Memoir

Small candle flames

WHEN I WAS four I had an urgent desire to go to Sunday School. I believe I nagged my parents about this. They didn't mind the idea but had no desire to take me. They'd been married in St Augustine's Church of England and I'd been christened there, but they weren't churchgoers. At weekends they were busy about the house. My father helped my mother do the washing, boiling the great heavy sheets in a gas copper, putting them through a hand wringer into tubs of clean cold water, the last one with blue added to make the white brilliant. And there was the new garden to make, the sand to remove, to two spades deep, and replace with soil so vegetables could be grown.

Auntie Min said she'd take me, not to the Church of England but the Methodists. They were half the distance away, at the top of Park Street hill, which seemed helpful. Auntie Min was a great aunt, visiting her sister, my grandma, whose children all lived within a stone's throw of one another – a nice picture, that – and all close to the sea. She had a job, I suppose you would call it; she was a lady's companion. She lived with a grand family: the Whites of Gartrell White, the cake and biscuit people. It wasn't very clear what the job was. The role seemed more defined by what she didn't do: housekeeping, house cleaning (though perhaps she did a little light dusting), cooking (though possibly she made cups of tea), child-minding. Perhaps she changed library books. But mainly the job seemed to be exactly what it said: a companion to the lady of the house. I can't imagine Auntie Min being a brilliant conversationalist. I seem to recall her being evangelical, trying to convert us with threats of hell and my father resisting and there being arguments, which my mother hated.

So, Sunday morning. I am all dolled up and ready for Auntie Min to come and take me to Sunday School. I'm wearing a blue dress, the colour of cornflowers – not that I knew the word cornflower then; they didn't grow in our salty windy seaside suburb – with a panel down the front embroidered with white daisies, falling quite full from the shoulders and tied at the back with a sash and bow. It's rayon, so the fabric is silky; probably something my mother had in the dressmaking box. White socks, black shoes with straps, a hat made by Auntie Lou who is a milliner and works at Winn's department store.

Time passes. Auntie Min doesn't come. Nobody has a phone to find out why. I am devastated.

 

I NEVER FOUND out what happened. I don't remember Auntie Min being around after that. She was probably quite old. My grandmother was in her mid-70s and Auntie Min was possibly older. It seems strange that there might never have been any reason given for her failing to turn up. Maybe the family fell out. Auntie Min didn't come and my parents were too proud to ask why but maybe they took offence. I think she almost immediately went back to Sydney. She seems so much unluckier than my grandmother, from the moment of naming: what sort of a name is Min? Where does it come from? My grandmother was Louisa Emily, she had six children and was beloved; one morning, when she was a healthy 96, she said, "I don't think I will get up today", and died.

Twenty years later, after my mother died, I found a letter Min wrote to her from a nursing home, a sad letter, full of complaint, especially about the woman who shared her room and had only one leg. This woman did not behave well, she wasn't religious. Auntie Min found this shocking. You'd think, the letter says, with one foot in the grave she would have had a better sense of the fitness of things. At that time, I thought, as I think now, about why I did not find out more about her, this woman like a put-upon character from an old novel – think of Becky Sharpe's chaperoning "sheepdog" in Vanity Fair – except Auntie Min seemed happy enough. She went on holidays with the White family and the children wrote her letters when they grew up, invited her to their weddings, showed her their children. How do I know these things, but not why she didn't come that Sunday morning?

I suppose I made a fuss. There still wasn't any question of my parents taking me to Sunday school. I said I could go on my own, I knew the way, my mother had taken me to a kindergarten there, pushing my sister up that steep hill in the yellow cane pram, me skipping along beside. Kindergarten was mysterious and exciting, full of strange people; there was a girl called Kay Giraffe who said I was spiceful – I'm sure I wasn't, shy certainly, silly probably, but not spiteful – and another called Hairnet who turned out to be Annette, and much later I found out that Kay was not Giraffe but Durack.

 

SO THAT'S WHAT happened: I went on my own, with a note from my father, no doubt in the rather flowery language he used later to impress teachers.

I was going to say my father wasn't religious but I've put instead that he wasn't a churchgoer. He had a questing mind and a longing soul and eventually became a Rosicrucian. He loved my mother and took great pleasure kissing her, morning and evening, going to and from work. That's how I learned about kissing. You're embarrassed, when you're young, that your father so clearly enjoys kissing your mother, but afterwards it is a very comfortable thing.

When I got to the church on the top of the hill, with its cavernous hall underneath, it was the Sunday School anniversary, a big day on the calendar, with lots of hymns practised for weeks before. People got book prizes according to their attendance through the year. They found one for me, doubtless feeling sorry for this four-year-old waif sent to Sunday School on her own. It was The Rocks of Han, by Pixie O'Harris; I loved it, still do. My copy is lost, but every now and then I go and read it in the National Library, a copy just like mine with some naughty coloured-pencil scribblings in it. It was a small book, flimsy, stapled, but the illustrations were fabulous and so was the narrative: Han is a fisherman who finds a mermaid, with fine black lines of curling hair long and full as a cloak, marooned in a pool; he captures her and keeps her in a tub, fetching sea water in buckets to keep her alive. It has witches and a beautiful Gypsy girl and romantic landscapes. And a happy ending.

I resolved that next year I would get a big book for a prize and I did. Though the big books were often didactic: lengthy tracts barely disguised. I became a diligent Methodist and apt in their ways. I learnt a great many hymns that they allowed me to sing though I couldn't, and I became thoroughly acquainted with the Bible. Methodists do not just quote the Bible, they give you chapter and verse, quite literally. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Gospel according to St John, Chapter One Verse One.

We had fun, too, especially in our teens, with camps and social evenings and fellowship teas. We weren't allowed to dance, but we played all sorts of lecherous games like spin the bottle and winks, which involved grabbing one another and hasty kisses. Dancing would have been more reticent. We weren't supposed to wear make-up either; all the women had pale powdery faces but not lipstick. We all got new smart clothes for the anniversary. I always prayed that it wouldn't rain so I wouldn't have to wear my boys' school shoes because of the walk up the hill. We never had a car.

 

IN THE END I left, but not until I was at university. I left because of the extempore prayers. I could find God in the words of the Bible, and in the music of the hymns, but not in the meandering half-literate prayers that offended my love of language. I knew that this was the sin of pride; that the humblest and clumsiest of words were welcome in God's sight. For some time I fought against it, but finally admitted that the beauty of the language was more important to me. I'd read Donne and Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I couldn't bear to listen to men who couldn't shape a sentence to save their lives.

Of course, the thing about Methodists is that they are democratic – I should say were, now they no longer exist under that name but as part of the Uniting Church – anybody can speak to God. More hierarchical religions, the Catholics and the Anglicans, control the words; they are set down in prayer books and missals and only the priest is allowed his moment to speak extempore. And some are against even that; Joseph Addison, in one of his essays, argued that clergymen should not be allowed to write their own sermons but be obliged to get them out of a book of good ones. A lot of people, sitting through a droning tirade, have thought the same.

I have had great pleasure from God as concert, God as towering work of art. I have seen the choir of King's College Cambridge, sitting in the choir stalls of the ancient chapel, turning over the pages of the seventeenth-century prayer books (not just the old versions, the actual old books). I have listened to the heart-stopping voices of those boys singing evensong. I have heard massed choirs performing Mozart's Requiem. Fauré's. Recordings of the Messiah. Bach. Such vile things have been done in the name of God, and at the same time such wonders created.

I haven't thought of religion for a while. I think about the great stories of Christianity quite often, the idea of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and the fortunate fall, especially in Miltonic cadences. They are such powerful narratives; they keep turning up, I find them inescapable; their mythic resonances make such sense of the mess we are in. I have a lot of words from the Bible in my head. There's one verse I pull out and shout whenever I see the Labor Party being feeble on television: Where there is no vision the people perish.That is what is happening under the Coalition and why can't the other lot do something about it?

 

BUT WHAT ABOUT God? Since Nietzsche, it has been fashionable to claim that he's dead. People keep saying that the novel is dead, too, and that very evidently isn't true, because people keep writing new ones. God isn't dead for the same reason. People keep writing new ones. Maybe they don't invent quite as many new gods as they do new novels but there are a lot.

Consider Bush's self-righteous dumbed-down 'Christianity', leading us into another doomed crusade against the infidel; and the Hillsong Church's Christ who would have given tax concessions to the moneylenders, not cast them out of the temple; and the anti-contraceptive god of the Pope, who would rather people and their children live hideous lives and die hideous deaths from AIDS than use condoms; or the god of fundamentalist Muslims who welcomes teenage suicide bombers into his especial Paradise; or the 4am telemarketing evangelists selling miracles of health and salvation.

At Sunday School I was told that God made us in his own image. We had to remember this and try to live up to it, not do anything that would shame Him. Of course, we failed all the time. Now I think that this also is not true, it's the opposite – we make God in our own image, we always have and we keep on doing it. That's why there are so many. And every one of us claims that our God, the deity we create for ourselves, is the one true and only.

"God is dead," said Nietzsche, and finished the sentence thus: "but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown."

It's not a comforting thought to realise we are inventing Gods to suit us. It can't make you feel good about human nature. Auntie Min's evangelical Christianity didn't make her kind to the one-legged woman in the neighbouring bed.

I have been thinking about God because of funerals. Funerals can come upon you unexpectedly and require quick decisions. For my mother, we had a service at St Augustine's, which she'd gone back to in her last years. We used the old prayer book, the 1626 Book of Common Prayer.

We had the same service for my husband. And when I had to choose for my daughter I copied his, since I knew she'd want to be like her beloved father. In the church where we were married, the nineteenth-century church of St John Baptist, a small stone edifice built for the Campbell family of Duntroon long before Canberra was thought of. With the same hymns, and leaving the church to the organ playing Purcell'sTrumpet Tune and Ayre, which we had had for our wedding. My daughter had been christened from that church, in hospital, newborn; the doctor had said, if you believe in having babies christened I would suggest that you christen this one, and we did, not because we thought she might end up in limbo, which is the first circle of hell, and I don't believe in a god who damns babies, but because so small a life ought to have some ceremony. And now that it had ended, not so soon but far too soon, in her 39th year, a further proper ceremony was needed.

And again we had the Book of Common Prayer. This not so much for Christian belief as a belief in our own culture, the time-hallowed ritual, the traditional words that people like me have found comfort in over centuries and centuries. The poignant and powerful cadences that our hearts recognise. Language. Not extempore, but an ancient and beautiful work of art and so of humanity. The world is a cruel and dark and difficult place and it is words that light small candle flames to keep the dark at bay.

People were surprised at how comforting and noble and familiar the old words were. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I fear they aren't. My daughter didn't believe they were. But for the moment of the saying of them, yes, there they were, as they had been in people's minds and voices for hundreds of years. With tears in our eyes, for a moment we could believe in immortal safety. The words created it for us.

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