Lost and found in the pandemic
From the beach at Mentone, my mother tilted her head towards the horizon.
‘Somewhere out there,’ she said, ‘further than your eyes can see, my father is asleep in his bed.’ Her eyes misted over and I sat upright on my towel spread across the warm sand, hooded my eyes with my hands and looked with longing towards the same horizon. Further up the beach where the yellow circle of the sand disappeared beneath a crag of rocks above which rested the Mentone hotel and in the opposite direction, the pier at Mordialloc, I watched the kids in their bathers frolic at the water’s edge.
Here where we rested in the sand, in this place I called home, within the suburb of Cheltenham which abutted the beach at Mentone, was not what where my mother wanted to be. She wanted to be elsewhere. Back in her Dutch home in Haarlem with her father and the ache widened. My Australian home was never good enough.
Fast forward another twenty years and I’m about to move to Canberra. I gave up my job as a social worker in a counseling agency to follow the man who would soon become my husband to that place of tidy streets and a public service order to match its location as the nation’s capital. The place where our politicians met regularly to decide the running of our country.
My boyfriend was delighted with the move. I was terrified. I did not want to leave home, but I was young and in love. Young enough to imagine this travel adventure would be everything people imagined. New places, new people, new adventures.
I hated it. Much as all these things happened, the new places, the new people, the new adventures, none of it matched my connection to home in Melbourne, the land of my birth and I longed to go back there.
Ever since I was young, I had heard people talk about their excitement of travel, their pleasure at going to new places, to see the world and I shook my head in disbelief. But until I took this trio to Canberra, which is within a day’s driving distance from my home, I could not recognise that my heart belonged close to where I started.
I did not want to make the mistake my parents made, as much as at the time they made their decision they considered it for the good of their family. To decamp to the other side of the world.
After we returned to Melbourne when my husband’s six-month secondment ended, I vowed never to stray too far from home again for any significant length of time. I conceded to an impressive overseas trip in my early twenties to satisfy my husbands’ wanderlust and to get some sense of what it was my mother longed for from the beach at Mentone.
We made a six-week trip to Europe centering our time in Holland where we met relatives and took trains through the flatlands of that country, past polders of rich tilled earth bursting with potatoes and fields of flowers ready for to be plucked and circulated around the world. We visited the Keukenhof in April the home of tulips, the signature flower of Holland and I saw something of the land my mother had left, the place to which she longed to return and while even away for only six weeks, I longed for my own brown land on the other side of the world.
The pandemic came forty years later, years after I resisted the call from people to travel more. Go see the world. You must open your eyes with travel. All significant Australian writers travelled abroad to open their eyes. You cannot see things clearly from so close up. Leave they said, travel.
The pandemic has given me permission to stay at home and stay local, notice the flowers in my own garden, the way the succulents take up the sun and limited rain to flourish in April and the leaves on the European trees turn red at this time while on the other side of the world in my mother’s country the bulbs are shooting up from the earth only just now warming after the chill of winter.
Stay home and enjoy what you have here around you. Do not feel like an inferior being for your disinterest in places far away. The pandemic has offered me peace of mind in the joy of staying close to home at home and not feeling that I have let people down by my resistance to travel
Let myself bask in the sure footedness of my home soil and shake off the longing bequeathed by my mother over sixty years ago when we sat on the warm sand at Mentone and looked to the horizon.