Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Reclamation | Samantha Cambray
There’s a shadowing as I step out of the car and approach Granny’s house. An intangible familiarity, of things last witnessed in childhood. Dream-like in its disjointedness. And the sense of a critical thing being irretrievably lost: this morning, we buried my grandmother.
I never knew her, really. I rarely visited. Is that why I am here? To snatch the last impressions of her presence? To experience my history, rather than being an outsider in it? The house, well out of town down a dirt road, holds a strange melancholy. It’s been twenty years since I was last here, only ever with my extended family. Never with my mother. Today, I chose to come. A brief, radiant autonomy in a lifetime of avoiding the exposed membrane of the estrangement between my mother and her mother. I remember myself as a child, wary and wide-eyed at that barrier, questioning yet cognizant that my silence was required.
It had been a spare service by the burial plot in a rural cemetery. Elderly folk sat on plastic chairs, country ballads played through a stereo, my cousin Paula stood by my side, her arm around me, the tears on my cheeks unexpected.
"Come out to Granny’s house, I’m gunna grab some photos," Paula whispered to me at the wake. The mood had grown lethargic in the heat of the day. Elderly friends retired home and extended family sat under the bowling club air conditioning, which emanated a lazy mist of beer and nostalgia.
"This fucking vine," Paula mutters outside Granny’s house. She walks off, returning with secateurs a couple of minutes later. She hacks at it where it has overgrown the stairway up to the front door, pulling it away with a grunt from the side of the fibro exterior wall. "She wouldn’t let Dad pull this down. It’s a bloody hazard. Nearly knocked himself out tripping on it."
As she works I begin to wander, precariously, like my presence here needs to be quiet, unnoticed. The garden must have been productive once. There’s an orchard of wizened citrus trees down one side of the house. The ground is covered in rotting mandarins and lemons. The smell is sweet and pungent, of neglect, but also of nature sustaining itself. A domineering pumpkin vine governs most of the open space and an old Hills Hoist stands at an angle. Rusted pegs trap two tea towels, stiff and sun-bleached.
Decades ago, my great-grandparents lived across the creek at the back of the property where the yard gives way to thick, looming rainforest. I have a memory of trying to cross the creek as a skinny child, balancing over a fallen log, easy for my older cousins but perilous for me. I cried. They teased me mercilessly. The old house burnt down long ago and I wonder if there were any relics of it, maybe an old brick chimney or a porcelain tub under layers of vines and undergrowth. Bright fungus growing out of roof beams. Strangler figs growing amongst the ruins, reclaimed by roots reaching into the rich soil. Home to possums and wompoo pigeons, or flying foxes that screech as they feed on its fruits at night.
"Careful," Paula calls out, as she fusses with her hair-sprayed bun, untangling it from her hair. "There used to be a big fucking red belly that lived in there," she says, gesturing to an old shed and an outdoor toilet behind the house. "Nasty fucker, that snake, until Granny took its head off with a shovel. Bet another one took its place." The open door shows my grandfather’s fossicking gear and hundreds of worthless rocks. He died before I was born, but this space is still his.
Turning, we enter the house, side-stepping a glut of pumpkins by the doorway that have started to rot as Granny was in hospital. Already, decay is setting in. Inside, the smell is the thing I remember most about the place. Mouldering. Heavy. I rebelled against it during one of my rare visits.
"This house stinks!" I had objected.
My oldest cousin shushed me. "I know it does, but don’t say it!"
Right now, the air is brittle against the walls of my throat. There are no bare surfaces in the kitchen and dining room: boxes, stacks of newspapers, laundry baskets, piles of crockery and cups all along the kitchen benches, crates of vinyl records and broken appliances on the floor. Faded lino suffocates under the weight of it all. A tap drips.
"It’s a rat-nest," Paula mutters, jimmying open the door of a sideboard in the attached dining room. "She’d go crazy if any of us tried to clean up."
I didn’t have the right to make judgements about how the family cared for her. "My mum," I nod softly. "She’s like this too. A hoarder."
"Dad says Granny and your mum are more alike than they realise," Paula says, crouching down and removing a box with familiarity. The photos.
"He’s not wrong," I murmur. My funeral heels click against the floorboards as I walk into the living room, tracking along a narrow pathway formed from the sediment of discarded belongings.
There are photos in dusty frames against peeling wallpaper. Black and white ones of my grandparents as newlyweds. My aunts and uncles as dirty farm children. Recent ones too. Even my mother, a teenager in large sunglasses and a bikini. My mum hates the beach. Hates the feel of sand.
What is my mother doing right now? Likely sitting on the veranda of her bedsit, hand-sewing one of her unfinished projects, drinking instant coffee from a mug as familiar as the taste, surrounded by petunias and dianthus in plastic pots. She hung up on me when I rang to tell her of Granny’s death, muttering that she didn’t care, and good riddance. The sudden silence was bewildering and shameful.
"What happened?" I stretch across a lounge to reach the photo and unhook it from the wall. "Between Mum and Granny that…" My voice fades like the floral couch as I run a finger across the grimy dust at the top of the frame. "That caused the rift between them?" The words collapse into the space between us.
"Everyone wants to ask you the same question," Paula responds. "You don’t know?" She takes a hit from her asthma puffer, the hiss abrasive.
"You didn’t ever ask her?"
"No. It’s a raw topic. Mum was pretty closed and bitter about whatever it was." I shrug, talking to the framed photograph in my hand. Here she is, still existing in this home she loathed. She is entrapped, a spirit in film, unable to escape. I re-hang the photo.
"Your Mum’s a funny one," Paula replies. "So quiet."
I nod. Quiet, but a brooding quiet, weaving narratives back in on her own containment, creating a barrier that always felt flimsy to me. A barrier I needed to soundlessly guard, to protect from whatever it was that hurt her. I move from the photo wall and look out the back door. It’s jammed. Through the dirty window, I can see the decking is rotting. A passionfruit vine has taken over the veranda, and it casts a gloom over this whole side of the house. Something skitters in the roof.
"See this one? That’s you," Paula says, pointing to a photograph.
I turn to look. I was a baby, cuddled on Granny’s lap. She was looking down at me, smiling, while I was busy slobbering on a stick of celery.
"Me?" I ask. My presence on the family wall astonishes me. Here I am, taking my place in the family history. A forgiving. But then it strikes me. I never did anything wrong. Why wouldn’t I be here?
I look back at myself in the matriarchal family home. A home that groans against its load, that holds answers, too many of them. But perhaps not the right questions.
I see that Granny, in all the neglect of this house, has things she held and held. Connections. Hope of reconciliation. Just as my mother held her wounding and her conviction. Just as I have held the delicateness of side-stepping this fracture between them.
I want to let go. It’s not mine to carry. I don’t need answers. I need release. The release of death, the release of turning away, and my release; the release of existing outside this mother-wound.
"These secrets, whatever they are, Mum didn’t tell me for a reason. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe I don’t need to know." I feel the rasp of my lungs labouring against this pregnant air. "Let’s go," I say.
I take the photo of my mother from the wall again and leave. The house continues its slow decay, moving to the same end as our great-grandparent’s house before it. Both houses, eventually, reclaimed by the rainforest which has been here for millennia before us.
Samantha Cambray is a Southern Cross University student undertaking the Associate Degree of Creative Writing.