Autobiography & Memoir
'We've time for one more person to read,' announced the well known writer Nell Dunn, author of the famous 1960s book 'Up the junction'. It was later made into a 'kitchen sink' box office hit movie as it had been a true life story of an upper middle class girl moving south of the Thames to experience life in a working class area.
There were about thirty-five of us, mainly women - in all shapes and forms - and aged from about thirty to fifty, waiting for the final reader to come forward to read aloud what she had written and to bare her soul in front of the group. We had been asked to name and write about an outsider in our family. We were to say what we felt if we were that outsider and whether we perceived that outsider in ourself.
'I'll read,' I heard myself call out. I had never read out aloud in a group before and certainly had never read out or discussed intimate matters in front of strangers. I was not too good at writing but seemed to have found during that very emotional exercise that I enjoyed writing down my thoughts. There was no time to think and I was simply triggered by a gripping emotion in a very limited time space of ten minutes.
First I had had to read my piece to two of my co-listeners. And whilst reading to them I had choked on the last few lines. Surprisingly it had happened again when I read out the same line to the entire group. Each of us had rushed to put our emotions to paper, then groups of three had to read aloud in turn to each other and no one was meant to comment nor to analyse.
All the readings were moving. Mark, from Singapore wrote about the unmarried sister he had left behind suffering from cancer. Tina, had written about her mother who would wake her up in the middle of the night and, for no apparent reason, would beat her and her sister. Another wrote about the family problems caused by her mother who had had a Victorian upbringing - a problem that I could share with. Then Roxanne, an American woman living in Istanbul, read out the dialogue with her alter-ego. Criticising her appearance and asking herself why she had let herself go, not caring about her unkempt greasy hair and lack of interest in her clothes.
I was the last to read and the following is what I read out, with myself as The Outsider, on that windy afternoon reclining on comfortable low, long cushions huddled together, on a basement floor somewhere on the remote Greek island of Skyros, far away from the reality of the outside world and safely contained in a large holistic bubble.
'My life would have been different if my mother's first child, Tessa had not been stillborn. I was named Gillian Tessa - the very name I later found in my grandmother's handwriting on the back of an Edwardian photograph of a pair of Georgian candlesticks. My grandmother's name was Augusta but I had never known her as she had died before I was born. All four of my grandparents had died long before my mother had married. Those names Gillian Tessa always remained a mystery. Why was Gillian Tessa written on the reverse of the old photograph of a pair of candlesticks? 11410 was she? Another outsider perhaps. And Tessa. Who was she? Gillian (now Jilliana) had played a mental game with Tessa earlier this year in an NLP workshop. I created her as my alter-ego and silently spoke to her for the duration of the exercise. It had been a one-way conversation.
Ours was a silent family; middle class professional would be the classification. Living in a leafy, conventional suburb of Liverpool. Unusually silent for a Jewish family. Few people came to visit. I now look back and realise that we were the outsiders as we did not socialise within the Jewish community. Mother, father and I, Gillian Tessa. As my parents had had me late in life due to the death of my stillborn sister there was a generation gap. My four cousins were so much older than me that there was hardly anyone of my age to play with. Of course, there was always the boy at the bottom of the garden who would dig with me in my sandpit. Peter was his name.
Family get-togethers every Friday night, after the candles had been lit, were dull and the conversation boring. The same domestic conversation every Friday with Auntie Gladys, Auntie Gertie and henpecked, meek and quiet Uncle Harry, who had been traumatised having been a prisoner of war in Burma. He was minus a finger. No one asked why! My father would pretend he was deaf and would be lost in his own legal world at the head of the table. Always the same dinner. Roast chicken with bread sauce, roast potatoes and garden peas. And to start, half a grapefruit with castor sugar. For dessert, a fresh fruit salad in a beautiful opaline Lalique glass bowl with glass fish decorations swirling around its exterior. As soon as I could, I would race off to my bedroom to get lost in movie magazines and film star fan photos signed to me by the 1950 's Hollywood stars. Lost in my own world in a mauve bedroom, the outside/inside haven '
My mother, Peggy as The Outsider. Another room, another time blending with the past. The back living room in the early 1960's. A lime green sofa, orange cushions and ruby red and cream damask curtains. The sun streaming in from the terrace. The back room was the one we always lived in as the front room was cold and formal and only used for the Friday night dinners. I remember my mother putting on the electric fire in the afternoon to warm the room up for the evening.
I see my mother Peggy sitting there. 'A leopard can never change its spots' she would say. 'You know how shy I am. I just can't express myself'. If only my mother had spoken to me, hugged and kissed me then, all those years ago - how different life would be today. I remembered, back in the mauve film star bedroom, the kiss cupboard. Up high to the right of the bed. My mother would creep in to the room to say goodnight and, instead of touching me, would open the cupboard door, take out a kiss, and blow it to me as silently she went out and closed the door behind her.
If she could understand today, I would ask her why she could not kiss me and touch me like a normal mother. I had, however, worked it out. The pieces of the jigsaw beginning with the Victorian Era - Augusta who was too old and too weak to bring Peggy up after having had four children. My mother was told she had been an afterthought. The eldest sister Gladys who became the mother image, reared her. All that was left was the solitude of Peggy herself being the outsider. The isolation stemmed back spanning two generations - from Augusta to Peggy and from Peggy to me.
The line stops there as there are no more outsiders to continue our family tree. I have never wanted children - this is perhaps the silent deep rooted reason why. Peggy is now in a nursing home and will be 89 next week. She is not always lucid and my questions will never be answered.
There was silence in the room for a few seconds after I had finished reading. Then the atmosphere changed. The sound level rose. Mari Hall, my large than life Rubenesque American Reiki Master at the centre came over, hugged me saying she felt she understood me better through my expressive words! All of us participants dusted ourselves down out of the protective holistic bubble and ventured into the sunlight in the awaiting world outside.
Jilliana Ranicar-Breese (neé Gillian Tessa Levin) August, 1998. Written at The Skyros Centre on the island of Skyros, Sporades, Greece.