Bye, bye, baby, bye, bye

THE BABY started school yesterday. She didn’t want to, particularly, and the good-morning snuggle in our bed lingered on and on. It made her father laugh. It reminded him of how he had felt when I was expecting our first child and my waters broke in the middle of the night. He had dived under the Doona in dismay and said, “Just give me a minute.” Anything to hold off this momentous change.

Frightened to let them come, frightened to let them go. We had all worked hard on getting used to the idea of school. She had paraded around in her blue-checked uniform and sensible black shoes over the holidays, carefully packed and unpacked all the mysterious contents of the schoolbag, and played “school” every day for a fortnight.

It got to the point where even I was becoming confident that this quiet, shy little girl was going to be fine. Then came the time I couldn’t play teacher – there were potatoes to be peeled – and her big brother offered to stand in. “Hang on,” he said. “I’ll just get the strap and the ruler.” Her eyes widened.

No, no, I protested, they don’t hit children at school these days. It’s one of your brother’s stories, like the one about how you would grow antennas if you were bitten by a dragonfly. And remember how he fibbed that the dentist would saw your head off and screw it back on? That wasn’t true, was it? She nodded doubtfully. But I was reassured; it reminded me that her schooldays would be dramatically different from mine.

Yesterday she dressed herself except for the final tie of the shoelaces and tried the loaded bag on for size. “It’s too heavy,” she protested over her new harness. She lurched between over-exuberance and vulnerability, clowning about the room and then throwing herself into my arms and clinging.I rocked her and sang what I had always sung for them when they were feeling small and frightened, that old ’60s classic, “Be my, Be my baby . . . My one and only baby, Be my darlin’.”

The moment, when it came, was an anti-climax. Kids hate goodbyes, hate having to face that you are leaving them. They leave you instead. One minute she was holding my hand outside the classroom, the next the teacher appeared smiling at the door and our preppie slipped into the room without a backward glance.

Her dad and I stood, bereft, watching through the glass. It was like the scene in the film Father of the Bride, where Steve Martin, after organising the wedding from hell, realises that his daughter has left without so much as a kiss goodbye.

I’d been longing for milestones ever since the first child came. You long for their first word, their first step, their first night sleeping through, that first tinkle in the potty. And then comes the day you realise you’ve wished their lives away.

First published in The Age.

Magic circle of female friendship



I HAVE a friend who goes back far enough to remember my worst sartorial excesses. She mortifies me with reminders of the lime-green hotpants and white plastic boots (Abba ruled, OK?) that made such a fetching combo with my metal-rimmed glasses and the steel braces on my teeth (at least something matched).I retaliate with her own history as a fashion tragic: also hotpants, this time electric blue velvet, with lurid matching eyeshadow. Romeo’s Juliet might have been a romantic heroine at 14, but we were more like extras from Muriel’s Wedding.

Now when we get together we often end up singing – badly, mockingly, wistfully – to the exuberant, romantic music we used to dance to in her chenilled teenage bedroom. Those were the days, my friend.

A shared history can be a big ingredient of friendship because old friends know you in a way new friends cannot. It’s like the difference between the war correspondent and the historian – one shares in the immediacy of the moment, while the other can only glimpse its outline through the haze of time.

Sydney journalist Suzy Baldwin has written a book of interviews, Best of Friends, in which she asks a dozen women about female friendship. Baldwin asks whether intimate friendships are more important to women than to men, or is it just that women are better at them? What are friendship’s limits? And what happens when intense friendships collapse?
Women friends occupy a different place in the heart to husbands or lovers, and friendship’s freedom from sexual entanglement leads to hope that it will be more enduring. As the artist Mirka Mora says, “A lover is like a flying bird – in and out – but a friend is forever.”

But Mora is ambivalent about friends and in another part of the interview announces that her only friend is her work. Baldwin asks whether she had friends as a little girl. Mora stops to think and realises, “They were all burnt in Auschwitz … Maybe that has something to do with it. When the war came I lost all my little children friends.” Her aloneness contrasts painfully with the optimism of women like art lecturer Elizabeth Elliott, who is confident she will make new friendships right into old age.

Female friendships are like the little girl with the little curl: when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. Little girls’ cruel magic-circle games – embracing someone as best friend one day, ejecting her as social leper the next – make parliamentary politics look stable and beneficent. Big girls’ emotional intensity can make for a sense of loss and betrayal when the tide goes out on a close relationship, as sometimes it must.

There is no consensus, in this book or in life, on crucial questions such as whether a friend has a duty to tell unpalatable truths. Would you tell your best friend if her partner was cheating on her?

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith wavers about how best to deal with a friend in trouble: “I’m not sure which is more important: for one person in her life to sit down and gently, gently, try to make her see what the problem is, or for her to have one friend who, through thick and thin, lets her be deluded when she needs to be deluded.”

Mary Vallentine, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, made a hard call on that one. When her friend, the conductor Stuart Challender, became so weak with AIDS that his performances became dirge-like, she told him it was time to stop. “Oh, how hard it was to say that, because to him it meant, `Stop conducting and you will die.’ Which is, effectively, what happened.”

I once helped nurse a dying friend whom I had long thought of as my other mother. She invited me into her death the way she had invited me into her life, with confidence that this, too, would be better done together. At the time I thought it was something I was doing for her. It was not until afterwards that I realised she had offered me a blessing. There is nothing like a deathbed watch to make you face the truth about your own life, including the fact that not even the most treasured friendships can last forever.

Best of Friends, by Suzy Baldwin, Penguin, $19.95.

First published in The Age.

Inside the male `no go’ zone

IN MY early 20s, I moved to an area of work where I was the only woman among a group of senior men: a desk of subeditors. I was uncertain of my welcome in such a male enclave. I was not uncertain for long. A big, stony-faced man I had never met came over and threw a story on my desk, saying in a voice audible to all, “Sub this, moll.”

In genuine disbelief, I asked, “What did you say?” He repeated himself. I stood up and kicked him hard, once, on the shin. “Don’t call me a moll,” I said. And I sat down and took up my pen with trembling fingers.

Luckily for me, he took it like a man. He held no grudge and we later developed a straightforward, easygoing relationship. A boundary had been set and was respected. It seems like an advertisement for Helen Garner’s advice in ‘the first stone’ to girls being harassed: try a stiletto heel on his instep.

But I would never try such a tactic now. Now I know it’s not always that simple. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s not always that simple has been almost obliterated from view by a decade of media hysteria over “the Ormond College affair”.

The case’s notoriety has made “sexual harassment” a household phrase, but for all the wrong reasons. It has created a social atmosphere so fraught that it has in some ways become harder to deal with the problem.

This is because the public debate was conducted mostly around the terms Garner set. Why did the young women go to the police over minor allegations of touching? Why did they let it get to the point where a man’s career was destroyed? What lay behind their “ghastly punitiveness”?

The point Garner failed to get her head around is the same one that remains obscured today, and the one I had no sense of the day I administered that kick. It is the question of institutional power.

The direct-rejection approach is fine with your average drunk at a party. But it could backfire disastrously with a man who controls your work life or university career.

What if he takes it not like a man but like a weasel? He could go on to play “How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways”. In an office, he could confine the woman to low-status or difficult work, block her pay rises or promotions, or post her to the workplace equivalent of Siberia. On a university campus, he might compromise her marks, her scholarship or bursary prospects, or her references.

If a man grabs a woman’s breast at a party, it is indeed, to use Garner’s term, just a “nerdish pass”. But if the man is in a position to punish the woman for her knockback by manipulating her circumstances in a formal organisation to which they both belong, that is sexual harassment. This is particularly so if he goes the grope in the first place partly because he knows he has one over her.

The serial sleazebag with delusions of modern-day droit du seigneur poses the biggest moral dilemma for a young woman. If she stays silent, she knows her passivity will leave him free to harass other women. If he holds a position of trust – doctor, priest, the person overseeing pastoral care at a boarding college – his job offers him a bulk warehouse of potential targets.

But why should she be the sacrificial lamb?
Because that is the main lesson from the Ormond affair: that everyone will be scalded and nothing resolved, with the man’s career destroyed and the woman demonised as vindictive, unnatural and unwomanly.

Mass media that had been largely uninterested in sexual harassment issues gave splatter coverage to the first book on the subject that affirmed male anxieties. Commentators seized upon the story in ‘the first stone’ to call the Ormond women bitches, monsters, femi-nazis and man-hating harpies. Garnerism became a magnet for misogyny the way Hansonism became a magnet for racism.

Yes, everyone is more conscious of sexual harassment now. Observation of the gender niceties in many workplaces is the best it has ever been, although this is probably due as much to women’s increasing numbers as to raised awareness. But serious abuse is still not uncommon, according to the Equal Opportunity Commission, and harassment complaints have been steadily rising in the decade since Ormond.

Complaints that reach the commission are complaints that have not been resolved by employers. They are management failures.

I suspect the most profound lesson taken from Ormond has been “Cover thine arse”. A lawyer I spoke to last week told me that while many companies have terrific written policies, their complaints procedures often collapse quickly because managers’ first instinct is still to quash an allegation rather than investigate and resolve it.

The number of women reporting that they were victimised in the workplace because they dared to lodge a formal complaint has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, from 209 in 1997-98 to 346 in 1998-99.

Analyses of the Ormond affair trawled the women’s psyches and motives. But where was the analysis of the male-dominated group dynamic that dictates an organisation’s response to harassment complaints? This was, after all, the reason the Ormond affair was taken to so many arenas: the women believed they did not get a fair hearing.

The real question is not: Why can’t women just let it go? The real question is: Why can’t bosses deal with this without either party being shamed or losing their jobs?
Until that changes, there will continue to be women who limit discussion of dirty deeds to urgent undertones in the ladies’ room; who cop it sweet or handle it one on one, despite the risks of retaliation; who resign from workplaces where they were otherwise happy because they couldn’t bear to make a fuss. There will be women who shield male misbehavior from view and bear its consequences themselves, as women have done for centuries.

This means public spaces such as work and university are still dotted with “no-go” signs for women. Because that’s what harassment does; it tells women that this is a male place where they are interlopers. The unwanted touch and the sexual epithet amount to the same message: You’ll be judged here not on what’s inside your head, but on what’s inside your undies.

Is that what we want for our daughters?

First published in The Age.

Becoming a Barbie-wise mother

(Fetish: object worshipped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers or as being inhabited by a spirit).

Parenting books don’t talk about the Barbie thing. They’re full of advice about tantrums and bedwetting and vegetable-aversion, on spending sticky hours with playdough and sleepy ones with storybooks. But when it comes to making an ideological call on toytime’s blonde plastic fetish, you’re on your own.

We resisted as long as we could, which wasn’t long at all. Our then four-year-old femme informed us tragically that any girl without Barbies (note the plural: purchases must be multiple so that visiting friends can play Barbie at the same time as the hostess) was a social pariah.

“What about the huge box of Duplo that kept your brother and his friends so happy when he was your age?” we inquired hopefully. (We like to think of ourselves as an equal-opportunity household.) No go.

Mindful of the psychology studies that say children pick up color-coded messages about which toys are appropriate for each gender, we bought a set of Duplo houseblocks in girly pastel colors. Our princess unwrapped them, swallowed her disappointment long enough to thank us politely, and handed them over to her brother (who did pay attention to the color-coding and never touched them again).

I didn’t get it, this Barbie thing. My childhood had been a Barbie-free zone. I vaguely remember a dolly called Diane dressed in royal blue velvet, whom I carried around out of a sense of duty – I knew little girls were supposed to love them – but in whom I had no real interest. Post-dolly-depression, perhaps. No doubt she came to a bad end.

But my daughter and I trawled through the hot-pink aisles of the local toy department and finally compromised on Dr Barbie, with a white coat and a stethoscope. At least there was an element of positive role modelling, even if the overall effect was of a blonde bimbo from a daytime soap moonlighting as a Chicago Hope wannabe.

Of course, we had to throw in a few disco-glitter minis for the kid, and personally, I couldn’t resist the wedding frock – to the point that, when we finally got home with the feminists’ nemesis, we fought over what to put on her first (mortifying for me, gratifying for my daughter; it proved her point about the need for a reserve bench).

Now I get it. Barbie isn’t about playing mummy to a baby, the way other dollies are. Barbie is about wanting to be a big girl – maybe even a thoroughly modern princess, glamorous and admired – and trying that role on for size. Not too realistically, of course; comedian Wendy Harmer used to do a routine about how Barbie’s teeny-tiny accessories should include itty bitty tampons, but for some reason Mattel has been slow to pick up on the idea …

(Although Barbie has turned out to be a useful starting point for home-based health-and-relationships studies – you start with analyses of the bits she is missing, above and below the waist, and gradually move on to their functions).

I still feel guilty about the doll’s platinum hair and impossible body and the way she encourages the child to be preoccupied with clothes and appearance. I still worry that the doll reduces “womanhood” to something that is shallow and vacuous – and hopelessly unachievable, this side of plastic surgery.

But the doll is only one half of the relationship. She takes a form decided by the wider world, but the spirit that inhabits her is actually the individual child’s, and some important things are worked out in the process.

My daughter is a bit older now, but still young enough to feel quite unselfconscious about bare bodies. She knows, though, that a time will come when her body changes and she will feel differently.

Recently she locked herself in a bathroom, something she has never done before. We inquired as to whether everything was all right. It was. Barbie was having a bubble bath in the hand basin, and “Barbie likes her privacy”.

I get it.

First published in The Age.

The ghosts of belonging


Karen Kissane

`HOME” was a mysterious place, the stuff of myth and legend; my family’s dreamtime. It was never the corner shop where we lived and worked; not the cement backyard of Tarax bottles where we pedalled our trikes, or the storage shed of Sorbent rolls and tinned food where we played hidey among the cardboard cartons. I grew up knowing that “Home” was not the place with which I was most familiar, but somewhere altogether different.“Home” was where families went for a holiday as soon as ever they could save the money. “Home” was where other families went for good when they just couldn’t crack it here – because of the slog or the heat or the heartsickness. “Home” was the place grownups talked about at their parties, sang about over their beer and referred to (only half-jokingly) as “Holy Mother Ireland”. Home is where the heart is, and their hearts were thousands of miles away.

This psychic umbilical cord seemed the source of all their grief and all their joy, and the intensity of the attachment left me feeling that life in the country of my birth was somehow insubstantial. Grownups’ memories of the childhoods they had been forced to leave behind overshadowed the reality of the childhood I was trying to live. Perhaps it is like this for all children of migrants.

Everything significant seemed to come from the other side of the world: my unknown grandparents and aunts and uncles, my fairytale heroes and heroines, the music that made me want to dance, the picture-postcard scenery that looked like Tolkien-land.

In the 1960s, urban Australia had little to offer a child’s imagination. But the Irish had stories of forebears in the famine dying by the roadside with grass-stains round their mouths; of priests risking death to run illicit schools for Irish children; of the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916. The Irish knew who they were and what had been suffered on the way to it.

Some were less forthcoming about their painful personal histories. They could be dogmatic and prickly, a quick-tempered pride shielding their vulnerability to shame (that scarring trifecta of poverty, oppression and religious rigidity being altogether ennobling only in romantic novels).

But beside them, easy-going Australia seemed unformed, passionless, bland. Aussie families never seemed to have heated rows about politics at the dinner table, and they didn’t laugh as much either. Their flame of life seemed turned down to simmer.

Anglos did ballet or swimming; I learnt Irish dancing and sweated in a woollen kilt in the March heat of the St Patrick’s Day procession. I went to crowded schools run by stern Irish nuns and took in the national neuroses like mothers’ milk. I left school adept at pontificating on mortal sin, but wholly unacquainted with Shakespeare (just another bloody Englishman, after all) or even Joyce (“that filthy man”).

I did try to draw a line, deflecting my Dad’s attempts to fire me up about Irish politics. But Dad died when I was 10 and, after that, holding on to Irishness became a way of holding on to him. Holy Father Ireland.

So at 20 – as soon as ever I could save the money – I went home for a holiday.

At first I was conscious only of my foreignness. My mother, who was travelling with us, derided me for a tourist whenever my girlfriend and I exclaimed over the remnants of mediaeval castles that litter her patch, the west of Ireland. “Those ould ruins!” she’d sniff in disgust. “They’re all falling down!”

We’d insist on clambering over the ancient stones, heady with the glory of our find, while she sat in the car, arms folded and foot tapping. She hadn’t been home in nearly 20 years and she longed for time with her family, not with the crumbling homes of people long gone. I didn’t understand that this time, my preoccupation with the past was robbing her of the present.

Her mother – my grandmother – and I failed to connect for the first two days we were under the same roof. She was in her eighties and had more spirit than strength – her sight was failing and she moved stiffly with the aid of a walker, but her thin hair was defiantly hennaed and her cheeks determinedly rouged.

Her brogue was so thick that I thought she was talking Gaelic and waited for others to translate for me. She had impatiently written me off as a tad sub-normal, given that I couldn’t answer a simple question. When we finally twigged to each other, at least we discovered that we laughed at the same things.

My mother was a village girl. At 18, she had left Ballinrobe, where “marrying out” meant wedding someone from the next parish, to search for work in London and then half-way across the globe in Australia. My grandmother had never been further from home than Galway. She had never even made the three-hour trip to Dublin.

What had we to say to each other? We shared only a warm goodwill and a love of the woman who linked us. So I sat and listened as Grandma and her three emigrant daughters rewove the threads of their old life together as if it were a tapestry frayed by time. They came alive chatting of births and deaths and marriages, of the way the local convent school’s uniform had changed. They used preoccupations with the everyday to draw a veil over their emotional lives and their years of separation; too painful, perhaps, or maybe just too hard to bridge. It was affectionate. It was revealing. But it was not home. Not for me.

My father had been a Kerry man. Hard men, they say. But the landscape of his heartland is soft; lush green hills and lakes of a brilliant blue. When I got to his hometown of Killarney it was easy to give over entirely to the role of tourist, roaming for the sheer pleasure of it.

That, in itself, might have been un-Kerrylike. I went to see the farmhouse in which my father had grown up. It stood whitewashed and stolid near the edge of a road, blind-siding a glorious view of the Killarney lakes. Did any of the rooms overlook the scenery? I asked a local. Mmm, the bathroom maybe, he said, himself puzzled by the question. To him, the scenery was no more matter for comment than a fencepost – and a darned sight less useful.

Then came the thunderbolt. I was wandering along the main street of the town when a strange woman charged at me from across the road. I’ve never seen her before or since. I couldn’t tell you what she looked like and was too floored by what she said to remember what she told me about who she was.

She said with delight, “Sure, you must be Gerald Kissane’s daughter. You’re the image of him.”

He’d been dead for 10 years and out of the country for 40. I struggled so hard to remember what he looked like, and she’d known him well enough to recognise him in a daughter she didn’t know he’d had. Because they had grown up in a village. Together. They knew what it was to belong, and for their families to have belonged for so many generations that their presence was as natural and right as the rising of the sun.

FOR one deeply etched moment, it seemed that I must belong too. Nowhere else in the world would a stranger recognise me for my clan. For the first time, I felt what my parents must have felt; a sense that my roots go back for generations, that I was part of a long family history and enfolded by a familiar community. And then the full force of what my parents had lost hit me. I grieved for them and for me, for the aloneness, the dislocation, the never-quite-fitting-in-anywhere that is the fruit of immigration, unto the next generation.

The stranger disappeared after our brief encounter, like the mysterious wise women in Celtic fairy stories who vanish once they have revealed what the protagonist needs to know. Her appearance had made me understand my links with that place; her cheerful, unthinking farewell was a reminder of their limits. Ultimately, I was an outsider. My connections with this town lay in the past. Its ghosts had been a large part of my life, but I had never been part of its small world.

Some time later I was in San Francisco. Unexpectedly, it had gum trees, tall, scraggy, tangy-scented eucalypts that triggered a wave of homesickness as fierce as a blow.

It was near the end of the journey. Time to go home.

First published in The Sunday Age.


Renovating a house is like having a baby. It’s prolonged, tiresome and hurts like hell, and at the peak of the horror everyone swears they’ll never do it again. (A lot of swearing is done throughout, really).

In some ways it’s worse than labor. With an obstructed baby, the doctor can caesar you out of your misery; one good yank and 40 minutes of stitching and it’s all over.

With a house, there is no way out of it except through it, and you have almost no control over the time frame.

This is because you’re simultaneously the one hurting and the one helplessly urging “PUSH!” from the sidelines.

Our builder was a charming Irishman, who would promise us the world with obvious sincerity and a seductive brogue – and then disappear for days.

(I suspect he never actually kissed the Blarney stone; he just kept telling it he would be back tomorrow).

Naifs, we had not realised that builders keep several jobs going simultaneously, and that their tradesmen are the 20th-century equivalent of mediaeval strolling players – here one day, performing at someone else’s gig the next. Their schedule, we suspected, was at least partly predicated on the need to hose down whichever exasperated owner was most acutely demented at the time.

There was plenty to be demented about. We “cooked” in the hallway with a frypan, toaster and kettle for six weeks (remarks hitherto unimaginable fell from our children’s lips, the most priceless of which was “Not more takeaway!”).

We shovelled mounds of rubble off the parquet floor in the loungeroom. We shivered from breezes whistling through gaps where windows and doors should have been.

We lost the ability to be startled by Blundstone-booted strangers in odd places at even odder hours.

We greeted them with delight; a new tradesman meant a new stage – progress! (The regulars were like extended family in the end; nothing like greeting people in your pyjamas every morning to break the ice).

But the tension of waiting for Wayne nearly broke us. Wayne was our Godot, the long-awaited personage whose arrival would signal an end to our suffering (which consisted, at that stage, of being unable to use the new bathroom or the old laundry).

Wayne was “an arrr-tist with the tiles”, the builder assured us solemnly.

Several weeks after the first call went out, Wayne arrived. He was, indeed, an artist with the tiles. He had a lovely eye and deft hands and was a perfectionist; I was sent back to the tile shop because the very last border tile was the wrong one of two and would have broken the pattern.

The painter was like that, too, and the cabinetmaker and the sparky and the plumber.

They cared about what they did, took quiet pride in their skills and got it right first time. They were also unfailingly courteous. There are worse things than having to wait.

The “16-week job” that began in January reached lock-up in July, was largely finished by September and had the last couple of details completed in October. It’s terrific: big, light, airy – and beautifully finished.

The builder kept all those promises, eventually.

And, as soon as the new house was handed over to us, the miseries we’d endured on its behalf began to fade.

It was worth it. This part is pure pleasure. As they say in the birth notices, many thanks to Gerry, Sean, Andrew, John, Tim, Stan and Graeme, our patient and inspired architect.

We took advantage of both qualities, changing our minds continually and finally going with the third set of “final drawings”.

I guess we weren’t the only ones who thought this would never be over.

If you’re considering renovating, there are only two things to keep in mind, really.

First, dust means progress. And second, if you want to be finished by Christmas, start in January.

First published in The Age.

Goodbye father, goodbye childhood


Karen Kissane

Karen Kissane remembers the death of her father.

BACK THEN, death was more taboo than sex. It made it hard for children. You can hide sex but you can’t hide death. They tried for a long time, when my father got sick. And we made it easy for them; we didn’t want to know. When my little sister came to me crying, whispering that she had heard Mummy on the phone talking about a coffin, I told her with all the assurance of the nine-year-old not to be silly. Daddy was getting better, they all said so. She must have heard wrong, or it must have been to do with something else. But we didn’t ask. Somehow, we knew not to ask. Children can feel the forcefield around a family’s secrets.

And then, of course, they had to tell us. They woke us on a bright summer’s morning, just before Christmas. Mum had on her dark blue velvet dress with the queenly folds. But her face wasn’t queenly, it was wet and crumpled. Her old friend, who’d been helping nurse him, leaned over us, a tear slanting across her nose. Mum gulped out that Daddy had gone to heaven. I began crying, not for him but for me, even then shocked by the selfishness of my first thoughts: What will we do without Daddy? Who will look after us? It was not until I was adult that I forgave the child for thinking first of herself. And I’ve never really forgiven her for not being kind enough to her father in his last days, for being impatient with his frailty, his tiredness, his neediness. But I didn’t know, I didn’t know.

Neither did he, until near the end. The family priest was called to break the news to him, and he didn’t believe it. He died largely disbelieving, although he did ask one or two to help look after his little girls. The stages of mourning _ denial, anger, grief, acceptance _ were not so known about then. Perhaps it was thought a mercy that he died without having felt the full pain of his loss. It was certainly thought a mercy that he died before the tumor could take his sight, or his speech, or his dignity. You should be happy for him, grownups kept telling us; what fictions adults create about the world of children, and how they add to its burdens. You must look after your mother now, they said. You’re all she has now. So much kindness, so little understanding.

He had green eyes, my Dad, and thick grey hair that stood up proud from his forehead. He was a bit of a charmer, by all accounts. He was a storybook Irishman, with a quick temper and a dry wit, an admiration for Ireland’s rebel heroes and a helpless, aching affection for the land he’d left behind. He worked long hours, seven days a week, in the corner shop he ran with Mum. The place was like the village well; he knew everyone. He had terrific business sense, a customer told me many years later; he could have done anything. What he’d wanted to do was law, but life got in the way. He’d also wanted a nice house and time with his family, but death got in the way of that.

He was laid out in the nice house. Mum had been determined that he would be nursed at home, where he was loved. Dad had bought and renovated a few months before he died, and we moved out of the rooms behind the shop and into what seemed to us the world’s most elegant home. He was so proud; there were endless tours with visitors, and parties with friends. I have marvellous memories of singing and dancing and nuns with their skirts flying to the jigs of their girlhood. It was a happy home, and we had time together at last after all the years he had been preoccupied with work. It’s strange, the prescience of childhood; one night early on, as we sat contentedly reading and knitting and playing, I took a mental snapshot and thought, “I’ll always remember us the way we are now”. That was the picture that opened that phase of my life. The one that closed it was my father lying still, strangely neat under the bedclothes, while I wailed at his side.

The great anguish began in earnest then, with the sight of him, with the full realisation of it. The neighbors who had gathered muttered through a rosary while my sister and I, held upright in the grip of determined old women, sobbed uncontrollably. They forced us into a last kiss before letting us flee, out of the room and into the long, dark tunnel of grief.

Heaven was a comfort. I had no doubt that Daddy was up there somewhere, looking down on us and, so everybody promised, looking after us. Somewhere around the edges of the blackness, I noticed the fumbling kindness of other children; the class wrote me stilted little letters when they heard the news, formed an honor guard at the funeral and made a great fuss when I returned to school. I knew I would not be quizzed. When another girl’s mum had been electrocuted while defrosting the fridge, we were told that any child who asked the girl questions about it would be strapped. There were some blessed certainties in that less sophisticated time.

But the darkness had a long shadow. We lost the house. Mum had to work full-time at an exhausting job. And always there was this emptiness at the heart of things; we are closer now than we would have been if my father had not died, and more protective of each other, but for several years, we limped along like a dog with three legs. The family had to find a new balance without him. It was Mum who kept us going.

My father left me no money, but other legacies that I am only now beginning to recognise. Busy as he was, he taught me to read before I even started school, and if he had time for nothing else he had time to take me to the library. He expected the best from me; if I came home from school with less than 100 per cent, he demanded to know why.

He told me over and over that I would be an achiever, a doctor maybe, or an architect; that I would fight for what was right, like Bernadette Devlin, the young Ulster MP who battled for Irish Catholics in the ’60s. I have never had the chance to share his jokes or argue with his politics; he did not walk me down the aisle, or welcome my children. But I do carry some of the gifts that a father makes to his daughter.

First published in The Age.

Heaven’s asunder

The priest roared, she walked. KAREN KISSANE tells why she left the Catholic Church 17 years ago and why she continues to feel excluded.

ONCE A Catholic, always a Catholic, the nuns used to tell us. Up to a point, sisters. For me that point first came at a Sunday Mass when I was 17. Come sermon time, the priest roared at me from the pulpit.Good Catholic women, he thundered, looked to their duties as mothers and wives and stayed home to perform them. Good Catholic women did not seek careers, challenge husbands, query the dictates of the church.

Good Catholic women who sought liberation or the pill were doing the devil’s work for him. Part-way through the tirade, this Catholic girl mustered all her courage, stood up and walked down the long, long aisle to the exit. There was no place for me here. Seventeen years later, it seems that nothing has changed and everything has changed for women in the Catholic Church.

Then I could see only a choice between abandoning the faith or losing my sense of self, between my Catholicism and my soul. Now I look back on that priest’s outburst with amusement; only the winds of change could have blown up such a storm in this man. So it seems good news indeed that conservative Catholics this month felt forced to pamphleteer schools and churches on why there will never be women priests. Could it be that at last the issue is being taken seriously? The document, published in Melbourne by Mr Joe Santamaria’s Thomas More Centre, was written by Bishop George Pell, Anna Krohn and Mary Helen Woods, and claimed to put the official church view. It contained such unsubstantiated jewels as the assertion that “many, perhaps most Catholic women throughout the world support the church’s teaching”, and took a patronising swipe at Anglicans for their different views on women’s ordination.

The document also said it was not unjust that women could not become Catholic priests because no person has a right to be a priest, as the priesthood is a vocation or calling from God. One does not choose, one is chosen. If it is true that there is no human element in such decision-making, how does one account for terrible mistakes such as the many Catholic clergy in America accused of sexually abusing children? How does such a tragedy sit with the notion of perfection in the current selection criteria? The document argued that Christ did not ordain women to celebrate the Eucharist (he did not ordain men either, but told all his followers to do this in his name), and listed several different kinds of feminists, making clear that the only ones who can truly call themselves Catholic are those who accept the status quo. Others range from revolutionaries to pagans who want to destroy Christianity.

And then last week came the news that the Pope is about to launch another encyclical condemning artificial birth control. The bottom line with both moves is that Catholicism is still failing women, but both have been responses to enormous pressure for change that shows no sign of abating. The Catholic Church is big, is controlled from the centre, and can be unbending in its views, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not a monolith and that there is room for dissent on certain issues.

Why should I care? Because there is so much that is precious and good about Catholicism: its schools and hospitals, its emphasis on cherishing the family and valuing every human life, its commitment to social justice and the willingness of so many of its members to get
their hands dirty working for it. In a world obsessed with material struggle, it holds fast to the importance of inner values.

I treasure the beauty of its rites of passage. As a bride I wanted my marriage blessed, not merely registered. As a mother I glowed through the christenings that formally welcomed my children to the world. And when loved ones were lost long before their time, Requiem Masses gave unexpected comfort and a sense of continuum; it was an Irish Catholic community that gathered like neighbors in a village around my grieving family. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Religious identity often becomes more important with motherhood. An Anglican friend who stormed out in the ’70s has surged back into her local parish; a Jewish friend is searching out the right congregation for her growing sons; a Muslim friend who grew up with no connection to her faith is sad that she has no heritage for herself and her child. Although values begin at home, many would like them reinforced by their communities. But if women need churches more as they raise families, so do the churches need women; it is mothers who are the keepers of the faith, who decide whether children will go to Mass, or attend a Catholic school.

My children, I hope, will grow up in a community where not everyone toes the party line on the status of women in general, and the issue of their ordination in particular. There are many traditionalists who point out that Jesus was male, no apostles were women, and that parts of the New Testament forbade women to teach or to tell men what to do _ ergo, women should not be ordained. But other Catholic theologians and Biblical scholars, including many men, point out that it was a woman, Mary Magdalen, who first saw the risen Christ and was sent to spread the good news _ not a bad definition of an apostle. A group of women accompanied Jesus and the 12 on their missionary journeys, and many followed him to the foot of the cross. Other passages in the New Testament challenge not only patriarchy but colonialism, racism and slavery, proclaiming “no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus”.

What would such iconoclasts have made of today’s debates? In Catholic scholarship there also is a growing understanding of how women were written out of the records. One Bible passage describes the woman who anointed the feet of Christ just before the passion narrative, saying that wherever the gospel would be told, her act would be recorded. Her name wasn’t. Another woman who was greeted by Paul with the title “apostle”, Junia, lost her gender in the translation of the text from Greek to English; the translator assumed that if she was an apostle, she must be a man.

But when opposing sides in the ordination debate are reduced to hurling verses at each other like school debaters trying to score points, the real point is lost. Such decisions should be made not in an adversarial tussle but against the backdrop of the spirit of the gospel. To argue, as the More Centre document did, that the church cannot ordain women because it never has is nonsense. Theology is not handed down from on high and set in stone tablets. It is a man-made construct, a human endeavor; the classic definition is “faith seeking understanding”. It develops and changes as human consciousness evolves; up until the 19th Century, for example, Christians used a text about slaves obeying their masters to justify slavery.

That the Catholic Church has not yet grappled with outdated views that leave so many of its women feeling hurt, devalued and excluded is a failure of courage or insight or both. American author M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and committed Christian, writes about the nexus between psychological development and spiritual growth. He sees the two greatest sins of Christianity as its exclusion of so many (the divorced, homosexuals, women) and its traditional intolerance of doubt and doubters. It is a duty to question and to wrestle with the big ones, Dr Peck argues, as any individual or group on a path of spiritual growth must pass through periods of doubt to move forward.

Such winds of change may not have reached the Vatican yet, but there are growing pockets of Catholicism where the cobwebs are in tatters. A Melbourne priest recently asked his startled congregation to refer to God as “she” throughout one Mass, as a reminder that God is beyond gender. Perhaps there is room for women like me now. And, you know, once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

First published in The Age.