In 1966, 3,242 Australians died on the road.
In 1966, a stranger found my pappous and his brother sprawled out on the road in Hay, a town between Adelaide and Sydney. They were travelling home for my uncle’s birth. They were working in Sydney. Packing bananas, Mum thinks. Her recollection is hazy. She remembers visiting her father in the hospital for months after the accident, her baby brother still new. She remembers hearing of the guilt that clouded her father when, after days of asking after his little brother, his brother’s wife came in yelling. My pappou’s brother had died on the road back in Hay.
Pappou taught his body how to move again. And quickly. He had to work. They were an immigrant family. They didn’t know that compensation for accidents existed. That is, until the court case came. Pappou could not remember who was driving and so the unknown left the insurance agency with questions. An unknown that has loomed over our family ever since.
In a motel room, somewhere between the curved Great Ocean Road between Adelaide and Melbourne, I peel plastic off a fresh tattoo. Mat and I had driven seven hours that day and I had been watching as the ink and plasma bubbled under the plastic medical bandage.
I start peeling in the bathroom. It hurts to slowly rip plastic from skin. I pause incrementally but can’t stop myself from falling prey to the satisfaction of peeling. It’s intoxicating. I murmur and peel and yell and peel and stand in the shower waiting for the steam to help, learning quickly that the steam only helps in washing away the slime when the plastic is half off and flapping.
After, I settle in bed wrapped up in a white towel hard from being bleached. Sleep comes quick and when I wake up, I see the towel is scrunched in the corner of the bed and my arm is stuck to the sheets in a grey ooze. I peel myself up and away from the bed. Mat packs the car as I wet the towel and scrub at the bled ink.
It was Tolstoy who said, ‘all happy families are alike; each traumatized family experiences trauma in its own way’. Or something like that.
Secondary trauma is what you would imagine. When we live together, we experience trauma together so in that, while we are not physically harmed by a loved one being assaulted, we can mourn for them. We can fear with them. We can make changes to our own lives to protect them and ourselves. And so, trauma can move through the generations. Intergenerational trauma happens when, according to psychotherapist Crista Brett, ‘trauma and loss issues are not dealt with actively and mourned’. The family ‘can set the stage for the avoidance of a resolution of a trauma, and the following generations unwittingly continue that avoidance’. Brett says while it is clear trauma can be perpetuated in this way, trauma is exacerbated by family dysfunction. Or, family dysfunction is exacerbated by trauma. Or something like that.
Mount Gambier is five hours out of Adelaide, home to a lake that looks highlighter blue. Mat and I are driving home from Melbourne, and that night, we sleep in a converted prison with thick limestone walls. At dusk, we walk the perimeter of the prison. Walls still high with barbed wire trim. A small sign denotes an unmarked grave near our sleeping quarters. We are silent, reading from plaques that speak of the children who lived in the prison. We learn that prisoners were allowed pets if the prisoners were here for a number of years. Most kept birds that would fly back to them at night. That evening, lying in my single bed parallel to Mat, I think of birds living in this cold limestone place. Birds and children: one unable to fly away.
The next day, we visit Penola, the place where Dad was born, where I have never been before. A young woman brings us coffee at a bakery. She asks what I do, and I say, ‘writer’ and feel like a liar. She says she’d like to do that, ‘but no one would care what a country girl has to say’. I tell her, ‘I would,’ and she laughs in such a sweet way that it replays in my head for days.
I’ve driven through the damp forests of Oregon, down roads that wind through Northern Californian mountains. I’ve stopped by the Columbia River in Winter and pushed my hands into the ice blue stream, feeling the skin over my knuckles go numb and tight. I’ve driven from Adelaide to Melbourne and back again, watching the bugs collect on my windscreen like pressed flowers.
When I’m driving through country, I feel as if my life takes shape. My life shrinks into the simplicity that only a road pointing in one direction promises. It is that allusive sense of desire being fulfilled, even if my desire is only a petrol station toilet. Walt Whitman wrote, ‘O Highway, you express me better than I can express myself’ and in this, I understand him. I read a trucker magazine and think, ‘I could do that. That could be me’. My friends laugh but the thought sits there, appearing closer like the reflection in a rear mirror.
We drive up to Mat’s family farm. I’m not sure if it’s a road trip; an hour out of Adelaide barely counts. But we pack up the car all the same with our pilled scarves and hats. Suzie comes with us, her slim greyhound body fitted tight with her jumper and harness. I’ve never slept at the farm and I look forward to waking up with the light instead of the sound of street sweepers outside my window.
After dinner, Mat and I walk through the slush of the paddocks to see the cows. It’s not bright like the morning of my imagining but dark and quiet. I can barely see my feet through the smog of grey and stay metres behind Mat who walks briskly. Lying together–again–in a single bed that night, Mat tells me only in the country at night he can imagine aliens to be real. ‘It’s something about the quiet out here,’ he says. I nod, knowing exactly what he means.
In the morning, I wake to see the sun at the edges of thick green curtains. Mat calls me down to the rocky paddock: an alpaca baby is being born. I walk through wet weeds and see an alpaca lying. Mat and his brother are hovering nearby. I catch the unnatural blue of latex gloves sticking to fingers. I walk around the alpaca, and behind it I see the baby.
It’s half in, half out. The baby’s head is lying on a towel as it mews. Long ears pointing back. Its front legs are out, covered in goop. I try not to look at how wide the mother has been stretched and how much of the baby is still inside. I clench my stomach. The baby’s eyes are barely open and as we watch, the mum yells and stands and squats and yells until baby’s back legs ooze out of her onto damp dirt.
Trauma feels most at home in silence. In the things not said. It’s strange that silences can pass through generations. Perhaps tradition is as much about absence as performance.
With Mum, the accident had always been a conversation expressed through worry. Using language, she protected herself; she protected me. ‘Don’t drive to Melbourne. Get on a plane’. Pleading, ‘rest and don’t drive at night. Call me when you get there’. Dad was quieter. He inherited a different history, one not of roads but elements. His family had lost everything in a bush fire. He once told me of the way they cut the animals loose as the fire approached. ‘To give them a chance.’
It took years for me to speak back. To say, ‘I will drive but I’ll make stops and won’t drive at night’. I’ll text you, I mouth as the car slides out the driveway and we leave the dog with them.
I tell Mat to pull over as we near Snowtown. We’re driving out to Whyalla for cuttlefish mating season and the winter sun bakes my skin, the air passing through with a comforting touch. A sign points us to ‘The Big Blade’ and we drive towards the thicket of trees, over the railway line, into the town. When we pull up to the blade–a scale model blade of a windfarm mill–I laugh. I had expected a knife, large and comical, perhaps with red eyes like the Giant Koala as tribute to the town’s past. A past where a man once sliced off a piece of his victim’s flesh, fried and ate it, before storing a body in a barrel in the town’s bank.
Disappointed, I take the opportunity to switch places with Mat and drive back onto the long freeway. On the way home a day later, Mat orders a naan bread from the petrol station cum Indian takeaway at Snowtown’s border.
Mum texts me: Are you safe?
I reply: Do you want pickled olives from this roo mettwurst shop?
One Mum told me about her dad—a man of which I have no memory—and how his kidney was destroyed. Burst within him, or something to that effect. Her language was limited; she was four at the time of the accident. When she speaks, her hands slide against one another as if the kidney itself slid against the road.
She remembers his dressing gown, how a patch of blood was soaked into it. How scared she was of him and of the hospital he seemed to live in.
In 2016, I was in an accident. No injuries besides a sore neck and a crumpled yellow car. It happened outside an old Greek woman’s home. So much like my relatives. Strong, tough, but warm and generous. A touch of judgement, too. Once she knew I was Greek, she called me the ‘poor girl’. Mat arrives and she asks if he’s Greek. When he says no, she nods. ‘It’s okay’. I laugh later, knowing that if I was her granddaughter the answer would have been different.
The accident didn’t stop me from driving. Not much would, I’d like to say, but the words can’t quite form. There’s a hidden wariness inside my chest. I know how much damage the road can do.
In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton writes, ‘our imagination [was] so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills, that there was inexhaustible delight in penetrating to the remoter parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, discovering derelict villages with Georgian churches and balustraded house-fronts, exploring slumberous mountain valleys, and coming back, weary but laden with a new harvest of beauty.’
Almost a hundred years ago, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald embarked on a long trip. As legend goes, after she expressed dissatisfaction with her breakfast not being like she was used to, he said to her: ‘I will dress, and we will go downstairs and get in our car. Seating ourselves in the front seat we will drive from here to Montgomery, Alabama, where we will eat biscuits and peaches.’
Yia yia couldn’t drive: high blood pressure meant she was prone to fainting. I remember being pulled along as a kid from bus stop to bus stop. I wonder what she’d think of me, driving from state to state after her husband was thrown from a car and left, almost dead, on the road.
What is the cost of feeling free? Letting mum panic while I drink warm Coke, passing through another town? I’d like to think the trauma stops with me but that would be dishonest. When Mat drove out to the Riverland for work–three hours there and then back—I’d feel the muscles tighten in my gut waiting to hear from him. To know that he was safe. Maybe love is living with another’s trauma, accommodating it until it becomes a part of you.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Southerly and Island Magazine, amongst others. She tweets @katerina_bry.