After Romulus – Raimond Gaita

This is an extract from Gaita’s book After Romulus, a collection of essays that follow his book, and the movie adaptation of Romulus, My Father. The books follow his experiences as a European that migrated to Australia in the WWII/post-war era of the 1950s. In this excerpt Gaita talks about his childhood experience of his mother’s mental illness and how it has affected him long into adulthood.

After Romulus was first published in 2011.

(Hora’s children and grandchildren Yael and I) spent the next day at Frogmore and at the site of the camp. In mid-afternoon they returned to Melbourne. An hour or so after they left I felt edgy, tense and very disturbed. On a hair-trigger, I provoked a quarrel with Yael later that evening. That made me even more agitated because we hardly ever quarrel. I walked out of the house to my car, but with no conscious intention to do so. Again with no conscious thought I drove to Frogmore, my childhood home. I climbed through the wire fence surrounding the remains of the house. From there, with no sense of what I was doing or why, I walked half a kilometre across a paddock, my feet crunching on the wheat stubble, almost white by the light of the moon, and lay down next to a log in a swamp area. As is often the case, there was no water in it.

More than fifty years earlier, a few days after she returned to Frogmore from the hospital in Maldon following a failed suicide attempt, my mother left the house without telling my father or me and spent the night in that same swamp, lying beside a log. As we had done on the night she tried to kill herself, we sought help from Tom Lillie, a neighbouring farmer who had a phone and a car. His son-in-law, who lived in Bendigo and who had come to stay overnight with Tom, put together a search party of locals and the Maldon police. He was dressed in city clothes and an overcoat, which struck me as strange. He organised things in a voice that made me protective of my mother. Tom was disdainful of her, and I heard the same tone in the voice of his son-in-law.

She came back to the house (I cannot say she came ‘home’) the next morning. My father and I were hysterical with grief because we thought she lay dead somewhere in the paddocks, but she refused to tell us what she did that night or why. She told us only that she had stumbled over a log and cut one of her shins. She said that she had been demoralised and had slept the night beside the log. I doubt that she slept. Not even someone as psychologi- cally and spiritually weary as she must have been could have slept in such a place. Searchlights pierced the cold, black night. Rescuers shouted to one another. Over them she must have heard my father calling ‘Christel’ and me screaming ‘Muti’.

Standing knee-deep in another swamp only a kilometre away from the waterless one in which my mother lay, watching ten or so men search for her body, is one of the most searing of my childhood memories. I do not know why my father thought that she would try to drown herself in water that came, at its deepest, only to the knees of an adult. Perhaps it was because he was given to melodrama. Or perhaps he thought that having come back from hospital where sleeping tablets were pumped from her stomach, she had no more tablets with which to kill herself.

What was I doing, lying there that night, almost sixty years old, forty-seven years after my mother had killed herself? At the time I thought that I wanted to feel as she had, but could I really have believed that? Did I believe that I could abstract how that night might have felt for her—to be lying in the swampland of a desolate Central Victorian plain that she hated—from the context of her life and take it into my own life? How could I separate out her mental illness, the particular quality of her displacement, the fact that only days before she had tried to kill herself?

Psychological forces, strong and below the surface of consciousness, walked me to the spot where I lay, provoked into declaring themselves by the presence of Hora’s grandchildren, one of whom was the same age that I was when I came to the camp, just over the hill from our house. Those forces were not seeking what I thought I was seeking.

Absurd though it was for me to think that by lying in the swamp that night I could better understand what my mother felt when she lay there, I am sure that I went there because in the thirteen years since I wrote Romulus, My Father my understanding of the desperation of her short life in Australia has been deepened by imagining her in that swamp. She spent the night there two years after we had arrived at Port Melbourne in 1950.

I wrote the first draft of Romulus, My Father in three weeks. It must have been written in my heart long before, but writing it was not, of course, simply a matter of transcribing what was there onto paper. Many people have commented on the calm quality of the prose, but it was emotionally tumultuous in the writing—I felt exhilaration and depression in equal measure. Three weeks like that were not long enough to muse, to meditate imaginatively, over the dramatic story I told in the book. Perhaps for that reason, the image that presented itself to me, vividly, as representing her despair in the landscape is this one:

The road from Baringhup to Moolort was five hundred metres from Frogmore, connected to the house by a rough track. The taxi that brought my mother from Maldon left her at the junction of the road and the track, probably at her request. I first saw her when she was two hundred metres or so from the house, alone, small, frail, walking with an uncertain gait and distracted air. In that vast landscape with only crude wire fences and a rough track to mark a human impression on it she appeared forsaken. She looked to me as though she had returned from the dead, unsure about the value of the achievement.

When I say that image presented itself to me imaginatively I do not mean that I made it or even part of it up. I wrote it faithfully as I remembered it, but I remembered it visually, almost cinematically. I suspect that the drama and pathos of it prevented me from seeing the less dramatic but more representative quality of her desperation, and perhaps from understanding its place in the rest of her life. Attempted suicide, the events that lead up to it and its aftermath, constitute an episode in a life, and the despair it represents may be limited to that episode. The kind of despair that I now see represented in the fact that she lay most of a night in a swamp pervaded my mother’s life in Australia through and through. Not every day, of course, but through and through nonetheless.

My mother stayed another week with my father and me at Frogmore. Her mood was alternately lethargic and restless. Sometimes she went to Maldon, driven by my father on the motorbike or by taxi. Around that time.

Myra Laity, driving her husband’s taxi, came across her on the road between Baringhup and Maldon. She must have walked more than eight kilometres. Her dress was dirty and torn and her mood was as desolate as the summer landscape must have appeared to her. Myra took her to her home in Maldon, gave her something to eat and drink and also a clean dress.

Myra told me this story almost ten years after I had written Romulus, My Father.

I do not know why my mother was walking in the summer heat on a journey of eighteen kilometres if Maldon was her destination. Perhaps she had quarrelled with my father and had refused a lift to Maldon, or to Castlemaine if she intended to catch a train to Melbourne, where she had been living with Mitru, her lover. Or perhaps my father refused to take her. Or perhaps she did not tell him that she was leaving, just as she told us nothing before (and almost nothing after) she walked out of Frogmore to the swamp. A few weeks later, she returned to Melbourne and to Mitru.

I wrote to her often for the next year and a half, at first in almost incomprehensible German and then in English of sorts. ‘The heat up here is killing me,’ I complained. I told her that I listened to Superman and Tarzan serials on our battery-powered radio and about the antics of Jack, our cockatoo. I reminded her that I would be turning seven in five days’ time. In almost every letter I asked when she would come home. I don’t think she replied, though Mitru sometimes did. She kept my letters in a box she had brought from Germany and carried with her as she moved from one rented room to another, first with Mitru and, after he killed himself, on her own.

In August 1958, my mother came to my school in Ballarat where I was a boarder. I had not seen her for two and a half years (not one and a half as I say in Romulus, My Father), nor had she written to me. She told me that she wanted to return to my father, asked me to tell him so and pleaded with me to persuade him to agree to it. She said that a doctor had told her that she would live no longer than a year if she were not cared for. She did not explain why he said this. I didn’t ask. I said almost nothing during the five or so hours we were together, offering minimal responses to her questions and volunteering nothing. I believed what the doctor had told her. She was evidently physically unwell, the result, I assumed, of general neglect and of her asthma, which attacked her with unrelenting severity. She was gaunt, hollow-eyed and skinny. When she left I asked the headmaster to tell her, if she came again, that I did not want to see her for the time being. I did not know what to say to her because I knew my father was committed to bringing Katica to Australia. I also resented her putting me under such pressure though she had not even written to me for two and a half years.

A week later the headmaster told me that she had come again and that he had done what I asked him to. Almost a month passed before I went home for the term holidays. Only then did I tell my father of my meeting with my mother and what she had said. She phoned him at the house of our neighbour, Tom Lillie. He told her that he could not take her back and that, even if he could, it would end as it had in the past. Moved by her pleas he agreed to meet her in Ballarat. She was dead before they could meet.

For nearly all of the time since my mother’s death, it has mattered to me that when I asked the headmaster to tell my mother that I did not want to see her I qualified that by adding, ‘for the time being’. When the film was made I insisted that those words be given to Rai. Only recently did I realise that I do not know whether the headmaster conveyed that qualification to her. I do not know what he said, but I can imagine the disapproving, condescending tone in which he would have spoken to her. And if he told her, was she so shocked that I didn’t want to see her that she did not hear the qualification that followed? If she heard it, did she believe it?

In Ballarat she lived on the east side of the city on a steep hill in an outer suburb. She had lived there with Mitru before they moved to Maryborough. There, in a tiny room in a small weatherboard house, physically very ill, in psychiatric care, abandoned—she must have thought— by the man who would never fail her and rejected even by her son, she took an overdose of sleeping tablets on 10 October 1959. She would have turned thirty a little more than a month later.

When I drive to Shalvah, passing through Castlemaine and then Maldon, on roads my father and I travelled often, or when I am on the Beach Road driving to Mentone where Hora lived, I miss them, sometimes intensely.

I do not miss my mother in that way. When I miss my father and Hora I imagine us in conversation. I could miss my mother as I do them only if I could talk to her as an adult; if I could ask her why she did this or that; if I could comfort her for what she suffered as I now understand it; if I could offer forgiveness, were she to ask for it, for the wrong she did me, for which I sorrow, as she did, but for which I do not judge her. But I cannot seriously conceive of any of this. I knew her only as a boy. Even when I wonder anxiously what she would make of the book and the film, Romulus, My Father, and of this book, and of me, her son, who put her under the public gaze, I know that, though I can frame the questions that I would put to her, it is incoherent for me even to try to imagine a conversation between us.

I sometimes also wonder what my father would think of the film or the book, or what Hora would think of the film, but I can speculate, knowing them, that they might think this or that, or that they would be unpredictable on this matter, as only human beings can be. My mother, of course, had a distinctive perspective on the world. Neil Mikkelsen, who as a young farmer, I suspect, was in love or at least infatuated with her, described her to me before I wrote Romulus, My Father as ‘a woman of substance’. Commenting on that in the book, I say that he meant not merely that she was no scatterbrain, but that she had the arresting presence of someone who experienced the world with a thoughtful intensity’. I never knew my mother like that, not because I knew her differently, but because as a child I could not make such a judgment. She does not have for me the individuated presence of an adult, a distinctive perspective on the world. So I cannot imagine being with her as though she did. But that is how she would have to be if I could miss her in the way I miss my father and Hora. I wish I could miss her that way.

I don’t miss her as I do my father and Hora, but I long for her in a way that I do not for them. My longing goes deep, so deep that I cannot think of myself without it. I do not think that my mother is more deeply part of me than my father, that my identity is more importantly shaped by her than by him, though her influence is probably more subterranean. But I am constituted by the way I long for her, by the psychological and ethical factors in which that longing is embedded and which make it what it is, factors that I do not understand but that I know walked me to the swamp.

– Raimond Gaita, 2011