On the big wheel

*this blog post originally appeared at http://www.mamamia.com.au*

My daughter is excited about starting school. She has been counting sleeps, insisting on wearing her school uniform everywhere, and greeting everybody with, “Hello, I’m going to school soon!” When asked if she is worried or sad at all, she says no. But her behaviour shows otherwise. She throws monster tantrums almost hourly. She clings to me like a limpet: she’s even taken to lying on the bathmat waiting for me while I’m in the shower. And she’s insisting on endless games of big-sister-little-sister, a fun (read: excruciating) game where I have to talk in a baby voice and pretend to know nothing while she smiles patronisingly and puts me straight.

I know what’s wrong with her. She can feel the big wheel turning. And I know that, because it’s also what’s wrong with me. What else could make a grown woman with a PhD get teary when buying a Tinkerbell lunchbox from Coles?

The big wheel turns whether we like it or not, rolling us from one stage of life to another. For my daughter, it’s the transition from the private world to the public world. Even preschool, that cocoon where the teachers only have first names and little beds are laid out in the afternoon, is a private place. Starting school is their first step into the public world. They are no longer considered so little that they require shelter and gentle handling. We stop using words like “care” and “love” quite so much when kids go to school. “Numeracy” and “literacy” become more important terms.

For me, it’s the transition between being the mother of a baby and what comes next (I don’t know what comes next, but I guess I find out this year). I didn’t feel the wheel turn when my son started school four years ago, because I had a one-year-old to occupy me. I’ve known a few women who, faced with this transition, have another baby just so they can hold the wheel back a little longer. And that’s fine. But for me, this is the end of my childbearing years. No more babies for me. No more toddlers to vex and delight me. No more tiny sticky hands up my nose or new shiny teeth popping up in gums; no more lying down with a warm little body for a daytime nap while the public world—full of postmen and trucks and telephones—goes on outside.

This is it. Life has resumed. It has been nearly ten years since I first fell pregnant and I’m now outside the age where I have reliable eggs or, frankly, any energy left for babies. Like my daughter, I’m excited about where this turn of the wheel will take me. My career, which I’ve kept bubbling with part-time work and carefully spaced contracts, may blossom. Perhaps I’ll finally learn to meditate and achieve spiritual peace. But, like my daughter, I’m also full of unvoiced fears. Maybe I’ll fall into despondence, feeling the sting of the end of my biological usefulness. I really don’t know. On good days, I’m cautiously optimistic. On bad days, I want to drink gin until menopause is over.

So when my daughter chucks one of her wobblies, I try to go gently with her. When she clings, I hug her harder. And I’ll continue to play the part of little sister with gusto, as long as she needs me to. We all go into the unknown with hope in our hearts and doubts in our minds. Right now I understand her better than anyone.



On digging up the past

I have had the most wonderful day, doing some research for my next book in the John Oxley Library here in Brisbane (see right). Just about all my other books, under both names, have been set in other (more exotic) places. But this one is about a shipwreck off the Queensland coast, so I’ve been poking around in Sunshine Coast history (I can’t tell you how exciting it was when I realised there were PADDLESTEAMERS!!!) and, because a few scenes are set in Brisbane, my home town, in 1901, I have been challenged for the first time with researching local history.

Yes, local history for local people. It sounds so mundane, but it’s not. On the one hand, it’s heaps easier than researching, say, the history of the tsars (for my Kim Wilkins’s novel The Veil of Gold. If I want to know what Brisbane looked like in 1901, I just stand in the Queen Street Mall and look up. But in other ways it has its challenges. Brisbane’s history has not been widely written about or represented, so sometimes my imagination ends up in a blank cul de sac. I know there’s a window in here somewhere, but did it face north or south. So, today I went up to the John Oxley library, because it is a repository for Brisbane historical stuff and things. I have a key scene, an important social function, set in the Bellevue Hotel, which was built in the nineteenth century but demolished in 1979. I had a little bit of an idea what the outside looked like, but no idea about what view there was from the verandahs, or what the fittings and furnishings looked like. The wonderful librarian gave me a box of photos and a folder of newspaper clippings, and away I went. I found a photo of a woman in 1903 sitting on the verandah (see above) with a clear view of Old Parliament House and the gardens, and a list of auctioned antique items such as cedar folding card tables and dressers with wing mirrors. I found a long description of the entrance and courtyard of the Hotel from 1898 and building notes and ownership logs. The scene, which had been floating around in a brownish space (I knew there must be chandeliers, but didn’t realise they’d be gaslight), began to take shape.

I still have so much research to do, but the book is nudging 90 000 words so it’s about three quarters done. I’m on the home stretch with a little help from a library. Aren’t they the best places on earth (and check out the view from the reading room; not bad, eh)?

On nostalgia

Nostalgia was named and identified as a medical condition in the 17th century by a doctor who saw a lot of Swiss soldiers grow ill and melancholy from being so long away from their childhood regions (he called it “Swiss illness”). Now it’s generally understood to mean a longing for the past, a longing to be back somewhere that is idealised and has passed away forever.

I have been feeling nostalgic this week, out of nowhere: it’s not something I often feel. But this week marked the passing away of something very simple and very significant. My daughter finished kindergarten on Wednesday, and so Thursday and Friday this week were our last mummy-daughter days before she goes to school next year. Yes, we have holidays now for six weeks, but her brother will be here too. Those special precious times where it was just my baby and me are over forever. I saved all my running-about-town chores for Thursdays and Fridays, because she loved so much coming shopping with me, and going to Medicare, and the physiotherapist, and so on. She loved just being one of the girls with me. This is not to say we can’t have those fun times with my son about: of course we can. But it’s a different dynamic. This really was the last week of her babyhood. She’s five now. Old enough to draw pictures like the one above of us, in matching purple dress, that she gave me after we had a fight this evening (she stole a forbidden biscuit then smooshed it into the ground rather than putting it back in the biscuit box).

The strange thing about this week, though, is that it has aroused all these feelings and memories in me from my own childhood. I remember being in Astrid’s position. I loved to go to the bank on the bus with my mum, on those special days when it was just her and me while my older brother was at school. I can remember so clearly the string bag she had for her shopping, how she would ask the bus driver for “one and a half” fares, i remember being so excited if she let me pull the bell ringer before our stop. These memories are flowing back to me in rolling waves and filing me with beautiful, achey nostalgia. I’m gorging on it even though it’s making me sick.

I don’t know how my little girl will remember her early childhood, but I hope that one day she will remember walking to the postbox with me and remember it fondly. Because I will remember it fondly. Her soft little hand in mine, her happy chatter, her rosy cheeks and tiny teeth. I will never forget it.

On the beach

I’ve just got back from a research trip to the Sunshine Coast, where my new book (working title “Isabella’s Gift” but watch this space) is set. Unfortunately, I spent a great deal of the trip flat on my back with my leg on a pillow. A couple of weeks ago I sprained my ankle on one of my mountain walks, and if that wasn’t bad enough, last week I had an unexpected and violent reaction to the sports tape the physio used to strap me up. My ankle and foot blew up to twice their size, and were all scabrous and red and vile and blistery. It looked like a Frankenstein foot. No, really. I would put a picture here, only people would never come back to the blog again. So instead here is a picture of me looking grumpy with my lot, on Marcus Beach at Noosa. It’s very hard to look this grumpy in paradise. I took the photo at 6am. Look at the sky! Can you believe how beautiful dawn looks in Queensland?

Anyway, I had better get on with finishing this book, hadn’t I. With my left leg out of action, I really have no excuse. I’m working in bed now, and this will have to be my office until I’m up and about again.

On what makes books special

Wildflower Hill fleetingly (yet triumphantly, I like to think), made the USA Today bestseller list last week. I have never had a real, live bestseller in another country before, and so I spent the day I found out stopping in front of mirrors and introducing myself: “Hello, I’m Kimberley Freeman, international bestseller.” I was disappointed to note I didn’t look any different.

Once you’ve had a bestseller, the publishers can emblazon that fact on subsequent publications. I’ve always wondered about that, about whether people really do buy books simply because the author has sold a lot of books to other people. I know I have read a few books for that reason, but some of the more compelling reasons I buy books include:
* I read the back cover and it sounds SO EXCITING I MIGHT DIE
* Somebody whose opinion I respect tells me I will love it
* A review somewhere says it has the most incredible and unexpected ending that you just don’t see coming, and I take that as a personal challenge
* It looks pretty

In the case of the book pictured, though, I bought it (or rather got my mother to buy it for me) because it had a history that intrigued me. I found it in a secondhand book store as a child, and the inscription in the front, from 30 years beforehand (and as a child, 30 years is forever!!) caught my imagination. I took it home and wrote my own name in it in my closest impersonation of the original handwriting. I also wrote the pseudonym I was considering at the time: I’m sure my publishers are very glad I didn’t stick with Misty Moonshine.

I still have this book because it’s special to me (you can read a blog post about it on my other blog here), and it still gives me a lovely frisson to think of eight-year-old Annette also reading the book, then releasing it into the world for me to find 30 years later. We are connected, Annette and I. We are time travellers who shared a story, 30 years apart. And I’m all for the digital future, but that’s something you don’t see so much of anymore.

On late bloomers

Here in Brisbane, one of my favourite times of year is mid-August, when the jasmine on my patio blooms. It has the most exquisite, sweet scent, and it accompanies the cool, sunny days that characterise the end of winter here in the subtropics. It’s in full bloom in early September when my kids have their birthdays, and a few weeks later the flowers are falling off and the leaves are turning brown. I prune it back and wait another year.

But this morning, mid-October as the gardenias are budding, I found some late bloomers. I inhaled their scent hungrily, then took this photo.

I was a late bloomer in every sense of the word. I stilled played with my dollhouse in the first year of high school, until one of the other girls told me that it was lame. I was puzzled and sometimes horrified by the things my teenage peers talked about and did. I gained a reputation for being the biggest “dag” in my grade (if not the school). I flunked almost everything at high school and spent a very long time working in fast food jobs and typing jobs.

In fact, I’d say that I didn’t really blossom until my mid-twenties. I went back to school and finished my senior, got into uni, started writing books, and haven’t looked back. It seems to me there is so much pressure on children/teenagers to decide on a career and embark on a course of study that some of them are just not mentally and emotionally ready for. I hope my kids—who show signs of being late bloomers themselves—can go at their own pace, make a few mistakes, then find something that they are genuinely passionate about when the time is right for them. After all, there is that lovely surprise of finding a late bloomer, blossoming prettily on the dying vine, long after the crowd has moved on.