A figure from childhood memory

From workshop writing prompt, and a true story.

My memory is vivid after more than 65 years. A large woman, dark hair piled in braids on the top of her head. She’s wearing a dress. I can’t remember the colour or pattern only that it strained tight across her broad bosom, and pale. Yes, I think it was pale. She’s sitting stiffly in a wooden chair against a wall. There are people – vague, washed out figures – either side of her. Her hands rest on her big knees and she stares into the room, unsmiling.

She frightened me a little. An imposing matron with a tense stillness which spoke of sorrow, disappointment, chances lost. Not that I could have articulated those emotions at that age. Perhaps awe is what I experienced then.

thoughtful young woman

I carried the memory for years and one day, I don’t know why it came out then, perhaps we were talking of family, I asked my mother who this woman was.

She frowned. ‘Large woman, hair in braids? Sounds like my dad’s mother.’ She narrowed her eyes at me. ‘But she died when you were very, very small. A baby.’

Could I have seen a photo, she asked, but she herself couldn’t remember any photos. Besides, this memory was alive to me. I felt her presence.

I shook my head. ‘We were at a gathering, a wedding I think.’ I recalled her dark eyes, gazing into the room, observing, taking things in and not quite approving.

‘She was German,’ my mother said. ‘Came here in the early part of the century as a young married woman, and settled on a small farm not far from where I grew up.’

‘Did she have a hard life?’

My mother shrugged. ‘No more than most at that time, I guess. But to be honest, I don’t really know.’ She smiled. ‘She was always kind to us kids. Ask your aunt, she was closest to her.’

But I never did. I liked to keep the mystery.

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6 thoughts on “A figure from childhood memory”

    1. My maternal great grandmother died when I was 16, so I have plenty of memories of her. There’s a photo somewhere of the 4 generations, me, my mother, her mother and her mother (great grandma) I must have been about 3.


    At 75 years of age, many childhood memories grow dim so it is somewhat difficult to recall specific figures met at a very young age.
    A couple stand out, even now. One was my maternal grandfather who died when I was five. I have vague recollections of a kindly old man in a green dressing gown – an image confirmed by my mother as I became older.
    “Yes,” she said, somewhat surprised at my ability to recall him. “He used to wear his green dressing gown around the house in the months leading up to his death.”
    Grandy (as we grandchildren called him) died of acute bronchitis brought on by smoking. Mum told me he loved escaping to the garden and hiding behind a hedge where all that could be seen was a plume of smoke rising steadily from his well-lit pipe.
    Other figures had some sort of impact as I grew slightly older.
    My first teacher, who handled both kindergarten and first grade in the one year at Toorak Central in Melbourne, was certainly in that category. Though I have forgotten her name, I remember her as a grey-haired middle-aged soul who loved to teach us in front of a roaring winter fire with bottled milk, which we consumed once it had been heated, warming on the hearth.
    Because of my father’s work, the following year we moved to Sydney where I was enrolled in grade two at Wahroonga Primary School, aged seven.
    My teacher was a woman named Mrs Walsh and, while the day-to-day activities are difficult to recall, I do remember giving me an almighty bare hand slap one morning for talking in line.
    Those were the days when corporal punishment was common and children would be caned or strapped for the most insignificant reasons.
    I was on the receiving end of a curved cane beating for going too close to a gum tree earmarked for felling. As a result, I had enormous welts on the back of my legs which, when noticed by my father, received no sympathy at all.
    The teacher on duty responsible for inflicting the wounds was a Mr Ford, a tall lanky individual with a severe expression designed, I suppose, to strike the fear of God into his students.
    He later became my grade four teacher and was absolutely terrific – the earlier caning apparently completely forgotten by him, but not, however, by me.

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