MEMORIES Flashbacks, reminders, nostalgia, reminiscences, memories,
or whatever you like to call them, can take many forms, and pop up
unexpectedly. Sometimes they make us smile, sometimes they make us
cry. And any of our senses can be the trigger. Even the sense of smell.
I remember an old briefcase from my first few years at
high school. Opening it, some dozen or more years later, out wafted a smell, the familiar
smell of stale honey sandwiches reacting with fake Naugahyde instantly
transported me back to Wollongong High School, 1975.
Another thing I will never forget is low-pitched, rumbling
type vibrations. One night in 1973 we suffered a medium-sized
earthquake. Strong quakes are quite rare in Australia, but this one was
strong enough (5.6) to wake the whole neighbourhood up - we lived at
Bowral at the time, very near the epicenter. Still today I sometimes
wake up with a start when a truck or train passes by at night
with sufficient rumbling. The fear that I experienced as a youngster
during that earthquake has been fused into my brain, much like an old
soldier who is 'shell-shocked'.
Sometimes it is a song, even just a few bars of a song, which
might send you off down memory lane. For me, they often invoke memories
of where I was and what I was doing at the time that song was popular.
It doesn't surprise me in the least that in some societies, songs are
used to memorize extremely long epics and poems.
Everytime I hear Annie Lennox singing There Must Be an Angel
(Playing with My Heart) it reminds me of the day my mother
died: it was a big radio hit at that time. The day I drove my old
beat-up Escort panel van to see my father who had been at her side at
the hospital. About the only good thing I can remember is, after months
of suffering terminal cancer, she looked like she was finally at peace.
Now, when I see R.I.P. on a grave, I truly understand what it means.
That day, and the day of the funeral, undoubtedly the two saddest days
of my life. So it is, still today, that Eurythmics song can bring a
tear to my eye.
My mum emmigrated to Australia as a child, spoke with an
Australian accent, married and had children, had a driver's licence, and voted in elections. So you might say she was pretty well
integrated into Australian society. In fact, she never returned to
Holland as an adult, though her sisters and parents did. One of my
maternal aunts, who has spent years piecing together a family tree,
thinks we might be related to Annita Keating, Dutch ex-wife of former
prime minister Paul Keating, based on how similar she looks to my late
mother and also our grandfather's mother's maiden name was van Iersel - Annita Keating's maiden name.
Sometime in the early 1970s, when we lived in Bowral, mum
decided to become a naturalised Australian citizen. I distinctly
remember that naturalization ceremony, for several reasons. One was the
town mayor was there, whose mayoral robes looked extravagant, even
strange, to my young eyes. Everytime I see a town mayor dressed like
that I recall that evening. Another was an Asian woman, who struggled
to repeat the naturalization vows. She spoke English so badly I could
not understand her, even though she stood only a few feet away. I don't
remember how many other people were naturalized, but I do remember
being proud that my mother was the only one who repeated her lines with
ease in perfect English. The Asian woman was of very short stature and
was in a very late stage of pregnancy, another thing which seemed
unusual to my young eyes. A reporter from the local newspaper spoke to
my mother, and a few days later a flowery article appeared highlighting
her childhood memories of Holland, especially living through bomb raids
during WW2. I remember we kept that local newspaper article. We only
saw it every now and again when we looked in a metal-zippered,
crocodile-skin folder that back then served as our family photo
archive. Each year it became more and more yellowed and tattered.
Unfortunately the clipping has been lost in the intervening years.
I remember my mother saying she once went to the cinema as a
teenager in Orange; it would have been in the 1950s. She saw a war
film, and fled the cinema in tears when an air bomb scene was
screened "It all came back to me" she said "I don't know why, but I
could not watch it" (I had a similar reaction when I saw the film Deliverance - sequences of canoes shooting the rapids scared me
because it reminded me of the time I almost drowned on a teenage
kayaking trip down the Murray Gates). Those same WWII aerial bomb raids
have frustrated my aunt's efforts to better define the van Iersel branch of
our family tree, as so many birth, death and marriage records were destroyed.
Fast forward to August 2011, and I am shooting gigapans in Ho Chi Minh City (eg. 1, 2, 3) the old Saigon of Vietnam. Walking the streets, early
evening, a tropical rainshower, whole families on motorbikes without
helmets, and foreign tongues heard in every corner: all conspire to
remind me I'm a long way from home.
But, just how far is 'a long way'?
drastically shrink both time and space.
After eating out, I hear Cold Chisel drifting out of an Aussie ex-pat bar. More memories. Then, a pregnant Vietnamese woman stops and asks
me something. I try, but I can't understand her English. I shrug my
shoulders, apologise and keep walking, but something deja vu flashes in my
For a minute, I am not sure. Then, the mental clouds lift, and all is crystal clear. It is that night in Bowral around 40 years ago, when my mother, and the
pregnant Asian woman, became naturalized Australians together. I know
what happened to my mother, cancer took her at the young age of 45, but
I wonder what happened to the Asian/Australian mother-to-be?
Probably she is a grandmother now, just as my mother would be, had she
lived a few more years. Perhaps the other woman too had lived through tragic bomb raids in one of the Asian theatres of war.
I did a few mental calculations - today was about 26 years
since mum died - actually, this month.
Then I thought
about it a bit more. It was 26 years ago exactly, almost to the day.
But then again, maybe not.
- - - Glen David Short, 10th Sept 2011