More Tears and Nostalgia

When I passed the one-year anniversary in Australia, I felt no sense of pride or elation. Just one year crossed off the calendar. In some ways the second year was slightly less painful for me as my personal goals made it easier to stay motivated. I felt as if I had been led into choosing a career in Aged Care. My life became busy and I started making some friends.

But in spite of the increased pace of life, I still had plenty of really low days. During the Easter holiday I had a wonderful trip back to South Africa to visit the family. The holiday was superb, but unsettling.

Just as the little ones got to know me, I had to leave.  Everyone’s life seemed so established, I couldn’t think of any reason why any of them would want to move. They had good jobs and lovely homes. It would be very hard to give all that up. For my first year in Australia I held on to the dream that one day we would all be together, in Australia, but after my visit, seeing their situations from a distance, I realised that might never happen.

On Mother’s Day I had to fight back tears the whole day. Tears for my children and tears for all the things I never got to say to my mother, and all the years I spent so far away from her. It seemed that I had spent my whole life following the dreams of the men in my life, without necessarily buying into those dreams fully myself. But nostalgia is poor therapy.

Nevertheless, everyone indulges in reminiscing. Almost everyone has had some good times. Somehow, as migrants, we feel we have more right to indulge in emotional wistfulness. Perhaps we feel guilty to let go of our past as it may seem a betrayal of our heritage. I read a sentence once that went something like this: ‘Migrants have lost not only a home but a country, and spend the rest of their lives tapping in vain at the window of their past.’

I did not wish to fall into the trap of constant dilemma and nostalgia, something I had noticed in English friends living in South Africa. When they were on one place they longed for the other, never fully connected, never fully ‘in the moment’, constantly homesick for the other place.

We need to feel we belong somewhere, whether it is the place of our birth, with geographically distant loved ones, or even in a different time zone. And I wasn’t ready to ‘belong’ in Australia.

The whole procedure of emigrating is an on-going process that must be worked through. I felt myself go through all the stages of grief documented by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

My only choice was to work through it. I allowed myself to feel the depth of the pain. I had trained myself to drift through each day on a superficial level, avoiding focussing on anything emotional. But it was all suppressed, and in hiding from my feelings I had been hiding from my true self, so I let those tears fall and wash away the negativity and bitterness. I stopped bottling up my feelings and consciously let the tears do their healing work.

Acceptance did eventually come, and with it the strength to feel the pain without anger. And once again in my life, my passage was eased by the support of girlfriends.

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My Father

Into my state of grieving came my brother Adrian’s phone call to say my father had died.  I couldn’t take it in. He was supposed to live forever, so he could always be there with his concern, his strong principles and his sound advice. So many things I didn’t tell him. So many times I let him down and disappointed him, yet he never showed it, nor did I ever feel his love had diminished. I never realised he was my role model, so I never told him. We should have been celebrating his ninetieth birthday in September. Instead I had to make the trip alone, in the British chill of January.

No matter where in the world I live, part of me still belongs in England. As we drove south from Heathrow Airport I felt tendrils of emotions seeking out the roots that still lay buried, barely under the surface. Our formative years play such a crucial part in our emotional stability. Rumer Godden, in ‘A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep’ confessed ‘I am still homesick for the feel of our verandah stone floors hot from the sun, and the warm Indian dust between our toes.’

It was good to be with the family. The weather was glorious, although cold. The day of the funeral I was reminded of how we made the same journey almost exactly six years earlier when my mother passed away. We travelled in convoy to the crematorium, and when our limo drew up behind the hearse, the funereal director, who had been a personal friend of my father, walked in front of the procession, wearing his top hat and tails, tapping his stick as if in some Dickensian melodrama.

During the cremation, so deeply symbolic of a passing through to another life, I could not help but be smacked in the face by the finality that there would be no more hugs, and no more blue aerogrammes written skilfully in Dad’s squiggly handwriting.

Back at Chideock, the atmosphere improved as the whole family sustained themselves on soups and cold platters while doing our best to deplete Adrian’s wine cellar. Thus fortified we were able to face the thanksgiving service in the afternoon. In contrast to the morning, I found it uplifting as I viewed the church packed with people paying their respects, thankful for their own relationships with my father.

Once we had Dad’s ashes, my brothers and I decided to take him for one last trip to the top of Golden Cap. Golden Cap is a cliff, a mile or so from Adrian and Jean’s house, so named because of the shape of the hill and the colour of the cliff face in the rising sunlight. The cliff is surrounded by farm land except on the  southwest side, which looks out on to the sea.

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When we were children, a good Sunday afternoon walk would be a hike up Golden Cap. In those days there was only a narrow footpath beaten through the bracken. Later Dad threw the challenge to his grandchildren and still managed to race them to the top. Everyone who did the climb got a homemade certificate.

So on an icy January morning, Nigel, Adrian and I made the trek up the hill, weighed down with coffee, brandy and an urn of ashes.

It was the end of an era. The loss of a dear parent, advisor, mentor and carrier of all my history. Who would now be able to tell us the names of the people in those old sepia photographs? And who would be able to tell my grandchildren real life stories of World War II?

I grieved for my children, saddened that I couldn’t be with them to help them cope with their own sorrow. But my plane took me back to Australia, to carry on with my new life there. And we all took another step up the ladder of maturity.

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First Melbourne Christmas

Money was tight, and I still hadn’t stopped converting the cost of everything from dollars back to SA Rands, a foolish but common habit. I felt I should look for work, but in view of the promise of visitors from November to mid-January, I didn’t think I was very employable. Besides, everything I had done or been in the past really had no relevance in Australia. I felt diminished as a person, with little value or purpose. So I very half-heartedly emailed my CV off to a couple of agencies, but didn’t bother to phone or follow up, so it was no surprise when offers of jobs were not arriving in every mail delivery.

As time went on, I felt a strong calling to investigate the possibility of working in Aged Care. I would have to retrain, which was challenging in itself, and it gave me a goal to work towards. I enrolled at Box Hill TAFE to start the following February.

Meanwhile I had a project to keep me busy: re-landscaping the garden. The existing garden was neat and characterless, with no real area for entertaining, so it had to go. We hired a digger and excavated into the hillside, creating a scene that looked like an open cast mine.

Eventually we had a large paved entertainment area, which I hoped would have a Mediterranean feel to it, with steps up to the next level, where colourful native Australian shrubs would draw the eye and cheer the soul. It was a five-year plan.

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Unfortunately two things hampered this plan. One was the unpredictable Melbourne weather, and the other was the arrival of a little black fluffy puppy called Einstein, named because of the hairstyle, sadly not the brain, though we lived in hope.

He obviously felt his first job in his new home was to get rid of the irritating little black batons that stuck up at regular intervals across the garden beds and made him wet. Every evening Vaughn came home from work and had to replace sections of his sprinkler system that the dog had so carefully destroyed. However, as Melbourne’s drought continued, any form of watering system became redundant and to ease our consciences we lugged buckets of water from the sink and showers in an attempt to save the more expensive plants.

Initially, Einstein did not like going for walks. To get him used to the leash I took him out through our back gate into the reserve and up to the duck pond. At first there were little skid marks through the dusty path where he had put on his brakes, but he soon got used to the idea and came quite willingly. That was when I hoped he would grow into his name, as he really seemed to be learning fast.

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During that time I was constantly on the computer, planning and making spread sheets for when the family arrived. I had lists of places to visit, lists of meals and lists of presents. I dreamed,  I updated and I dreamed some more.

Then suddenly they were here! The days flashed past in a flurry of excitement and activity. Every day was perfect, even though the temperature soared into the 40s and we sat outside draped in wet sarongs with our feet in a little blue shell paddling pool. My family laughed at me for putting ice cubes in the dog’s water bowl and I wanted each moment to last forever.

But as all good things come to an end, we soon found ourselves back at the airport saying tearful farewells. I spent a bleak few days, with every little thing reminding me of them: Megan’s socks left behind; the milky smell of Luke’s pillow; a child on a swing, whose voice sounded like Caitlin’s.

And into that pain came my brother Adrian’s phone call to say my father had died.

Exploring

No matter how busy I was, or how exciting the challenge of the day, the slightest thing would send a stab of anguish through me. When I looked back into my previous life, I seemed to remember a feeling of completeness. I wasn’t naive enough to believe every day was bliss. There were days when I hated my job and our frenetic life-style. But I still felt as if I had a choice. I had a sense of purpose and I felt a whole person. It didn’t matter that I was a couple of kilos overweight or that I would never be marketing manager, or a good painter or writer. It was good to have those dreams, but in my heart I knew that’s all they were. Dreams.

Perhaps they were a part of me that only my family could bring out. Maybe in addition to grieving for my children and grandchildren, I was also grieving for that part of myself that was a gift from them. I needed to become an axolotl and grow a new head.

But moving on, one of the big perks of Vaughn’s job was his company car. As we didn’t have to pay for petrol, we were able to go out every weekend and explore Melbourne and its environs, without spending a cent. Each Friday I baked biscuits or muffins for mystery picnics, and on Saturdays we loaded up the car with hiking boots, towels, flasks of coffee, cameras, a bird book and a map.  We took photos and carefully sent only the most attractive ones back to the family in South Africa and England. I managed to paint a colourful picture of life there without indicating how desperately I missed everyone.

Which is why, when my daughter Abi emigrated to New Zealand, she felt pathetic about the number of days she felt really depressed. She compared herself with the false impression I had given her of my strength. When she read my journal and discovered the truth, she urged me to write it all down, because a grieving process seems to be normal among all the female migrants I have spoken to. Emigrating is an emotional journey across continents, through which there are no short-cuts.

We bought a book called 200 kilometres around Melbourne, and by the end of our first year we had been to almost every place mentioned in the book. Often people would ask me if I’d been to Sydney, or Perth, or Alice. I’d reply, ‘Not yet. But have you been to Noojee?’ Many of the local Melbournians I spoke to had never heard of the place.

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At Noojee we walked across the 102m trestle bridge which once carried a railway line to remote logging towns.

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We walked through a lush mountain ash forest to the Toorongo Falls, by which time we were hungry, so headed back into town.

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Noojee can barely boast a couple of small shops, but the Outpost Inn and its associated Toolshed bar were packed. Once inside we could see why. The corrugated iron Toolshed contained a roaring log fire and the most diverse assortment of old farming gadgets I’ve ever seen. There was everything from stuffed possums to rusty old scythes. And when we saw the size of the meals being carried through, we knew we would be making the journey back to Noojee again and again.

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A Negative Start

Emigrating is not for the faint-hearted. My eyes constantly pricked with tears as just about everything I did or saw had the capacity to invoke a treasured memory. The ache of loss starts in your soul and fills every cell of your body with a sadness so deep it is physical. I wanted to lie in the foetal position and just wait. But for what? I reminded myself that I was the person who had told everyone it was all about attitude. If I had the right attitude everything would be fine. But I didn’t know, then.

I thought the hardest thing I would have to do would be to get on the plane. But that part was easy. Getting through each day was much harder.

One morning, I was pretty much spiralling into the emotional pit when the phone rang. A lady from the church we had attended the previous Sunday asked if it would be convenient for her to pop around. I couldn’t think of an excuse to put her off, so I quickly splashed my face with cold water and painted on a smile, which actually became genuine as we chatted.

Weekends were difficult, because in our previous life, weekends were spent with the family. The first Sunday that Vaughn played golf, I lay in bed long after he had left, not wanting to face the day. When I did drag myself out of bed to the bathroom I realised it was myself I could not face. Through tears of self-pity I saw the person whose pleasures and joy in life stemmed only from the support and love of family and friends, and the luxuries I had come to take for granted. Suddenly there was no baby to cradle in my arms, no son or daughter to meet for coffee, and I had to find a source of joy within myself. I felt great envy for the women who still had those things.

I felt so desperately alone. And angry. Angry with God, angry with Vaughn, and mostly angry with myself. Why had I not managed to convey my feelings to Vaughn before allowing him to bulldoze this whole move?

I was obviously given the strength to go to church, which was difficult, and many tissues were used. Then I went to lunch with Vaughn’s mother and Cheryll. It was easier to go than to phone and explain why I didn’t feel like it. Cheryll had been through her own process of heartbreak when she emigrated from South Africa, and I knew she would do everything she could to prevent me from becoming despondent. She was a great source of comfort during my first years.

But although I felt ashamed of giving in to my low state, I knew I wasn’t clinically depressed or suffering from a shortage of serotonins. I was just sad. Really really sad.

Over the next few weeks, my strength grew and I slew a few more dragons. I forced myself out of bed and into the gym each morning, as I thought the discipline of a routine would help.

But just as I was beginning to feel pleased with myself, I discovered I would have to completely re-do my driving test, from learners, through some computer thing, to the actual driving and parking. I was ready to head straight back to the airport.

Things went from bad to worse. The multiple choice theory test was fine. But then came the computer simulation. It consisted of clicking a mouse at an appropriate moment while watching a grainy video. I failed. They allowed me to repeat the test (at an increased fee) and I failed again by an even bigger margin. The young girl from Vic Roads was sympathetic and told me I just needed a bit more practice on the road. I narrowed my eyes and gave her The Look. I had been driving for thirty-five years and never had an accident, so a bit more practice on the road was not what I needed. The test bore more resemblance to a computer game than an actual driving situation, and it loomed as an insurmountable wall blocking my progress.

However, it all became unnecessary when it was discovered I still held a British licence, which was acceptable to the Australian authorities.

I felt I had become pretty good at putting on a cheerful face although the emptiness inside me was so big I seemed to be just a hollow shell. Everybody is more comfortable with perceived contentment. People can sympathise with a broken arm or a sore throat, but nobody really enjoys hanging around with someone who is miserable. Vaughn just wanted me to get on with our new life there. It frightened me that he didn’t understand how devastated I felt. And I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t feeling that same pain. But I discovered later he did feel the pain. He hid it in order to give me strength.

Our container arrived after about eight weeks, a gigantic box of memories. This was the milestone on which I had pinned my optimism. I thought once our things were here, the house would feel more like a home. It did, but then I had to find something else to look forward to, because Christmas, highlighted in my mind’s calendar because some of the children were coming to visit, was just too far away.

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Melbourne

When I finally cleared immigration at Melbourne airport, I was so delighted to see Vaughn again, I practically threw myself at him. We took a very long detour to our house, because we kept looking at each other instead of at the road.

We first went to our new home. Vaughn was nervous because I had given him only one criterion when it came to choice: it must ‘feel right’.

We had looked at numerous houses on the internet before his departure, but when he got to Melbourne and saw the reality, he appreciated the benefits of wide-angled lens photography. So under the same conditions, I had viewed the house he’d chosen and was expecting it to be smaller than the pictures showed.

But I was slightly awed, as the house was huge. The ever-optimistic Vaughn had bought a big house in anticipation of many visitors and family immigrants following in our footsteps.

We went in through the garage where I saw a brand new Hyundai Getz in a pretty shade of lavender. Vaughn had already started his new job, so couldn’t take any leave. There was big shopping to be done. His words were ‘Here’s your car. Get yourself a map book.’

We had a new bed, borrowed bed linen, two dinner plates, two cereal bowls and two sets of cutlery from his mother. We had two coffee mugs and a bar fridge, in which Vaughn had put some milk. That was it.

After looking over our empty new house, we went to Vaughn’s parents, where his mother had cooked him an enormous T-bone steak for his last supper before handing him back to me. I think my own mother used to equate food to love. The greater her effort, the more love she was showing, and the more you ate, the better you returned her love. It was amazing that we weren’t all very fat, as Mum’s roasts were legendary.

I slept soundly in my new home, exhausted from the travel and the emotional depths and highs.

Vaughn’s twin sister Cheryll took a few days leave to help me orientate myself. I found the local shops and bought the essential map book. We then organised a washing machine, a fridge and a microwave, followed shortly after by a television. Vaughn was not able to plumb the washing machine in straight away because all his tools were in the container, which would take a further six weeks to arrive. Cheryll lent us two bar stools, and we managed quite well for a while with only these minimal possessions.

The appliance I missed most was the computer, my life-line to the rest of the world, so I was grateful to be able to seize Vaughn’s laptop each evening to email the children in South Africa. I was relieved to hear Nikki had recovered and was back at work, and everyone seemed to be getting on with their lives.

However, I discovered later, that we left an aching void they all struggled to fill. There were constant reminders that life would never be the same again. No more Saturday afternoon wine together, or Sunday barbecues. One less set of baby-sitters. No mum to run to for a hug when things weren’t going well.

And little Megan. Who knew what she was feeling? It would be hard for most ten year olds to verbalise their emotions, and I’m sure she went through the same grieving process as the adults, but without the understanding. I felt I had let her down in the worst possible way and I carry that guilt and sadness to this day.

But at that moment, for me, the adventure had started. At first it was like being on holiday, but I did feel deep stabs of envy when I saw grannies having coffees with their sons, daughters and grandchildren.

For the first week or so I focussed on finding my way around, and trying to change our house from a campsite to a home.

Driving in Melbourne was not as scary as I’d anticipated, because the speed limit was slower, which gave me chance to check the map book as I went.

But by the middle of the second week, that holiday feeling had waned and I found it increasingly difficult to hang on to a cheerful face.

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Going

Back in Johannesburg everything started to speed up Vaughn’s spreadsheet of things to be done was getting shorter. I tried bargaining with God. I promised all sorts of good behaviour and charitable works, if only He would send some miracle to keep us in South Africa with our family.

The predetermined date approached, and still no insurmountable obstacles blocked The Plan. In fact, everything dovetailed into place so smoothly, it would have been perverse not to see those things as signs. Vaughn was offered the first job he applied for. Our house sold the first day it went on to the market, for more than we had budgeted.  And still I clung to the dream that we wouldn’t really go.

The week of Vaughn’s departure arrived. The arrangement was that he would go three months ahead of me in order to sort out his job and accommodation. I would stay in Johannesburg and finalise the packing, the cancellations and the money.

Everything started to take on an awful air of reality as I watched Vaughn saying goodbye to all the family. I felt his daughters’ pain as they hugged their father for the last time until heaven knew when. I felt his sorrow as he hugged our grandchildren, knowing Matthew and Caitlin would not remember him when they next met up.

I left him at the airport, in the drop-off zone. I didn’t even go in with him. We’d had too many family goodbyes to face another one. That hollow feeling as you sit at a grubby airport table forcing down an overpriced lukewarm coffee and struggle to find something cheery to say.

So different from the excitement you feel when you come to pick someone up, especially family you haven’t seen for a while. I always get to the airport far too soon, just in case the plane is early, which it never is. Sometimes we’ll have a drink to pass the time, but I usually drink mine too quickly, and then need to go to the bathroom but am too scared to go in case we miss them coming through. Which is silly, because our relatives always seem to be the last people through customs, and by the time they do emerge my eyes are red. I’ve shed many tears at the sight of everyone else’s emotional home-comings or granny-visits.

So Vaughn dragged his many suitcases into the airport terminal, and I drove home, thinking about anything but the situation I was in. The house still looked normal, as completion on the sale was six weeks away.

I thought I should probably start cleaning out the cupboards, and doing the second round of treasures to be thrown out. But first I went to the computer to play a quick game of Scrabble, my habitual form of procrastination. I hadn’t cooked, so I decided to have a slab of chocolate and a bottle of wine…

The rest of the time, I cooked healthy meals, but no matter how good the food was, there was something missing. Having never had to eat alone, I missed the social aspect of the meal. Even after the biggest meal, I kept wandering in and out of the kitchen all evening, looking for something, but never finding anything that satisfied.

I finished the second round of sorting, crying over old birthday cards that had to go out, but I couldn’t part with the children’s first pictures and schoolbooks. They went in round three. By that time I had grown a steel armour. I was still in denial and had switched off all emotions except the pleasure of spending time with the children and grandchildren.

Abi and Irwin had their second child, a beautiful boy, and I felt sad that Vaughn wasn’t around to welcome little Luke into the world. Not that deep sorrow that I would expect to feel. In fact, when I thought about it, I really felt angry with Vaughn. He could have been here. It was his choice.

I packed my suitcases with everything I would need for the next two months, and moved in with Abi and Irwin. The packers arrived at our house and worked through it all with great efficiency. Abi and I watched, she with more heartache than I.

Everything was packed, even things I had said must remain. Abi left her shoes by the front door, and they were packed. Naturally we weren’t about to let the baby out of our sight.

Eventually everything Vaughn and I owned was cardboard-bound and standing in the driveway. I didn’t think the packers could possibly get it all into the twenty foot container, but somehow they did. When they finished, there wasn’t even room to squeeze in a matchbox.

I felt nothing. It was just stuff. I could live without it all. Let it go to Australia. Abi saw it for the reality it was, but kept her tears bottled up inside herself.

I said good-bye to the house. It was just a shell. Part of the past. Must look forward.

But actually I lived entirely in the present for the next few weeks, in a state of anachronic myopia, unable to focus on the past or the future. I had a lovely time with my children and grandchildren, making the most of every second, and completely ignoring the fact that I would soon be on my way. It was a special time of closeness, during which I insulated myself by blocking out thoughts of the pain to come.

The children felt it though, and Nikki developed terrible headaches and had to be hospitalised two days before I left.  No diagnosis was found, and I felt responsible. I thought it was the sign I had been looking for, that I shouldn’t leave. But somehow, I seemed to be on automatic pilot, heading for Australia. I managed to say good-bye to her, in her hospital bed. We both cried, but she was strong, so I was strong, and my body kept going on its way to the airport, but my heart stayed behind.

Many tears were shed the afternoon I left, but by the time I reached the airport I was back in my layer of insulation, focussing on the matter of getting through passport control and on to the right plane, almost as if it were happening to someone else. But as the plane took off and I watched the African land disappear behind clouds, sadness engulfed me and I cried until I finally fell exhausted into a restless   and uncomfortable sleep.

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