The Parts of Her I Did Not See
I was attracted to the amber beer on the plane ride. I had never seen anything like it before, so I asked the air hostess for one. I was four years old. In this memory I am speaking fluent English with the air hostess. That certainly would not have been the case because I had spoken Urdu in Pakistan and knew only a few English words.
That’s all I remember about moving to Australia. I don’t think I knew where we were going but my parents say they had told me and my eldest brother what was going on. Maybe, at that age, I could not comprehend the magnitude of what was happening.
We were foreigners moving to a foreign place.
In the first year of living in Australia, we moved straight into a small house on Ely Street in Revesby. My mum was six months pregnant. My dad’s brother had assisted us with the basics of settling into the area. Mum says the house seemed incredible to her at the time. We had never seen anything like it back in Pakistan.
My fondest memories of that house are playing scientist around the huge Norfolk Island Pine tree which stood so tall in our front yard. It was a tree I was proud of because it was the largest tree on the whole street. I played scientist by picking off the resin sap from the bark and mixing it into dirt or water, putting it into jars and getting its relentless stickiness all over my hands.
Removing the sap was a difficult task. I would try by rubbing my hand on the lawn which only made the problem worse, as dirt and grass became embedded into the sap. I knew that my mum would not like me coming inside with grubby hands, so I thought of craftier but more painful ways to remove the stickiness from my hands. I initially tried rubbing my hands on the concrete driveway but that hurt too much. The light blue wooden façade of the house was much gentler on my hands but could not completely remove the sap. But it did remove the stickiness that carried the dirt, a day or two afterwards my hands bore faint streaky marks until the resin itself disappeared.
Another hazy memory I have of that house is of me playing alone in the driveway one afternoon. It may have been quite a humid day and I, somehow, aggravated a nest of mosquitos. I was bitten what felt like hundreds of times all over my body. I called out for mum while I was kicking, scratching and screaming. My mum came to the rescue and rubbed my body with what could have been calamine lotion – or was it mustard seed oil? She changed my shorts and t-shirt to track pants and a long sleeve shirt and held me and rocked me to sleep. This is a pleasant memory for me, but she does not remember it. She thinks I may be confusing it with a memory of the time I had chicken pox.
I always wonder whether I have fused fragments of several memories together to create my own narrative. Did my mother or I displace significant details? I have convinced myself this was a separate incident to the chicken pox that my mother remembers. The mosquitos attacked outside the Ely Street house and my mum says I had chicken pox on Edgar Street.
There is a greyness to the visual information these memories carry. It is as though it was always cloudy, as though these events happened at twilight, as though we lived in the shade from the enormous pine tree.
I also don’t have any memories of the people who made us comfortable when we lived at Ely Street. I don’t remember any visitors, or my interactions with my grandmother who came to live with us these or the birth of my second brother, or even attending Revesby Public School. These things surely did happen.
I have tried to remember my schooling at that point in time, especially the transition from pre-school to primary school. I have tried to use a few photos from that period to jolt my memory, but they have not proved effective. I have always been impressed at how mum has managed to keep my first ever school photo in Australia in such good condition. This photo shows me with perfect little squares of teeth, sun- browned skin and so much wonder in my eyes. I had slightly raised my right shoulder because I have always been shy about having my picture taken but I still looked very happy.
I was happy even though my mum and dad were finding it difficult adjusting to day to day living. They did everything they could to iron out the difficulties of being foreigners for my brother and me. They would take us on adventures to the city, to the Bankstown shopping centre, and to the local parks. They were also looking for work, they were expecting another child and learning their way around a new area where their familiar language was not being spoken. It was difficult for them to adjust to a completely new way of living and to be subjected to blatant racism as they looked for jobs and resources.
At that age, I did not know what racism was. Yet I do have memories that tell me otherwise, like the time a ranger at a zoo said we were not allowed to pat koalas because we had dark skin. I cannot bear to hear now what my parents really experienced.
I played and I played and I played in that house.
We moved a 40-minute walk from Ely Street to a butter-yellow house with maroon framework on Edgar Street in Condell Park. I have sunnier memories of playing in our backyard, the hugest backyard I had ever seen in my life! We had chickens that I absolutely adored and a pebbly barbeque. We had a lot of visitors over and I remember some of my interactions with my grandmother who fed me pomegranates, mandarins and macadamia nuts from the macadamia tree in our front yard.
Every Friday after school or possibly every Sunday mum would massage mine and my brother’s hair with mustard seed oil and fix mine with tight plaits. My youngest brother, at that time, made a show of weeing in front of our school friends during a joint birthday for my elder brother and I. He got away with it because he was adorable and hilarious. In that house, everything seemed funny. As though we understood more about living in Australia and that allowed us all to have more fun while I was learning valuable life experiences.
I had a fake Barbie that I treasured. I made her a pool out of a white Franklins Grocers Ice Cream container. While playing pools with fake Barbie I was multitasking and blowing bubbles with homemade bubble mixture in one hand and drinking Sprite from a plastic cup in the other hand. I was wholly invested in fake Barbie spending time in the pool and so in a sudden bout of thirst, I drank from one of the two plastic cups. It was not the one with the Sprite but the one with the diluted dishwashing liquid. I began coughing everything back up and crying from shock at how the bubbly lemony sugariness of Sprite was suddenly bitter and soapy. The shock lingered for weeks and I became hyper vigilant at taste-testing the contents in every cup from that point onwards.
The lasting impression of shock is something I experienced in several manifestations when I lived on Edgar Street.
The first time a cockroach crawled up my leg was while my family and I were having dinner. We would always sit together at the dinner table, wait to eat until everyone was ready to eat and say grace before every meal. An unusual faint tickle racing up my bare leg one evening, prompted me to push my chair back. I had initially thought it was just an unprovoked itchiness. When I looked at my leg to locate where I needed to scratch, I was shocked to find a small brown cockroach making its way toward my pelvic region. I screamed, swiftly flicked it off my body but burst into tears. I was comforted immediately by my mum, but the cockroach had affected me for weeks afterwards. I became hyper vigilant whenever I felt a slight tickle or itchy sensation on my body.
And then there was the mandolin slicer. I do not really understand what prompted me to cut myself at such a young age. My eldest brother was helping my mum in the kitchen and cut himself on the blade of the mandolin slicer. He was far more resilient than me. My mum bandaged the cut while he sat quietly. As I watched mum tend to him, I wanted to experience what my brother was experiencing. I may have wanted to experience the cut as an empathetic gesture because I looked up to him or I wanted to take away my mother’s attention from him? I walked over to the mandolin slicer in the kitchen and gently ran the tip of my index finger across the sharp blade. As blood slowly oozed out of the cut I began walking over to my brother and mum to show them what I had done but fell to the floor because I had fainted. When I came to, I was surrounded by two tall and friendly paramedics, my concerned mum, brother and grandmother. The paramedics put the fainting down to shock but that wasn’t my concern. My concern was how much I had frightened my mum with my need to understand the process of getting hurt. I don’t remember crying in this memory because I felt shame for the carelessness of my action.
In Edgar Street, was I learning how to cope with external hardships? Our next move was out of Bankstown into a predominantly Anglo area. We left an area equally filled with Lebanese and Asian families and the diverse range of cultures in my friendship group. That security changed when we moved closer to Penrith. I was 7 when we moved, an age when a child’s neural architecture begins to be able to retain more visual and emotional information. I held onto those sunny days at Edgar Street as we began our move.
I will never be sure if the memories of the Bankstown area are made up because childhood amnesia and social conditioning have grossly distorted of the colours, shapes and events of that time. So I kept seeking answers through my mother’s memories.
My mum has recently told me that she shed plenty of tears during these first few years of living in Australia, in the houses on Ely Street and Edgar Street. Every difficulty, from minor to major, would make her cry in private and public. When I heard about the things that would provoke her, it had initially seemed ridiculous to me because I could not imagine her doing so now. She was brought to tears by the voices of her family members back in Pakistan, or how the rain soaked my dad’s work uniform when he walked home from the station or how she felt hopeless when she could not walk her kids back home due to hail. Simple things that she could not control overwhelmed her because her life had been different and more settled in Pakistan. Her tears came in abundance because she felt unstable, but I believe she was slowly letting go of the experiences that were no longer hers. She no longer had the familiarity and safety that she once had.
Lately my mother and I have been frequenting the houses on Ely Street and Edgar Street, like voyeurs. When I think of the instability and the aching difficulties of my mum’s experiences, I see the light blue and butter yellow paint peeling away off the homes of Ely and Edgar Street. The paint is peeling and revealing the wooden facades of the homes. These homes stay intact the way they once were, even with all the development taking place along both streets. The development on some of the houses on Ely Street and Edgar Street suggests a future of sleek uniformity. Similar home designs have popped up on both streets and when I imagine the people residing in those homes, I imagine an attractive young family with one or two kids all with similar haircuts, unusually brown or orange tans, all wearing white and owning practical hybrid cars.
The paint is still peeling off the Ely Street and Edgar Street homes, but I find myself glad that their exteriors have been left untouched. The peeling paint is removing the façade that was put on as a sheen of fantastic colour to now reveal what was underneath the surface: practicality, strength and resilience. The three forces my migrant mother had in abundance.
My mum and I also returned to the spaces where she was learning a different way of being. Bankstown, Condell Park, Yagoona and Revesby were the suburbs we first frequented as an immigrant family. When I walk around today without her, I can reach the memories which were formed with her even though there’s been so much development there.
I love walking around the Bankstown Square and seeing the Vietnamese bakeries and pho restaurants, the sparkling Middle Eastern jewellers and kebab shops, the African hair salons coexisting with all the colourful hijabs. It reminds me of Karachi, the city where I was born and where my parents were more settled as a family, even amidst the threats of political violence. I used to be embarrassed about suburbs like Bankstown and other places in the west I grew up in and thought of them as ‘uncultured’ multi-cultures, to use Josephine Parsons’ term.
It has taken me a long time to comprehend the value of the memories that shaped me but I’ve done so, by accessing my mother’s memories of her and my father’s experiences as migrants.
Audrey Newton is a recipient of a Mother Tongues Residency offered by the Bankstown Arts Centre and Sydney Review of Books. This essay was written in the Incubate Artists Studios in Bankstown.