Maggie West was born in Perth, Western Australia, but has lived in all states and territories. As a mature aged student with a large family, she went to university, received a teaching degree in 1978 and finally achieved her doctorate in 2000. She has taught in schools and universities since she first graduated and is at present teaching literature to American university students on their campus here in New South Wales. She has published several of her own short stories, reviews and articles. Her interests are writing, reading and music. Now a grandmother, she lives an idyllic life of semi-retirement in northern New South Wales with her husband, three golden retrievers, two cats and a large garden that needs more of her time and attention than she has at present to devote to it.
have travelled a long way from my origins
there anything left of the child...
a sparkling Perth morning and the beautiful Kathleen walks along St George’s
Terrace in Western Australia’s capital city, carrying her baby. She is approached by an American sailor who says, “Hi
Honey, let’s drop the baby and go places”.
Despite his officer status, Kathleen ignores him. The baby is me and
I’m a month old.
story of the officer and the virtuous woman is a mantra, told often by Kathleen,
so that it becomes a sacred text of my childhood; it gives the listener plenty
to think about. A subliminal lesson
is that only someone of the officer class, a gentleman one assumes, would dare
to accost a woman of such ladylike mien. A
more obvious lesson is the evidence of Kathleen’s virtue; unlike many others,
Kathleen was immune to the lures of American servicemen, officers or not. From
this tale I learn that few resisted the temptations offered by Americans during
their sojourn in Australia; one of the few was Kathleen, a virtuous woman
indeed, despite her obsession with the matter.
The tale illustrates too, that my
nuisance factor is evident from my earliest days: a spoiler of good times am I,
and I do not improve with age. The millstone I’m later called is also evoked
by the tale: the young Kathleen, with her burden, struggling along the hot Perth
streets. More importantly I will
gather from this story that there was a brief time when I had been in
Kathleen’s care, prior to meeting her again when I was three, by which time
she had become a stranger to me.
work each day now, many decades later, I look out over a small enclosed garden
and remember Perth, and still feel a loss of that beautiful city whilst being
aware that the Perth I remember has long gone. Through my window the garden is
different from those of Perth: a subtropical garden with poinsettias vibrant
against white daisies, budding wisteria clambering over the surrounding fence
and flourishing palms of all sizes. In
the background are large trees, mostly eucalypts that add a soft grey to the
varied greens and brilliant reds. There’s a birdbath, which a bowerbird has
made his own, occasionally allowing his less glamorous partner to share his bath
water. This is my room, my freedom,
where I spend my days and live the essence of Woolf’s ‘room of one’s
own’; I cannot express fully the gratitude I feel for my husband who created
this room from a former shed, for me. Milan
Kundera writes that gratitude is ‘simply another name for weakness, for
Aligned with love, which includes friendship, sexual happiness, shared
humour and the comfort of acceptance, gratitude strengthens a relationship and
is simply one part of the whole. This
is the gratitude I feel, one aspect of something larger, much more complete.
my room, I will attempt to do what Adrienne Rich has called ‘diving into the
wreck’, what John Mortimer calls ‘clinging to the wreckage’, and write of
my life truthfully whilst acknowledging that truth is always a variable. In doing this I will perhaps come to a realisation that there
are some wrecks, which can be repaired. Recalling
this life, I must heed too Chilean writer, Isabel Allende’s warning that
‘minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory.’
Such minotaurs bring
nightmare in their wake but nevertheless must be faced.
Allende, I was born in momentous times when names like Roosevelt, Stalin and
Hitler were spoken in hushed tones and were of much interest to all; my birth
did not arouse much interest, certainly not on a world scale and not much within
the family. Kathleen said my father
had been so disinterested in my imminent arrival that he had not bothered to
hang around for the event. Later I
will learn to take this with a grain of salt, after I have become reconciled to
the fact that most I heard from Kathleen about my father was untrue.
On her better days, she would tell a story of how, as a sixteen-year-old
girl she had met my father at a ball in Kalgoorlie, when he was a British naval
officer travelling in the entourage of the Prince of Wales.
The Prince of Wales had picked up Kathleen’s long black plait and
admired it; she was introduced to his party, which included my father. There was romance in this tale and I loved it.
I grew up and, unfortunately, began to take note of dates; I discovered that Kathleen’s dates and those of the royal visit do not coincide. There is the small matter of the husbands, children too, that Kathleen had prior to marrying my father, but more of that later. True, my father had been in the British navy, but long before he met Kathleen; when they married, many years after the Wales’ visit, my father was a poultry farmer – something I did not find out until I was about to marry and needed to view my birth certificate. It was all rather disappointing: a poultry farmer lacks the glamour of a British naval officer.
As a child, I’d imagine my father hovering around the hospital to have a quick look at me. He has a son already so will be pleased to have a daughter or so I would make believe. Perhaps Kathleen’s insistence that he was disinterested in me was as untruthful as the story of him being so drunk that he knocked over a hurricane lamp and burnt down the chicken shed, killing thousands of mother hens and their baby chicks. I hate this story, and find later that it too is quite untrue; its mythological nature persuades me that other things I hear about my father might be inaccurate also. Perhaps he was interested in my arrival, though I must admit he seems to have disappeared soon after, along with his contributions to our livelihood. It is knowledge such as this, that no one really cared about one’s birth or survival, that makes the autobiographical writer understand the truth of scientist, Barbara York Main’s adage that ‘it is as painful to return into the womb of childhood as it is to leave it.’ 
Milan, Ignorance, pp. 137-8
Isabel, My Invented Country, p.xi
B.Y., Twice Trodden Ground, p.6.
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