Sticks and Stones

My mother often quoted “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you” to me as I was growing up, usually after I had suffered some form of torment at school. After the first couple of incidents, the saying no longer comforted me. My father would tell me school days were the best days of my life. In a way he was right but it had nothing to do with school. I sometimes long for those days of no responsibility where I could laze around and watch the world go by. But the years I spent at school, especially high school, could never be described as the best.

I was not a beauty. As a child I was the clumsy, tallest kid in my class. I grew into a gawky, gangly teenager who was always a head taller than anyone else. I was skinny, covered in pimples and wore glasses. Sad, but true. I was also socially awkward, I never said the right thing because my parents had never taught me what to say. I am an only child with parents who were far older than those of my peers and who were very much involved in their own work, friends and lives. They didn’t mix with the parents of my peers which in turn did nothing for my social life.

I was ten when my family migrated to Australia and I soon discovered there were huge differences in school culture. In Australia if you were good at sport, nothing else mattered. You could be ugly, but if you were a champion it was forgiven. I was useless at sport. I was always picked last for any sporting team except netball. My classmates figured I was so tall it would assist them if I stood under the goals and played defense. I’m pretty sure I was still bad at it.

Not only was I bad at sport, I was also a bookworm. There were very few of my classmates, including my friends, who understood the attraction books held for me. Books were my safety mat. I could disappear into other worlds with the turn of a page and I often did.

Back to the sticks and stones. Being picked last, being excluded, having your school mates stop talking when you walk up to them and then giggle when you pass, are awful things to deal with at the same time as you are dealing with puberty and growing up in general. But of all the torments to deal with, it is the words which stick with me.

I still remember one of my high school peers telling me, very seriously, I would have made a far better looking male as I was a not very good looking female. I remember the height jokes, the comments about pimples and the off handed remarks of “square eyes”.

Over the years my love of words has persuaded me to become far more careful with them. I admit there are times I have deliberately chosen the most hurtful words during an argument, or worse in a situation when I should have been more thoughtful. As a parent I learnt the importance of words. The wrong words can devastate a child. So I try to think before speaking because words can hurt just as badly as sticks and stones.

My 3 R’s – Reading, Writing and Research

Three of my favourite things – reading, writing and research are also the most time consuming, frustrating and difficult of all my pursuits.

Why you ask should reading be frustrating or difficult? Try reading in a foreign language! It is most exasperating when the only way you can read an article or a piece of information is by copying and pasting it into a translation service. Then the subject matter may be difficult to read. For example, I am trying to learn more about Germany and the German people during and after World War II. My father was in the Wehrmacht (German army) and, while cleaning out his house after his death, I found letters written to him at the end of the war by a young girl who lived in Neuruppin, a town outside of Berlin. Both the fiction and non-fiction which deal with this subject are at times grim reading to say the least.

Which brings me to writing. I have no idea how anyone can write a book in a month, or six months, or even a year. I have spent just over three years now and am still rewriting and rewriting and tearing my hair out trying to find just the right word or phrase. Granted, I have had to write around full time work, study and family, but even so it is a time consuming process. Some weekend days I can sit at the computer for hours and not produce more than a paragraph. I know what I want to say but my words are not as perfect as I wish them to be. So far I have succeeded in completing a first draft. Now I must dismantle it like an annoying item from Ikea when, after you have built it, you find two spare screws which you know must fit somewhere.

I love research but I would prefer to be able to find definitive answers to my questions. I have my father’s war records, such as they are, but I am having difficulty finding the exact troop movements for his units. Many of the German army records have been destroyed. I can find general information, for example I can find out which direction the 18th Army headed during Operation Barbarossa but I cannot find out exactly where his particular unit fought say in July 1941. It is maddening to say the least. I have recently registered for several forums whose members may have information and I am hoping for some assistance. As for trying to find out what happened to Neuruppin after the war, there is only very general information. It was taken over by the Soviets, so one can only assume the worst for the population, but I cannot find any definitive history from that time.

My book is based on the relationship I had with my father, my need to know more about his past and this is intertwined with the letters written to him by the young German girl. The only way I can finish it is to continue with my three Rs.


Every now and again our bodies remind us just how far we can push them before they take charge. I reached my limit last Friday when a couple of my workmates decided I should go home about an hour and a half after I started work. I must have looked pretty bad. Luckily I managed not to vomit until I got home. While Melbourne basked in warm sunshine, I shivered under a doona.

It is now Sunday afternoon and I think I’ve finally beaten the fever. But it has left me weak, as limp as a two-week old floral arrangement deprived of water. It took me three hours this morning to make it to the shower and an hour of resting afterward before I could manage to open my laptop. It is all so frustrating.

The human body is pretty amazing. When you get an infection your immune system knows it doesn’t belong there and fights to get rid of it. In the process chemicals called pyrogens are released into the blood stream and travel to the brain. There they interact with the hypothalamus which acts as the thermostat for the body. So the hypothalamus spots these pyrogens and resets your body temperature to higher in order to fight the invader. The result is fever.

It has just taken me an hour to write a couple of hundred words. All I want to do now is lie down. So I will.

Children’s books I loved

I have already written about books and how they have always been a major part of my life. My parents loved books. My maternal grandparents, the only grandparents I knew, loved books. My grandmother wrote a book on her life, which was published, and many short stories which were not. My mother, a visual artist, also wrote a published book. Both my father and my grandfather penned several short stories, something I didn’t know until I found their scribblings while sorting through my parent’s house. I spent many hours writing poems, diary entries and even stories for children. One of my stories was illustrated by my mother and we unsuccessfully sent it off to a publisher when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. I grew up surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with a variety of genres, languages, hard and soft covers. Now and again there would be discussions, not whether to buy another bookshelf, but where it would fit.

My mother often read to me before I could understand those squiggly markings on each page. I have vague, sepia memories of watching the pages of Peter Rabbit books and various Golden Books, including “Nurse Nancy”, being turned while I snuggled next to her on our sofa, or in bed. Later memories of listening to “The Little White Horse” by Elizabeth Goudge, or “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, are much clearer. I couldn’t wait until our evening meal was finished and the dishes done because that was when the next chapter would be read.

As I grew older I devoured books. I was a sickly child, more often than not confined to bed, and I spent those days and nights reading. I read all of the Famous Five series and every other book by Enid Blyton. I read all of the Lone Pine Five series by Malcolm Saville. I read the Narnia series, all of the books by Louisa May Alcott and all of the books by E. Nesbit. I was no longer relying on my mother to read to me and I re-read the books we had already perused together.

Books for me were an escape, a window to another world. I was never the most social of children and I was also quite awkward. I was also an only child and most of my parent’s friends were either childless or had children much older than myself, therefore I had to find a way to occupy myself quietly. So I read.

I read quickly. I was an addict. Even when I wasn’t sick I spent much of my time in my bedroom reading.  It was not unusual for me to read ten or twelve books a day. When I had finished every book in a series I craved the next one. My biggest disappointments at the time were finding out my favourite authors had died and were no longer capable of producing books.

Now and again, when chatting with friends, we try to decide which time of our lives we would return to if we could. I don’t even have to think. I would love to go back to the time when I had nothing else to do but read.

Photos and Memories

I’ve been asked if sorting through the mess of belongings, especially photos, my parent’s left behind triggered any memories for me. The answer is yes… and no.

My long term memory is not good. In fact, there are huge chunks of my childhood, teenage years and even young adulthood which I can’t remember. It doesn’t stop there; I find it difficult to remember my children as babies. Most of their childhood is a blank for me. It frustrates me when my friends can remember significant moments of my life which totally elude me.

Sorting through the many, many photographs my parents kept has been a challenge. Most of them have no names, description or date recorded. Many of them were taken on my parent’s drive across USA to the mid-west, or on one or the other of their holidays. They were all taken before I was born so, not only did they not trigger memories for me, they also meant nothing to me. I threw them all out.

Then there were photos which looked like family groups, or perhaps they were close friends. Again, with no idea of who, where or when, I couldn’t tell. I’ve kept those I think might be family and the others were thrown out.

I found so many photos of my parent’s pets. Over the years they had numerous dogs, not quite as many cats and a few birds. I do remember a few of them, but to be honest it is difficult for me to remember them individually, they all tend to meld into one. I was left with photos of dogs in every state you can imagine. There were dogs playing, lying in the garden, eating, sleeping, sitting, standing, running, leaping, eating bones, under trees, next to cars, at doorways, on beaches, on roads, in parks, on beds and on chairs. The cat photos were mostly of them sleeping. I filled two green garbage bags with photos of animals.

I spent a long time looking through the photos my parents kept of me. Most of them were black and white. There I was as a baby, wrapped up and in someone’s arms – my mother’s, my father’s, my grandmother’s, my grandfather’s, their friends’ – a bit like the game “pass the parcel”. There I was again in prams and cots and high chairs, on a rug, in a bath. And more photos of me growing up; kindergarten photos, school photos, birthday parties, dressing up occasions, Christmases and holiday snaps at the beach or a lake or somewhere with snow.

It was a surreal feeling looking through the photos. I could recognise myself and my parents and grandparents, so I understood I had been in all these places, but I just don’t remember any of them. It was as if I was watching a black and white slide show about a seemingly happy family. I was in the slides but I didn’t feel a part of them.

I am trying to get my memories back. I’ve been told it can be done. Perhaps it will be a story for another book.

Books and Memories

Objects do not themselves hold memories however, they can certainly be triggers for remembering moments in time. Books are objects which not only hold memories of their stories, but also of where and when they were read. I found this particularly true when clearing out my father’s house after his death.

My parent’s love of books was demonstrated by the number of bookshelves throughout their house. There was a bookshelf on either side of the front door, four in the living room, two in my mother’s room, three in my father’s room, one in my old bedroom, two in the back hallway and the last in the enclosed sunroom at the back of the house. But not even this amount of bookshelves provided enough space for all of my parent’s books. They were jammed cheek to cheek on the shelves, weighted down with more books on top. Sometimes they were lain horizontally in order to fit more in. The top shelf of each groaned with untidy stacks of the books which hadn’t found room anywhere else.

In the shelf next to her favorite chair I found the set of Peter Rabbit books my mother had brought with us when we immigrated to Australia. She loved the illustrations. I remember when my boys were small and we visited, they would sit on her lap while she read them the tales of Peter Rabbit and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Next to Peter Rabbit were stacked several of the PG Wodehouse stories my mother enjoyed and beside them a whole series of Georgette Heyer romances. I had read all of them, most often curled on her chair, but sometimes in bed when I was meant to be sleeping.

On the next shelf down my mother kept her books on Russia. “Land of the Firebird” and “Nicholas and Alexandra” amongst many others detailing life before the Russian Revolution. At the far end of the shelf I found “Upheaval”, the book my grandmother wrote about her life in Russia before the Revolution and detailing the way she and my grandfather had to escape during it. I have read it several times and kept enough copies for each of my boys to have one. It always reminds me of the Sunday afternoons I spent in my grandmother’s bedroom listening to stories of her carefree childhood in old Russia.

My father’s book shelves are stacked with books about the second World War as well as literary classics such as “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, “Dr Zhivago”, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Gulag Archipelago”. He was always the more serious reader. I have read most of them but not all. His books remind me of the way he would hover over me as I read, making sure I had clean hands and didn’t fold or tear the pages. It was very annoying.

In the shelves along the back hallway my mother kept all of her cookery books. There was an old and well-worn Betty Crocker. When I took it out of the shelf it opened at the page for chocolate brownies, one of our favorite recipes. Next to it was “Katish”, a Russian cookbook with a story. It reminds me of the recipes we attempted, some of which succeeded and some of which were dismal failures. There are also several books on cooking without sugar and cooking for a healthy lifestyle, indicating my mother’s struggle with late onset diabetes.

Books have always been important to me. Their pages have sustained me through many a dark moment and their words have carried me to other times, other lands and other places, the only limit was my imagination. I treasure not only the memories of the stories I have read, but also the recollections of where I read them. Do you?

Someone else’s stuff

When you are presented with the residue of death, the material remnants of someone who was close to you either by blood or affection; the sorting through and cleaning up process isn’t as glamorous as it is often made out to be. Sure, it is always possible to find long lost family jewellery, or uncover the deeds to an idyllic island, or stumble on hidden love letters from a person unknown, but it is far more likely you will be sorting through years of the accumulated soiled scraps of someone else’s stuff.

Sorting through my parent’s possessions presented me with exactly the kind of mess I would have much preferred not to deal with.

In the bathroom there were endless bottles and containers of half used medications, some so old the labels were smudged beyond being readable. Plastic tubs of hardened cotton balls sidled up against samples of shampoo, conditioner and various other cosmetics most of which had shrivelled with age. Hardened tubes of toothpaste lay next to tired toothbrushes with browned and broken bristles. Vanity shelves were dotted with sticky lumps of unknown substances in various mouldy colours, like some exotic skin condition.

In the kitchen the bench tops were barely visible under the weight of jars, some empty, some crusted with the remnants of jams or mustards or other blobs of unfathomable material. Everything draped with dust and cobwebs long abandoned by their occupants. Under the sink stacks of square empty margarine containers, their lids angled drunkenly against them. More plastic toward the back, ice cream containers, take away food containers, milk bottles and glass jars of every description. Another cupboard full of decades old canned food, boxes of cereals invaded by weevils, jars perhaps filled with pickles or maybe olives, it was difficult to tell. The refrigerator was no better. Shelves of those margarine containers, not empty this time, each containing bits of leftovers from bygone meals. Half a rissole in one, a handful of French fries in another, some rice, a sad looking salad and a quarter of an apple all of which were either mouldy or beginning to grow interesting looking bacteria.

My mother’s bedroom with wardrobes filled with bent hangers and old, broken shoes stacked on each other. Pockets stuffed with tissues. Scraps of paper on every flat surface. Desk drawers crammed with hardened ink bottles, bent quills, cracked paint tubes and broken brushes. Useless cut offs of drawing boards mixed with scraps of greeting cards in various hues. Trimmings of wrapping paper, twisted lengths of ribbon, fraying ends of elastic, rubber bands melted together in small balls and an endless supply of dried up pens and leadless pencils.

My father’s bedroom crammed with books and carefully opened envelopes of junk mail. Drawers of paperclips, rubber bands, useless pens, pre-used stamps, rulers made of wood, plastic and paper, piles of receipts for purchases long forgotten. His wardrobe shelf neatly arranged with unworn clothes, still packed in their American labelling, unopened for fifty years. Mounds of paperwork, piles precisely placed on each other, mini leaning towers, adorned with thick layers of dust.

A house full of other people’s lives and leftovers.

Oh – and I did find the hidden love letters from an unknown young girl to my father, dated from the end of WW2.


After his death, the task of sorting through my father’s possessions was both daunting and confronting. He was quite the hoarder and filled every cupboard, every shelf and every drawer with “things”. Whether it was from need, necessity or compulsion he kept almost everything which made its way into the house. Not only did I have to sort through drawers full of odd bits like paperclips, rubber bands and pens, I also had to determine what I should keep and what could either be given away or thrown in the skip. This was not easy considering most of the documents and letters were either in Russian or German and almost all of the photographs were unnamed. Each day I found myself surrounded by piles of paper and mountains of photographs. Most of the paper was imprinted with handwritten lines, some faint and spidery, some darker and tumultuous. All of it unreadable. Sorting through the paperwork was a matter of guesswork and pure gamble. Should I put it on the pile to keep? Or through it into the yawning mouth of the green garbage bag? I had no method. Some were added to the pile and some thrown. I spent hours sifting through the photographs. Those which were memories of trips taken before I was born, or featured people I didn’t know, or were a record of the many pets my parents owned over the years, were thrown. The discarded photographs made up three green garbage bags on their own.

Reading letters to or from my parents made me feel like a Peeping Tom. I could tell by their contents they were never meant to be read by me or anyone else. However, if they didn’t want the letters to be read, they should have thrown them out. Instead some of them will feature in my book.

My thoughts turned to those of my possessions and belongings which I would prefer not to be found by my boys or anyone else after my death. Like the time I helped out my friend’s daughter by being her life model for a photography class. The results were very tasteful; however, I doubt my boys want to see their mother naked. I do wish I had that figure again!

I can’t recall any documents which I need to shred before I die. Everything I’ve written is stored on my external hard drive and USBs. I do have to sort through those, hitting delete often. There is some incriminating evidence of childhood escapades and episodes in later life which are not for general reading. After all it probably isn’t good for my boys to know I used to wag school; a lot. Or that I did smoke the occasional funny cigarette, which of course I didn’t inhale.

So when should I begin to rid myself of the private things? The things I don’t want anyone else to find, paw over and read? Now? Is now a good time? Perhaps a little later. When I have time. When I have energy.

Did my parents ask themselves the same questions?

Did the time and energy never come?


It was 2012 and my father lay dying. By the time I got home he was dead. My eldest son almost made it to the hospital in time. He called me as soon as he got there.

I broke the news to my other two sons and we cried. I have to admit I was slightly bemused by my tears. I never felt the same attachment to my parents which other friends of mine seemed to feel to theirs. We were never a close family from an emotional point of view. My mother was the affectionate one and far more likely than my father to dish out random hugs and kisses. My father tolerated affection under duress.

As I write this post I am trying to remember any time my father, of his own volition, gave me a hug or put his arm around my shoulders. I cannot. After I moved interstate, whenever I visited I would greet him with a hug and kiss and he would momentarily pat my back before retreating into his own space. Even my mother’s arms could not encircle him for more than a few seconds before he gently pushed her away, stating “OK, now that’s enough!”

So, why my tears?

Years ago, but well after the birth of my eldest son, it dawned on me I was becoming more and more emotional. I could cry at anything. From watching tragedy unfold on the news at night, to the sight of a mother playing with her children in the park, the tears would rise up and, despite my best efforts, they soon trickled alongside my nose. It was embarrassing. I did however, discover the same thing happened to all of my friends who were also mothers. We surmised pregnancy had somehow changed our emotional make up, leaving us soggy with tears at the most ridiculous moments. I found pregnancy, or perhaps motherhood, also tends to leave one with strange reactions to everyday things, like gagging while brushing your teeth, or opening your mouth while watching someone feed their toddler. And, at fifty-five, I still find myself rocking back and forth if I stand in one place long enough.

Which explains the bulk of my tears. But some were for you Dad. Despite your faults and your constant lectures, at times you were there for me. Those are the times I like to remember. Before I became a teenager you would occasionally take me out to dinner or a movie. And later, in my teens, there were a few times we lingered at the kitchen table chatting about random topics while Mom washed the dishes. I cannot recall what we talked about, although I know once or twice I probed you for details of your childhood, but I do remember communicating instead of arguing, for a change.

There is no longer an opportunity to communicate with you Dad, or even to argue. Despite often hearing your words in my head; not in the “hearing voices” way, more in knowing exactly what you would say in any given situation; you are no longer there to say them. There are no more possibilities to build a new relationship with you, or even repair the old one. No more chances to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you”.

And that is why I cry.

Where were you?

I was on my way home after dinner with a friend, when I heard of David Bowie’s death. We had eaten Vietnamese and drank a bottle of passable Riesling. On the tram I opened Twitter for something to do and there they were, the constant stream of Tweets on Bowie’s life, death and art. His music had been woven through my teenage days. We had sung to it, danced to it, made out to it. Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust were as familiar as our school friends. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago when I really appreciated the artistry of Bowie. To say I was surprised to hear of his death was an understatement. I have nothing but admiration for the man, who despite his celebrity status, chose to keep his battle with illness private and succeeded.

I’ve been trying to think of where I was when other celebrities died. When Princess Diana died I was at work. I had just climbed the precarious stairs to the bio box of the theatre where I worked in order to talk to the technician when he told me the news. Although I’d never been a fan as such, I had followed her life – it was hard not to when every facet of her life was constantly reported in the media. I was shocked at her death.

You would think I could remember where I was when John Lennon died, but I can’t. I was twenty and probably more concerned about myself than anything else. I remember watching the news stories. I remember we all felt stunned at his untimely passing, but I have no idea where I was standing or what I was doing.

My only other clear memory of the death of celebrity is the assassination of JFK. I was three years old. I remember sitting on the floor in front of my grandparent’s black and white television watching President Kennedy being shot over and over again. It must have been my grandparent’s television because I’m certain we didn’t have one.

I was nearly nine when Dwight D Eisenhower died and, although I don’t remember where I was, I do remember writing to his widow. I have no idea why I wanted to express my sympathy, but I can guess my parent’s politics influenced me at the time. I received a lovely thank you card from her. I think I threw it out a decade ago or so.

When my mother died I was at home with my boys. My father phoned with the news. He tried to control his tears. I didn’t attempt to control mine. Even though her battle with Alzheimer’s meant she had long been lost to me, her death put a finality on it which was devastating. With any form of disease there is always some small hope the sufferer will recover.

I was in the hairdressers, with my colour setting, when I found out my father was dying. By the time I made it to the car he was gone. We lived on different sides of the country and, without being able to fly like Superman, I was never going to get there in time.