Chelle and the Fig

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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.


We Give Thanks for Our Friends- A song called New Day

We Give Thanks for Our Friends
We give thanks for our friends
Our dear friends
We anger each other;
We fail each other.
We share this sad earth, this tender life,
this precious time.
Such richness. Such wildness.
Together we are blown about.
Together we are dragged along.
All this delight.
All this suffering.
All this forgiving life.
We hold it together
(Michael Leunig)

I read this poem by Leunig recently and I felt the courage to post a song I wrote for a friend almost two years ago (with stunning violin by Sarah Holmes). It was written when I was in the throws of a heartbreaking event that occurred between us. It was a final and tangible layer to deeper more subtle flaws, which had come to unsteady our relationship. The emotions around this unhinged me and played out in slow motion over months, revealing new and varied angles of hurt. It was real for me, but I can also see now it was a story I chose to zoom in on, while permitting other parts of my world to slip out of focus. I felt the stubbornness of my father fuming inside me, which is ironic because the damage that waged has continued to this day and he is still absent from my life. I so didn’t want to be that person. The other irony was that my friend and I are both strong, conscious women. We believe deeply in Sisterhood and yet jealousy and competition, two words that allude to something shallow, prevailed. It wasn’t shallow though. It was deep and ancient…it was our creative essence, tenderly reaching out, grasping for expression and grasping to be honoured. So much stands in the way- tall poppies, debilitating self- judgment and the judgement from those we love, failure, rejection, humiliation, vulnerabilities too fragile to expose. A feather could take down such struggling little dreams. Potential threats are every-where and our lizard-brain steps in. Under this spell or something like it my friend and I stole each other’s beauty in ways that looked subtle on the surface- a mood, a look, a casual slight, silence- but which actually cut concisely to the core of us at a time when we perhaps needed more love than ever. When it reached it’s crisis the wounded part of me wanted to give up for good. Perhaps my friend felt the same. We didn’t though. We were humbled and sad and we took the long, winding and excruciatingly truthful road back to love. There was no guarantee we would reach it. I think we both doubted that we would with such a swamp of pain between us. And yet we didn’t quit. We kept turning up for each other. My friend sat steadfast in the line of fire as I intermittently over months emptied my heartache and accusations. Never once did she look exasperated or imply that I should move on. I could barely stomach the sound of my own droning complaints, which over time made me sharply aware of her patience and compassion. Like all of us -and the relationships that spring from our fragile hopes to be loved and held -we/they are imperfect. For me this very imperfection, this rupture and my friend’s love held within it an opportunity to stay present with the truth in pain; to move beyond bruised ego and false pride, and sit in emotions that feel ugly and sometimes shameful. To have another sit with us in that space, to feel their love and presence while communing with our own shadows is a dear gift. The mirror it offers reflects the way to our own self-love, nurturing our inner solace and helping us move through this blustery, often fickle world with more ease, trust and grace. The evening featured in this song was one moment in our healing, but much more was needed. We allowed it to be whatever it was, we allowed it to take whatever time it took. Eventually love dwindled back, the hurt dwindled away and here I sit with my mended heart.