Extract: Ursula    
 
 

For Ursula

I still think of you every day, although you’ve been gone now for more than twelve years. Today as I was ironing a shirt, I spread the sleeve flat to avoid ironing in a crease. I always think of you as I do this, no matter how many shirts I iron in my life. You taught me this trick more than fifty years ago. Now I smile when I think of such pedantry in the midst of the household chaos you created. For a long time it didn’t make me smile, but now I have come to a different stage in my life, and part of my amusement relates to the fact I am still continuing to obey your rules.

Who taught you to iron so fastidiously anyway? Was it Mama - your mother, my grandmother? I’m sure it was. She was the fastidious one, in her tailored suits and hand-made shoes, which lasted for decades. Mama was the one who wore stockings to do her housework. You, on the other hand, rarely did housework.

You were always too ill from one of your variety of ailments, the most debilitating of which was melancholy. You delegated the chores to your succession of children, some of whom showed more diligence than others in their attempts to please you.

And how you could sew. When did you learn to do that? Was it before or after you escaped from Nazi Germany, or in Palestine? You made the curtains for every one of our houses. Do you remember the red and grey ones in the house in Nambour? You loved bright colours, you wore blues and greens, and above all, red. Mama never wore bright colours. A generation later I have reverted to the autumn colours of my grandmother. You made most of your own clothes despite all that trouble with your hip, despite all the pain you were in. I should have been impressed, because when I was first married I took a sewing course, but I still can’t sew a straight line. Once, when I was thirteen, you made me a beautiful lemony summer dress. It was an H-line, and it swung from the hips as I walked. I don’t think I ever told you how much I loved that dress. You taught me to knit the German way, the fast way, the needle curling into the wool instead of the wool being wrapped over the needle. I still have the jumper you knitted for me when I was forty-five. Its heavy cable is too hot for this climate. But even when I thought I hated you still I couldn’t throw it away.

You didn’t actually teach me how to read. Reading came along with everything else in our household – table manners, compassion for those less fortunate, and breathing. By the time I was six I was as addicted to books as you were. Remember how you said I wasn’t allowed to read For Whom the Bell Tolls until I was fifteen? I must confess now to stealing it off the bookshelf long before that birthday arrived. You were probably right. I think I missed most of what was important, while I scanned the book for the illicit parts you were trying to keep away from me.

 

 

Ursula by Eileen Naseby

You always limped, even before the hip replacement. Sometimes the kids next door would imitate you behind your back. I couldn’t work out who was to blame for my humiliation, you or them. Something happens when you move countries. In England, I already knew our differences set us apart from our neighbours, and no matter how hard I tried, I was only ever half English, and you were something else even more foreign; exotic but threatening at the same time.

There used to be a Jewish café called Scheherazade. I went there occasionally when I was in Melbourne. It’s in a street they call ‘Cake Street’. When I was there, I would shut my eyes and listen to the old people arguing. Then I would be back with you and Mama in the kitchen in the little housing commission house in Brisbane, listening as you threw your love and your anger back and forth across the table.

How did you and Nigel find love in the midst of all that wartime chaos? How did it become so strong it withstood the life that lay ahead - the poverty, the disappointments, the arguments? You began your life studying ballet. By the time you finished school you could speak five languages, and you could write and paint. Then he took you to live on cow farms, first in England and then Australia. Every time he had to move on, you became something else for him. You nurtured his belief in these dreams, and everybody knew you loved him just as much when the dreams were gone.

You were the strong one, and I never really understood.

You were lost to me for such a long time.

© Eileen Naseby, 2006