Mum doesn’t knock as she enters my room. I wasn’t dreaming. Dreams seem to run away from me, as if I don’t deserve them. My eyes slowly open, blurry at first, but then revealing the comforting surroundings. I don’t want to get up, not for another Wednesday. Mum complains about the clothes on the floor; the contents of my open drawers overflowing like waterfalls after rain. I grumble the same lie I state every morning: “I am awake”. Mum leaves to get dressed but the scenario repeats itself until I’m up. Finally, dressed and ready for school, she drives me to the gates. I know I’m late, Mum knows I’m late, but thankfully she decides not to mention it. She does ask, however, if anything is wrong but I just shrug, knowing exactly what is pressing on my chest.
Two weeks until my creative writing assessment is due… 14 days… Soon to be 13. Love, honour, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. Important themes to write about. But what do I know about any of them? ‘Explicitly inspired’. What does that even mean? I explicitly don’t want to write this. No wonder I am biting my nails so much.
I have lived in the North Shore all my life, cloistered in the bubble of privilege that my private school and wealthy parents provide. Sacrifice doesn’t feature in my life. I have compassion, honour, pity, pride, and love, but is it enough? No, of course not. I am only 17, I have barely experienced the world. Sure, I have seen poverty on a screen, studied it in geography, felt the brief tug at the heart that is pity, but not the gut-wrenching emotion that makes you short of breath. Does pity even affect your breath?
I could write about love. Even, I think, bullshit some bitter-sweet romantic piece. My love for the ocean, my love for surfing — the love I felt for the boy that influenced me to surf. How every time I duck dive under a wave, the water surrounding me relaxes my brain and fixes my craving for the ocean. How every time I resurface, I feel re-birthed, as if I’m taking my first breath of a new life. The adrenaline high of catching a wave supplies the rush most of my age crave from alcohol. I could write how every time I daydream at school I see the smooth waves, hear the exciting crash of them breaking perfectly over sandbanks, and feel the Australian sun radiating off my skin, relieved only by the cool water. No, my teacher doesn’t want to hear about my love story with the ocean of a boy and how he controls my life through the constant reminder of his face in the waves.
I could write another’s story. I could write about my Oma. Share my grandmother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. How in her hometown, Düsseldorf, she refused to wear her star of David, and was lifted onto an SS officer’s shoulder, displayed at 8-years-old as the perfect young Aryan. How her family escaped Germany to America, her struggles to learn English and fit into a new society, one at war with her homeland. I imagine her as an overwhelmed 13-year-old in an all American high school, studious, shy, determined to become a journalist.
But my memories of Oma are very different.
She sits at her desk, beloved Olivetti typewriter in front of her. Oma’s short silver hair is in its usual neat loose curls, displaying delicate pearl earrings. I sit by the open cedar door of her study, against the wall, just watching her through the fractured sunlight streaming from the window. She collects the paper from the typewriter and precisely folds it, placing it in the bin on top of countless other folded pieces.
At 13, I was able to read some of her work. Articles on American politics and economics, publications on the UN, but none of it was personal. Oma didn’t write her story. All I have are fragments, snippets I overheard from late night conversations around the bridge table with old Jewish friends.
Oma never spoke a word of German to me, to anyone, not wanting to relive the scarring memories of her childhood. Only when she was dying of Parkinson’s disease did she mutter German, her brain not being able to decipher the difference between her new tongue and the language she swore never to speak. She would confuse me for her mother, her Mutti, who had not been able to escape Germany. No, I wouldn’t allow her memory to be entangled in her traumatic past, especially now as she rests. I would not tell her story. She couldn’t even write it herself.
I need inspiration. So, I search through my mother’s drawers. Pulling out old passport photos and family jewellery. Trying on pearl necklaces with matching earrings, basking in the musky smell of the past. An hour later I was still sifting through purses, draping dainty scarfs around my neck, and lying on the carpeted floor flipping through photo albums with bangles jangling on my wrists.
Tucked away in an old leather case, softened from years of touch, I find a pile of aerograms, typed on pale blue tissue. Private conservations written by my Oma to my grandfather when they were dating.
Hi – I miss you.
I’m also in a mood – did you know I get into ‘moods’ occasionally? Sort of black things, lasting sometimes a day or more, when I don’t talk and I cry easily – I think I caught the disease in my teens… I’m sick eh?… I shouldn’t write letters when I’m in a mood…
I know that mood. I hear the black figures trapped in my head, whispering criticism into my ears. Sometimes I don’t talk for more than a couple of days, only my bed hearing my sobs as I will it to swallow me. I caught the disease in my teens too. I haven’t had a traumatic experience, but I know of the result. I understand how she felt. I realise the moods we have in common. I know that a part of her will always live inside me.
I shouldn’t write imaginative pieces when I’m in a mood…
Delilah Isherwood Critchley