The ocean’s benevolence raised me; not fishes hauled and eaten in abundance, but its great iconoclast, the whale. This custody was devised by two parents finally decisive about their irrevocable differences, that the Southern Ocean and the Victorian plains do not cohabit. My mother would never declare ‘I am a whale’ as I declared ‘I am a seal’. Her name’s meaning, ‘dark stranger’, is an internalised marker. A name in vogue in the late 1950s, but maybe even at one day old, they perceived her as foreign. If we tend towards the souls of things, then the bookshelf of hardback children’s books, all solemnly illustrated, belies her name. Inevitably they spoke of songs from the great enigma and great comforter, a cappella from the depths of constant night. Before I could read these for myself, my mother thought she’d given birth to an angel. My wings had been misplaced, so on photos and a Chagall collage she drew them in pastel.
My father is from the Mallee, inland Victoria that knows its salts are exposed, embedded in the terrain. I appeared to follow the maternal line—sea-kinned, toes pressed to ground. Bound, boundary to boundary. This is Rudolf Steiner’s definition of the sense of touch. I developed an obsession with seals, buffering sleep around my head with one, two, seven, twelve, finally twenty-one plush embodiments christened with three-fold names. I was a selkie, a seal come ashore in human form, her ocean-skin shed. Its disappearance traps her on land, yearning for home and kin. Sea and land, maternal and paternal. A child’s mythology develops; the queer child grasps one origin, and in adulthood continues to trace her true genealogy, the geography of which surpasses diagram trees.
We engraved paths, over and over, domestic to wild, car movement to neural hard drive. Memories are qualitative, the strength of the originals determining how, later, we will remember their frequency as expansive. So it is that the years of primary school are scaled down in my archives, lapped at by the journeys undertaken in their reprieve. Divided between two households and two seekers, both orphans by fact or circumstance, the holidays I took with each had the significance of pilgrimages. We made pilgrimages to shorelines and through inland Victoria, in and about nature and history, in a kind of ancestor worship.
What are they called? my father asks again as we drive towards the lake. Fags, I reply adamantly, in bathers my little body already strong and prophesying future athleticism. The main street of Boort seems empty, or maybe it emptied in my desire for the lolly du jour. We stop at the milk bar, but they do not stock the white confectionery sticks, ‘lit’ red at the end so you can play at smoking. If I had shown my disappointment, my father would not have reprimanded me, still beholden to his small daughter. Later he would become less tolerant of my whims, of any complaint that he viewed as whingeing, or tears prompted by missing my mother on our holidays. I didn’t have a mother at your age, he would bark.
We stay in a weatherboard house in an expanse of fields, with my father’s cousin and his wife. Every morning begins with enchanting magpie song, and Josie feeds them meat, and me icy-pole sticks from a freezer in a backroom. I take pictures of Basil on the verandah, the flat koala muff made from rabbit hide and a tight leather nose. A gift to my mother when she was a child by a family friend, my grandmother had forbade its enjoyment as a toy. I tuck a eucalyptus leaf into the little zippered pocket on Basil’s back, rusted with age.
Returning in the new millennium summer, Evan and Josie now live in town. The Boort lake is modest, its trawler sidelined in the reeds, seeming more artefact than machinery. I try water-skiing and fail. Overlooking the lake is the old Lanyon homestead, where my grandmother and her seven siblings grew up. The house is derelict, stripped of curling ironwork by its current apathetic owner. Evan and Josie pilfered the gate one day as it lay there abandoned. I want to buy it, I repeat many times, and do it up. Peering through the windows on the verandah, this is as close as you’ll get. The mythic figure of my father’s mother had a place attached, a region in which she was the drawcard, even absenting, like a saint. Two generations of only children could circulate about these relics, savouring piecemeal hagiographies.
There are no saints in my mother’s family, in any sense of the term. My grandmother, nee the exact full name of the most famous Baywatch babe, repeated the same wrongs against her own children that her mother had to her, and her mother before that. Not small wrongs, either. By the advent of said Baywatch star’s cavorting, my grandmother was married and her maiden name freed. The irony of this nominal doppelganger is her conservatism; she lives a self-proclaimed Christocentric life, which does not decree conservatism but, in her case, commands it. She has been an old woman since early middle age, illness and family deaths propelling her towards an inevitable comfort—fundamentalism.
She realised the blasphemy of the Anglican Church, thanks to a neighbour, and joined a Pentecostal church. The Bible is literal; the Catholic Church is extremely blasphemous (misusing the Word of God—hence no cults of the saints); and even Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale The Little Prince is suspect. I sent her a copy after she discovered my forearm tattoo, encompassing an illustration and inscription from the Italian translation, in the spirit of sharing one of my favourite books. I heard nothing from her directly for more than a year, and then only because my mother wasn’t returning her phone calls. The title of this memoir would make her bristle, hinting at idolatry. She is old-school Pentecostal, and old before her time as my father says, pinned into pleated, tartan skirts and one fearing way.
My father’s property had no electricity for a good period. There are few people who could live this way, wind and freight trains rushing about the unlined shed’s exterior while inside, a miner’s headlamp illuminated the bachelor’s pottering. Winter in this goldfields town is voracious; my father’s layering for sleep a snowsuit of long johns, infinite woollens and finally a still valiant but aged wool dressing gown and beanie. My late wife Adelaide theorised that we all directly return to our childhood as adults, that we either try to re-create the bliss or relive it to right the damaging experiences. Often enough I would say to people, my father wants to retire to the country; a neat line that summed up his aspirations and his affinity with rural Victoria. An affinity that resulted not solely from unadulterated grief or bliss, but straddled the two, conjuring a past cycle of rejection from Paradise, and consequent refuge.
That is how he described his mother’s death to me, over the stove and a saucepan of porridge—being thrown out of Paradise. Stirring his then staple dish, he said the next phase of his life was a game of pass-the-parcel, the difficulty of a motherless five-year-old and the grief-stricken husband who travelled as an electrical inspector. Sent to a Mallee town in north-western Victoria, he re-entered family life with his mother’s sister, her husband and children. He and his cousins blocked up rabbit burrows to shoot them, sang around the piano, watched Uncle Roy slaughter dinner and enjoyed the idyll of a working farm. On one of our pilgrimages we visited Hopetoun, centred around a little lake. Wandering past the primary school my father recalled a young female teacher with whom he and all the other grade ones were enamoured.
The town’s name is tender, literal but fleeting, sound fading away. Yet again Paradise ejected the boy, after the needless death of his aunt. Her arm had been burnt badly, and the local doctor put a plaster cast on it. Septicaemia set in and another family had to navigate life après mère. My father was returned to Melbourne and instated as a boarder at a basic grammar school. In the country the widower uncle’s cousin and family arrived to stay, to help. One day the cousin needed a procedure, and when he arrived home from hospital he discovered his wife and the widower had absconded with all the children.
My mother is her mother, and yet she is not. Both irritate me, and both evoke sympathy. The genetic line has favoured anxiety as dominant, three generations of females, acknowledgement a sliding scale. My mother infuriates me, has an ability to disregard boundaries like no other, and yet I can be her most vehement defender, chaffing at the hint of someone taking advantage of her and her generosity. Sometime into our relationship Adelaide, then my fiancée, told me she loved her as we drove away from the flat I had grown up in. Galloping confirmations of Adelaide’s unique goodness and compatibility—perfection—with me came more than hourly, but this declaration was particularly important. To love my parents is to love me wholly, genetic predispositions, potential and all.
The property without electricity finally connected, within days Adelaide and I towed up our newly repainted 1967 caravan and settled into our own wind-battered spot. Many people swooned when we told them we lived in the country, the realities of two people plus the circulating menagerie in a 16-foot space overlooked. Water access in the caravan was via a hand-pumped tap, our miniature stove-oven possessing two hotplates, the capacity for only one to be used at any time.
The property’s previous owners had established a dam, an outhouse and the shed, before the partnership dissolved. One half stayed on for a year, the shed’s concrete floor scrawled concentrically in permanent marker with desperate questions and recriminations, while the outhouse floor is imprinted with the hands of the family who happily laid it.
I complained, somewhat facetiously, that even the old-order Amish had better facilities than our residence. The acrylic claw-foot bath on palettes outside our door, our caravan in miniature—both curved, white, romantic—could eventually be filled by a hose with running cold water, which seemed luxurious compared to the previous arrangement. Scale and comparitivism of civilisation, things that are unquestionably present in Australian houses, here eliciting joy.
• • •
The most prominent icon in my father’s house was a portrait of his mother in her nursing uniform, sent as her Christmas card one year. It has a message curled in the corner, Lots of love. The same set-up, taken so she sat at an angle to the camera, was displayed in the passageway, and elsewhere in the house paintings my father’s cousin had done of mother and child, maternally disproportionate compared to the son’s frailty. Fair skin, dark hair, warmth. She liked the sweets too much, her sister said.
I talked to my late wife a lot about my grandmothers, dead and alive, reliquaries of genetics and upbringing. She studied the icon once and pointed out the familial line down three generations, as only her astute aesthetics could. Mother, son, granddaughter: same jawline, lips, even conceivably our figures. Adelaide said I have the female version of my father’s body—slim, muscly legs and bottom, strong. Where he has one pot-belly curve, I have the undulations of an hourglass that have been subjected to much self-abuse over the years. The photos show my grandmother cut a similarly curved figure.
Modern hagiographies come from the laity, the living. It is easier to love the exalted than in the close quarters of life and flaws, and sometimes the people most qualified to recount these histories resent this. Apart from Boort, there is one other acute source, one pilgrimage point, in this pursuit of ancestry. My grandmother’s younger sister, who died earlier this year aged 101, migrated to the United States about 50 years ago. They were closest to each other in age and both nursed for a while at the same hospital. My great-aunt is generous but ambivalently so after the fact, mischievous and sometimes relentlessly bitchy. She never married, her ‘best years’ given to an older man who eventually left her for the cliché. As nephew number one, my father has benefited greatly from her generosity, and has spent a lot of time over there helping her, compiling what is still known and can be communicated.
There was always a sense you were different, my mother said when I asked about my childhood. The queer feeling thrived as I grew, consciousness only nourishing the sense of difference. I sensed it in her too—she received a baleine soul. She desires communion with people, and appreciate her as they might, she is of another element.
Maybe the things I do not share with either grandmother are most pivotal. You cannot mistake ocean eyes, the light penetrating them differently, a deep-set darkness beyond hue that if not actively engaged in smiling, others perceive as judgemental or sad. My mother and I have this kind of eyes, ones that belong more obviously to sea mammals. All trips with her were inevitably to the family home of Victorian coastline. Once we went to Phillip Island in the first days of September and I bought a full-body black wetsuit in order to swim. As I swam in the shallows like a trapped seal, the childhood boldness having been padded out with fear, a mother and baby whale appeared in the cove’s waters. I wondered if the whales sensed family.
• • •
We time-travel beside extinct volcanos, hunkered around English-idyll fields, before the heat sets in and the non-irrigated cede to brown. Anxious mechanisations once aimed at God are soothed and time loses its foothold. Circulations of ancestry are archived here, hagiographies of uncanonised saints, those immigrants and indigenous peoples.
People often declare their insignificance when confronted by the legacy of nature’s years, but I am reconnected. To go anywhere in the country is to drive, save for the twice-daily train service to Melbourne from our town. The city segregates us—commitments and humanity press too close, dehumanising each other and surrounds. Here, between big towns, travel is ancestor worship; every generation moving about us in cyclical history.
• • •
Monviso appears in prelude; with the other peaks it opens every day in Turin. Bunkered on a plateau, the Cottian Alps guard the city and towns, omnipresent and calm, surrounding but never pressing, a divine-like quality. In their sight I spent two months before my final year of high school. I returned with Adelaide in December 2011 for Christmas with that same host family, just as seven years earlier. She was as enchanted by these alpine guide–protectors as I was. This visit my source of joy had matured from Alps and Italian children’s books to Alps and poetry in Italian. In every bookstore, I huddled in the poetry section, running my fingertips back and forth over volumes. In Italy as here, a bookshop’s virtues are relative to the size and location of its poetical offerings.
Just outside the city in Moncalieri, at the bookstore L’Arco Nuovo (‘new’, to reflect that since my first visit, it had been renovated from a collection of nooks to a small store with ample lighting) the selection of poetry was serious, commandeering a secondary wall. Multiple shelves rose up from a shin-level display. White paperbacks featured throughout, unfussy cover design of a poem excerpt in black typeset, and a short biography on the back, part of the publisher Einaudi’s collezione di poesia series. Wide-ranging and including native Italian poets and authors in translation, each page of translated text is presented beside its original, placating a little the reservations I have about translation—side-by-side the source and its offspring almost holds accountable the latter version. Form and line are visual, and in confrontation the reader is reminded that whatever the merits of the poem understood, it is new, sharing in but not expressed as the original’s equal. They are parent and child, distinct bodies in the family sea. Andrew Chesterman wrote: ‘In antiquity, for instance, one of the dominant images of the translators was that of a builder: his … task was to carefully demolish a building, a structure (the source text), carry the bricks somewhere else (into the target culture), and construct a new building—with the same bricks.’ I left L’Arco with only one chapbook, Cartoline di mare vecchie e nuove by Nico Orengo—Postcards of old and new seas.
• • •
I married a mermaid—really a merperson, from the sea but no gender inherent. Her feet were flipper-long, devoid of arch and the front half soft, as though they hadn’t been pressed to the ground in years of barista service and waitressing long shifts. she moves on earth / a second language: / the prepositions stick, /marine joints only just amalgamated in ankles and feet, / that in the water once / had the looseness-power / of a hare’s foot.
Formed corporeally in the image of a genetic condition, Marfan’s syndrome, the weft of Adelaide’s connective tissue differed. We are in great part connective tissue, especially in heart. The first time I really looked at her, her torso and ratio caught me, seemingly out of proportion to her long arms, yet not aesthetically off. She was straight from work, wearing her ‘Killer Pussy’ T-shirt (emblazoned with a high beam-eyed, feral cat on top of its latest victim) and had come to pick up her friend from a party hosted by my ex-girlfriend. Bronwyn and I had migrated from our mutual friend’s Halloween party there, my then girlfriend in tow. I was wearing the majorette outfit I had hand-sewn from a 1950s pattern. Adelaide took us all back to the original party, and the rest of the night is a dark lounge room and dancing, a sense of undertow towards her. The true catalyst for extricating myself from the long-over relationship with the engineering student was Falls Music Festival two months later. After an unceremonious first night, where I had a little too much bootlegged alcohol courtesy of a group of unsupervised volunteers, I kissed Adelaide.
In the middle of The Living End’s set, I came to and at this point the rest of our friends announced they were retiring to the slope of tents. Our relationship was immediate, instinctual and elevated us both as people and artists. The day after the kiss, we took the shuttle into Lorne proper, eager to swim and enjoy the beach. Only her and me—the others, earnest festival-goers, would not miss a band. I had on the purpose-bought magenta bikini, though it wasn’t convincing me, nor my self-consciousness, and I put over them both a sleek black long-sleeved rashie top and board shorts,
She had made her tent into a Moroccan den, and had key 1980s accessories for the festival, such as a bum-bag. We devised a plan to sneak alcohol back into the festival (the pre-mixed spirits were nauseatingly sweet), swapping tonic water labels with soda water ones in the supermarket, then mixing up gin and tonic ready-to-go bottles. We bought an egg flip-flavoured Big M—both of us had a love of flavoured milks, and after her death often the only thing I would imbibe was chocolate milk, a lone digestible element in a skinned world.
On the Lorne foreshore we ate savoury scrolls and drank the disappointing Big M. She couldn’t understand why such a smart person would stay in an obviously unfeasible relationship. I had thought that this was the way of all relationships, that after a time you weren’t in love any more, but it was inevitable so you just enjoyed the company. Adelaide was adamant it was completely untrue. In wet sand I buried her tree root toes and feet ‘arachnodactyly’—spider fingers, long feet, toes, fingers. People often made rude or unkind remarks, and stared at them through sandals. She loved them, drawing large portraits, and I quickly came to adore them as much as every other part of her.
On and in sand we tried to articulate what was happening. No mention of anything romantic, though it was there; something deep, urgent and lasting. We’d be sisters—quickly discarded. She had to be in my life always, my best friend. I didn’t believe in love at first sight, and any hope of a soulmate had been eroded by then, at the age of 23. Fourteen months later we were married, and in just under three years together we spent only one night apart. Our love for each other was unconditional and allowed us an ease and openness together that tempered many of the abiding anxieties we each held.
I realised I had never been in love before—loved but never loved a person wholly, every atom, skin cell, hair; every word, gesture and feeling. And though I had to have two important relationships before her, to meet such significance with maturity and devotion, Adelaide needed no preparation: she embodied love. In my speech at our wedding, I talked about how, before meeting her, I derided the platitude of ‘she makes me want to be a better person’. But faced with her love for others and her ability to love people continually putting aside their wrongs towards her (maybe out of necessity originally), I truly aspired to her way and behaviour. Most of us must err greatly before we find such wisdom and comportment, if we ever get there. She too doubted and had existential crises but her heart was perfect. This is not a view through the rose-coloured glasses of this side of death—I knew all this while she was still alive.
I had been meaning to see a specialist about my own connective tissue, as the syndromes my body carries (Adelaide coined us ‘the syndrome kids’ on that drive to Falls Festival) can be comorbid with related problems. A year after her death I finally obtained a referral and had the most thorough medical history taken by an Austin Hospital doctor with a special interest in the area, a self-proclaimed Asperger harbouring many theories on the intersection of various syndromes and that tissue that binds us. He asked me how I felt in water, and I hedged with a disclaimer that it would sound strange: I’d always felt like a seal. He replied that did sound strange, but that people with connective-tissue elasticity issues tend to feel at home in water. That there they are ‘held’ together. Everyone who has ever seen me in water has commented that I seem a water-baby or something similar; and Adelaide, a mermaid, hair starfish red and thick fanning behind her.
The ocean as the other, queerness that recognises a true kin; we are on land but not of it. Matrilineal descent emerges as dominant, yet we chose to live in a field, seeking out swimming holes, rivers, even the council pool. Northern Tasmanian coves, the discovery of a lake one town over, coastal hot springs on our honeymoon. Two weeks before Adelaide collapsed at 25 while washing the dishes and I was unable to revive her, we had moved to a cottage we could barely afford, its position excitingly prime: directly across from the town’s pool. Spring had begun prematurely and summer beckoned, long with a pool pass each.
In dreams she accompanied me after she died, as she ever had in life. Then, it was absurd that anything should change given she continued, right there with me. Those dreams dispersed, one night she was there again, confusing my dream-self even after two and a half years. Outstretched, reclining like a merperson on the rocks.
I live our legacy, drawn to all bodies of water—even the sink selected for my shepherd’s hut is designated ‘butler’s’, rectangular white porcelain almost big enough to bathe in, a centrepiece. Pilgrimage sites, hagiographies, the coursing tradition of eras simultaneous: these made us return to the country and constantly to the sea, but life now is a continual baptism, daily a renewal of ease by her love, suffusing my life still ashore.