Old Wine Glasses
On the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death Janet, feeling sentimental, took down the old family wine goblets from the cupboard above the stove where the least used glassware and crockery were jumbled together. They were imitation Venetian glass, pink tinted and painted with white filigree, unfashionable, almost kitsch, and recalling an era when wine was regarded as either a luxury or the penultimate refuge of the hopeless alcoholic. Her family had been typical in that respect. Reschs DA had been her father’s tipple. The DA stood for “dinner ale” but her father used to refer to it as “dirty Annie”, a phrase which for some reason she could never fathom he found unfailingly amusing. Her mother rarely drank at home and, when she did, it was Marsala and lemonade that she sipped from a tall pink glass bearing an identical decoration to that on the goblets which Janet was presently rinsing to remove the grime of the last six years.
Wine was reserved for Christmas and birthdays and particular visitors. Her father had poured the wine, usually Porphry Pearl or another of those cheap sparkling wines that Janet learnt to despise by her second year at Teachers’ College, with great ceremony and they had treated it with the same reverence as their rare tasting of pate or caviar. After their marriage, she and Phillip had sought to educate her parents about wine by bringing some good Hunter reds or South Australian dry whites when they visited for meals. They had expressed approval and did respond to the point of serving a Draytons or All Saints at future Christmases but had not altered their general drinking habits.
Janet was uncertain as to whether they had actually enjoyed the wine or were merely humouring them, Phillip particularly. Her mother had approved of Phillip without really liking him, largely because he came from a background similar to her own. Unlike her own husband, Phillip broke rolls rather than sliced them with the bread knife, wore woolen ties, and made low key jokes about theology and classical music. When he was around she became more like she was with her own brothers and sister, speaking a little more correctly and inclined to make cultural allusions and to argue about ideas.
It had been a central part of family mythology how her father- dashing, ex-RAAF- had swept the eighteen year old daughter of a New England solicitor off her feet and carried her away to his one teacher school at Golgarry, where Janet’s older brother and sister and lastly Janet herself were born. Like most myths it had served an important social function, in that it both explained the obvious class gap between the father’s and mother’s families and masked the suspiciously small time between the wedding and the birth of Janet’s brother, Robert. Once they reached the age when children begin to question received truths, she and her brother and sister came to view it with some cynicism, Robert expressing the opinion that there had been a race between the wedding arrangements and the stork.
When Robert had made the remark, showing off his sophistication at their cousin’s twenty-first birthday party, Janet had been shocked. In the days that followed she had turned it over and over in her mind. Although the time scale was undeniable and she could imagine her charming but self-indulgent father in the role of an impetuous lover, the very thought of her mother giving way to illicit passion was absurd. Girls like Marilyn Barker, who sneaked around the back of the assembly hall with boys after school dances, might do it, but not her tightly controlled mother with her rigid morality. Yet she must have. Robert was the living proof of that, wasn’t he?
She had been fourteen at the time and her relationship with her mother was deteriorating rapidly. Even their shared religious belief and involvement in their local Presbyterian Church, rather than bringing them together, served to sharpen the differences between them. Janet’s religious life had an excitement and drama about it, with Fellowship meetings and youth rallies and arguing in Bible class, while her mother’s religion was grim, dominated by duty and pervaded by guilt. She was the secretary of the Women’s Guild and also on the flowers roster but shrank from any more public role, although she had often been approached about teaching Sunday School. There was something wrong with her mother’s religion. Possessing an adolescent’s predilection for clichés and a fondness for historical romances, Janet chose to view it as a product of the stern Calvinism of her pioneering Scots ancestors. Unless she felt guilty about treating Dad so badly.
Over the next few years matters only became worse. As Janet sought to become more independent, her mother seemed determined to maintain even tighter control over her. She made her account in detail for her times away from the house, so that something as innocent as a Fellowship planning meeting or an evening at a girlfriend’s house became the subject of close interrogation about who was there, what they had talked about and whether anyone had smoked a cigarette or had something to drink. Janet’s decision to study Art rather than Economics for her Higher School Certificate provoked long circular discussions ending in her mother saying things like, “All right, miss, do things your way. Take the easy option. You know best, don’t you, but don’t blame me when it blows up in your face.” When at sixteen she got her first real boyfriend, her mother had viewed him as one would a cat in an aviary, even though he was a thoroughly decent boy who never once let his hands stray to the front of her blouse or too far down her back in their good night embraces on the front verandah. A faint love bite on her neck became the occasion of an hour lecture on the danger of behaving like a tart. So furious and humiliated had she felt that she had thought to say, “Well you should know.” But she lacked both the courage and the cruelty.
Things reached a nadir on Janet’s eighteenth birthday. This was before the era of elaborate parties for one’s eighteenth, so it was simply a special family dinner that marked the occasion, the only outsider being Robert’s about to be fiancé. But the pink goblets were on the table, as wine was served, and she was actually permitted to drink more than the single glass that had been a treat on Christmases during her childhood. It was a Saturday evening and in the late afternoon her father had already emptied two long neck bottles of Dinner Ale and even her abstemious mother had drunk two or perhaps even three small Marsalas and lemonade. The drink had made her father sullen and her mother aggressively loquacious. Late in the meal her mother had launched into one of her favourite grievances, Janet’s decision to go to Teachers’ College rather than university despite very good Higher School Certificate results, thereby, as her mother put it, wasting the brains God had given her. Janet endured it in silence, partly because she suspected her mother was right and that university would have been a better option, but she had elected the shorter course as a means of leaving home as soon as possible. Her mother ended with a rhetorical flourish: “Do you want to be a classroom drudge all your life?”
“Like your father, you mean.” Janet was startled by her father’s interjection, spoken as it was with considerable vehemence. He was right: she could see that. A classroom drudge was what he was. Early in his career it had seemed as if he was destined for bigger things. A few years after her birth he had taken up the position of Principal at a three teacher school in the central west and had expected to pass inspection for the Second List which would enable him to take charge of a large school in a better location. Twice he had been inspected and failed, a disappointment all the more remarkable because, unusually for a primary teacher in those days, he had a university degree. He had then taken an appointment as Deputy Principal in a large school on the north western outskirts of Sydney, partly to give his children access to a good high school but also because he had been assured that being on a big staff would provide him with the experience he presently lacked and thus ensure success in his attempts to gain his List. It was not to be. He was still the Deputy at the same school, and his Principal was six years younger than him. Surely her mother could show more sensitivity! Her father continued, “I could have been Commerce Master at a school like Normanhurst: maybe even be on my way to Headmaster but for you.”
Her mother sat very straight, trembling with anger. “You’re a buffoon, Jack! You weren’t the one that paid the price. I did!” Her voice was full of contempt. Her father stared at her in silence and bowed his head, almost as if he were afraid of her.
Suddenly she stood up and went out to the kitchen to serve the sweets. Apart from Robert’s sotto voce comment to his girl friend, “Welcome to our happy family”, no one spoke. The peaches and rice custard were passed out and they ate in silence. By the time the tea was poured the children had recovered their wits sufficiently to commence a conversation about popular music, a topic that did not require their parents to contribute, with the result that gradually a semblance of cordiality was restored.
The incident had been the signal for the dispersion of the family. Within two years, Robert married and both girls took up country teaching appointments, leaving their parents alone to continue their cold war.
It was the letters that brought about the beginning of Janet’s rapprochement with her mother and of her disillusion with her father. She had always been close to him and had expected him to take an interest in what she was doing and to share in her new professional concerns, so that her weekly letters home were intended particularly to him although addressed to both her parents. Once or twice a term he did write breezy uninformative letters, but her mother’s regular five and six page letters, by contrast, not only conscientiously outlined events surrounding the wider family but also responded thoughtfully, and surprisingly perceptively, to her ideas.
Observation of her new colleagues also prompted her to re-evaluate her father’s lack of advancement. The enthusiasm and commitment of the executive staff of her school and their deeply felt concern for their pupils was such that she could not help but contrast it with his somewhat too relaxed attitude to his work. The disloyal thought wormed its way into her mind that perhaps her father’s failure to gain his List was the result of something other that malevolent fate.
By the time she had completed her country service, returned to Sydney and married Phillip, the shift in the way she related to her parents was complete. It was her mother whose company she sought and to whom she and brought her concerns, while her father had become merely “poor, old Dad”. Relations had shifted at home too. Left to themselves, her parents had to her surprise resolved much of the tension between them and Janet had been pleased to observe them strolling hand in hand when they went for walks, and even at times touching each other like lovers. The age difference between them had now become readily apparent. He was decidedly middle aged and focused on his coming retirement while she was successfully managing a small home marketing franchise.
Despite these changes, her mother’s approach to being a grandmother caught her completely by surprise. As a mother she had been conscientious but demanding, seeking to control her children’s lives and ensure their success in the world. She had alienated all of them at some time or other with her determination that they would not come to experience her disappointments. Now, with that achieved- the two girls well married and having a career to fall back on and Robert a successful solicitor in the family tradition- she was liberated to the point of being grossly indulgent and manically playful with her grandchildren. Tirelessly energetic, she took them to the park and the beach, shamelessly spoiled them with sweets and small toys, and turned bed-time into a game that sometimes ran for longer than the evening movie on television. And they had adored her.
Her death had come suddenly, shortly before the sixty-fifth birthday party they had been planning for her. An embolism following a piece of routine surgery had caused a massive stroke. Older than her by a decade, her husband had outlived her by only three and a half years.
Following their father’s funeral, Robert, who was the executor of his estate, had asked Janet to collect his will, the deeds of the house and some other documents from the box in the wardrobe where they were kept. She had no trouble in locating it, a large, tin box with an Edwardian picture on the lid of Columbine dancing with a harlequin beneath a full moon. She remembered how school reports, merit certificates and other records of their childhood achievements had been duly deposited in it after an appropriate time of display on the fridge or the sideboard. Most of them were still there. After finding the documents her brother required she had glanced nostalgically through them. There were also some photos of her father from his air-force days. A few showed a group of young men in dark uniforms leaning on a twin engine aeroplane against a bleak landscape, which she assumed was Canada, where he had trained as a navigator. He was readily recognizable, even though he had not yet grown the rakish moustache that he was to wear in a somewhat pruned version until his death. There were more from later in the war, in which the planes had four engines, the background was palm trees and the men, now wearing khaki, were leaner and harder looking. In them her father, no longer clean shaven, looked much as he did in the wedding photo that stood on the dressing table.
At the bottom of the box she found to her surprise a copy of The Highlander, the magazine of her mother’s old school. For a while there had been a copy of one of them containing a poem about a sea shell by Elizabeth McKenzie 1A in the dark stained, spare room bookcase that held some of her mother’s childhood books along with back issues of her father’s National Geographics. She looked at the date, 1947, the year before her parents’ marriage. This was really curious, as by then her mother would have left school and been working in her father’s office as a receptionist. Indeed, during the period of her alienation from her mother, Janet had taken malicious pleasure in the image of her mother as the dunce of her otherwise highly talented family, pulled out of school with only her Intermediate Certificate and given a sinecure in the family firm. Both of Janet’s uncles had followed their father into the law and one had become a District Court Judge, and her Aunt Fiona had been on the History Faculty of the University of New England. Her uncles had been boarders at Scots College in Sydney, but her grandfather had economized on his daughters’ education, sending them to the local high school. Fiona would have still been at the school in ‘47 and probably her older sister, Elizabeth, had somehow finished up with her copy of the magazine. But why would it have been stored with the family papers?
She began to glance through it. Like most of the school magazines of the period it was set out very formally. In the front were some staff photos and the Headmaster’s report, then there were some literary pieces, followed by a collection of largely sporting photographs, and finally the academic awards of the previous year and a set of class lists. It was to this final section she turned first to find her Aunt Fiona, who she was sure would feature in the awards. And there it was! “Elizabeth McKenzie, first in English, first in History, first in Latin, first in French, first in the Intermediate Certificate 1946.” But it could not be! Her mother had done the Intermediate in 1944 and left to work for her father. She turned to the photographs. There with the debating team unmistakably was her mother, full figured, smiling with that air of superiority which her father had often complained of as ‘the McKenzie arrogance’. The script underneath reported, not only the team’s victories, but how Elizabeth McKenzie had represented the school in the State final of a public speaking competition. She was also with the hockey and swimming teams and the editorial committee of the magazine. Turning back to the literary section, Janet found a sophisticated parody of Kipling’s If which concealed a daring double entendre- far too knowing she would have thought for a well brought up girl of that era- which her mother had somehow slipped past the watchful censorship of the teacher editor.
And less than a year later Robert was born!
She had not been eighteen then but sixteen! Which meant that she was only fifteen when ………
A terrible thought occurred to Janet. She turned to the front of the magazine to the staff photo and he was there, the same young man who stood in front the Liberators in New Guinea and in the wedding photo a few feet away with her mother, who now looked so desperately young and lost. She did not need to read the name underneath, Mr. J. White, or find it listed with the Commerce Staff, but she did. Next to it her mother had drawn a heart with an arrow through it.
They had covered it up, as they did in those days. The disgraced teacher and the fallen girl of great promise had been sent in exile to Golgarry on the western plains, where at least they would be supplied with a vested residence in which to raise the fruit of their shame. Her father had been obliged to swap from teaching high school to primary, for which his aptitude and interest were limited. That was the price he paid. But her mother! Janet wept for her, crying loudly and shamelessly, as she had been unable to do at her funeral. The waste! The awful, damnable waste!
She put the wine glasses on the dinner table and stared at them, pathetic emblems of 1960’s lower middle-class respectability. How the world had changed!
Gary Ireland © 2018
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