It’s happened! Another defining moment. Think of them as Life Lessons, they start early. The first – I am three years old, sitting up in a hospital bed awaiting a tonsillectomy. My parents are reading to me. I remember their goodbye hug. Next day, I wonder why the ice-cream, served with red jelly, has the texture of sand. Somehow the sensation doesn’t register as a painful sore throat! I don’t remember being afraid. Clearly, they have prepared me well. Still, it is telling that I have such clarity of memory of an event seventy-three years ago, hence classify it as a defining moment- learning to deal with separation.
A lesson (or three) in loss. I am perhaps seven years old when our first cat Tuppence dies, and two years later our cocker spaniel dog, Rusty. I am in the USA with my mother, spending a few months with her brother and his wife. It is the first time she has seen him since they were separated as refugees fleeing Vienna in 1938. It is also the first time I have been away from my father for a protracted time. He must remain at home running his photographic studio. Beloved old Rusty is at home in Melbourne with him and dies of old age while we are away. Not only am I missing my dad very much indeed, but now he must break the news of Rusty’s death.
I am so grateful for the sensitive way he and they handled these events to ease the grief. My Daddy wrote me a beautiful letter, assuring me that Rusty had not suffered and suggesting that I could choose the type of dog we would next have- perhaps the same as the Dalmatian I have befriended next door to my aunt and uncle’s home in LA.? When we return to Melbourne, we indeed procure a Dalmatian puppy, having the thrill of selecting one from a large litter. I duly name him Chuck, or Chucky, after the LA version.
I am now thirteen and spot blood in my nickers at home one morning. I have started menstruating. Oh, the sight of that blood excites me so. Our family ethos was one of openness and I remember proudly announcing it to my mother as I am already well informed about such matters-reproduction, human sexuality, and birth control. However, I have no recollection of what exactly menstruation signified to me-whether it was reaching child-bearing age or more generally about now being ‘a woman’. It was, nonetheless, a defining moment.
There have been others along the way, life-changing events such as committing to a full sexual relationship at a relatively young age with my first serious boyfriend. I am not quite sixteen, yep, not actually of legal age but quite a mature and responsible sixteen-year-old. Denise, my closest friend at high school and I, feel rather superior, believing we are the only two girls in our class to have ‘lovers’ and it feels like being part of a ‘grown-up girls’ club. We share our stories, both of us being in enduring relationships. Hers leads to marriage, mine does not which takes me to the next journey, the travails of love, the painful acceptance when deeply meaningful relationships do not take me where I wish to go between my early ‘20’s to early 30’s. These learnings lead to greater self -knowledge and clarity in finally choosing the right partner in the clever, funny, eccentric, wise Jon, defining experiences.
I was the kid who couldn’t paint or draw, though always an ardent art-lover. As a young woman I live my creative life vicariously, having several friends both in Australia and in Europe where I live for several years, who are artists, writers, and musicians. In Italy I become obsessed with Byzantine and Renaissance art; while living in London, with contemporary art and the great sculptors of the 1960’s.
As a result of encouragement from various people over these years, in my mid ‘20’s and with great trepidation, I enrol in an adult education class in sculpture at the Camden Institute in London. A sequence of life-changing events unfolds. I am driven in a new and thrilling direction, discovering aspects of myself hidden until then. Back in Melbourne, now in my early ‘30’s I find my way into art school as a mature-age student, privileged with some prominent and influential teachers. I soon leave behind a decade of practice in Melbourne and London as a social worker and student counsellor to recreate my life as a practising visual artist, and in more recent years, in writing.
I have lost a few friends to death over the years but when my father dies, aged one hundred, I move back to Melbourne to care for my mother for three years. This is a great lesson in caregiving, especially since I have not had children, which decision was another protracted and complex defining moment. The loss of my mother feels momentous. The depth of grief is unlike anything I have experienced before and am now the only remaining member of our immediate family, and the only one in Australia.
So, to the present and the source of this story, expanding unexpectedly backwards into the past. Some days ago, I set out on a beach walk which, with one recent exception, I haven’t done for some time. Beach walking used to be a daily occurrence, but arthritic hips demand certain conditions these days, the sometimes-firm sand at low tide and a flat surface. It is a long weekend within school holidays so there are several people walking along the usually unpopulated beach.
Late afternoon, mid- winter, a gentle 24C. The sky is cloudless, the sea a shimmering silver in the low tide. I am wearing well-cut beige shorts, a blouse purchased in Hawaii (all dreamy pastel tones, palm fronds and frangipani blooms), the usual many pearl studs in my ears, and the rings-on-my-fingers, bells-on-my-toes gig, hair up in its quasi ‘40’s style and feeling great. As I round the stony point at Blackcurrant island, a group of people, perhaps numbering ten, are approaching- two or three adults, the rest children of various young ages. I step aside, though the lead person, a young woman, has invited me to proceed first. A small, blue-eyed girl with long blond plaits, perhaps five years old, now approaches, looks up at me, turns to her mother and in her little voice says: be careful of the old lady.
Well there you have it! Old lady!!!! I start to giggle, smile at the child and, unable to resist, jokingly say to her: You’re famous now. This is the first time anyone has called me old. Her mother, by way of an unnecessary but kind apology, says: she thinks I am old too. I think the child is a little embarrassed, but she’ll survive.
I find this SO funny, and through her eyes, I must indeed seem quite old. I am immediately taken back to nursery school, aged three, with my beloved teacher ‘Harper’. I thought she was as old as Methuselah, with her grey hair puffing out around her ears like my favourite toy koala. She was probably less than sixty, possibly even in her fifties, far younger than I am now.
Still, I cannot define myself as old, not even elderly – no pink perm and twinsets for me, though perhaps that is a long-outdated image. There are many other adjectives I might use to describe myself but old is not amongst them. It raises the question of what terminology would be appropriate. Perhaps I am simply a well-preserved woman of a certain age.