Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My grandfather's ears

We occasionally drive up a particular hill in suburban Melbourne. Each and every time we crest the hill, I panic. Laid out before me are thousands of houses. I think of all the women living here who have to drive everywhere - to school, the shops, work, the train station - and I start to sweat. My heart swells into the back of my throat, my palms go clammy, and I obsessively rub the tops of my thighs as I try to calm down. I can't live here! I blurt at my partner, my eyes prickling with tears. He smiles patiently - it's the twentieth time we've gone through this ridiculous scene -, strokes my arm and reassures me.

I know how silly I sound. After all, we have a house in an inner suburb; and if we ever had to move, we'd certainly find something smaller in the same area rather than head out east. Even so, I still feel our house is too big, the streets too wide, the shops too far away. It may the closest thing to 'my' suburb in Melbourne, but even after fifteen years, I still don't feel like I belong. The roads are choked with traffic, and people just aren't that friendly. Most of the smiles I offer are not returned; few shopkeepers recognise us; few parents like to chat in parks. I don't know why (is it a symptom of city life? or is it me? is it me??), but that's the way it is. So often I feel I am floating away, adrift, not tethered to house or suburb or anything much except my family and a few friends. Where do I belong? I wonder.

This week, I'm visiting Penzance, the land of my forebears. Some streets are so narrow that the houses seem to touch overhead; the houses have party walls. The roads go up and down and roundabout; there are no straight lines. The footpaths are so narrow that they only just fit the stroller. We often walk on the street instead. The shops are tiny, the shopkeepers friendly, and they recognise us already. I am relaxed here.

At some deep level, this town feels familiar. This is how people should live, I think - in an anthill, with fields to the back of us and ocean to the front. We can see where the food is grown and caught; we can do everything on foot; this world is people-sized. Water runs through the town, in brooks and fountains and gutters. The dark stones glisten in the rain and make my heart leap.

The landscape resonates, and so do the people. Here are the people who smile back. It's a bustling town, but people nod and grin in the street. Here is the origin of my family's flash smile that lasts less than half an instant. I've seen it on face after face. Here are the people who chat with strangers - it's not just me! As we watched the waves crashing against the sea wall, a chatty man told us tales. Here are the people who sing. This afternoon I walked behind a woman singing to herself; she could have been me. Last week, on request, I gave the local grocery a rousing rendition of the Vegemite song, followed by an Aeroplane Jelly duet with the girl on the register. Time and again, my eyes meet another's and I feel a jolt of recognition.

Talk about the illusion of belonging. I don't know anyone here and am cheerfully oblivious to private life - but the public life is so familiar, I could weep.

My grandfather's ears walked past me yesterday. They were on someone else's head, but I recognised them instantly. This morning I saw an eighteenth century clock, its face inscribed with the maker's signature. He had my father's name.


  1. I've been enjoying reading about your travels and also wondering....did you end up getting the Christiana bike?

  2. Hi Mandy, The bike has a six week delivery period, which meant that if we'd ordered it, it would have arrived after we had left for our trip. So it's on hold until we get back to Australia. Saw a few cruising around Berlin in the deep snow, loaded with children or musical instruments. I also loved seeing many kids on sleds as a mode of transport, including an emmaljunga bassinet tied onto a sled, baby sleeping inside! alison.

  3. As a reluctant suburbanite on the other side of the planet, all I can say is "beautiful."

  4. I loved reading this post. I live in northern Canada and have to drive 80kms one way to work in a city. People often ask when we are going to move to the city. We aren't any time soon. Down the road is a neighbour who would be here in minutes if we needed him to be. We have a sense of community and my husband's family have lived in this community for 50 years. Yes, I have to drive that distance if I want to buy groceries, do banking or go to work. But here is home. People sometimes look at me funny when I tell them I don't want to leave the sense of community for the convenience of a 5 minute drive to work. The trade off just doesn't seem worth it.

  5. 50 years in one place is amazing - I moved every two years while I grew up, and my family has moved interstate or overseas at least once a generation for 150 years! which no doubt is why I am so obsessed with the idea of home...


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