Memoir

Halfway through the days of our lives

A FEW WEEKS ago, I almost killed my baby. I was driving out of Brisbane's CBD, on a steep downhill slope towards the expressway in the morning rain, when my brakes failed. With my car hurtling like a pinball from one side barrier to another, it took a few dumb moments for me to understand what was happening. As my foot explored the brake pedal, I thought: "This is it. This is how it ends for me." And my baby, who the day before had erupted his first two teeth, this was how life would end for him too, just after it began. I imagined the car flipping on to its roof or over the side barrier into the river. Time after time, we hit a side barrier and ricocheted towards its opposite. The speeding traffic of the expressway was closer and closer. Almost at the bottom, the ramp flattens. I projected myself forward even faster than we were travelling. I was in the future, looking back. I saw that this was the moment when I could act differently, and change things.

Then I was back in the present, in the out-of-control car. This was the moment. We hit the wall again. The road was almost flat by now. I pulled on the handbrake instead of pumping the pedal. Was it skilful driving? A miracle? Had the slope finally levelled so that, without acceleration, we would have stopped anyway? Metres away from the splashes the trucks and the buses made as they sped through the rain, the car stopped. I squealed on my horn. I wanted to be heard. I switched on my hazard lights. I reached for my mobile telephone and pressed redial and screamed something at my husband, and slumped forward over the wheel waiting for whatever would happen next. In the back seat, softly, my baby began to cry.

 

1985. "I BELIEVE the children are our future," sang a young Whitney Houston, now believed to be in drug rehab and broke. "Teach them well and let them lead the way." I was fifteen years old and it was International Youth Year, just as in 1979 I had been nine when it was the International Year of the Child. It had been our year, internationally, for most of the time that we were growing up. People of my generation now, when I ask about it, don't remember that. We are pulled there from time to time when the radio reminds us to wake George Michael up before we go-go or a former classmate sends a surprise email, but the 1980s have faded into a dark age, after the end of history books but before the advent of the internet. Lost years. What information I can find tells me that there were 922 million people aged between fifteen and twenty-four in 1984. We were nearly a fifth of the world's population, four out of five of us living in less developed regions.

My family lived in Canberra in one of the new suburbs scattered around the base of Tuggeranong's parched Mount Taylor. My father was planning a move to older, more sophisticated Sydney. I was bookish. I kept a diary, writing in bed at night lying on my stomach. "I dislike old houses," I wrote in January, contemplating a future home. "They have seen girls like me grow up and I want to be the first girl that my house sees." Youth is always brand new to those who have it.

Friendsreunited.com.au has a list of about fifty names that could be a class roll from Ms Ryan's English class or Miss Ludwig's science class, circa 1984. More people have registered on the website than remember those classrooms. I don't know if anyone else remembers that the walls were coloured so rowdy classes would face the calm of blue, while uninterested students were stimulated with red walls. I described them in my diary.

Here it is, that diary, a letter to me from a younger version of myself. Reading it, I revisit the school and my home, my room, friends, dreams, hopes and activities that were my daily life. It is a letter from my younger self to a person I didn't yet know and now have become. She reveals and retreats, one moment confident, the next mysterious, only revealing as much of herself as she chooses. A fifteen-year-old version of myself exists in its pages, scribbled in writing that's almost recognisable as mine. I lean over her shoulder to watch as she writes, so close I'm surprised Younger Me doesn't look up, unlined face, thicker hair, startled. My diary: in my hand now – as it was then – physical, real. My hands are browner, ringed, but the same hands. There is the callus on the pen-leaning side of my longest finger, a burn scar on my thumb that I hid when I was fifteen. No wonder looking at your hands is so often evoked by poets to express the passing of time. Keats offers us his "living hand, now warm and capable/ Of honest grasping"; Poe watches weeping as time's grains of sand seep between his fingers.

In these pages in my hand, perhaps I will find answers to the questions that have concerned me even more since I considered my child's mortality and realised how much of my own childhood I have left behind. We, the youth of International Youth Year, are in our mid-thirties now. The days of our lives, so the Bible tells us, shall be three score and ten: we are halfway through; we have reached the place where a drama would pause for intermission, or a football ref would blow the whistle for half-time, and we would mill around the foyer sipping Chardonnay, or the food stalls ordering pies, and debating what we think of it all so far.

So what do we think of it? Did we have goals and are we on our way to them, or don't we believe in them any more? How is adulthood working for the youth of International Youth Year? This is already the future. What would the me of 1985 have made of it? Is she happy with the way things turned out?

 

WHO WERE WE? What did we believe? Young people of the 1960s and 1970s yelled more loudly than us; they had demonstrations and sit-ins; they believed in things; they tried to pass the mantel on. They proclaimed "Youth Year" and told us we had a voice. And tried to get us to use it.

"I can't understand why you lot don't get involved," one teacher said, a Vietnam veteran disheartened by the number of grey hairs at a peace rally. A few years later, it was the turn of university lecturers remembering their own salad days. "Why is this generation so apathetic?" they asked. Didn't we realise there were children starving in the world? In our late teens we were meant to find the image of starving children an incitement to "action", the way a decade earlier that image had been used to encourage us to eat our vegies. As their parents were disappointed when they abandoned good jobs at the bank, our parents were disappointed with us. We were the "material girls" rebelling against our idealistic, impractical elders. We had seen aunts and uncles move from alternative lifestyles to mortgages, the bank claiming them after all. We knew that protesting about nuclear weapons hadn't stopped a single test, that wailing "Give peace a chance" hadn't protected John Lennon from a bullet. We were the rebellion against rebellion. We thought we were much cleverer than our elders.

These were the ideas we had about our own lives and we had ideals of our own. We called ourselves cynical but were brought up thinking youth was privileged. No one dreamed of telling us that children should be seen and not heard. Girls were to have brilliant careers: we grew up noisy, encouraged to have opinions if not to think them through. I flip through the pages of my apple-print covered diary and find a glued-in yellow page that, unfolded, turns out to be an "expressagram" from then Prime Minister Bob Hawke telling me that a phone call I made to "Talk to Hawke" would help with the implementation of government policies. He apologises for being unable to speak to me personally. I laughed about this with my friends, but confided anger to my diary, insulted by the inference that I was sufficiently naïve to believe the Prime Minister would answer the phone just because he had asked us to call. We were given a voice, but doubted from the start that anyone would listen.

 

NOT THAT HIS stopped us saying something. Even if it's only chatter, we want to talk. A few years later, we envied owners of car phones enough to glue fake aerials on to our first, cheap cars. A decade on, we seized mobile phones as if they were a neglected birthright. We make bestsellers of computer games like The Sims where we control the lives and fortunes of characters who speak in a not-quite-intelligible language (as though this might compensate for that lack of control we have over our own lives?); we colonise internet chat rooms where the robotic residents are hard to distinguish from the human ones. We learned a way to talk while being all by ourselves. We never expected to be listened to.

But this was all for the future. Back then, the United Nations dedicated International Youth Year to participation, development, peace – the very set of ideas that we were so cynical about. The UN said it wanted to recognise the needs and aspirations of youth. We wanted good jobs and nice houses, and didn't realise the word "yuppie" would become ironic. A friend of mine, Allison, came to school with a peace sign of unburned skin in the red she'd turned the previous weekend at a youth rally. A guy had texta-ed it on to her arm and she was thrilled. Hoping to meet him was the reason she went.

"Love is a battlefield," sang Pat Benatar. That was the conflict we were interested in. Of course, nuclear disarmament would be nice too, if not as worthy of serious conversation as growing "rats' tails" at the napes of our necks or discovering who successfully drank at the most pubs last Saturday night. Some of us even declared our schools nuclear-free zones – which, as far as I know, has kept them as nuclear free as the rest of suburban Australia. Rallying for peace was an amusing way to spend some time on a Saturday that could otherwise be spent at the shopping mall or the movies. We knew our parents had taken the idea of peace more seriously; going to a rally was as imaginary a connection between our generation and theirs as Back to the Future, and just as fantastical.

Another item I've stuck into my diary is a photograph of my father, then the age that my husband is now. Why didn't dad tell me, then, that he was still young? I don't want to make a mistake like that. "I'm still young," I tell my own children – who laugh. Perhaps generations are always disappointed with each other.

 

OVER COFFEE, I mention my diary to a friend who invokes her 1985, a place where she dreamed of a successful career and escape from boredom and Brisbane. Glenys felt surrounded by women who told her that everything exciting was within reach, that she could achieve all she wanted in life. Success was something she could visualise entirely in symbols: the car, the office, the house. She planned a successful future, her kinder side proven in donations to Greenpeace. A balanced life was the rightful goal of a good person. So many of us were idealists like that.

There was no god, of course, but there were truths we genuinely believed: hard work would bring material rewards; these rewards would bring happiness; marriage and children too young were a failure – marriage and children at any stage didn't really figure in Glenys's life picture. "I have big plans for my future," I told my diary after deciding to break up with a boyfriend. "There isn't really room for someone with no Ultimate Goals."

My friend has a baby girl now and is trying to find part-time work that will let her combine mothering and a career that was itself a disappointment. Will she give her daughter a different message? Teenagers are different these days, she says. More grounded and realistic. Girls are reminded that if they don't have children early in life, they might miss out altogether. No one, not even once, ever said anything remotely like that to us. As far as we were concerned, we would be fertile forever. I have another friend who struggled so long to make a dent on her mortgage that she had to consider selling her house to pay for IVF.

An era is more about memory than life when its music is played on nostalgia radio. Triple M, once so cool your finger shivered over the dial, now dedicates schedules to music of the 1980s. At this season's fashion shows, the '80s are retro.

 

I HAVE BOYS OF three different ages from babyhood to puberty. To the baby, I am still omnipotent – the bigger, milkier half of him, his warmth and comfort. To the six-year-old, I am still something of a guide and provider, but those roles have partly been ceded to his teacher and to the tuckshop volunteers. It is sadder to think of what I am to the eleven-year-old, because I know he has walked further along the path his brothers will follow and that to them, too, one day I will be an obstacle. I will stop them from staying up as late as they'd like, from playing on the computer as much as they want. I will be the enforcer of homework who takes time they would rather spend chatting with friends. They will be like their brother. If it wasn't that I have the car keys and drive him to footy and that he sometimes asks me for food, he'd have no time for me at all.

Yet he is wise enough to recognise at least one fact long before me: I am no longer part of the younger generation. The other day, he asked me what music I used to listen to in "the olden days" and I laughed because Band Aid and the Mentals living it up and Madonna being like a virgin, these things can't belong to the olden days. I wasn't born in the olden days, as I told him: the olden days means the flappery 1920s or the 1950s when my mum had a big flouncy petticoat with tiny roses stitched into it that I dressed up in years later. I remember my dad's reaction when my primary school in 1979 had a "Fifties and Sixties Dance". "You can't have a '50s and '60s dance," my dad said. "That's ridiculous." He still listened to Buddy Holly records. How ancient they seemed to me. Can The Cure or Duran Duran (a friend's mother called them Duress Duress) really be as long ago now as the Crickets were then?

Where has all the time gone? Where are all the "Choose Life" t-shirts and the lacy fingerless gloves we used to wear? Where are all the strands of pastel-hued fake pearls, the ghetto blasters, the Miami Vice jackets, the fluorescent socks? In a tip waiting to be discovered by archaeologists of the future, our children? Over the phone, one friend gossips that Allison is dating a guy of twenty-eight. I remind her of the days when Allison's boyfriends provoked scandal because they were so old. When she first dated a twenty-eight-year-old, her current lover would have been in preschool. "What is it about men that age, anyway?" I ask. If being twenty-eight is all she requires, at least she need never run out. There is a fresh batch every year.

My son listens to a radio station called Nova – for new – although of course he doesn't know that's what it means, coming from a past and dead language. One of the songs that has him reaching for the volume isForever Young, a new cover version of a song that he cannot believe I know from its 1984 release. He doesn't believe his youth will ever end – neither did I, or my father. Neither does Allison.

 

MY FATHER MOVED us to Sydney. I filled more and more diary pages as we prepared to leave. "I don't want to stop writing," I wrote, "because then I have to start thinking ... in a few hours' time these people will just be memories." At fifteen we were poised on the on-ramp to life. It was all about boys then, and how to combine a relationship with study. I spent the next, final, years of high school in a Sydney convent where even the company of nuns who had raised families before taking vows wasn't sufficient to stop girls shucking off their virginity as quickly as possible, as if that was the way to avoid being "called". (I remember one Loreto girl walking around with fingers stuck in her ears, just in case.)

To my diary I confessed: "I have decided that life without romance is very dull." In one three-month period, parted from my first unexplored, possibly entirely unreturned Canberra love, I went through four boyfriends, one of whom I also thought I loved. Although our relationships are long over, I recall those boys now as I read through my pages. Even though I've wondered over the years, I've never known what became of those boys or if my friend was "called". Somehow, I doubt it.

When old school friends do catch up over the internet, conversations tend to run along the lines of: "So, how did Allison or Laura end up?" as though being in our thirties were the end of the story: we should all be living our happy endings or getting our just deserts by now. Many of us who seemed to take different paths have ended up in the same place – busy with careers and children with not enough time to enjoy either. Of course, for some the end has come. There have been a couple of car accidents and there is that one girl I remember from Year 10 who seemed to live her life in fast forward, pregnant at sixteen (how shocked we were, yet how little difference it made) and dead in her early thirties, her son already older than we were when so shocked.

There was so much that I didn't and couldn't know. No one "called" me, but there was the moment when, standing with my husband in what should have been the enveloping arms of St Peters, I fully understood what it meant to be Catholic – or rather, to be excluded from it because we were both divorced. There have to be exclusions, things we miss out on and leave out. Life is fuller than we have time for.

I write in my diary of boys I kissed and boys I didn't, but maybe could have. I describe my writing – something I thought would be my great first novel, miraculously produced from the mind of a mere teenager. It was called The House on the Hill. I no longer recall what it was about or even where it is. I won the history award at the end of Year 10 – I don't know why, wasn't I always arguing with the teacher? But now I realise how short it all is, how little of it stays with us.

 

ONE NIGHT I'M watching the news over the back of a high chair when a televised face looks familiar and, spoon of rice cereal poised, I lean closer. I know him from somewhere. It turns out that the boy I went to primary school with, whose adoptive parents were friends of my parents, has killed a woman while raiding her house for money for a drug fix. He killed an elderly woman, of our grandparents' generation, for money for a drug fix, and shows no remorse.

Back in International Youth Year, while our teachers tried to keep us informed about life's choices, this is what seemed serious: a school friend confessed that her boyfriend was addicted to marijuana. I told my diary: "The two of us skipped second period to be miserable in ... we bought Minties and consoled ourselves with those, while we caught five trains (we kept getting on the wrong ones) to go shopping." Drags on a funny cigarette at fifteen are not the addiction of a thirty-five-year-old who will kill for a fix, but maybe that led him there. I don't know what consolation to reach for. There are tragedies too deep for confectionary. A boy I knew well has grown up and killed a woman.

Sometimes, we are too worried that life is not what we expected. Motherhood introduces us to children who are strangers, and the dream of combining it with some sort of career overlooks how boring those careers can be. One of the biggest stresses is having all the things we thought we wanted: the careers, the children, the houses, and the emotion that came along with them – the guilt that we should enjoy it. Only we don't have time. We should remember something we seemed to know as children: what it means to be alive – if only we had the time to think about it. We ask each other and wonder. Sitting in doctors' waiting rooms, perhaps, or at night dozing towards sleep, or in the car. A boy I knew well has killed a woman.

One afternoon, driving home with my middle son and supermarket bags in the back seat, I pass a line of cars parked on both sides of the road. I check the clock on my dashboard and it's three o'clock and for one moment, one flash of time, I'm seventeen again and this is the queue of P-plated cars outside my school. Momentarily, I know and feel everything that I knew and felt then. I have a crush on a teacher whose name I don't need to remember, the security of friends and ignorance of what would transpire in the lifetime between then and now. Everything that envelops me belonged to someone else entirely. Husband, career, babies – these were all part of an inconceivable future in a moment that took less time to experience than to describe. And then, back in the now, bringing home a lazy dinner after a busy weekend, driving my car with my son singing cheerily in the back, I wonder again what happened to all that. The girls we were, the feelings we had, the desires and the dreams, the laughter – what happened to everything we left behind? What happens to the past when we don't live there any more?

"I have bought a notebook which is to be my next volume of diary. I wonder if it will see as much change in my life as this one has," I wrote on the third last diary page. It was the year I moved to Sydney and discovered boys. The future, now another chapter of my past, opened up a new and empty book. I was such an optimist. "On average, life gets better. Of course there are always bad patches, but life gets continuously more sunny." It's odd now to read what I wrote next, as it seems to be some particular message – about balance, perhaps. "On average," I repeated. As I write, my grandfather lies sick, perhaps dying, in an interstate hospital. I order a mug to send to him that has a photo of my three boys on one side and "Feel better soon, Pop" on the other. My youngest is smiling in the photo. He still has only two teeth. I think of him that day that my brakes failed, and how it felt to be standing, holding him, at the side of the road after the emergency vehicles, the accident team, had been and gone and we were waiting for a taxi home. He was a small, squirming warmth in my arms, an embrace I had thought I would not feel again. The price we pay to love our children is becoming parents. The line continues on, our grandparents warm those beds for us. All I hold of the past that we can hold on to is in words. Although I stopped writing it years ago, I'm glad I kept that diary. 

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