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.