Chelle and the Fig

Photographic Art


She Aint no Wife She’s My Lover- a song and essay dedicated to my Nan Annie Wallace

Nan Wallace 2My man and I have been together for 18 years. Long enough to have built a small tower of pre-digital memories that live in bulging photo albums, gathering sentimental longing; long enough to have crossed a millennium and long enough to have made two little people who are now not so little. I always feel compelled to announce our children were both very much planned and wanted whenever I find myself in a situation saying the words, “No we are not married”. We spoke about making a baby before we spoke about a wedding. And despite my strong feminist ethos to never concur with an institution that legally bound women to a man’s property portfolio, there was a moment I faltered. After almost eight months in South America, so homesick for my family and friends, we began to fantasise about a homecoming celebration, an event where we could gather everyone we loved under one roof. We could make our own vows, in fact it could be completely pagan, not a legal formality uttered.
Flaunting an emerald ring from Columbia we finally arrived home and told my family. They promptly and repeatedly began using that dreaded word ‘Fiancé’. The sound of it made my toes curl…and then the stark realisation came that the next label would be wife. I had promised myself I would be no-ones wife. So our engagement lasted a day or two and we figured anyway that there were far more pressing matters that would benefit from the thousands of dollars a wedding would cost.
People would assume when we eventually did have children that we were married and would refer to me as a wife. When out of earshot Dave and I would laugh and say she aint no wife she’s my lover. Sometimes he actually did say it out loud for all to hear and I liked the sweetness of it’s sound and the truth of it. We were very much lovers and quite genius at finding ways to keep the spark in our relationship while being attentive (albeit free spirited), parents.
Thankfully we live in a time and place where it’s perfectly acceptable not to get married and unlike my mum’s era we have the means to control fertility so that our commitment can be based on free will rather than a way to escape social persecution. I know modern day marriage seems and possibly is a world apart from an institution that has its roots in the submission of women. It’s close enough though for me to recall the stories my Nan told about the impossibility of leaving her violent husband, my grandfather, whom I never met and whom she loved deeply despite his gaping indiscretions.
For all legal intent and purpose she was indentured to him. She had no legal rights to her children if she left, and relied on the good will of liberal minded people to accommodate her refuge. One such man owned the mattress factory where she worked and where she is pictured in the photo here. My Nan and one of her co-workers, who was also being “knocked around” by her husband, approached the owner to ask if they could stay in the small tea- room off the bathroom. He agreed and they did this until they could no longer be away from their children. When she told me this story I could feel her pride. She was no push over despite there being no acceptable way for her to leave her husband. In her own way she stood up to the harsh conventions of her day and she made her voice heard.
These were among the last conversations I had with her before she died. I remember once sitting in her lounge on chairs whose fifties upholstery didn’t match. We never usually sat there. We always sat on her round laminated table in a kitchen infused with pickled onion smells. I knew these conversations were the closest I would ever get to her. She was strong and private and apart from her prying granddaughter, unaccustomed to being a point of interest. She shared her confusion at how she could love someone who caused harm to her…”I didn’t just take it though”, she said, “I remember one day in the bedroom I threw every last thing at him on that bleeding dressing table, smashed most of it too”. She gathered herself at that point, as if her heart were piecing back together the shards on her bedroom floor. “He never broke my spirit you know, I never let him do that”. When she spoke that last sentence, it’s searing sincerity inscribed in me for the first time a sense that I was the granddaughter of a strong and extraordinary woman.
After my grandfather was gone she lived with a plump, gentle man and when he got suddenly sick and was rushed to intensive care, she was asked at admissions “are you his wife”? She said no, “A relative”? She said no. “What is your relationship to him then?” they asked. She was panicked and humiliated and she didn’t know what to call herself. As a result she began to consider marriage to her long time beau, but so deeply didn’t want this that she decided if such an incident occurred again she would just get good at faking it. So they bought an engagement and wedding ring and she ended up wearing them most of the time. I imagined her quietly triumphant that she still had it in her to outsmart one of the indelible bastions of a patriarchal society.
In 1999 she was hospitalized for an aggressive brain tumor. I was pining on the other side of the world. My mum, her daughter in law, was keeping a bedside vigil. She had ducked out for lunch when my Nan died. The nurse later told mum that she couldn’t get the wedding ring off her finger. She explained that as she twisted and turned the ring she began to enquire whom it was for. It wasn’t until the nurse said my mum’s name that it slid effortlessly off. My mum with her strong intuitive sense believed it was always meant for me. So now I wear my Nan’s elicit wedding band on my left ring finger, just as she did.
I wear it in honour of her unstoppable spirit, which by virtue lives on in me and in my daughter. I wear it because to me it symbolizes, at least in my own female lineage, a circle of completion. The private battles of women like my grandmother and my mother, and the political warriors of their respective generations, not only paved the way for me and other women to truly believe we could do anything we wanted, they also provided the means. With this has come a duty to do those women proud. Not with any grandiose gestures of achievement, but just to nurture and cherish my independence and the unique expression of my authentic inner world and the freedoms they could barely even imagine. I want my daughter to take this for granted, but to also know in her bones these rights were hard fought for and great sacrifices made, and that there will always be more to do. It may be presumptuous to hope my Nan’s spirit is at peace and complete knowing that part of her lived on, well that in fact a part of her thrived after she took her last breath in that hospital room. I long for that to be true though.