This story was collected at our East Victoria Park backyard and is told by Alexandra Geneve. Alexandra shares a story about love, loss, and discovering her father’s dairies after he passed away.
Backstories 2022 is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in suburbs of across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2022, Backstories occurred in locations such as Geraldton, Kununurra, Bunbury, Margaret River and Lesmurdie.
Backstories 2022 East Vic Park was made possible with funding from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Town of Victoria Park and Centre for Stories Founders Circle.
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Copyright © 2023 Alexandra Geneve
Photo by Tasha Tong Faye.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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This story is titled ‘The Diaries’. This is a story about love, loss, and the emergence of truth, and other people’s diaries. When my father died last year, he left a series of diaries behind for me to find. He’d spoken of the diaries for several years. So I knew of their existence, but I never truly believed that I would lay my hands on their pages.
I’d held a fantasy that inside their pages, I would find the answer to everything. The key to all the answers I had never been offered or found satisfying growing up. Or more importantly, the truth as to what really happened to my family. In the years prior to my birth, several things happened to my family of which I both was and wasn’t a part.
I wasn’t physically there for the first two. But I was for the third in utero, but each event came together, I believe to create me. June 1968, 21 months before my birth, our home on the beach is blown away by a tornado. My three brothers, my father and my mother are inside it at the time. My youngest brother, who is four, is lying in the big bed in the main room, when a painting above his little head comes down on top of him, followed by the north facing wall.
The painting saves him. My eldest brother, who saw it coming before anyone, runs around the house screaming the world is blowing up. My second eldest brother is hit with flying debris and rain after the huge windows facing the sea crack and break. Thankfully, outwards. There are live power lines criss crossing the roads and sparks cracking the air.
Everyone survives to rebuild. March 1969. Eleven months prior to my birth. My brother, that same little boy who was saved by the painting, is now five, and dies of heart complications. And my parents’ grief fractures everything around them, and each other. My two older brothers, now seven and nine, cannot fathom what has happened, and to this day still find the past has a grip on them that never lets go.
July 1969, four months after my brother’s death, my mother, pregnant with me. Loses her own mother prematurely. And then there was me. Finally, a girl. And everyone could breathe a sigh of relief because I was healthy. But alongside the rough love of my two remaining brothers, I also grew up in the shadow of my brother’s death.
He was openly spoken about, and the tales of their lives before I was born were ubiquitous. And they were detailed. And like a dream to me that I could not quite remember upon waking and would slip away the more that I tried. He was soft and hazel eyed and was often out of breath. His older brothers would piggyback him wherever he needed to go and the neighborhood children would take it in turns to do the same.
A sensitive, sweet boy, his last words to our father were, Daddy, take the pain away. I grew up with a feeling as though I’d been present before my birth. That I had been there to see my family happy and whole, to live with them on that coastal strip, that carefree life of which they reminisced. It was both a joy and a deep, melancholic longing that I knew from a small child.
It was both everything and nothing. It was what made me and what undid me. I was the replacement baby. If he hadn’t died… I wouldn’t have been born. And while I wouldn’t have wanted to give up life, the overwhelming question I had was, why do I get to live and he doesn’t? Everything began to crumble not long after my birth.
Of course, I don’t remember those years, but I do recall moments. Vignettes, if you like. A slam of keys. A scream. A door slamming shut. I think I remember my father leaving and never coming back. But i’m not sure.
My parents divorced bitterly, acrimoniously, in 1979. My longing for existential answers was compounded with guilt for loving both of them. This is what a divorced child goes through when they are not placed first in the equation. Life affirming love juxtaposed with life destroying guilt. I remember vividly one winter afternoon, my dad and I drove to the beach and sat in the car to talk.
As we looked out upon the waves crashing on the reefs off Cottesloe, I couldn’t speak or utter a sound as he spoke to me of the trouble my mother was causing, dragging him again through the family court. I had no voice in that moment, as if my tongue was caught against the reef. This became my life. A torn and tattered pawn in my family’s messy grief.
I was born as a replacement, and to bring my parents back together after loss so raw that it can’t be described. And I failed at that. I failed at the one thing I was born to do. I know they loved me, but their hatred for each other was greater than that love. It seemed to me. It grew and grew until hatred became an entity.
The other baby in the family, a fifth malevolent child, and that did something to me, my nervous system and my understanding of myself. When I was ten, I discovered the works of Robert Frost. On those frigid winter days when the beach was too windy to play on, I used to sit in the kitchen and recite his poems.
I knew several off by heart in weeks, and they have stayed with me all my life. But to think a girl of ten found something that resonated with her in the poem – Bereft is astounding to me even now, and I was that girl. The years past, the weight of the past and familial bonds and loyalties meant that there were on again, off again years of rupture in all our relationships.
There were months when I didn’t see my dad and there were times when we both thought the other was better off without them. We were both wrong. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I first considered my own conception and how I was conceived in a stew of stress hormones and grief and a longing for what was or what could have been.
I became interested in epigenetics, and how the cells of the body alter physically during trauma, and are then passed on to the next generation. I began to write about my place in the family, and about my connection to my lost brother, and how his brief life in the intersection with my own haunted me, but I could never fully explain why.
My darling dad and I made the last 25 years really count. We became very close. And I felt that I was finally able to process and untangle some of the past. And we openly talked about how life sometimes undoes us. And there is little we can do about it. I still had no real answers to my questions of what really happened to my parent’s marriage.
Everyone I ever spoke to had a different answer. And all I was left with, even at the age of 50, Was confusion and fatigue. So. When Dad told me about the diaries not long before his death, I was surprised. He began to reveal little things to me that the diaries spoke of, and he opened up more about his life prior to marrying my mother.
He said he would leave them for me after he died. His reading and re-reading of those diaries consumed him in the two years before he died. I came to realise that he too had spent a lifetime trying to comprehend what had happened and to make some sense out of his life. The one heartbreaking conclusion he came to was that my mother never loved him.
I could barely stand to hear him think it, let alone say it to me. She never loved me, darling, he said once. And once again, my tongue was caught against the reef. When I found the diaries after his death, I took them home and I placed them next to my bed. I touched them and I smelled their pages. And I wonder whether, finally, I had the keys to everything in my hands.
You see, these were not my father’s diaries, they were my mother’s.
I read the diaries between my father’s death and his funeral. Notes of paper pinned together with rusted sewing needles. Handwritten, typewritten, paper that was so brittle, I could see the light shine through it. The diaries were from 1957 to 1959, and were all about courtship, engagement, and the marriage of my parents.
My mother, a socialite artist, and my father, the shy son of Bulgarian immigrants. The diaries detailed where they lunched and with whom. They detailed the arrangements for the wedding on St George’s Terrace, the reception at the Charles Hotel, and the honeymoon at the Adelphi. And they described their long sea voyage to London.
What their cabin looked like, what they ate, where they docked along the way, and the adventures they had. And when and where they made love. All this long before my brother’s dying, and me being born. and their awful decades long feud and disintegration. He was wrong. She did love him. But nothing is ever so simple as love.
Her diaries rendered her indecisions about marrying very clear. She wanted both love and desire. She wanted a home and children, but also a career and an adventurous life. And she couldn’t have it all. It was the late 1950s. Suspended in that liminal space between the domestication of women’s lives as expectation and the desire for women to live lives on their own terms with freedom of choice and agency.
But to my father, reading this years later, it would have felt akin to betrayal. Prior to marrying my father, it seemed my mother led a life one would envy even today. She left home and traveled the country with girlfriends. She studied fine art. She held art exhibitions and she worked in radio. She taught in country towns and had dalliances with men.
She rode on the back of motorbikes and went down to the beach late at night to swim under the moonlight. She had a life only few women could dream of, due to her passion for living, her artistic temperament and her youthful obstinance. But she also carried the weight of expectation, both her own and her family’s, and of course, the society within which she struggled to breathe.
What I learned from those diaries was that she was torn between two versions of herself and could satisfy neither. She wanted what every young woman wants, to have it all. She was no different from me, except she was born into a world of tight social constraints and harsh punishment for transgressing those boundaries.
Leaving the diaries for me to find after he died meant I never got to talk about any of this with my father. It was too late to point out the discrepancies. With his interpretation of the diaries and mine to give him a different perspective of my mother’s hesitation at marrying him, to help ease the pain that seemed to consume him during those final years of his life. But I wish I had been able to as it would have helped us both to rewrite the past and write some of the hurt for us both.
All memory is metaphysical, as is love, there both is and is not truth. And finding that out, for me, was the key to finding peace. The stories we tell ourselves, put our memories and love, our pains and our pleasures, into context. I believe that finding meaning in anything is merely the matter of finding a better story.
And the story I found in those diaries was just that. A story of new love and hope. And a future just beyond my parents fingertips.