The persistence of memory


Dandenong Mountains, Flickr image by dornoforpyro'You must be mad,' declared my brother when I announced my intention of attending a school reunion. I grinned and said maybe, while reflecting that this business was not even a case of Forty Years On, but more like 50.

Many people have dark thoughts about the wastefulness and futility of nostalgia, but I do not share them. Perhaps this is what happens when your life is sliced in two by migration, as mine was long ago. Today I live in Greece, but the reunion was to take place in the country of my youth, Australia.

We die many deaths in life; migration demands a death of at least one old self. The death paradoxically involves the process of living, because the migrant simply has to keep on functioning. The grief involved in migration is often intense and prolonged, but settles into a kind of remembering that never entirely loses an edge of pain.

I walked in the door of the reunion venue; immediately the organiser rushed over, wrapped me in enthusiastic embrace, and said, 'I know who you are; you haven't changed at all.' Her warmth was a tonic, but I wondered. Of course I've changed. I had to. We all have to, even if we cling to vestiges of our past selves and lives for comfort.

In a sense, perhaps, our old lives and selves do not quite die, but are like rose bushes that undergo regular shaping and trimming, and sometimes quite hard pruning.

My dad, now old and frail, had been a teacher at the school. He taught me, as well as many others who attended the reunion. They talked about him with fondness and admiration, for he had been a vibrant and entertaining presence, a sound and effective communicator, a person who connected with others. 'I don't remember all my teachers,' someone told me, 'but I remember him. He was one of the ones who made a difference.'

Some teachers make a difference. So do some people. And so it was that one old friend arranged to take me bush-walking.

Me and my landscapes. I am used to walking in the foothills of the Taygetus Mountains in the Peloponnese, where I have views of key-hole caves on the one hand and the silver-flash green of the olive groves on the other. But these things are the top-soil layers of memory; the Australian bush is the bed-rock. The spindly trees, the sunburnt, drought-stricken scrub, the posts and rails and barbed wire. All these sights are achingly familiar.

In one sense I feel I am walking through a Hans Heysen, Streeton or McCubbin landscape. When I am away, my mind's eye needs only to blink and I am back among the eucalypts and tea-tree.

The mind's nose is not as obedient, but as the bush scents drift, I suddenly remember other ones: the aroma of fish and chips floating along the platforms at Flinders Street Station, the smell of dust that always, in Victoria, heralds a storm, as moisture suddenly hits bone-dry earth.

Snatches of song have the same effect: just a few bars of 'The Rose of Tralee' take me back to times when my mother, sister and I sang ancestral songs round the piano. Now my mother and sister are no more, but my three-quarters Greek grandson has been able to recognise 'Waltzing Matilda' since he was 20 months old.

I pondered many things as I tramped through the bush towards the sea. The comfort of old friends and the shorthand of conversation effortlessly resumed, the giving up of oneself to healing Nature, the restorative joy that can be taken in the here and now, the precious moment.

And I remembered that it had been my father who introduced me and my classmates to Wordsworth and his notion of endless nature rolling through all things.

The graft took: my friend read a poem out there, miles from anywhere. And I listened, feeling at home once more: I had returned to my native land and to my mother tongue, even if only for a short time.

But at the day's close it was not Wordsworth I thought of so much as E. M. Forster: Only connect.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.

Topic tags: gillian bouras, school reunion, migrant, teacher, wordsworth, forster



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Existing comments

An excellent reminder to me who was taken on Adelaide bush walks by Fr Charlie Dennett SJ, our Maths Teacher - a great experience even with me today, 55 yrs later!
John P Keane | 28 January 2009

loved this story
Anna Orchard | 28 January 2009

Gillian Bouras' pieces always, but always feed a gap in my soul, and I feel very centered after reading such evocative prose. thank you for publishing such a piece.
helen.m.donnellan | 28 January 2009

Thank you for this wonderfully evocative passage. Ten years ago I was torn from my family and found solace and healing in friendship on regular bushwalks.
Memories are indeed precious.
Ern Azzopardi | 28 January 2009

I always find Gillian Bouras perceives keys that resonate with anyone whose life has been split across different countries. Her words are a comfort to those who are always missing 'home'.
Margaret Gibson | 30 January 2009


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