Copyright © 2005 C. A. HOCKING
I was born just three minutes after midnight in the year 1900 in a small town in South Australia. Mother was disappointed because another baby had been born in the city at one minute after midnight and got a mention in the newspaper. Father was disappointed because his firstborn was not a boy. A successful businessman such as he needed a son. They christened me Victoria Gertrude Mabel Agnes Fisher, but Father declared the Queen’s name was far too grand for such an uncomely baby and called me Gert.
Two more girls were born. Father expressed his dissatisfaction by moving into a separate bedroom and my parents continued their lives together as companionable strangers in one wing of the house, whilst we children were raised by nurses, nannies and governesses in another wing. Our physical needs were well taken care of, but contact with our parents was occasional and brief. It was not an uncommon arrangement for middle class families in those times. The Queen had said, “Children should be seen and not heard,” and Victorian parents took their Queen’s advice seriously.
My sisters were pretty, noisy and endearing whilst I was considered plain, sullen and moody. I did not feel sullen, I simply felt unsure of myself and lacked the confidence to join my fearless sisters in their games and chatter, despite my desire to do so. Time spent with our parents was only for the purpose of instruction. They delighted in my outgoing sisters, but despaired of me.
“Be clean, neat and quiet, Gert, and you’ll always be acceptable in any company,” Mother said with a defeated sigh.
“Don’t speak unless spoken to,” Father said with disinterest.
Thus prepared, I attended my school friend’s sixth birthday party and acquired a reputation as a painfully shy girl, prone to backing into a corner and not coming out. I had wanted to come out and join in the screaming, joyous fun of the party, oh how I had wanted to come out, but Mother’s and Father’s advice was more powerful than my instinct and so I stayed miserably in my corner.
My parents were pleased with me. I had not shamed them.
The party invitations continued for my sisters, but for some reason I was overlooked. I watched on in silence as they excitedly prepared and left the house in bright organza dresses, clutching gaily wrapped presents and skipping happily in their smart new shoes. My own clothes were plain and serviceable and I outgrew shoes before they were replaced. I knew no other way and accepted it, for I disliked being fussed over.
At the first sign of my body changing from a girl to a woman, Mother encased me in a disfiguring corset in the hope that tightening it might give my naturally tall and thin body some shape, but her efforts were in vain. No matter what she did or what I wore, I was still shapeless and would remain so all my life. After I fainted in the corset, she loosened it and declared me a lost cause. Her attention was then turned to the shaping of my sisters and I was left to grow as nature intended.
A war was being fought on the other side of the world. I attended the Country Women’s Association meetings with Mother and dutifully knitted socks and scarves for the Diggers. The women there said I was a good girl, a sensible girl and would never give Mother anything to worry about, not like those immodest girls who were refusing to wear a corset and were seen out and about with boys and no chaperone.
“Dress modestly and don’t ever be seen wearing that sinful rouge that fast girls use, and eventually a nice boy will notice you,” Mother said.
“Be demure and polite, that’s what boys look for in a girl,” Father said.
And so I went to my first dance. I sat with the other wallflowers in my plain cotton Sunday dress and tried desperately to look as if I was enjoying myself, but I had shriveled up inside and felt dead to the wonder and excitement around me. I was eighteen years old and so was the century. The dance was to celebrate the end of the war and to welcome home the boys who had survived. Not one of them noticed me.
“If you can’t be beautiful, you can be smart,” Mother said, so I read a lot, sitting in the chair by the window in my bedroom, watching the seasons change and the years pass. I read about other people and places that I knew I would never see, and of religions and philosophies far removed from what I was taught in our town’s small church each Sunday. And I read about great romances and the sort of passion that I could only dream of, understanding all the while that such things were not meant for the likes of me.
“If you can’t find a husband, you must become useful,” Father said, so I did a correspondence course to become a teacher. I had wanted to go to teacher’s college in Adelaide, but Father was ill and I was needed at home. And the city was no place for a decent, well-bred single girl. Everyone said so.
Father died and was buried, and with him went our comfortable way of life. The business was in debt and had to be sold, leaving Mother with nothing but the house. The servants were dismissed and it fell to my sisters and I to care for our demanding home and Mother. There was no money coming in, my sisters had no skills and I had not yet completed my correspondence course, but I’d done enough to equip me to teach privately, so I went to work as a governess for our small town’s mayor. I supported Mother and my two younger sisters with my paltry wages, keeping only enough for myself to buy material to make a simple new dress each year. Mother and my sisters dressed well enough while the house fell into disrepair.
The mayor and his family were moving to another state and they wanted me to accompany them. Mother was unwell and said, “Your first duty is to your family,” so I stayed and took on private pupils while I continued to care for my family. I had wanted to go with the mayor’s family.
My sisters found suitable young men, married, moved to the city and had babies. They rarely came home to visit. There was no need, for their spinster sister was at home to look after their Mother. Mother complained that she did not see her grandchildren enough, but Mother complained about everything and her reputation as a whiner and a nag saw few people come to call on us. My pupils kept out of her way, never lingering so that friendships could not be formed. It was a busy life, but an empty one.
Mother worried about my future after she was gone. “I have asked my second-cousin’s son to lunch, Gert. He is about your age and I think he will be a good match for you.” If being boring was a good match, then that’s what I must have been. I stifled yawn after yawn during lunch while Mother pried a few dull details about his dull little clerical job out of plump, sweaty-faced Frank Tilbert. I didn’t want to think him an unattractive bore, but I couldn’t help it.
He kept coming back and, because I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to, I married him. We bought a little house on the outskirts of town. Mother sold her big house and moved in with us. She found fault with everything I did and my days were filled with her whining voice and never-ending criticism. Her favorite saying was, “You’re a lucky girl to have found a husband, Gert, you with your plain features and charmless nature.” I did not feel lucky.
Frank gave me just enough money each week to buy food and when I asked about the bills and the mortgage and buying clothes, he said, “It is not your job to handle money, Gert. That’s a man’s responsibility. If you need extra, we will discuss it and I will decide if you really need it. Your place is in the home, looking after your Mother and me.” So I did, performing my conjugal duties when required and soon there were three children to look after as well, two girls and a boy. I tried to love them, but having known no love myself I found it difficult to give them what I didn’t understand. Mother continued to advise me and nag my children and no-one was happy, including Frank who came to remind me of Father with his remoteness and disinterest.
There were more busy years, but I always felt something was missing, as if I had not yet found my place in the world. I tried to explain it to Frank once, but we rarely spoke of personal things and he said I was foolish and should be grateful for what I had.
Mother died, but not before telling me to go on being a good wife and mother, that I had everything a woman should have, as she’d had in her life and for which she was very grateful, but even as she said it, her eyes told me it was a lie. I wondered then if she felt as I did – undervalued and overlooked. And for the first time, I felt sorry for her. She died an embittered, unhappy woman.
Her absence was a relief.
Frank became ill soon after and died, too, but not before telling me he’d placed the family finances in the hands of a capable accountant, with a monthly allowance made out to me. If I wanted more, I would have to go out to work for it. The allowance was not enough to raise a family on and I needed more, so I advertised for pupils, but it was the Great Depression and few could afford private tuition, so I took in washing to make ends meet. The children complained about our poverty, but they were fed and clothed and housed. It was the best I could do.
The years went by, another war came and went, the children grew up and left home, moved away and, like my sisters, rarely came home. I was alone in my little house with my monthly allowance. My needs were small and so it was enough for me. I stopped taking in washing and took up reading again, escaping into those other worlds I had once loved through the words of those who had been there. I became solitary and found contentment in it.
And there was no-one to tell me what to do, how to do it or who to be. At last.
Or so I thought.
My daughters turned up one day, looked disapprovingly at the books on my shelves and said, “We have heard you rarely leave the house. You’ve become lazy, Mum. It is not good for you. Join a craft group or the Country Women’s Association or some such thing to keep yourself busy.” They reminded me of Mother. My son came and said, “You cannot sit around reading all day. Join a volunteer charity group and make yourself useful.” He reminded me of Frank and Father. I felt their disappointment in me as I’d felt my parents’ and my husband’s disappointment. I saw my life stretched out before me, just as Mother’s had stretched out before her, useful and busy, but lonely and dull and unloved. And that’s when I understood what was missing.
I rebelled. I was fifty-two years old and I rebelled.
I looked at myself in the mirror, my dull, grey, unchanging self, and decided a change was in order. I walked down the street to the local hair salon.
“Bleach my hair,” I told the hairdresser.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mrs Tilbert,” she said.
“Bleach my hair.”
“You’ll look silly.”
I looked at her smug face and knew I would never be told what to do again. I found my courage and snapped, “Bleach my hair!”
She bleached my hair. I didn’t look silly, just different.
I made myself a new red dress with a swishy petticoat and bought high heels, powder and red lipstick, then threw out my sensible twenty-year old dresses and walked up the street with my blonde hair and clicking heels. The neighbors whispered amongst themselves that I was going through The Change and that perhaps I was losing my mind. I heard them over the fence and I laughed out loud. I was not losing my mind. I had found it.
And I no longer cared what anyone else thought.
It was time to see what lay beyond my small town with its small minds, but my allowance would not stretch to travel. So I sold the only thing I could call my own – the house. I sold it so quietly that my children and the neighbors didn’t know until the day I moved out. I bought shirts and trousers and hiking boots, packed a rucksack and got on a bus to Sydney.
My son followed me to talk some sense into me, but I joined a round-Australia bus tour and left him at Central Station, yelling after the bus.
And my life, my real life, finally began.
I saw my country, my beautiful country, at its best and its worst. I saw it all and after a year I wanted more. I no longer wanted to be Mrs Tilbert, the poor middle-aged widow, so I changed my name by deed poll to Gert Fisher, unattached and unencumbered. The freedom I felt when I held that certificate in my hand was exhilarating. Then I bought a camper-van, learned to drive and drove all around Australia. I picked fruit, planted trees, packed bananas, bottled wine, swam in lakes, rivers and oceans, saw the sun rise and set over some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and thrilled to be alive.
I joined up with two young English girls in Western Australia and when they were ready to go home, they said, “Come with us, Gert.” So I got a passport and sailed to England with them. I sent postcards to the children. They sent me angry letters. I threw them away.
I toured Britain with my friends and made many more friends, young people with young minds and young ideas. I learned that the only difference between us was that my flesh was older than theirs. My mind was as fresh and eager as theirs.
A group of my new friends was planning a biking tour of France and they said, “Come with us,” so I bought a bicycle and rode around France and learned to speak French. I made more new friends, and when they said, “Come to Germany with us”, I went. I saw Germany, and then Italy and Greece and Spain and, finally, I saw all of Europe on my bicycle.
I wanted more.
The world was changing for females and Europe had different ideas about what being a woman meant. I took a lover and learned about romance and sex and passion. Love eluded me, but I no longer expected it. I sampled food that was so wonderful, I had no words for it. I smoked Turkish cigarettes and drank cold French champagne and warm German beer. And I laughed. I laughed a lot.
I celebrated my sixtieth birthday with a new young lover at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan where Maria Callas sang Paolina in Donizetti’s ‘Poliuto’. I sent postcards to the children. They didn’t know who or what I was talking about, but were quick to remind me that my money must run out soon and I must come home. I must be in no doubt about that. My scandalous life would be forgiven once I came home.
They did not know me at all.
My new lover was an artist. He taught me to draw, then to paint, and when he left for New York to study art I went with him. The classes and New York were a joy.
I sold my first painting. Then I sold another. A gallery exhibited my works and I sold every piece. The critics said my style was unique, original, and New Yorkers worshipped the original. The commissions came pouring in and I had enough money to tell my children that I would not be coming home. Instead, I moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village and artists, actors, musicians and writers from all over the world beat a path to my door. My life was rich and full.
My work was exhibited at a gallery in San Francisco and a new friend there took me to a rock concert where I first felt the changes that were sweeping the world. I stayed and made a whole new group of friends who were afraid of nothing, who wanted to try everything. But not everything was good for them. Their youth made them reckless in their choices. My maturity gave me a sense of consequence that only comes with experience. I lost some of them to their experiments and I grieved.
I embraced my age.
I stopped bleaching my hair and grew it long and grey. Technology was appearing everywhere and new possibilities were opening up. My art took another direction and I learned to use a camera. I recorded the changes going on around me and my name alone got my photographs exhibited. Gert Fisher, Artist and Photographer. I briefly wished Mother and Father could have known. Perhaps they would not have been so disappointed in their firstborn. But then I didn’t care. They belonged to a whole other life, one which I no longer identified with.
I wanted more.
I wanted to photograph the whole country, so I took some young friends and we drove all over America. I wore flowers in my hair and Indian sandals on my feet. We stopped at an outdoor rock concert and I photographed half a million flower children at their peak. Woodstock is a legend now, but then it was just a happening. My photos still hang in galleries all over the world.
I had a public profile and people listened to me. It was the age of being listened to. I marched against Vietnam, nuclear power, woodchipping, whaling, sealing, racism and discrimination. I marched for conservation, equal rights, world peace, nuclear disarmament and love. I sent my children postcards, but they didn’t reply.
On my seventieth birthday, I fell in love for the first time. Deeply, uncontrollably in love. I had taken lovers before, but had never been in love. My Professor adored me, as I adored him, and he taught me about literature and poetry and self expression. I wrote a book about my travels and it became a best seller. I wrote another book and went on a lecture tour around the world. I had six precious years with my Professor before he died.
But I was alive and I wanted more.
I travelled through Africa and wrote another book.
I travelled through India and painted it in the rich, glowing colours and strong strokes that are India. My paintings, photographs and books made me wealthy, but my children still did not answer my postcards.
Then I got a letter to say my son was ill. I went home to discover it was a ruse. My son was waiting for me with doctors and psychiatrists and lawyers with forms to commit me. I did not like him. The judge laughed him out of court.
My daughters refused to see me. They said they were ashamed of me.
But I discovered grandchildren, young people full of life and expectations, who admired me and who grew to love me. I took three of them to Europe with me and discovered a new dimension to life. I learned how to love my family. I left one of them in France, married and pregnant, and returned the others to their parents. Then I took two more to India and, together, we explored Asia. We backpacked and stayed in youth hostels and I made more friends.
My grandchildren returned to Australia, but I stayed in Kashmir and painted and wrote. I wrote a story about a mother who loved her children, but did not like them, and who blamed herself for the rift in her family. I sent it to my publisher. Soon after it was in print, I received a letter from my son. He was sorry for what he had done and I flew home to see him. He had grown to understand me as I had my own Mother before she died.
My daughters were there and I was shocked to see how old they were. I was eighty-three, but they seemed much older. We were reconciled, became friends and I was happy with that.
But they said I should stay at home, that I was too old to travel, that I should go into a unit near them where they could keep an eye on me.
I took them to Europe with me instead. I told them about my life before their father died and, because they had lived long enough themselves, they understood. I was able to love them at last as a mother should love her daughters. We grew close.
We stayed with my granddaughter in France. I played hopscotch with my great-grandchildren and fell. My broken leg healed quickly, but left me with a limp. I bought an elaborate silver walking stick to help me get around and found it useful for tapping loudly on the floor when someone annoyed me. My daughters laughed and told me I reminded them of my own Mother. I could only laugh, too, and remind them that it comes to us all eventually.
When they left to go back home, I missed them.
Something unpleasant had grown in my chest. It hurt sometimes, but it was not too bad. The doctor advised me to give up cigarettes, rest in bed and have all sorts of treatments that would make me feel worse than I already did. I gave up the cigarettes because they make me cough, but instead of rest and treatment, I flew to South America with my two youngest grandchildren and we saw that majestic country together.
The growth disappeared.
My son and my daughter died. My surviving daughter is in a nursing home. I am sorry for her.
I visited a new great-grandchild in England. While I was there, my heart beat strangely and I thought my body would fail me soon. I was ready. I told my grandson where and how I wanted to die. We made out a list and sent invitations to every corner of the planet. Three hundred and seven friends accepted.
We met at the base of Machu Picchu and together we climbed to the summit. We celebrated my ninetieth birthday there and said our farewells. The media heard about it and made a documentary out of a very personal event. I didn’t mind.
My friends left and I waited for the inevitable, meditating and praying, but my heart became strong and regular again up there in the mist and the thin, cold air.
So I bought an island instead of a coffin. An island with a hill rising up in the centre of it, and I built a house with glass walls on top of the hill. Housekeepers and secretaries take care of me with great kindness and respect. I require little from them, only to be left alone in my studio to paint and write and read.
There are no palm-fringed beaches here, only sheer, rugged cliffs dropping into the ocean and a helicopter pad next to the house. Visitors come and go, sometimes strangers to interview me, more often family and friends to share their stories and hear mine. Someone is making a movie about my life and wants me to attend the premiere, but I have declined. I have no need to watch what would only be an echo of my life, and how people judge it is of no interest to me. I please only myself these days.
My heart soars here. I can see forever from every room. I can stand on the cliffs and watch the restless, surging ocean change its colours and moods as I follow the curve of the Earth on the horizon. I can turn my face towards the wind that blows the breath of the world into my nostrils and feel the strength of this planet, my home, beneath me – atom joined to atom, earth and water and air connecting me to all things, and I know that I am part of it, that I am Gaia.
It is here that I paint the sky and the sea and write about my life while I peacefully wait for my allotted time to end. And when I am asked what is the secret to my longevity, I have no answer, for the longer I live this life, the greater is its mystery.
But I am content. I have lived a life, my own life, my own way and there is no greater satisfaction. For it is born in each of us to know how our lives should be lived, if only we knew how to listen to ourselves, and not the cacophony of voices around us.