Tuesday, October 28, 2008


At the risk of clubbing you over the head with facts you already know, human beings are mammals, which means we drink milk - our milk - not milk that comes in cartons of the cold section in the supermarket.
Here's a puzzle: Why, then, in English and many other languages, does the word 'milk' first connote the milk of cows? or of sheep or goats? Why doesn't 'milk' immediately conjure warm, sweet and creamy sustenance fresh from the breast? Why, when we think of dairy-maids, are we not imaging rosy-cheeked lasses tweaking the last of the cream from their plump bosoms?
We accept that it is normal to drink milk intended for the young of other mammals. It isn't hard to see the benefit of consuming such a rich and readily available food. Isn't it strange though that we have forgotten that first and foremost 'milk' comes from us?

When my son was born he was placed on my chest to find his way to the locus of his nourishment for the next twelve months. I was reminded of a picture of a newborn kangaroo I had seen in a nature book when I was a child. It looked like a little pink jelly baby that someone had sucked and spat out, stuck to a fur coat. Blind and with a gaping, searching mouth it was less than a centimeter away from the nipple. That picture had made me feel so frustrated, like I wanted to give the baby joey a prod towards its goal with my finger and shout "To the left, dammit! Just a little to the left!"
Rufus was exactly the same. He clawed at my breast and, desperate for something to suck, thrashed his head blindly from side to side like Stevie Wonder.
To anybody who hasn't attended a prenatal breastfeeding class, you would think getting a baby to drink milk from its mother's breast was straightforward: place object A (baby's mouth) on object B (nipple) and voila! - all night milk bar. Instead I had been shown a far superior technique that involved trying to hold the baby like a football and position his head with my elbow while trying to manipulate my nipple into the proper configuration to get as much of it into his poor little gob as possible.
It was far more frustrating than the baby kangaroo photo.
Thankfully my sister-in-law came to visit the next day and said " I don't want to give unsolicited advice, but have you tried holding him comfortably and putting his mouth in front of your nipple?" Bless her and bless the bleeding obvious.
My little mammal knew what to do.

The Wellcome Museum in London has a wonderful collection of milk related objects including a teat cut from the udder of a cow to be used with a bottle for feeding. In its day the surrogate teat wouldn't have raised an eyebrow, let alone a shudder.

We buy the milk of other mammals in bottles at the supermarket. Our strange customs lose their strangeness with the familiarity of the everyday.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Madness Slowly Creepeth

Great Aunt Freda was notable for her inimitable style, her wavy auburn hair (which loitered in our family's genetic recesses until I came along) and her poison pen letters.
She was an excellent writer of poetry and prose but unfortunately her letters, typed in black and red, although well reasoned, were redolent with the whiff of madness.
She over punctuated. The exclamation mark key on her typewriter was worn to a blank. Underlining scarred the page - red dashes punched out like angry Morse under unlikely words like "because" and "although". She capitalized at least twice in every sentence - a sure sign of impending lunacy.

She was a prolific writer of letters. Not one well-meaning Aunt or hapless Second Cousin in our large Irish Catholic family was spared. The letters were fat, with typed addresses and footnotes on the outside of the envelopes that caused raised eyebrows from the postman. I had seen these letters arrive, only to be whisked away and the key turned in the study door.Of course I feigned indifference as though my curiosity were not aroused by my mother and father's furtive hissing and stifled cries of outrage. As soon as the opportunity arose I would ransack my father's desk and read the letter by penlight in a cupboard.

The problem was Catholicism - at least superficially. Freda and my grandmother, Claire, were of stout Protestant stock. When Claire married a Mick and converted she and Freda fell out. They didn't speak until one or two months before Claire died. Claire was in her eighties and a great-grandmother. Freda, two years younger, was unmarried and lived alone.

Freda's letters laid out with deliberate and powerful logic all of the reasons why every member of the Catholic Faith would be damned to an exclusive circle of Hell to be prodded by impish demons for all eternity. Eventually the letters came to include all Christians and became a heretical thesis on the hypocrisies of a faith that had borrowed most of its rites from Pagans because it was easier to change the name of a feast than stop the peasants from having their party.

By the time Freda's 'eccentricity' attracted the notice of the local health authorities the only person in the family on speaking terms with her was my father.
He visited her home and was unnerved to discover it uncannily similar in decor to Claire's. Despite their having lived more than one hundred kilometers distance from one another and having never visited or seen each others house in photographs, the sisters homes were almost a mirror image. The layout of the house was perfectly matched from the porch right through to the position of the lavatory. They had the same taste for Chinoiserie - ginger jars and figurines. They both collected carvings and castings in metal and plaster of the 'three wise monkeys'. They had absolutely identical wallpaper.
Freda's home differed from Claires in that it was shrouded in a thick layer of dust and that almost every item - tables, chairs, knick-knacks, soft furnishings - had a small piece of paper pasted or pinned to it that was black with miniscule wobbly writing. Freda had labelled her possesions.

Freda herself was regal in a long nightgown and bed jacket with her henna'd hair, uncut for over thirty years, wound piled on her head and contained by a knitted cusion cover worn like an bulging beret.
She offered Dad tea and as they sat sipping a large insect crawled out from underneath Freda's hair cosy.
"Good Gracious!" exclaimed my father. "Freda- there is an insect on your forehead! What is it?"
" How should I know" she answered peevishly. "I'm not an entomologist"

Among Freda's possessions, which I helped my father to sort, I found a bottle of perfume that she had labeled "This perfume must have come from poor old Leonard- a fortune! I think it was for my 21st". Leonard was my Great Uncle, my grandfather's brother. Freda and Len had dated at the same time that grandpa and Claire were courting. They were to be married in a double wedding, but something changed Freda's mind. She and Claire had done everything together until then.

The Smoking Cat and the Grey Felt Fedora were Freda's.
Every winter Freda traveled interstate to purchase hats, shoes and gloves for the coming Spring. She had extraordinary taste in hats. They all fit me perfectly.
I have many of the little notes that she pinned to the drapes and glued to the furniture. Each one tells a little story.
I collect Chinoiserie and the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' monkeys.
I'm working on reducing my punctuation.