The Grass Catcher: a digression about home

The Grass Catcher: a digression about home

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From early childhood in post-war Blenheim to the remote regions of Bangladesh, from an English boarding school to 1960s Auckland, from Jordan during the civil war of 1969-70 to family homes full of children, this dazzling book traces the many shifts in Ian Wedde’s life.

Haunted by the ghosts of his restless German and Scottish great grandparents, and of his wandering parents, Wedde is always looking over his shoulder as he writes. His companion throughout is his twin brother Dave, who shared their first home – their mother Linda’s womb – and who, as the book ends, hosts a lunch where the brothers raise their glasses to the transit lounges of their lives.

Affectionate, funny, sad, analytical, but above all honest, The Grass Catcher is at once a moving personal memoir and an engaging and reflective essay on the nature of memory.

From: The Grass Catcher, by Ian Wedde

The grass catcher

My first home, which I shared with my twin brother David, was our mother’s womb. I seem to know in my cells that bargaining took place there and during the events that led to our moving in. Which of us would be left-handed? Which of us would have sons but not daughters (and vice versa)? Which of us would have a sanguine nature, and which that of a fantasist? In one way or another, this home and the trading that went on during our time there shaped our individual and collective identities. Our fates, the fantasist might have added, while his sanguine brother basked calmly in whatever present he was enjoying.

My brother left this home first, by twenty minutes – long enough for me to get the long-suffering expression that appears in most photographs of us as infants and little boys. Dave was strongly built, with a handsome, solid-boned frame, square head and a wide, delighted smile for the world. His twin, on the other hand, was slighter, with a notoriously rosebud mouth (my first affectionately disparaging nickname was Rosebud) and a forehead of foppish curls. An early memory: the smell of the spit with which my mother sculpted these ornaments. And my habitual expression, if the photos are to be believed, was querulous and introspective, as if an internal world or narrative kept distracting me from the obvious pleasures of the one out there.

I believe, without reason of course, that the companion of my first exile didn’t really notice what had happened. I’m sure I loved him then, in the weird, astigmatic way that twins do, but I may also have wished he had doubts about the situation we were in, as I did, instead of always beating me to the sunshine by at least twenty minutes. A family story, embedded deeply enough in my consciousness to have become something like a memory, concerns an event that was at once my revenge on my twin’s diasporic equanimity and my acknowledgement that he felt pain differently from me. Our second home (after our mother’s womb) was our maternal grandmother’s house in Francis Street, Blenheim, where our mother and father also lived. Nana Horne (Agnes, or Aggie Horne née Tait) would take us for walks in our double wickerwork pram, and one day was alarmed by bellows of pain from the sunny-natured David: it was usually me who did the shrieking. After close inspection she discovered that the thumb his brother was gnashing with a sharp new tooth was not mine but his.

I wish I could recover the illicit pleasure of this displaced gratification, which involved my brother feeling my pain for me while I stole his comfort. At the same time, I know, guiltily, that something like this displacement would become my default imaginative condition: how I inhabited the first home-out-there-in-the-world about which, sixty-something years later, I can claim to remember anything.

Of course I can’t really remember the notorious thumb-sucking incident, which the family enshrined as a tribal joke while simultaneously deploying it as a forensic lens on my developing character. Nor, of course, can my brother remember what happened. He, however, is certain that it was my thumb he was serenely sucking and biting as I shrieked. What Dave’s ‘memory’ does to my version of the family’s narrative is, of course, twist it away from the direction I want it to go in: away from the evolution of the duplicitous nature that serves my story best, that contrasts my perplexity about home with Dave’s equanimity.

But I vividly remember another, later event. In 1954 we had gone to live in East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh. Dave and I, armed with air rifles, prowled the scrub that surrounded our house, hoping to shoot snakes or anything else that was alive and, in our view, deserving of death. We’d had an argument about something or other, and I ambushed Dave from behind the door to our bedroom. My memory of pulling the trigger of my air rifle has long been buried under self-protective tissue, but not my memory of the nauseating purple hole that appeared in my twin’s thigh and the murky trickle of blood that ran from it. I went with my ashen-faced brother and grim mother to the hospital run by a Baptist missionary called Dr Bottoms. There was a veranda with lepers sitting in its shade, and a badly burned man in a kind of hammock filled with soothing oil. In a hot room smelling of dry wood-rot and strong disinfectant, the doctor probed the sickening hole below the leg of Dave’s khaki shorts and, eventually, forceped out the slug I’d ‘accidentally’ shot into his thigh, while I drowned out my brother’s stoic groans with my own theatrical shrieks of ‘It hurts! It hurts!’ – adding ‘him’ after a grudging pause. But ‘It hurts me’ was certainly the subtext of the story that entered the family archive as additional hilarious evidence of my character’s melodramatic inclinations. And, clearly, it wasn’t my brother’s pain I wanted, but our mother’s sympathy. As with the pram incident, I wanted him to feel the pain so I could have the pleasure. Was there a pattern here? Did the family’s wry anecdote contain an uneasy awareness of my duplicitous tendencies?

Another memory seems to belong somewhere along the arc from pram to gun. This memory is at once vivid and abstract, and I can’t be sure whether the event I remember was single or typical. Our father was proud of his fine asparagus patch in the large back section of the home in Francis Street, and when Dave and I were about six we played in it after the plants had gone to seed and turned into a feathery, head-high jungle. This would have been about 1953. I don’t remember the actual in-the-asparagus-bed story I’d become engrossed in acting out, but I do remember looking around at some point and noticing that Dave, Bobby Moss from next door, and whoever else had been involved, had gone.

This was probably because I was bossy – ‘Now you be this, go here, do that’ – and they just got sick of me. But that was because I was so absorbed in the game. There was an irresistible world I entered through my imagination – not so much an inner world as a physical one out there, but whose portal was inside me. Sooner or later it would dawn on those I was directing to play in this world that it was not one they cared much about, or even one they were in, and they would turn away from its obscurity – its essential privacy. They would leave me to it, as we say, and they would leave it to me, as we also say.

Both ‘leaving’ expressions point to another kind of leave-taking – that of the social diaspora, being-at-home in a place inaccessible to your brother. In my case, the inaccessible place in which I was at once displaced and at home was the world Dave and I shared – the house with our mother, father and grandmother in it, the asparagus patch, the nearby park, the public swimming baths, the town’s aviary with its caged monkeys (one of which bit Dave), the turgid Taylor or was it the Opawa River with eels around the pongy sewage outlet, the lawnmower’s green-stained canvas grass catcher hung up at the back of the garage. Does Dave also remember the funny smell of the pinkish Veet depilatory in the bathroom, the tastes-like-this smell of burned porridge in Nana Horne’s black pot, the mothbally smell of the bedroom drawer where Nana kept her lolly bag?

But as well as – at the same time as – being the world we shared, it was another one whose familiar salients and objects were made strange to my companions, including my twin brother, by my different views of the shared familiar: the narrative warps and distortions that both estranged and absorbed me with their fabulously displaced gratifications, and that I became addicted to. Of course my companions, including my brother, had their own imaginative takes on the world – but my impression is that mine were more excessive. I base this impression on family anecdotes and my own accumulated fragments of memory, as well as on what I find when I try to look honestly into the person I have become. I hope I’m not giving my childhood self airs, or my adult self either.

A few years ago, I was writing about the road-trip photographs of Peter Black and recalling the dreamlike world that passed the car’s windows when I was a child, and especially the indistinct, fragmentary world that appeared in the headlights as we drove home at night from a family outing; and in writing this memory down as a gloss on Peter’s photographs I was suddenly returned to something far stronger than a vague image out of childhood. I encountered again, with a shock, as if through a portal to another dimension or reality, the image of the lawnmower’s battered wire and canvas grass catcher hanging on the wall at the back of the garage and lit by the car’s headlamps. As a child, the strangeness of this object verged on the terrifying – I looked at it with a shudder of fear and pleasure. Its fantastic weirdness had a lot to do with its ordinary familiarity. It looked like nothing on earth and like my father’s grass catcher, the one attached to the chattering mower that he pushed up and down the front lawn, trying to make regular stripes of the mown nap – straightening out the warped world.

I saw that the thing he pushed through summer’s pleasant aroma of mown grass and the thing on the back wall of the garage momentarily lit by the headlamps were the same, and were in the same world, but could be utterly different. The thing was not singular. And it was these differences – these uncanny lurches away from what was ordinary and familiar, these haunting, enchanting, mesmerising splits – that changed the world I played in with my twin brother. When the headlights lit up the grass catcher, this object at once known and unknowable, we had finally reached home. This was how I knew.

I arrived home then, and it was both a comforting place I lived in with my family and a place whose spookiness excited me into a kind of private trance; and again, many years later when I remembered the grass catcher, I arrived at a place that was at once homely and unheimlich. While Dave enjoyed tranquil sleep in the bed next to mine, I would pound on the wall to our parents’ bedroom because there really was something in the big wardrobe and it was surely going to come out any minute now. Their weary, muffled reply was, ‘Go back to sleep, it’s only a dream.’ Go back to sleep? That was where the dreams were, and what reason did I have not to believe them?

Fifty or so years later, I was in Blenheim for the opening of a Bill Culbert exhibition at the Millennium Art Gallery, the first time I’d been near my ‘home town’ for many years. I love Bill’s work because it so often jauntily captures the paradoxical, uncanny natures of ordinary phenomena and objects, a view of reality endorsed equally by his mentor, the rigorous Marcel Duchamp, and by the congenial tip-faces and garage sales Bill likes to frequent. The day after the exhibition opening, somewhat hungover, I decided to find the house I’d spent my childhood in by retracing the once-familiar route from the town centre with its band rotunda or taxi stand, past where I remembered Paine’s ice-cream parlour with its frosty milkshake containers used to be, and so on to Francis Street. This was a route Dave and I would have followed many times on our trikes, or walking with our mother or granny, and later on bikes. It was the way to and from Blenheim Primary School by the banks of the Taylor River across town. It was – it should have been – my first, indelible track, my migration route to and from home, locked in by narratives, games, encounters, landmarks and secret signs; the caravanserai track that could never be obliterated by drifting sand; a map on my brain; the spinal cord of my first epic; my Odyssey, my Iliad. It may have been the track Dave and I followed when we ran away, as we often did when we were little (once we were brought back in a fire engine) – not because there was anything to run away from, but (I suspect) because ‘running away’ was another worldly narrative that could be entered through the door inside my head, and which Dave mostly went along with, as a kind of amiable Sancho Panza.

But, that day in 2003, I couldn’t find the track. I set off from the Presbyterian church on Alfred Street (a name I remembered because it had always seemed to condense my father’s names, Frederic Albert), found the Memorial Fountain and Memorial Clock that had seemed so magnificent when I was a kid, thought I’d worked out where Paine’s ice-cream parlour would have been (it had gone), followed my nose – and lost the way.

Then I thought, what might I have done on such an expedition back then? At what scale? The world I’d entered through the door in my head was, after all, no taller than an asparagus plant gone to seed. I might have scraped a stick along the corrugated-iron and paling fences of houses on the way, making that annoying rattle. I remember being told off for doing it, and then doing it anyway. I found a stick and, hoping no one was watching, set off again, crouched to something like my adult waist-height, rattling my way along the memory-track in my brain.

And then, as if in a dream, I arrived at a modest, sun-washed, single-storey California bungalow with a driveway down the side, a front lawn, a glimpse of a big back section, though no apricot tree at the corner on the driveway, no river-boulder balustrade with a front porch behind it, no … but it was the house. It was our childhood home. It was where the green dial of the radio glowed like a panther’s eye in the front room, where Dave got carried inside by a distraught bloodstained motorist who’d bowled him when he biked out of the driveway without looking, where Nana Horne hummed the same brisk tune every morning along the corridor to the dunny and back again to her bedroom, where I once laid my father out cold in his workshop by hitting him on the back of his head with a hammer (I seem to remember a kind of scientific curiosity), where steam condensed down the cream enamel-painted walls of the kitchen near Nana’s porridge pot. Now the house had been ‘modernised’, the big walnut tree at the back was gone – but this was still where we’d lived until Dave and I were seven. The garage that had housed the grass catcher was still there, in need of a paint job, its door by the footpath askew on rusty hinges.

This was an anticlimactic triumph, a compromised homecoming: the big signage of my memory had gone or been reduced in scale, and the lesson I learned was one I already knew in my heart. You can and you can’t go back to the places you once called home, because the world you imagined then and the one you can recreate will never be the same; and I guessed, too, that the gap between ‘can’ and ‘can’t’, where nostalgia may spread its melancholy spoor, may be the only true measure of what you’ve done with your life. And it may, too, be the measure of where you want to be going next, the place you have always and never been in, the place you are always running home to: home.

But I learned something else as well, or realised I knew it: that my best, even if compromised, chance of getting close to returning to those places I’d left whenever I’d left home would be by means of objects like the grass catcher. Because the grass catcher would help me to remember what everyone else had seen and what only I had seen. Its divided nature would guide me into the gap between can and can’t go home again.

I don’t remember when I first saw Don Driver’s sculpture Lawn Cuttings (1976), but there was the battered canvas and wire grass catcher mounted at the end of a row of four coir mats, with a pair of old leather shoes and some other objects in attendance, in a stretcher frame of galvanised pipes – and I recognised it at once for what it was: the uncanny talisman that would get me as close as I was ever going to be to my first childhood home in the world. If I’m going to ask the question, Where are we when we’re at home?, then I will have to find the objects or words or events that will get me close to the places I once called home, and where that question might disclose some answers.

I didn’t have to bend double to find Horton Park at the end of the street I’d lived in as a kid – the open space with swings and slides where we’d played most days, and where I’d learned to ride a bike by taking off in a straight line towards an inevitable, distant tree. Where I’d leapt from the top of the swings with a bed-sheet parachute and been taken home screaming in the tray of Dave’s trike after one of my big toenails was torn off during landing. But when I got to the park that day on my fifty-year-old nostalgia trip, I knew better than to go and have a swing with the kids there – me in my arty, city-slicker black with dark glasses and the faraway look of a lonely fantasist whose childhood friends had long since made themselves scarce. The other reason you can’t go home again is because you are no longer who you were. Or rather, like the grass catcher that is both simply whatever it is in the world and something other, you are a kind of double: who you have become and the ghost fragment of the other you were when you were in this place you called home long ago.

I’ve been back a few times in the decade since that disenchanting return home in 2003, and something similar always happens. Most recently, in March 2013, I was in Blenheim with three other poets, Dinah Hawken, John Newton and Cliff Fell, to give readings in the same Millennium Gallery where Bill Culbert’s work had been exhibited. Our theme was, as it happens, home. We arranged to meet for lunch and plan our evening. Cliff Fell came over from Nelson with his partner Pammy; they were in time for a long, talkative, preparatory lunch among the grapevines out at Rockferry, in a landscape that looked nothing like the nibbled pasture of my childhood. Dinah Hawken and her husband Bill also made it to lunch; they came over the hill from Waikawa Bay around from Picton, where I spent much of my childhood in a backwater that, then, had almost no houses, no marina, and a gravel road that petered out just past the boatshed where my grandfather’s clinker dinghy waited to be pushed to the water along manuka rollers. Cressida Bishop, Director of the Millennium Gallery, also came to lunch; the gallery wasn’t there when I was a kid, but the Memorial Clock Tower was, just over the road, along with the Floral Clock, both of them structures of awe-inspiring grandeur to my eyes in 1953, when the Queen visited and laid a wreath (I couldn’t see her). John Newton couldn’t make it to lunch because he was moving house (home) on Waiheke Island, but he tore through the door of the gallery with minutes to spare before the evening reading, and would have been happy to see that copies of his new collection, Family Songbook (which is about home), were for sale.

In John’s book, home territories radiate out from Robin Hood Bay at the entrance to Port Underwood: back inland to what used to be called Beavertown (or ‘more/ fancifully still’, Beaver Station) – now Blenheim; south from there to the Dashwood Pass and North Canterbury; or west through the Rai Valley to the Whangamoa Saddle, which my grandmother, Agnes Horne, was the first woman to drive a car over on the way to Nelson. We were all in our different ways trying to find that grid of locations, circumstances, memories and relationships that located us in some way somewhere.

Cliff, for one, was able to point out, from a perspective that had more to do with historical amusement than whakapapa or with what John characterises as ‘homesickness’, that his great-great-grandfather Alfred Fell was responsible for surveying the town that would become Blenheim, and named a disproportionate number of its streets after his children. Cliff came to New Zealand in 1997, and on visiting Blenheim for the first time may have found himself going along Francis Street, which his ancestor had originally called ‘Frances’. Before coming to lunch, I’d gone on my usual pilgrimage to Francis Street. As usual, I tried but couldn’t find it. Then I adjusted my scale, stopped walking nostalgically towards the yellow Wither Hills, and there it was, much closer to the centre of town than it seemed to be when I was a kid; and there was number 32, the slightly-the-worse-for-wear California bungalow, my childhood home, again.

Dinah Hawken said that, for her, being at home is both utterly tangible: ‘this room, this actual house – and garden, neighbourhood, coastline, town, country and world’; and intangible: ‘the state of being at home with myself and with others’. I know what she means: after the reading, a woman my age came up and asked if I remembered her. Glenys. We used to play together. My answer had to be evasive to be truthful: no, I didn’t remember her or the startling escapades she then reminded me of (we’d pinched someone’s engagement ring); but yes, I did remember, because her name and the place we were in again after sixty years were drawn towards each other without quite making meaningful contact: somehow tangible and intangible, incongruous and even comic, as in Cliff’s historical frame, and also melancholy, as in John’s sense of ‘homesickness’.

On my journey to rediscover these home places I will need the grass catcher to guide me to them, and my ghost fragments to guide me to the self I was when I was there – a self that may often have been a version of the counterfeiter who used his twin brother’s pain to secure his own pleasure. Will I recognise these places called home and the dissembling play-actor who lived in them? Can my own experiences teach me anything about the experiences of others in the places I called home? How was it for them? This is what I need to find out.

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Tags: Biography, Memoir