Memories are funny things. Not really like photographs, or files on our hard-drive, memories are much more malleable. Each time we retrieve them and metaphorically turn them over in our hands, they are somehow changed, altered, edited. We regard our memories through the veil of our own experience.
This is my memory, now, from when I was (about) 12 years old, in 1973.
During my childhood and teenage years, my brother, sister, and parents often stayed with my grandparents, in their large, sprawling house in the Sussex countryside. I remember the house as comfortable (in a not-at-all-smart way), with large gardens where we could build dens, help mow lawns and dig vegetables, and big, creaky bedrooms with chimneys that whistled eerily when the wind blew. Our visits there were governed by an unchanging routine that began with early morning egg-collecting and the letting-out of chickens and geese, and ended with the recouping of the same to keep them safe from prowling foxes and other night hazards. In between, mealtimes were regular and frequent, to service the needs of the “paying guests”- a fluctuating population of working people and visitors to the area whose lodgings, along with sales of surplus garden produce, provided my grandmother with her income.
On this particular occasion, we were not to be the only family visiting. My uncle, who my grandparents had adopted as a baby, would also be staying. I was intrigued. I had heard about my uncle, but never met him. He had a reputation for being unconventional; (although my grandparents might have used a less neutral term). He was some 13 years’ younger than my father, so that made him a relatively youthful 29. He was relatively well-travelled (for 1973), and now, he was going to live in New Zealand with his wife and baby daughter. In my typical 12-year old way, I soaked up the atmosphere and nuance. I learned that he had adopted what would later become known as an “alternative lifestyle” and I sensed a certain apprehension and disapproval amongst the adults in my family. One thing was obvious to me: the fatted calf had nothing to fear!
Adults tend to think that children don’t notice things and so children tend to become skilled in covert observation. I was adept at sitting quietly in a corner buried in a book, seemingly oblivious to everything. In fact, the longer the atmosphere of discomfort prevailed, the more excited I became and the more my anticipation grew.
At last a battered van (of the Camper variety) pulled into the drive and up to the house and my uncle, his wife and baby daughter emerged into our grey, drizzly afternoon like extraordinary exotic butterflies landing on a cabbage. These were real, live hippies! Such as I had only seen under perjorative headlines in the Daily Express.
I have a memory of my uncle, a slight man with long hair, wearing a band around his head and a purple t-shirt that laced-up at the front. His wife struck me as beautiful and willowy, with long chestnut hair and a long tie-dyed dress that brushed her sandaled feet. She carried what seemed to me to be a very small baby wrapped in a cotton shawl. If it’s possible to feel hopelessly frumpy at twelve year’s old, I did on that afternoon.
My grandmother’s proffered hospitality was politely declined, on the basis that “everything we need is in the van” and “the van” (which in my memory is a mustardy yellow colour) took on Tardis-like qualities in my imagination. And so, that night, when we went upstairs to bed, the little family disappeared back into the van.
I seem to think they left the next day. But not before I had seen the beautiful woman in her long kaftan, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, feeding her tiny baby. I suppose it was the first time I had been exposed to breastfeeding that wasn’t entirely private and functional. I remember being captivated by how graceful and relaxed she seemed, and feeling embarrassed when she saw me watching her, and smiled at me.
Tomorrow we leave Sydney and fly to New Zealand (via Brisbane). Sadly, the beautiful Lady Madonna with the quiet smile, died some years ago. But my uncle, three of his children, and many grandchildren live in and around Christchurch. A twelve-year-old, well-behaved girl, with tidy clothes and sensible shoes is very excited to meet them.