The jetlag has gone. The season of European winter, chilling my bone marrow, has gone. The tangled history of my childhood and youth has slipped more than 10,000 miles away again. My quiet heart yearning for France has been replaced by the delight of my dear friends, cute home, happy cat, and humid, tropical lifestyle in Australia. Son ‘15’ and I are having a little break from each other’s company (till approx. January 2016 he reckons), which gives me back the freedom I’d missed to just be Me: read, write, garden, walk on the beach at sunset, all without speaking, or providing for/tidying up after a teenager. Bliss.
Can you tell there’s a ‘But’ coming? I remember learning years ago, on some college communication course, that anything positive you’ve said is then negated by the use of the word ‘But’ afterwards…
So everything I’ve said above is actually true, AND YET I’ve also felt misplaced. Rebellious and resentful even. Coming home here is like coming back to your Mum’s house when you’re 23: you’ve been living out of home for a while, used to partying and surviving on cheap food while never washing up, making unpredictable choices and spontaneous decisions without explanation, sharing intimate times with unsuitable, intoxicating strangers with no career paths or five-year plans. Suddenly you’re at home, with a lovely full fridge and clean clothes, this is true, and Mum’s made your favourite dinner, but she’s a bit too cloying and careful, ticking all the boxes of responsibility and reliability. Bills are paid on time; lists of chores are made and crossed off; people remember what you did 10 years ago, and what you’re expected to do 3 years from now. Streetscapes are so achingly familiar that a new garden fence up at number 6 causes your bike to wobble as you ride past.
I’ve settled down now. I’ve accepted that I need to unpack my suitcase, unpack my paper work, unpack my Pilates classes and performance gigs, and basically reintegrate myself into Real Life.
This also involves dealing with the mundane essentials, like tax returns, car registration papers, and skin checks. I made my choice: I’ve lived here for 30 years next week, and I love this sunburnt country. But floppy hats, long-sleeved shirts, and minimal sun exposure define my months from November to March. Which is why I found myself at the Skin Clinic last week, for my yearly check up (thanks to my matriarchal lineage of moles/lumps/bumps/tags etc). Did you know every year, in Australia:
- skin cancers are 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
- between 95 and 99% of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure
- we have one of the highest rates in the world, two to three times Canada, the US and the UK.
Yeah, I knew that. Haven’t you seen my photos? I’m as white as a lily! And I like it. Obviously it’s why I enjoy the four seasons in Europe, especially the softness of the spring/autumn/winter sunshine. Unlike the magnifying glass-type sun we have here, flattening us to the ground.
So off I went. I admit I wasn’t in the best of moods. It was hot and humid, the waiting room was full already at 10am, and most annoyingly, all the magazines were at least a month out of date. Not that I could see them properly anyway; I’d left my reading glasses at home (insert wail: “Getting Older Sucks”)
I didn’t want to talk to any of the germ-infected patients anyone, so looked round the room. And saw this basket in the corner:
Ignoring the grammar mistake [generous of me I know], I smiled. Should I do it? I thought I remembered how to knit; my grandma Irene Smith taught me when I was very young. I picked up a long cool silver needle, already stitched with a bright woollen square, and heard her voice say softly:
‘Slide the empty needle in through the hoops of wool, hook the loose thread over it, and slide it off, that’s it.’
The dull grey waiting room and coughing people faded away completely. I held the light blue, knobbly yarn in my 49 year-old hands, and felt awkward and fumbling, like I was 10 again. Grandma’s peaceful presence sat beside me, looking over my shoulder carefully, as I tried to make a new row of knitting, stitch by stitch. My entire world contracted to the unravelling ball of wool in the basket, and the two lines of connected loops strung between the slippery needles. I heard more words of advice:
‘Try and keep the tension even between each stitch… Slide the loops up closer to the tip as you go, but not too close, or they may tumble off… If you make a mistake, it’s OK, we can go back and fix it…’
My visit with Grandma was so unexpected, and completely visceral. I almost smelt her comforting, making-food-in-the-kitchen scent, and felt the warmth of her solid, calm body beside my small one. Her patience and perseverance soothed its way into me, like her fresh apple crumble baking in the oven. I dipped and hooked, slid and pulled, knitting a whole smooth line of blue. Then my name was called out, and I jolted forty years forwards. I must have looked dazed, as the receptionist told me to finish knitting the row if I needed to. I shook my head; the moment had melted, as I remembered Grandma’s passing in 2002, and the tiny baby hat she’d knitted me when I was pregnant with ‘15’. She died peacefully at 89; she’d been saying she didn’t want a big fuss of a party at 90…
I still have her hat. It’s on my ‘precious shelf’, and was the first garment my son ever wore. The stitches are a bit uneven, as she was 88 then, but it’s still in shape, and he wore it a lot for the first few weeks of his life, born as he was into Winter.
It’s just one more tiny piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes my Home, my Life. Thousands of miles from my birth family, yet also loved and supported by a family of choice here: sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, and parents.
There’s no Grandma though. She’s irreplaceable.