What it was like to grow up in a house with no men

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There were no men’s shoes at the doorstep of my grandmother’s house, waiting for large feet to step into them. There were no shirts tucked into wardrobes, making rooms smell gently of cologne and shaving cream. My grandmother’s house was always one of women. Even after she’d disappeared.

During the decade I lived with my mother and grandmother, men existed in our house, but they were mostly stories and disembodied voices. The things my father may have said on the phone, or as he pulled up against the curb to drop me off after school before going back to his home, full of men’s things. A man’s voice calling from the radio or television. As I got older, the echo of my friend’s conversations, curling outward from around a fire where we drank more wine than we should and counted fruit bats silhouetted against the sky.

I had not lived with my father since he left my mother when I was four. Men were strange; somehow exotic. When a male family friend came to stay in my room while I slept in with my mother, I slipped into the space and touched the things on the cleared dresser. The ring and cologne and the scattering of coins from a pants pocket. I touched the silky dressing gown, hung on the back of my door. I marvelled at the collision of spaces. Of living alongside something that felt so irrevocably othered.

The house we lived in had been in the family for decades. The rooms I was a child in were the same rooms my mother had been a child in. We climbed the same trees, we walked the same streets to the same primary school. However, three generations of women in the same house was often difficult, particularly as my grandmother slipped further and further from us. In a house of stories and of ghosts, my grandmother became a stranger who ate with her fingers and didn’t know who we were. My grandmother threw things when she was angry. She wept for her mother and brothers as the sun went down.

We were like sisters, my grandmother and I. Pitted against each other in a constant battle for my mother’s attention. My grandmother called my mother “Mum”. We argued about who she loved more. We argued about who was taller. We argued about my grandmother’s age – she never remembered she was in her 70s. The house was sisterly and motherly. It was familiar.

My grandmother forgot her stories; the stories of my mother as a child; the stories of her brothers and parents. Stories of herself. She became othered in another way – slipping into a space that was somehow genderless. The space of a baby, who is governed only by their fears; their yearnings. 

My mother gave them back to her as best she could. She told them, over and over. Stories of ghosts and trees and bikes. As she fed my grandmother or bathed her or soothed her. As my grandmother and I argued. As my grandmother called for her dead brothers. She would tell my grandmother the stories my grandmother had told her. 

My grandmother would nod along. She would sometimes murmur the words. As though the stories had not disappeared, but merely slipped below some murky surface, beneath which they were still whole and intact.

Twenty years on from moving in with my grandmother, I live with my husband. We live on a little farm in the Yarra Valley and our house and paddocks are full of animals. The stories of this place belong to other families, other times. But slowly, we are making it our own.

I think back to living with my mother and grandmother in our old house in the suburbs. I think back to the knowing; the knowing of every mark on the walls; every death; every tree. Made more precious, somehow, by my grandmother’s forgetting.

I tell my husband about living in the old house, of living with my grandmother and mother. Of believing in ghosts. I tell him the stories my mother told my grandmother.

And still, after seven years, there are moments when I marvel at living with a man. At the little things I still notice, still stall at, after a childhood where home meant only women.

Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones (HarperCollins) is available tomorrow.

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