mother sleep. And whether or not God would mind, given the circumstances.
I’m making this up, fantasising. My mother was a strict teetotaler. Even as she lay dying.
What I can imagine is my mother getting really animated, remembering, being warm and comforted with the thought of her childhood, of her own mother; of her ‘long ago’ Ireland. She loved making a claim to being Irish, even though it made her uncomfortable and sad because of the shame intrinsic in her family because of ‘The Troubles’. For although she was firmly a Protestant and quick to condemn the Pope as the Antichrist, my mother was careful to whom she admitted her love of ‘precious Ulster’ and her family’s connections with the Irish Ascendancy.
Two pieces of white bread (cut off crusts)
If you look closely, you can see in this image of her recipe the patches of sticky tape, silvery grey; you can imagine the way the stickiness has caught at floating dust and fluff, the weft of the glue, and imagine the squares yellowing over time. These patches take me back to that palliative care room, back to my mother dying, back to seeing this recipe taped to the wall like a trophy, an icon, an olden-days, washed-out picture of the Queen you would find in any Australian classroom. It takes me back to watching my mother on the edge of her life, about to slip out, to heaven, she hoped: that was her wish story. She wanted her crown of jewels very badly. She thought she deserved it. For my mother, the future world she desired was no alternative universe or invention; she would never make things up.
I think my mother was worried she was never going to get there in the end. She really was on edge.
The etymology of the word edge, when used as a noun, is from Old English. It comes from the root ecg, meaning ‘corner, edge, point’, also ‘sword’. It is sometimes expressed as ‘sharpened side of a blade’. Think of the word ecgplegawhich means literally ‘edge play’, or the word ecghete meaning ‘edge hate’; both words use ecg poetically for ‘battle’: playing, hating. Being ‘on the edge’ is about being in a place ‘farthest away from the centre of something’. Beside the river at the Wesley, I was watching my mother, there—really on edge; I was writing her in and from the margin. Interestingly, the word margin comes from the Latin margo meaning edge. As a noun margin is the border or edge of something, or, ‘an amount by which a thing is won or falls short’.
The day my mother died, I wondered what she was thinking. Was it a matter of winning or losing? Did she think she fell short (or is that me, thinking I was the one who had fallen)? For there she was at her life’s end, squaring off death. She was ready for battle: with her children, with what was to come next. I could see a sword in her hand. She was at heaven’s doors. Everything she had lived for, everything she had strived for in her life had brought her to this, the poetry of food: Angel’s Irish bread and milk, two pieces of white bread with crusts cut off. Her salvation depended on her children. She believed we were the jewels in her crown. The problem for her was that we did not live up to her expectations.
My mother was a morals crusader, a radical right wing activist. As I discuss elsewhere (Rendle-Short 2007, 2010), she was a self-described ‘anti-smut’ campaigner and book burner, on a mission from God to save all the children of Queensland. She wanted to save her own children too. In fact, she believed her salvation was dependent on her children’s goodness. Now, she is buried near the Big Pineapple north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast, outside a little town called Bli Bli.
Cut bread into small squares and place in bowl
This September, feminist publisher Spinifex Press is releasing my book dedicated to my mother, a work entitled Bite your tongue. It is a hybrid work, a mix of novel and memoir, a work that explores fundamentalism and extremism and what it was like for a daughter to be a pawn in her mother’s crusade. This is a book I could never have told my mother that I was writing, let alone told her that it was going to be published. She would have been appalled. I do not think I could have faced her fury, her wrath (a word she loved the throw around). In fact, I could imagine her channeling the ‘wrath of God’, if ever she found out, squaring off with me like she did with death that Wesley day.
I began to write this book when my mother was still very much alive—writing secretly, privately, without even acknowledging to myself that I was writing or what it was that I was writing, because I felt dead with the shame of it—shame about the story, shame about not being able to admit to being my mother’s daughter, shame because I was writing. Looking back, I must have known something, intuitively, instinctively. I must have known something was going to happen. But I never told her. And I am glad about this—glad I never told her and glad I began writing before she died. It was the only way to get my what-if-I-write-this-wish story down.
Bite your tongueis a partial story, some parts of my mother-story would be too bizarre to share, no one would believe it; it would not be believable. It would be more than any fiction or narrative could bear. New York writer Siri Hustvedt argues in her essay ‘Yonder’ that every new draft of a book is ‘the work not only of shrinking and expanding and shrinking again but of finding the book’s truth’, which means, she says, throwing out lies (2006: 40, 41). Throwing out lies that do not fit the telling of the particular universe of the book: in this case, the shaping of a very particular Bite your tongueworld. In order to write this world, I needed to invent or construct a narrator, Glory Solider, to tell the story. I needed her spunk (a word of unknown origin, meaning something like spark, vestige) and her verve (from the French, late 17th century, denoting special bent or talent in writing). Glory Solider became my ‘imagined interlocutor’ (Warner 2001: xvi), able to speak up, declare, contradict (here, the word interlocutor means ‘interrupt to speak’). Invented Glory is my writing intervention.
In the end, I leave the reader hanging (and I am not giving anything away by saying this), hanging in warm Maroochydore surf, gazing upwards. After all, this is a body story. My reader will be the last to get out of the water, the last to drip-dry all the way home, her limbs and heart like Glory’s ‘fizzy pop in the spume’ (Rendle-Short 2011: 239). She will be a straggler, a sky watcher.
The magic of storytelling is that words transmute into necessary fictions. Writing grows skin, grows bones; grows breath and heart. It crystallises the joy and power of reading, something historian and writer Inga Clendinnen says has no parallel in the social world: ‘this uncarnal, intense-to-incandescent yet always accessible intimacy’ (2006: 217). Writing in this way gets me close to what I think of as Roland Barthes’ idea of bliss, to hearing the grain of voice, the articulation of the body, of the tongue: ‘it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes’ (1975: 67). It gives writer (and reader) a view of the possible—what-if—through (and because of) impossibilities.
Sprinkle with sugar
In logic, a counterfactual is a conditional of how the world would be if, in an if/then statement, the antecedent were true. A ‘what-if’ kind of world, a world in which there are alternative ‘impossible’ histories.1
My alternative history is a story where I break the silence, speak up, dare to open up and disclose—‘unbite’ the tongue. Consider how Barthes puts it in The pleasure of the text? ‘What pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss’ (1975: 7; italics in original). Because: something is happening. Things collide and bump into each other, rub against; held positions collapse and dissolve. By speaking up through writing there is a way of reading our way into the pores and chambers of another kind of world, with a kind of bruised but definite wonder. Reading lets things pass through and across uninhibited, lets things live of their own accord. It invites the possibility and curvature of breath and substance itself, the possibility of new life. A wish story. Counterfactual. What if?
Reading changes everything.
Because a peculiar thing happens in the transaction: you realise you believe what you have written down and now read; that it really did happen in the way in which you have stitched the dream together. You believe and you grow in faith. It is a parallel version, if you like, a version that might be possible. It might be a way of being different in the world, or a way of inhabiting a different world. In any case: a chance for going-forwards. A passage you can trust. Inventing story so as not to disappear. Writing a body on the page, a discovered body; reclaiming your own. Writing your body as poetry: eating poems as food.
Pour hot milk in to cover bread
What if? Counterfactual. It is hypothetical reasoning I know, but just as real for that.
When I first started writing about my mother, I admit I was angry, I wanted to set the record straight, to declare war, to argue there was another side to my mother’s right-wing activist reactionary story. But by writing about her and her activism, I am also admitting to playing a part—there is a degree of attachment to the story. I have had to figure out how to respond.
How do you admit to having a person like Angel Rendle-Short as a mother? I could ignore her, which I tried doing. I could pretend she did not exist—yes. I could just get on with my own life; make the importance of ‘me’ the centre of my world. I admit I have done all of these things. But then there is the writing. Writing my mother I have found softness, complexity.
An example of this is when I found her in the archive in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland and read a transcript of her appearance at the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into education in 1978, commonly known as the Ahern Inquiry.2 I read her views on the young women she saw in her general practice (my mother was a doctor, my mother liked to perform). She testified:
I am absolutely aghast at what is happening to our young women … One thing is the disease. Our young women are rotten with disease … it is impossible to get through to these young people. In every case I make a point of it and I take time to get through to them and to try to get to their level.
… I have no doubt whatever that one of the factors has been the type of literature that has been promoted in the schools …
I say that without fear of contradiction … give a 13-year-old ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and I think he is a goner.
I also read her views of her own children, how she thought they were privileged: they have a room to study in, they have peace and quiet in the evening, they have everything, and parents who are interested.
But, she said: in my mind … they are not educated … I say this of my own children … in my view, coming out at the other end, they are uneducated at 17 or 18. (In 1978 when my mother made this declaration, I was eighteen years old and in senior, my final year of high school.)
Then I read: I hope nobody is listening or is going to take this down in writing.
It was then that the personal kicked in, suddenly I saw her fragility, her naivety, her lack of understanding about the most basic concepts of what an inquiry was, how public it was, how governments keep records of everything. How decades later, I would be able access the Ahern papers to read her transcript word for word for myself, hear her voice.
Which I did.
And in so doing, I felt a strange transposition of emotion; I wanted to protect her. Surely, I was thinking (writing), she could hear the clack-clack-clack of the Hansard stenographers recording onto paper every word she spoke during the hearing, and the shuffle in and out of the room as a shift ended and another began. As well, there was a group of primary schoolchildren from Newmarket State School sitting in the gallery that day, watching proceedings. The Chair, Mike Ahern, had welcomed them earlier at the beginning of the session: ‘I remind them,’ he said, ‘it is on their behalf that we have been discussing many of these issues over a period’.I wondered what they made of what they heard that day. If I met some of them today, would they recall the testimony of one Dr Angel Rendle-Short.
… they are uneducated at 17 or 18 …
I imagined hearing a catch in my mother’s throat as she finished her sentence. Her hesitation and dash for cover.
… I hope nobody is listening …
All of a sudden I saw that she might have been afraid. Did she feel guilty about what she was saying?
I say this of my own children.
Or was she smitten by grief, perhaps?
I hope nobody is going to take this down in writing.
Did she hesitate in order to protect her own children? Did she sense she was to blame, that she was abrogating her responsibilities as a parent, as half suggested by one of the questioners?
I wondered too, could she be saying these things out of a kind of love?
… they have everything …
Would she have said this if she knew I would hear about it later?
In this transcript, I recognised her voice as though I were present in parliament with her, in the flesh. I could hear the truthfulness of her particular way of putting things, the register and tone, her parenthetical syntax, the ‘grain’ of her voice. I imagined my mother centre stage, everybody watching her, including the small schoolchildren giggling and hanging over the wooden gallery railings. I wondered what she was wearing that day to make an impression: her favourite jewellery? She would be concentrating hard to recall what it was she was determined to say. Did she have notes? Or had she memorised her lines by heart the night before? Was her heart thumping in her chest like mine, I wanted to know, thumping fit to burst?
As I write and recall these lines here, I notice I am wearing a favourite Hélène Cixous brooch made by Philos-O-Face. It reads: ‘Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard’ (1976: 880). I know Cixous speaks not just of my body (the writing body) but my mother’s body too—or at least that is how I read what she is saying here. Your body must be heard.
Hélène Cixous’ words take me back to the Wesley, back to my mother’s body dying in her bed and to that recipe hanging above her—the last of all the meals we shared together—back to these, her final words:
pour hot milk
Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Mothers at the Margin Conference at the University of Queensland, 27–30 April 2011.
1Thanks to Susan Hawthorne for this idea of logic. It was the genesis of this paper.
2This scene of my mother appearing at the Ahern Inquiry forms part of a chapter in Bite your tongue (Rendle-Short 2011: 121–122).
Ahern Inquiry, Queensland Parliament. Queensland Legislative Assembly. Transcripts of public hearings to the Select Committee of Inquiry—Education (Chairman, Mike Ahern), Day 14, 5 September 1978, 11.31am: 795-800. Records [ca. 1978] [manuscript], UQFL81, Box 9 (81/12), Fryer Library, University of Queensland
Barthes, R 1975 The pleasure of the text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang
Cixous, H, Cohen, K and Cohen, P 1976 ‘The laugh of the Medusa’, Signs, vol 1, no 4, The University of Chicago Press: 875–893
Clendinnen, I 2006 Agamemnon’s kiss, Melbourne: Text Publishing
Harper, D Online etymology dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/abbr.php
Hustvedt, S 2006 ‘Yonder,’ in A plea for eros, London: Sceptre
Rendle-Short, F 2007 ‘Illicit desire’, Overland 188, October http://web.overland.org.au/?_1d=431
Rendle-Short, F 2010 ‘Beastly and beautiful: my mother reads Lolita’, Hecate 36, 1&2, 57–65
Rendle-Short, F 2011 Bite your tongue, Melbourne: Spinifex Press
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Warner, H 2001 in L Sage, moments of truth: twelve twentieth-century women writers, London: Fourth Estate