We have always been strong
I was something of a sickly child, or at least a weird and wobbly one. I could be full of energy, enthusiasm and clumsiness, but I was often tired, I often had issues with food, had that slightly neurotic distance and sensibilities that often marks someone as a writer in the making. I wanted to be a person of the body, but I wasn’t very good at it and it did not come as easily as reading or writing.
I did not want to be “the sickly kid” in school, those are people that are mercilessly picked on and seen as lacking in moral character, but I was often home sick, I was often dizzy, I’d bring boxes of tissues to school and still run out… being a mucous factor and having a post nasal drip for years is not the best way to win friends and influence people, but I did ok given my limitations. It’s uncanny to think about how physical I am now in my 30s when I look back at where I have been.
I think one of the things that kept me going (along with books, journaling and dogs) was a sense that my matriline was strong. It was the story of myself I liked the best, a true story at that. I know occupations of my mother’s line better than any other.
My great great grandmother was a washer woman. She ran her own business, she was strong. You cannot survive a business of boiling water and heavy fabrics back in those days without a strong back. In my mind she is tall and solid with arms like a wrestler, she does not have time to be pretty or even handsome, but she is practical and wise and wants her children to have a better life.
My great grandmother was an actress and a singer and during this critical developmental time she too was strong and energetic (though I later discovered that she was sickly when my grandmother was a young woman and had needed much caretaking, but this was not part of my great grandmother myth). She was in silent movies in Scotland and with her siblings sang under the stage name the La Motte (or was it Monte?) sisters. She married late and to an engineer. A highland scott to a lowland scott, a catholic to a protestant. By all accounts they adored each other and only argued about religion… she secretly had her children baptised catholic so that they wouldn’t go to hell. I imagined her firey and wonderful, the secret sneaking only adding charm.
My grandmother went to university, and before that to an all girls school where, because of her height, she played the male parts in dances and plays. She loved university, she loved dances and sociability, she too married late. The telegrams Joy received when she had my mother are full of surprise as well as praise for her cleverness at making such a thing. At an early age she changed her name to Joy because that felt more true than the one she had been given at birth. She worked for much of her married life as a tutor, as did her husband when his health allowed. I did not realize until after she died that she was sneakily my tutor, she had just done it so subtly on our Saturday afternoons together when we’d chat about what I was learning an I always felt better about writing my essays after spending time with her.
My mother got her honors degree in Psychology, using punch cards for the statistical analysis and heavily involved in student politics. She got into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and made them give her a posting that wasn’t one of the meaningless cushy jobs they palmed women off to. That was how she became the first Australian female diplomat in South East Asia. The Malay Mail wrote an article about her, the headline “A New Breed of Woman.”
This is my matriline, I’ve held onto it like a thread in times of darkness. The women of my family have suffered and made sacrifices, but they have been strong and joyful, even when surrounded by illness and despair. They have made unconventional choices, been unconventional people with a certain straight forwardness and pragmatism as well as a dreamy creativity. They have been whole and complete and not just a figure in someone else’s shadow. They have been people and in a world where women and women’s experiences can be seen as less than. When the default human still does not mean my gender and where the patriarchy in my head can unperson me as well as the structural oppressions outside of me, it is good to have lifelines, matrilines to hold onto. We suffer, we survive, we are capable, we are diverse, we make our choices, we go on.
Liz’s short stories can be found in places like Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, and This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death. Liz writes love letters, songs and poems to inanimate object and two of her short stories have become plays that are regularly performed. She creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs and her website is http://lizargall.com/