January 29 2011
OVER Christmas, while visiting Melbourne, I stopped outside my nana’s old home.
I drove down the tree-lined avenue that was instantly familiar and walked the street where I played as a child. We lived for a long time in that house. My grandparents took us in when my father was trying to set up business. One of my sisters was born in the house and we played in the huge backyard, using the trees as caves, eating guavas and gooseberries from the trees, and playing imaginary cowgirls, riding the piano stool to victory. Sitting outside the house, I remembered with painful joy my nana and papa dozing by the briquette heater.
A week after my visit to Melbourne the great floods came: news of homes lost, lives destroyed. Not just a physical life gone but memories, themselves a life. Family homes that had been havens for decades if not generations gone, photos – a record that we ever lived and loved – lost. Gardens tended, trinkets collected, dolls. In all the vast devastation and tragedy it’s hard to give voice to the small tragedies of personal loss. Of psychological pain, of the despair of cutting an umbilical cord with precious things: pets, smells, objects, ancestors, the memory of a grandma’s cooking or a baby born, and everything my nana’s house evoked in me.
A few years earlier, my aunt had come from Israel and we visited the pokey flat in Bondi where she, her Polish immigrant parents and my dad had grown up. Several of my great aunties had lived in the tiny block after the war, and had infamously screamed messages to each other across balconies. The Vietnamese family now living there kindly let us in. They stood back as my aunt, now a grandmother, pointed to the graffiti still on the wall, and walked through familiar rooms with peeling paint. “It still smells the same,” she sighed. And then stood in the hall, a woman of 70, and wept.
The Vietnamese family closed in to comfort her. They knew what we knew.
There’s nothing to go back to for so many people. No peeling walls. Not even a familiar dog. Nothing to revisit to help them piece together a human being. Nothing to reignite the stories of loved ones gone; they are rudderless, floating on the water still. I think of these people and my nana’s house. And like my aunt, I want to stand in the middle of every ghostly hall that was, and cry for those who’ve lost part of their soul.