“Death is great.
We are his completely
with laughing eyes.
When we feel ourselves immersed in life,
he dares to weep
immersed in us.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images
Image by Kirsten Sims
“Death is great.
We are his completely
with laughing eyes.
When we feel ourselves immersed in life,
he dares to weep
immersed in us.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images
Image by Kirsten Sims
Last Sunday, Mary died. She was my mother-in-law. When I met her, I thought she was a bitch. Turned out she thought much the same of me. Back then.
I remember the afternoon I met her. I was wearing a hot pink sweater with a big cross stitched flower on the front, which I thought looked pretty impressive even though it didn’t. She came out of the door at the unit on OG Road and descended on me, eyes boring into mine, assessing the future, taking control. I dug in and began building the defence.
She moved straight through it. Told me what to do, and when. Told me what I owed, and where my responsibilities were. Told me to come and stay and not to leave. Told me I was ridiculous, presumptuous, selfish, all of which were possibly true.
I visited the family farm and tried to go home again. We fought in the back rooms, and she threw a book at me. I worked on plans to make distance. She worked on different plans.
She told me she hated cooking because it was a waste of time, and I looked at her with sudden respect and then looked away. She said, ‘Come and sit with us.’ I resisted. She sat with me. I plotted to move away.
Once, in Cleve, we parked the car in the main street. There was a group of lads in a tight circle, all wearing black, all with earrings and tattoos, and one shaved bald. Mary sailed right into the middle, scattering cigarettes and plans of anarchy. She said, ‘Well how are you young Jonesy? How’s the farm?’ They straightened up and answered appropriately, sensing, unlike me, that her interest was genuine and would not be easily satisfied. She asked more questions, and more questions, and they answered obediently.
I thought, she goes anywhere.
Once she told me she had to travel across Sydney, all by herself on a train, for a women’s group meeting. She said she was terrified. I looked at her and took a small defence down.
Still, I dug trenches and avoided. Launched missiles which came straight back at me. Complained to my own mother who said, ‘Don’t be so silly.’
Mary was first at the hospital when all the babies were born. First to let everyone know. First to pick up the babies. One of my babies was born on her and Leith’s wedding anniversary. She told me by phone that she thought about that all night. I took another small defence down. We squabbled about boundaries and privacy.
We bickered and fought and disagreed, and I placed obstacles in clever places so she could not reach me. I thought, I’m strong too. Don’t tell me what to do. But she did. She went anywhere. This included the dark defended areas of my own fear. In she went. Once on the back veranda of my own house, when I had little children, I cried. She stepped in, dropped a bunch of grapes on the decking, and stepped in. ‘It’ll be ok.’ She wasn’t bothered by what it was. She just knew it would be ok.
I criticised and bitched and angered at her and about her. I would be a better parent than her. I wasn’t. It all fell in pieces. She never said a word. She loved conflict. She loved chaos and problems. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash. No need to worry about that.’
I took down bits of defence, cautiously.
She loved to eat cream buns, and would say, ‘Look at this. Oh well, going to die anyway, aren’t we.’
She went everywhere.
I heroically fought off her invasion even though there wasn’t one. I mistranslated energy for obsession and appetite for control. I fought off her interest as something dangerous. I noticed that my growing children didn’t agree with me.
Mary kept on, each day seemingly worth the effort. She said, ‘Once, when I had four small children on the farm, the head shearer threw his dinner at the wall. That was a sign that it was not a good dinner.’ I looked at her in horror. Once she said about her own mother, ‘It didn’t matter what I did, mum’d have a go at me.’ Once she said that she nearly didn’t make it with four small children on a farm and nobody much to help out. I moved my arm a bit so that it went next to her arm. She was watching Keeping up Appearances and laughing loudly. She gripped my hand and kept on laughing.
Once we saw a new product at the supermarket. Corn Chips. I said in the aisle, ‘Look at these’, and she bought three packets, and I was shocked. Unfluent in generosity and impetuousness, I was shocked. She said, ‘Well, why not.’ She got Windows 95 before anyone else, and said, ‘Don’t open too much stuff on the screen at once, or it’ll freeze.’ She said things like, ‘Oh well, it’ll be all right.’
‘Well, buy it, then.’
‘Well, there’s not much we can do about that.’
‘I think so too.’
I got older. My energy fell away, and my jokes became feeble, but Mary still laughed at them. I said, ‘I’m getting old’, and she fell about laughing and raised one leg in the air.
She looked at all my children, and said, ‘Look at them. Nothing wrong with them.’
She got some great grandsons. Three little fellas. I noticed how much she approved of their naughtiness. How interested in the conflict. How she valued the problems. How she laughed and raised one leg in the air. How the worse things got, the more valuable they became.
When she got sick, when her mind fell away gently in flakes, and she had to go into care, she still laughed at my poor jokes. I said, ‘My hip is going.’ And she was delighted. She said, ‘Where are the men?’ Her men were everything to her. And I said, ‘Who knows, who cares?’ And she laughed with her arms straight up in the air, and I saw she was getting thin. She said, ‘Tell them to come in, dinner’s ready.’ But there was no roast lamb. That day, there was just the disinterest of Resthaven, and me, and I had so little to offer.
Once, she said, ‘Felicity.’
In the hospital, when she wanted to go home, she said, ‘I’m not well, am I.’ She hit one of the nurses. Once when I visited, she pointed one arm toward me as though in desperate recognition of something from some long ago place, and she got up and walked towards me, and I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said angrily, ‘I’m dead.’
She gripped my hand so hard.
She always wore pink hats. At Resthaven, she still wore pink, and I was glad. She always had good shoes. She used to buy clothes and things, try them on and return them. ‘Get it, you can always return it’, she always said to me. Rich in life and mistakes and great fields of wheat, and fruit trees by the gate that shrivelled because Leith put Roundup on them by mistake.
She always said, ‘Here you are with all your books.’ She broke through everything I put up. I don’t know how. She always said, ‘Allo, allo, allo, how are YOU?’ One of her sons still says this same thing, and means it, thank God.
Once, a long time ago, my mother-in-law’s mum, also called Mary, told me that she rocked all her kids to sleep in a bassinet on the veranda at the farm, and it was so hot. One of those kids was my mother-in-law. A nurse came, who was young, and said my mother-in-law’s mum needed to do things a bit better. Then my mother-in-law’s mum got old. She used to make shepherd’s pie at Aberfoyle park for me when I was still new to the family, and she agreed with my criticisms of my whole new family. Then she fell away into the different and awful place of dementia. I was busy with babies then, but I went to St Agnes and visited, and she looked at me and smiled and nodded, despite everything.
When I was young and new to this family, I sat on a sand dune at Port Neil and listened to my new mother-in-law talk about her own mother, the one who had made me shepherd’s pie. I sat stiffly on the sand dune next to my mother in law, who she sat with her knees under her chin, looking at the sea. Next to her, a younger aunty, complaining about being told what to do.
‘She won’t stop telling me what to do. I’m forty years old.’
Mary said, ‘I’m 50, and she’s still telling me what to do.’ And they laughed.
I was 23 back then, and knowledgeable and wise and sulking as I looked at the sea. I listened to them and thought that I won’t be like this. I’ll sort this all out. I won’t be part of this.
But it was too late, I already was. Thank God.
And I still am. Thank God. Thank God.
Two ladies are drifting around the shop, dreamily, and apologetic as if they shouldn’t be here. They say, ‘Sorry’, and tiptoe past me. They are pineapple and blue, bright and delicious. They sway here and lean there.
‘I remember half of these books from me childhood.’
‘It’s a bit of a shock isn’t it!’
‘Oh I know.’
Outside the door there is a ute parked, and in the back of the ute, a sheep, quite dead, and next to it, a ladder. I know because I stood up to see. I looked at the sheep’s belly, looking for breathing. None.
A passer-by walked past the windows, absorbed and fluent. He looked into the back of the ute as he walked, his head turning as though on a stalk. He stopped abruptly and looked more closely, and then walked on.
‘Oh my lord.’ A lady stopped and gestured with her bag.
Inside, the pineapple and blue ladies are still drifting. They have solid bags. Their hair is similar, small silver tents. They clasp their hands across their fronts. The floor creaks under their gentle boots. Slowly, softly, they exclaim at memories.
Outside in the quiet road, the sheep is still dead, itself now a memory. The driver plods wearily past my windows and climbs in. He has a tray with two coffees.
I am asked for James Michener, Miss Read, The Readers Digest Motoring Guide to Australia and books that are good for reading groups.
A young woman asks her friend, ‘Would you listen to this if I read it out loud?’
Her friend, breathes out, ‘Maybe.’
The blue and pineapple ladies pass by, thank me and tenderly leave.
The young women search urgently for things to read aloud.
The ute has driven away, and the sheep is gone.
Image by Hugh Stewart
“Death stands there, a bluish concoction
in a saucerless cup.
Curious place for a cup:
it stands on the back of a hand. You recognise,
only too well, the spot where the handle broke off
on its glassy curve. Dusty. And ‘Hope’
in exhausted letters on its side.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters 1910-1926
(Ceramic cup by Clare Conrad)
I did go and look at those books. It was a library of a woman who had died.
The lady spoke of her mother. We were standing outside the garage, shielding our eyes from the afternoon sun. There were fruit trees and two dogs, cardboard boxes, and a horse behind a railing – it was warm and quiet. I could hear the horse breathing. She was telling me about her mother; all the things she used to do, the gratitude of communities, the reading, her passion, her; the mother.
I could smell quinces.
‘The things a person loves are always, always recorded in their library.’ The daughter leaned back in amazement and pride as she said this. It was a delicate opera of grief, sung outside (to me) next to a bucket of yellow quinces. The daughter was wearing pink and white. She said, ‘Don’t lift those heavy boxes, you’ll hurt yourself.’ Her mother, Barbara, was one of my first customers. She read Don Camillo. And there they were, the books she once bought from me, right there in a box, in the sunshine, next to the quinces.
Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh
One man has chosen Journal to the Hebrides by James Boswell, a Folio edition, slipcased and it is very nice. He is pleased with it and pulls out the book to show me that it is still unread. He says that he always liked Boswell. He has a book on Chinese art and one of the journals of Anais Nin. He stacks them up and says; I always find something. When he talks he is always looking at other books, just in case there is one that needs him. Then he laughs out loud and says, I should bloody just go but you know…. then he said: nothing belongs to us, does it, nothing really does. We just interact with it and then we move on and all this just stays here. We don’t even own anything. Then he went out into the outside bright and he was reading the Anais Nin paperback as he walked up the road.
Image from the Marlborough Gallery, New York
Today is grey, warm and quiet. The cars driving past are all headed for Christmas. A few visitors come in, looking idly for books; one man was looking for Milang. Albert dropped in to say Merry Christmas and that once, when he drove trucks, he took a load of books to Melbourne, thousands of them, all packed into crates. He said: I had a look in the back when they were unloading because they said it was an urgent load and I had to drive all night, books by some bird called Joan Collins. She was in Melbourne signing them or something. Do you think I should have read one of em? Who is she anyway?
I was asked for The Silver Brumby.
An older man spent a long time looking at a Geronimo Stilton. He looked puzzled.
A lady bought a complete Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales. She said I love these, so much more than the Grimm Brothers. They were just so….grim! I just want to read them, I don’t need to study or know everything about them. I have a husband who thinks he knows everything. She looked grim.
There are two ladies in the front room and one tells her friend that her grandson said last Christmas: why did you get me a book? Why didn’t you get me a Transformer? And so now she is getting him another book. They both laugh toward each other and laugh until one begins to wheeze and wheeze. She gasps out: if he doesn’t like it he gets nothing. But my daughter told me I should get him what he wants.
Her friend says OH FOR GOD’S SAKE!
And they both laugh and laugh again. They are silver and elegant and one has a small tattoo. Then they discussed their adult daughters for a long time, they did not look at any books.
Then it is quiet for a long time. I read The Historian… and it is very good. In this book it is mid-winter in England. And everything is freezing, including Dracula. Here it is hot, but the snow and dust mingle nicely and logically.
I am asked for The History of Tom Jones and then Rumpole of the Bailey.
Outside passers-by comment: this is a nice shop! But they do not come in.
An old man buys some books for his granddaughter in England. He is worried that the family won’t approve. He said: this might put me in the bad books again.
Some children paused outside to eat an enormous bag of chips. There is an argument. One child says they must eat them all NOW because he is not allowed to buy this many chips at once or he will be killed by his mum.
I see Robert hurrying past but he does not come in.
I wonder what else should be happening because it is Christmas…
Then a man came in and asked for a map book but I didn’t have one. He said he’s at the caravan park here, and leaving soon. He and his wife had travelled to South Australia, their last trip, she died of cancer soon after they arrived here which was four days ago. And he just wanted a map book; he thought he might drive a little further; he did not want to go home right now.
But I didn’t have one. He said not to worry, and he went to the bakery. I saw him there through the window, eating at a table all by himself. He had said they had 18 years on the road traveling together before she got cancer.
Photography by Markus Spiske
I remember when a couple lent me a book they loved. It was called Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards. I wondered if I would find the time to read it. But then I did read it. I was caught by the first paragraph which described a young woman who has attempted to cut off her own arm. I read the whole book and will never forget it.
I returned the book when they came back to my shop and thanked them. They said that this book was respectful and very very good and that their own daughter once attempted suicide. And the second time she succeeded.
They stood there, she, the mother with her book: Growing Roses Successfully and he with a book by John Grisham and me standing there with nothing at all.
Perhaps he could no longer walk calmly and safely on a level floor because he mistook it for a rope. Hermann Hesse, Klein and Wagner
Rowena told me that I should keep doing this. Keep working in a bookshop. That we should do what makes us happy when we can. And that some people will do what makes them unhappy because that actually keeps them happy. She bought a copy of The Hunger Games.
John stopped me at the bakery to show me his mountain bike, all packed and prepared for his trip to Tasmania where he is hoping for mild weather. Since he retired he rides everywhere and he can’t wait for August when he will leave and tour alone around the cold Tasmanian roads with his History of Abraham Lincoln for company.
I have not seen Leon for ages, not since he told me that his migraines were getting worse and worse but to have the second volume of Twilight ready for him anyway.
Robert said that nobody (certainly not the government) will thank him for all the research and writing that he is doing until long after he is dead. But he does not care because there is power in death.
Monique told me that she will be looking for a new series to read very soon and hopefully as good as Cat Warriors.
A lady told her husband to shut the door and not let in the cold but he couldn’t close it because she was in the way. She asked him if he couldn’t just be careful for once in his life. But he is looking at the Ian Flemings and does not answer. She tells him to go in the other room. But he is laughing out loud at the Ian Flemings because “these books were a lot of fun!”
I had said to Robert, imagine if we all thought that we were actually ok, and didn’t need to keep tiredly striving for whatever it was. He said nobody will ever claim all of their own resources as being enough because our culture tells us to do otherwise. Like Apple and Ikea. Then he said he needed a coffee.
But I think it’s true that reading allows us to relent and relax on our careful hold on our lives. When people tell me about something they have read, they let go of everything and concentrate only on that one thing they are remembering: The Tower or the Smoke Catcher or the Chinese Riots of Lambing Flat.
And then our cramped clockwork can stretch and release and light out for a solo run without us.
I felt inspired and told a lady who was looking through the Colin Thieles that it is nice to see children reading the South Australian writers. But she put the books down and said that she might get her grandson some lollies instead and did I know if that old lolly shop was still in High Street.
I am asked for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Bully for Brontosaurus, for the location of the art gallery and advised to read The Fall of the House of Wilde. I was reminded that tomorrow would be 22 degrees, (practically summer) and that there was a horse float parked in the bus zone. I showed my Herman Hesse, some new reading for me, to a customer but he said he does not read the Germans.
My friend, who is 84, sent me a bag of books and the news that her daughter had died on Sunday. My friend is a braveheart. She has always followed her own self to her own self and not bothered to strive after anything that outshines her own remarkable life, because so far nothing has. She has read everything, favouring bloodthirsty thrillers above all else. Along with her devastating news, she sent me a stack of bloodthirsty thrillers.
You carried everything that mattered inside yourself….to live with yourself in affection and trust. Then you could do anything. Then you could not only walk a tightrope but fly. Herman Hesse, Klein and Wagner
Photography by Rubee Hood