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Friday, April 15, 2011

66. Thelma's Story

I would have been 6 at the time. I must say, I don’t remember a lot. I do remember thinking it very strange that my dad was driving Uncle Garrie’s and Aunty Linda’s car. And I remember being all dressed up and being told we were going somewhere very special. Looking back, I think Uncle Garrie was just too excited to drive, and that was why my father drove the car. All I can remember of the drive was seeing the trams, and the tram lines and the overhead electric wires … And we came to this place, it was a big two storeyed building, like a hospital, and inside there were lots and lots of babies in all the rooms… lots of babies. And Uncle Garrie and Anty Linda had come to choose a baby to take home. As I said, I was only six. Maybe I thought that that was how families got babies – they went to a hospital and picked them up. Birth and sex and all of those things were not out in the open as they are today. I don’t remember exactly when I was told about your being adopted. I just remember that Mum called us all inside one day – Val, my sister, and Ray, my brother, and me – and we were told that you were adopted, and we were sworn to secrecy, and told that we must never, ever tell anybody, or talk about it. So we didn’t. That’s how it was in those days. If you’re parents told you not to mention something, you didn’t. So it was never mentioned. You were our cousin, and that was that. We didn’t think of you any differently from the way we thought about our other cousins – Lynette and Faye. That’s how Thelma tells the story. I wonder, though. It’s true, though. It was never mentioned – at least not in my presence. Not once, during the first 66 years and 50 days of my life. Not until I was almost an old man. And yet I did feel an outsider. Not quite accepted, not quite included. My mother felt it too, I think. I’m not sure if it was that she felt excluded because she had only one child, or because that child wasn’t quite accepted by the extended family. But then, there is an orphan in all us. We all feel excluded at times, orphaned, not quite wanted. We stand around on the edges of the circle, desperately hoping someone will invite us to join in. We feel slights – the parties we aren’t invited to attend, the way people turn their heads away when we are halfway through a story – distracted easily, not attending to us, because we don’t quite measure up. We look at other families whose lives seem so much more interesting than our own. So we sulk, and feel sorry for ourselves; or we stamp our feet, and demand attention; or we show off so that others will notice us; or we pretend we are ill; or we save injured birds or stray cats because we ourselves are injured, or strays; or we become angry with the world, and act out our misery, and make them pay for the pain that life has inflicted on us. As for me, I’ve done all of those in my time. Mostly, though, I’ve chosen a few well worn strategies. I’ve spent a lot of time, up on the high board, attempting dives at the very limits of difficulty. I’ve also spent lots of time looking to re-create Eden, a Utopian community wherein I have my place. And like all of we sad and sorry humans, I’ve longed for – and at times found – a sustaining intimacy with another.

65. Barry, 3 months

The inscription of the back of the photograph reads ‘Barry, 3 months’. In all likelihood the photograph was taken on Saturday, September 11, 1943. There are two people in the photo itself. The man was in his 38th year at the time. He is dressed for a special occasion; he is wearing his Sunday Best suit. Most people would guess that he came from an Italian background; there’s something about his build, his face, his suit and tie that suggest this.

He looks a little uncomfortable. Ill at ease. Perhaps it is in part because this simple man feels out of place in a suit. He is an unskilled labourer who left school at the age of 14, in 1919, unable to read or write. For years he had been ‘kept down’. When he left St. Fidelis Catholic school in 1919 he was still in Grade 5. That must have been a heavy burden to bear, being 14 and illiterate, and surrounded by 10 and 11 year old who could both read and write. In September 1943 Australia was at war, but this man had been deemed unsuitable for service in the army, because of his flat feet. He was working, at the time, at Davis and Coop, a brick works in Brunswick . A year or so later he would change jobs, move to a factory in Macauley, a rabbit works, where he would spend his days gutting and skinning rabbits.

Working class men, like him, unskilled and poorly educated, rarely wore suits. Suits came out of the wardrobe for special occasions: weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, church on Sunday. And when they did, they smelt of moth balls. But he was not one for church on Sunday.

Nor was his older brother, Arthur, who held radical views, who was a socialist – and possibly a communist, though he denied it in his later years. He was a street orator in the war years, railing against conscription on street corners in the city of Melbourne and on the Yarra bank. Arthur – or Arturo, as he was named at birth - had also left school at 14, but was self educated, widely read in the works of Marx and Engels and Lenin, a man who spent the Saturday afternoons of his adolescent years in the aisles of Coles Book Arcade in the City of Melbourne, reading economics and literature and politics texts. Arthur was an avowed atheist, and his younger brother – the man in the photo – was a lapsed Catholic.

Unlike Ina, their younger sister, who never missed Mass, and who prayed two and three times a day, for an hour at a time, fingering her rosary beads and muttering ‘Hail Mary, mother of God, full of grace …’

The man in the photo holding the baby is Herbert Garibaldi Carozzi, son of Annibale Carozzi, an Italian jeweller and linguist who migrated to Australia via Berlin and London in the mid-late 1880s. Annibale met, and later married, Caterina Mazza. Caterina was the daughter of Gianni Mazza who had left his native city of Genoa, in northern Italy, in the early 1860s to travel to the Victorian goldfields, there to make his fortune. Or not, as it turned out.

He married a girl who had been born in Daylesford in 1852, a girl named Margaret Burnside. Margaret’s mother was Mary O’Leary, an Irish orphan girl from County Cork, who had been sent to the colony by the Catholic nuns during the worst Potato Famine in Ireland’s sorry history.

The 17 year old Mary O’Leary met 32 year old Alexander Burnside – Sandy as he was known – in Willaura in South Australia. Sandy was a wayward Scot, the son of a Glasgow doctor; he was an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who was said to drink half a pint of whisky a day, and who died of alcoholic debilitation at the age of 64, and laid to rest in the Presbyterian section of the Daylesford cemetery, beneath an imposing headstone. Mary outlasted him by 20 years or more, but lies buried in an unmarked grave in the Catholic section, with two other dead Catholics.

As Alexander approached death, so the story goes, Mary said to him, ‘Will you be buried in Catholic ground?’

‘No!’ he said. ‘I will lie at rest in Presbyterian soil.’

‘Then you shall sleep alone through eternity,’ Mary told him.

And so it was, and is. Their graves are 100 metres apart, separated in death – as in life – by their religious prejudices. And now by tons of dark, rich cemetery soil.

So Herbert was their grandson, and Annibale’s and Caterina’s son. He was born and raised and lived his whole life in Coburg and died there in 1989. In this photo, taken on September 11, 1943, he is smiling; but nervously, and looks ill at ease. Perhaps it is the suit, but I sense it is something more. He is holding his three month old son, but there is something not quite right; he looks uncomfortable, unpractised, as though he is unused to this business of holding a baby.

Nonetheless there is no doubting the simple joy, the happiness of this moment, for Herbert Garrie. He’s happy – no question. But look closely at the baby. Its eyes are wide, its mouth is open, and its look is one of … of what? Fear? Bewilderment? Or perhaps I am reading all of this into the photograph, spinning a story – as we are prone to do, we humans – from the flimsiest of information. Taking that trite old saying, that a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’, and romancing – getting carried away with the story. Extemporising. Seeing discomfort in the demeanour of the father, bewilderment – perhaps fear – in the eyes and facial expressions of the child.

How much can we glean from a single photograph, a snapshot. It is a long gone moment, this moment captured on light-sensitive celluloid sixty – almost seventy - year ago. Cameras don’t lie, they say; but they are not necessarily right. In this moment – it may have lasted for one-fiftieth of a second - the child seems to look confused, the father uncomfortable; but it may all be a trick of the eye, no more than a random moment in a day otherwise full of easy joy and happy smiles …

The photo ‘tells’ us little. It is the story teller who spins the yarn, who builds the narrative, who interprets the scene and makes of it what he will. It is the story teller who blends his knowledge of the back stories of these two ‘dramatis personae’ with the features of the photograph, to begin to tell the story of Barry, at three months, and the father, Herbert Garibaldi Carozzi – known variously as Garrie, Herbie, Uncle Garrie, Dad.

I’ve had that photograph since the late 1980s or early 1990s. Garrie died in 1989; his wife, Linda, in 1991. I found it in Linda’s glory box when I was cleaning out their house at 82 Reynard Street, Coburg, where they had lived since their marriage in 1936. I placed the photo in an album, to keep it as a relic. A sacred enough object. Yet I did not notice the inscription – ‘Barry, 3 months’ until sometime in mid-late September, 2009 – 66 years after the photo was originally taken.

Linda and Garrie were my mother and father. I lived with them all through my childhood, from 1943 until 1969, when I married. Linda Robina May Kipping was born on October 26, 1907, in Casterton in the Western District of Victoria. She lived in Hamilton for most of her childhood with Pop and Gran: William Charles Kipping, my grandfather, and Edith Kipping (nee Davis), my grandmother. Linda left Hamilton some time in the mid-late 1920s, and came to live in Melbourne, where she worked for ‘French, the dentist’ as a housekeeper and cook, and helped raise their two boys: Vincent and Ronnie, both of whom carried on the family business and themselves became dentists.

Linda was 29 and Garrie 31 when they married in 1936. I was born 7 years later. In the intervening years Linda had had several miscarriages and had given birth to a still born boy child, in 1941. The photo inscribed ‘Barry, 3 months’ is – to my knowledge – the earliest photograph of me, and the only one taken in my first year of life.

When I first noted the inscription, it was September 2009, 66 years after the photo was taken – almost to the day. At a time when those three words had suddenly become burdened with an almost unbearable weight of meaning. For in mid September 2009 the incredible significance of that simple inscription became explosively apparent.

It arrived like a message in a bottle, a scrap of information placed inside a bottle and thrown into the sea years before, and now amazingly washed ashore. What was it Eliot wrote?

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

The message, written in code, could now be decoded, and the world could never be quite the same – not for this little pebble on the beach, not for this little 3 month old babe, who 66 years on stares at this image of himself, and sees a stranger – a bewildered, fearful infant, held in the uncertain arms of a simple and loving man who felt, at that moment, out of his depth, not knowing quite how you do hold a child so young. Happy beyond measure, but overcome by the responsibility. And on that day in September, the bewilderment in my three month old eyes mirrored the sudden bewilderment in which I found myself at 66.

Friday, April 1, 2011

64. A Teacher's Reflective Journal 4: a week is in long time in teaching

Love letters

It's Saturday afternoon. I've just woken from a short nap. It's been a tiring week. So far today I have read and commented on around six Year 12 SACs. Each SAC takes around 30 - 45 minutes to 'process'. I remember how impatient I used to be with correction, how I would put it off for as long as I could. Teaching writing in the TAFE Professional Writing course cured me of that.

I think that I'm clearer now about what to do, how to respond, the kinds of things to comment on. Many English teachers resent the hours and hours spent in reading and responding to what the students write. It is THE perennial topic for the English teacher's complaint. We compare the assessment load in English with - say - Maths and can see - well, there's no real comparison. Correcting a page of sums is not unlike correcting a spelling test.

We need to do what they do with diving - designate a difficulty level [DL] for the various types of correction - on a 5 point scale.

Jump into the pool from the edge and make a splash DL 0.1 [That's marking a 50 word Spelling test]

Do a swallow dive, with a twisting triple somersualt, plus pike DL 4.95. [That's the Year 12 SAC: an 800 - 1500 word essay, with six marking criteria]

Yes, it's not fair that we spend so many of our weekends reading our students' work and writing our notes to them. Yes, there ought to be some recognition of the DL - and the size -of the English teacher's assesssment load. But the other side of it is this: what an opportunity! My year 12 have done pretty well on their Reading their SACs. The shortest is around 700 words; some are as many as 1500.

We've been studying David Malouf's novel Ransom. It's hard work - a retelling of a single scene from Homer's The Iliad: Priam's ransom of Hector's body. We started the year looking at the opening 20 minute from Dead Poets' Society: the start of the new school year, the pomp and ceremony, the arrival of John Keating, the charismatic teacher pl;ayed by charismatic actor Robin Williams. The scene in which Keating takes his boys to the glass cabinets in the school foyer, where the honour boards and old photos are housed. Pitt reads:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

For summer is aflying

And that sweet rose that blooms today

Tomorrow ill be dying

Keating points to the photos: "A hundred years ago they were like you are today ... but they are now food for worms... It's hard to believe it, but one day we too will stop breathing, become cold and die... Carpe Deim - Seize the day, boys - make your lives extraordinary."

Ransom took us into similar territory ... death and meaning in life... being yourself ... or constantly wearing a mask ... becoming human ... being a father, a son ... being a mother ... being a grandfather ... what matters in this life ... Ransom is hard work. But I can see, in their responses to the SAC, that many of my students have been thinking about Priam and Achilles and Hecuba and Somax - the central characters of the novel. And they have been thinking about themselves. Literature touches on the personal in ways that Quadradic equations and theorems in geometry and scientific experiments and Legal Studies generally do not.

My friend Misha, in a comment on one of my earlier reflections on teaching reminded me of how carefully we need to move, as teachers, when in this minefield of the personal: Personalised writing was something I remember from your writing class and even I found it to be quite confronting.... Sometimes the class felt more like a group therapy session than a writing class - no offence. It is difficult, especially for teenagers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their peers or to anyone for that matter - especially teenage boys. I did grow to love the personal element of your class, but only as I grew older and became more confident and self assured. Her comment - 'No Offence' - is unnecessary. I'm not offended; but it raises the moral dilemma of where the line is drawn. Literature provides the safe ground, I think. [Though, of course, no ground is really safe...] All of which is something that might be worth pursuing in a later blog. I don't have time for it right now; I still have five SACs to complete.