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These family get-togethers keep getting smaller and less together.

A Big and Little Joke

part 1 of Common People

"You live your life chasing the man with the beard," my mother would say. "A nice man! Tall, but not too tall, because then you — you too short, eh-mar, for a very tall man with a beard, you look - how you say it, like a big and little joke. But when you catch him," she mimed, the snatch of bird-claw hands at the space in front of my nose, "What does he do? He shaves it off! And that's why you not gotta chase the man with the beard. You gotta chase the man without the beard, and then when you catch him, you teach him how to stop shaving. And that's how you do it right."

My mother's interruptions were always well timed. About the real critical issues, too.

My youngest was a challenging sort, dressed with enough aggressive ambiguity that I could not feel comfortable describing her here as my daughter. She would have been the one to say, eye-rolling: "That doesn't make any sense."

"Yes it does!" My mother snatched at the air again, triumphant. "All men are lazy. Piece of cake to let him be lazy enough to stop shaving, but men are stubborn. You try to change a man once he think to start thinking about doing something, and you get nowhere. The smack in the bum, maybe you get. But the smack in the bum isn't the man with the beard. No, easier to let him be like a man. Lazy."

The subversive sibling, this one definitely a daughter with all the bells, frilly hair and stereotypical chains and whistles, would be nodding. Gracious, elegant, and a perfect little double-divorcee snake. "You have to trick the men, wouldn't you."

"That's right," said my mother, long and gappy on the aye and the eye, two sounds too similar to each other to be distinguished in this day and age. Her nods were a caricature of wise old cronehood.

My youngest would have been exuding scorn. She may have even left the table at that point, under the pretext of another appointment. A parting volley, perhaps, before she stalked out in her mannish jeans and tight checkered shirt, her hair always every colour except that which was natural: "Why do you always have to be thinking about men? For God's sake, you're eighty seven, if you can't stop talking about men now, then when can we stop talking about them?"

Perhaps the subversive sibling would have blushed. I would have felt the shame at a far deeper level, where the extra sixty kilos could keep it from showing.

Before my mother's interruptions, which increased in frequency as the Dementia took hold, we six around the table would have been talking about something meaningful. Something serious, such as the immigration problem in Australia These Days. Australia These Days was a place formally distinct in definition as both a time and a cognitive dissonance caused by a particular shared set of beliefs. Of course, we had the right to talk about immigration, being so experienced with the matter ourselves. My two children were at this table, the two still in this country: they had never been around this world except by both choice and providence, but they knew so very much about immigration and said policies. A generation of the partially but widely informed; the widely traveled but shallowly experienced; and am I letting the hem of my resentment show beneath my skirt, do you think? Let me draw your attention, then, to my two cousins and contemporaries, who surely have the right to comment on immigration policies, what with their lingering terror of their childhoods: you just imagine arriving stinking of garlic, darkskinned and without a word of English to your name, not even your name, at eight years of age with not a friend in the world. Immigrants should be refused and rebuffed, my cousins would have said in a poorly veiled argument, rejected and returned — because they would be happier back at home. No one should face what pain we had.

A remnant of the Days Back At Home littered the table, drawing in the flies: plates crusted with old sauce, air heavy with oregano, more wine glasses than there were people. I would have been wanting my coffee already. Watching, over the wine I shouldn't have drunk, as my widely informed, well-educated and inexperienced children began to bridle at the immigration debate, one aggressively, one subversively. Would they raise the argument based on imprecise definitions, today? Or the declaration of death and destruction upon all those elders who dare to generalise?

The problem was, as far as I was concerned, that there wasn't enough of us here. Add in another fifty cousins, and we wouldn't have been able to hear enough of each other to ask for the salt without miming it out, much less argue about political semantics in charades.

In Those Days, before my mother grew demented, our conversations never quite got so serious. She still would have been talking about men. Never to a man, but always about them, as though they were a mysterious artifact from a world she had need to manipulate, but that she would never understand. A man had brought her here, her mystical husband, brought her here and died scarcely a year later, abandoning her to this foreign land. Small wonder they terrified and captivated her. By the time our other cousins arrived, her terror was fixed. I watched my cousins navigate through and around men as though men were a welcome part of existence, but neither an important or prioritized aspect.

It's an attitude I understand even less than my daughters. The one, who hates men and envies them our attentions; the other, who manipulates her men, controls, and never quite accepts that a man might be as human as she, as deserving of respect as us all.

It seems prudent to explain that my mother has never stopped thinking about men. This affliction, of all the horrors in her past, seems to have been her curse on us all.

May 2010

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