In your absence I sense your presence



Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory is a surreal collection of frozen melting clocks. Graeme Koehne's is an elegy for oboe and string orchestra written in memory of Guy Henderson. Both trigger reactions from viewers and listeners that resonate with the familiar process of recalling memories.

Salvador Dali's The Persistence of MemoryIt takes me about five minutes to prepare and cook porridge in my microwave. First — add cold water to the oats and stir until blended.

Inevitably, as I stir for a few seconds, an image slips into my mind of my grandmother sitting by the open fire in the kitchen stirring porridge as it cooks slowly in a large iron pot suspended over hot coals. Grandma warms my school gloves by the fire. The clock on her mantelpiece chimes.

Almost 50 years on, I'm a grandmother myself and you and I are walking together on the beach as our two-year-old granddaughter skips ahead along the shore line chasing the seagulls. She pauses momentarily and watches as they take to the air.

We mind her two days each week and she is a joy in our life. When our daughter brings her to our home in the morning, you carry her to the window to help you feed small portions of bread to the sparrows who gather on the sill.

Our granddaughter looks in wonder as they fly away carrying crusts of bread back to their nests. She seems as fascinated by the flight of birds as I am. I can understand why the first people who spoke about angels endowed them with wings to differentiate them from mere earthbound mortals.

Our last walk together on a beach takes place on a balmy autumn day. The sun is shining, the sea is calm. While there is something beautiful about that scene and that moment, I still wonder, in retrospect, why I said, 'This is almost like being in heaven.' Unconscious, prophetic words, or simply an acknowledgement of perfection in my mind's eye?


"It happens the next day at 3pm. And all the clocks stop then."


But it's not time yet. Many more heartbeats left, days ahead as life continues to unfold, milestones are reached, happiness shared. We spend a morning at the launch of a CD of songs written in an innovative music therapy program by people in hospital with cancer and their music therapist, our daughter.

The next night the wind is howling and I say, 'Do you think the tall pine tree will fall on our roof?' You smile and hold me in your arms. 'And what about tomorrow when we're in the country?'

You reply, 'Probably a whole forest of pine trees will fall.' I smile because it's so ridiculous to even think of that and then I go to sleep. But it happens the next day at 3pm. And all the clocks stop then.

Grief descends on me and our two sons and two daughters; memories surface; eulogies and an elegy are written. Eventually, the first time I walk alone I'm accompanied by a seagull flying overhead. In your absence I sense your presence.

On a summer's evening, decades earlier, we are sitting on a beach watching the huge red sun descend into the calm ocean. As it slides into the horizon, the blue sea and the white-crested waves turn golden.

We are teenage boyfriend and girlfriend with limited life experience, but we are 'in love'. We have swum all day and as the sun sets we sit close together on the sand looking towards the horizon.

Did you recall that moment when on an evening in your last summer, you called me to the window as the sun descended, splashing the blue sky and white clouds in a magnificent display of gold and crimson? As we watched together you said, 'A sunset is worth living for.' I've come to learn the truth in those words.

And spring-time? Masses of memories of new life recreated, seemingly endlessly, when I see each year the blossoms opening on the branches of the tree you planted in your final winter.



Maureen O'Brien headshotMaureen O'Brien is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Maureen O'Brien, Salvador Dali, Graeme Koehne



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Existing comments

Truly beautiful poetry. We are indeed our memories!
john frawley | 24 July 2018

Truly did Wordsworth write: 'It (poetry ) takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.' In this example of Maureen O' Brien's creative recollection I'm inclined to hear a poetic voice which tells me I too am a grandparent who loves his grandchildren, am proud of my daughters, enjoy in my old age the companionship of my partner, feel like a feather on the breath of God when I listen to the hymns of Hildegard of Bingen. Am I experiencing a subjective correlative to Maureen's writing? I certainly had a more pleasant reaction than my habitual choleric dismay when I read other articles articulating (quite accurately ) what's wrong with our 21st century world.
Uncle Pat | 25 July 2018

Hi Maureen! Recognised your inspiring reflective spirit. All true your sharing. Thanks
Jill | 25 July 2018

Maureen, this is a beautiful reflection on memory and so deeply honest. Your writing is very moving and captures the way our memories are intricately woven into the natural world and the ordinariness of our living. Thank you!
Tricia Murray | 25 July 2018

I wish I had read this 15 months ago! Anyway, what you have described here,could be very helpful for those who have a much-loved partner/parent/sister/brother... in helping you know how to celebrate life, even as death is close.
Johanna Blows | 21 March 2019


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