Dalia Millingen has been haunted by the ‘Black Dog’, seemingly since early childhood, so her memoir The Changing Forms of Clouds naturally has something to say about the debilitating disease (and with great knowledge and insight) but this engaging story is about so much more.
Being fond of what I refer to as ‘late bloomers’, (some of the more well-known Aussie literary ones were mentioned recently on a Whispering Gums post), I’m delighted that Millingen has had her first book published on what must be almost the cusp of her 90th birthday. What a marvellous achievement!
And well done to Hybrid – a Melbourne Publishing House that, amongst other things, specialises in Jewish writings – for launching this unusual memoir.
The Changing Forms of Clouds is unusual on two main fronts:-
Firstly, it leaves much unsaid. Facts are sometimes glossed over and events inferred, meaning it is necessary to read between the lines.
Millingen admits to a frustration with “people who exaggerate size or numbers while storytelling” (15) and it shows in her sometimes cautious choice of phrase, as though she is determined to be as truthful as she can be.
When she ponders if her inability to remember the bed she slept in at her parents’ house was the result of the “brutal months” she lived through (92), we are reminded that much has been left unsaid because, at that point, “brutal” is not a word that would come to mind.
When three-quarters of the way through the book, Millingen briefly mentions an abortion she had many years prior, it comes as a shock. Her confessional style is such that, by that point in the book, I felt I had lived through many of those years with her and, as if I were a confidant, I felt hurt that she had not shared that fact with me before.
Secondly, the voice is not constant, vacillating between the conversational and the highly stylised. It can go from the poetic:
Sealed in the shadows, my early years have imprinted bluntly and left indelible scars. I breathed the poisoned fumes that pollute the air of absent nurturing. (25)
to the prosaic:
There was not much space in this apartment, and my widowed grandmother went to live with one of her sons. The single bathroom was part of the first floor’s tenancy. My father went to the public baths. (12)
with the occasional difficult passage:
I appreciate the advantages of electronics but it has been easy to take it in my stride and I am protected from a disease where the virus is both potent and infectious. As to bigger and better, it isn’t a question of indifference to comfort but the intimation from living experience that happiness can be found in the simplest of settings, (9)
It is frightening to think that, at the tender age of eight, already suffering from a perceived lack of affection, little Dalia was plucked from her home to be sent to a ‘Preventorium’ for three months, because she was dangerously underweight and thought to be at risk of the dreaded tuberculosis. There she lived with “silence, fear, anger and longing” being “washed, towelled and dressed by anonymous hands” (32). This was obviously such a difficult time for Millingen that she rarely refers to herself alone during the retelling of this period, preferring instead to write of the group of children: “We were directed…twenty little girls lie still…we lie, curled up with long-learned patience” (34).
In recounting the horror of the dormitory-style existence, Millingen shocks with the description of the supervisor “a disciplinarian who in hatred presses the white pillow over a mouth that dares to utter a few words or cry” (34). But the author chooses not to go into any further detail, whether because of the difficulty in the telling or the distance of the memory (broken links were caused by the electroshocks she was subjected to many years later), is difficult to say.
There is a pronounced shift in tone and voice when Millingen disembarks from The Napoli in Melbourne in 1950 and, again, I ponder the reason. Is it because her more recent memories are clearer? Perhaps, with friends and children available to check facts and bounce remembrances off, it is easier to be sure of the occurrence of events. Or could it be that, in remembering her childhood and growth in Belgium, she was ‘thinking’ in another language and was constantly translating those thoughts? After her many years in Australia, does English come naturally to her and is it easier to relate events without filtering through language?
In unveiling herself to us as the newly arrived wife and mother in Australia, Millingen allows her sense of humour to surface, tasting Four’N Twenty meat pies in Frankston and believing them to “be the specialty of the town” (117). The Australian habit of replacing ‘Hello’ with ‘How do you do’ led to some embarrassing situations as Millingen lingered, endeavouring to answer what she thought was a question. It reminded me of my first visit to Queensland from the southern states (where I was born and schooled) to be confronted with ‘eh?’ at the end of sentences and I would flounder trying to answer the question that was not a question.
Despite the young family’s isolation (they saw little of her husband’s large extended family) and somewhat lean living conditions, Millingen was content until the loss of her seriously ill baby at three months. The dead-pan telling of the trauma reveals grief still palpable. “Little Kim came home to us after a month and lived for another two.” (124) Can you imagine, after the death of a child on Christmas day, continuing on with plans to eat Christmas dinner with friends, after first expressing a surplus of milk? I certainly can’t and I can barely comprehend the severity of the post traumatic stress that would eventually topple even the toughest individual.
What a road Millingen has travelled! Following her divorce, she showed incredible chutzpah in getting her application to a three-month overland trip for under thirty-fives accepted, despite being fifty-three at the time. She showed strength and courage travelling across Nepal, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. She showed growth and compassion in the way she dealt with her mother after the life-long strain of their relationship. She also showed a continued strength of mind and a willingness to educate herself further, specifically in relation to the debilitating disease of depression which seems to have haunted her since childhood. But I did baulk when, after feeling hurt by her sister’s lack of consideration, Millingen momentarily turned in on herself again, writing that her sister was right to be hurt given that she – Millingen – had “selfishly abandoned the family” (221).
The book would have benefited from a more detailed final edit (“does depression triggers anxiety” (174), “or did her merriment expressed respect” (25)) but it’s a minor quibble.
One of my favourite passages from the memoir:-
I imagine life as a piece of string of indeterminate length handed at birth to each of us and we are compelled to follow its twists and turns as the string uncoils. The metaphor is adequate, for the string, once unrolled, can be rewound, enriched, braided with others, enlightened with insight. (1)
Millingen’s metaphor is an apt description for the full yet difficult life she unravels for us within the pages of The Changing Forms of Clouds.
Millingen, Dalia. The Changing Forms of Clouds, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 2011.
ISBN: 9 7819251 665387
CROSS-POSTED at ANZLitlovers.