My whole attention is on the little angels flittering through the vegetable patch. It’s Christmas Eve in my maternal grandmother’s garden in Tasmania. Cypress hedge, coral roses flushing and blushing, red fish darting in the enigmatic waters of a bottomless pond. But my whole attention is really on those little angels – that’s what I call the cabbage white butterflies – as they perform their dances in search of Christmas nectar. On gravel paths, I run on my two year-old legs, my arms outstretched, fingers splayed, as I proceed in the sure and certain hope that I will catch an angel. My dress is new, blue with white trims, knitted by my grandmother, a gift for Christmas. Her other gift is the shiny shilling she gives to every grandchild every Christmas. I never caught my angel in the veggie garden.
My recollections of that Christmas eve are in fact my earliest memories, and they are sharp and sweet and also sad. For that night was my grandmother’s last. She died on Christmas eve. Her name was Ellen Margaret. So ever after, Christmas eve for me has been tinged with the sorrow of loss. Was it her heart? A stroke? The history of all that has disappeared in the swirl of the mists of time, and what remains are the magic lantern moments with the little angels in the garden.
I can record no memory of what followed. Memory being the apparently whimsical creature that it is, the melancholy that must have filled Christmas Day has been erased. I have a space where there must have been a Christmas tree. Were there gifts? We must have gone church. I would like to be able to say that I saw a flock of angels on the ceiling, heard them singing in the choir. Hark those herald angels. What became of the pudding?
We always spent the long Christmas holidays at the beach with caravans and cousins. But before we left for Bicheno with its penguins and red rocks, or Port Arthur with its stark old prison cells and seagulls, we would go to the cemetery at Carr Villa in Launceston to put a vase of roses, sometimes they were coral, on Ellen Margaret’s grave. We went on the tram, just me and my mother. On the white gravel surface of the grave there was a bloodless porcelain collection of flowers and birds, and a pair of tiny white hands in that sentimental handshake of farewell. There was something about these two right hands, severed as they were from their body of origin, that reminded me of wings. These memorial objects, still and silent, were protected by a glass dome.
My mother ritually cleans the surface of the dome with a damp cloth impregnated with a few drops of methylated spirit, and the birds and flowers come into clearer view. For a while, the air in the cemetery no longer smells of decay and rosemary, but is lashed with the sting of metho. I fill the cheap vase with water that gurgles from a crooked tap. Mother arranges the roses in the vase, titivating the petals with the tips of her fingers. She stands back to admire her work. Titivates a bit more. And we whisper and mumble some prayers. One of these is to the archangel Michael – a warlike fellow with wings and a great spear – a separate species that is a million light years from those little angels among the veggies.
Well, years and light years have now passed by, and with them a merry-go-round variety of Christmas Eves and Christmas Days. Some of them I remember and some of them I forget. However, wrapped in a linen doily, accompanied by a sprig of rosemary, on a shelf, in a cupboard in my house, I have the small white porcelain hands that once lay under the glass dome on Ellen Margaret’s grave.
So what kind of merciless grave-robber am I? Ten years ago I visited the grave at Carr Villa. Some force – the branch of a tree, the pleasures of vandalism, a bolt of lighting? – had smashed the glass dome. Flowers and birds lay in a tragic, monstrous shattered clutter of shards. Twigs and leaves lay everywhere in mushing clumps. Twisted rusty wires poked out from the base of petal and wing. Lying alone, unharmed except for dirt and rust were the voiceless little hands. I tidied up the broken pieces, and pocketed the hands. There was no vase. I left some flowers – I don’t remember what they were – on the surface of snow white pebbles.
When I got home I searched through the collection of embroidered doilys that came to me from my mother. Some of these were done by Ellen Margaret. To my great joy, one of these was a square of white linen worked in shiny white and shades of vermilion. I had always thought there was something bloody about that doily. Now it seemed to be the perfect shroud for the farewell hands. The thumb of the hand on the left is still indelibly stained with rust. A hateful spike of darkly rusted, tormented wire protrudes from the back on which is printed a number ‘5048’, resembling the mark on the back of the neck of an antique porcelain doll. It looks rather like part of a long lost phone number.
These days, on the low table where I always put a Christmas tree, I place the doily, and on it, the hands. Although they are, I have to say, rather creepy, they seem to blend in with the general theme of the red and white of tinsel and baubles and candy canes. I know I am fanciful, but the hands, freighted as they are with meaning and memory, seem to me to carry distinct echoes of the cabbage moths, those little angels that flew about their business in Ellen Margaret’s garden on Christmas Eve, long, long ago.