Friday, 18 July 2008

LAMB CHOPS AND APPLE PIE - Childhood in Australia

Mother’ meant warm cuddles, love and lots of praise.

She meant the whiff of fresh sponge cake in the oven of the Early Kooka, and pea soup on Sunday afternoons. She was Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. She was floor polish and the pungent smell of ironing. And the taste of Laxettes.

While my father was The Back Yard, Mother was The House.

The Back Yard was often marked by mild horror.

On the other hand, The House was filled with light and bright colours. It was serene and encouraging and good fun. Only when my father came home was there a change; when tension poked its head in the door and stayed there until he slammed that door shut on his way to work next day.

Sundays were different. That’s when my father slept all morning to get over the big working week, and we all went off to tennis in the afternoon. My mother and father had done their courting at grade tennis matches and the game meant a lot to them. They were still great players, and my sister and I used to watch them in awe as they moved around the hard yellow-coloured surface. It was a novel view of these two important people.

In those days my mother shone, with her lithe body and strong handsome face and soft eyes. My father was tenacious, and together in a doubles match they were unbeatable.

To us, the kids, the best part of the tennis afternoon was still the ‘cuppa’ halfway through. That’s when sponges and the slices and the scones appeared from baskets and disappeared along with steaming cups of tea. For some reason my sister and I were the only children there; I suppose because my parents were a little older than the other half dozen or so local couples who played. We became the centre of attention, with the adults seemingly obliged to have fun with us, and ask about school, and pass remarks about our new dresses, or just smile.

When the shadows grew long, the men would roll up the net and throw it and the balls into a big box in the tennis shed and it would be pea soup time. My mother always put a huge boiler of pork bones, onions and split peas on the Kooka on Sunday mornings, and we came home to steaming bowls of the best pea soup in the business. She always invited old Mr Vaughan from next door to share with us, and he was good fun.

I remember Mr Vaughan sometimes asked my sister and I into his little house for lunch and served runny poached eggs topped with a slosh of blood red tomato sauce. It was a love/hate relationship. Not with Mr Vaughan; with the eggs.

* * *
Mother attracted people. They loved her for her kindnesses, her friendliness and her intelligence. I loved her for all of these things too, and also because she passed on to me her own passions which she had been unable to experience in full measure for herself.

She really adored music and won high praise with her early piano lessons. Grandmother was a musician and artist and encouraged her children. But Grandmother died when my mother was twelve, and she took with her the gentle cultural pursuits, including the music.

My grandfather was a rough labourer who drank to assuage his loss, and Mother left school and piano lessons to take up the household chores and be a substitute parent for her two brothers and sister.

So my mother encouraged me in my burgeoning love of music, and when we got our first radio set, we used to listen to the classical request programmes. Our favourite was the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1. I remember crouching to press my ear against the cloth- covered speaker to hear music through the crackle coming all the way from Sydney. Mind you, I did the same to hear ‘Mrs ‘Obbs” and ‘First Light Fraser’.
Later, I was to spend my first couple of pay packets on a huge old secondhand phonograph. It was the wind up variety with needles you had to change with each play, and lived in a wonderful polished cabinet. I bought one vinyl record to begin: Mantovani’s string version of ‘Charmaine’. The Tchaikovsky came in a several record set and was beyond my reach.
I wanted to learn to play an instrument, but my father couldn’t see the point.
* * *
But I did get to run bare foot through the bushland at the back of our home. There was a sweet smelling eucalyptus tree with a gnarled white trunk and scars where the sticky red gum seeped and congealed. That was our climbing tree.

A blue tongue lizard with no tail rustled through the bracken ferns nearby, and there were flannel flowers, and egg-and-bacon, and boronia, and mountain devils. The devils were seed pods that had spiky little ears and pointed noses and we used to take them home and Mum would make miniature dolls of them. Great Big Banksia Men and gumnut babies, and Christopher Robin, and Eeyore and Pooh Bear and even Toad of Toad Hall all lived in that bit of Australian bush. They’d wandered from the books in my wardrobe.

Mother took us for walks down the beach from a very early age. We’d clamber across the rocks and peer into the little pools where magic lay. There would be shells and star fish and sea anemones with their waving feelers. They were worlds of crystal clarity and pink and cream.

We’d drag our bare toes through the sand, and scratch important drawings with a stick, and sometimes we’d find cuttlefish to take home for the canaries.

At home, when it was wash-up time, my sister and I would dry while Mum washed. It was then she would spin stories of her childhood, mostly leaving out the bad bits, and concentrating on the picnics, and the people in her street, about the children’s joy when their father brought home sweets on pay nights, and the dances at the community hall they called the Butterbox. These were dream stories from faraway, with the mists of time blending with the steam from my mother’s dishes.

* * *
Ours was a lovely house for the period, built by Dad over years, and eventually it became one of the finest in our seaside town. But it wasn’t always that way. We started off with the four of us in a garage at the back of my grandfather’s home.

When Dad did begin building the new house he was called up for civil service during the war, and we stayed in the garage. They wouldn’t let him join the forces: carpentry was an essential occupation. During the week he’d work in Sydney as a foreman on search light installations and munitions factories, and most week-ends he’d be at home building the house, with Mum alongside helping. Months later we moved in when it was still unlined, and Mum would paint and sandpaper every spare minute during the week, so that Dad would notice a difference when he came home again.

In those days a man delivered the milk with a horse and cart and we’d rush out with a jug, and the warm milk would gush from a tap at the back. At first we had only a meat safe, a small cupboard with fly wire walls, and keeping food and milk was strictly short term. We soon enough graduated to an ice box, with the freezing blocks brought in a corn sack from the ice works a mile away. By the time we had a Hallstrom Silent Knight kerosene refrigerator the front part of the house was finished. Cold drinks from the fridge were wondrous.

Our mother washed and polished that house until it shone, and she scattered little ornaments and keepsakes around. We always knew what she’d like for birthdays and Christmas, and each year the collection would grow. Small Wedgwood jugs and figurines and vases and fine pieces of bone china made the house hers.

On her dressing table she had a crystal tray and powder bowl, and a silver mirror backed with a picture of Queen Elizabeth roses. These things were her memories and her treasures.

* * *
One afternoon when I was eleven Dad called my sister and I into the house and greeted us with a big grin. There was going to be a visitor to our house and that visitor would be small enough to fit into a shoe box. It would be most exciting. Mum seemed quietly troubled.

I added up two and two and decided we were going to have a brother. There was never any doubt that the new baby would be a boy.

I noticed my mother became more lethargic, taking naps in the middle of the day. I’m sure I didn’t connect any weight gain to the coming birth, although I knew vaguely that mothers did carry babies. There was no discussion at all about the technicalities.

Around that time my sister and I were bouncing on our beds, quite illegally, when Wendy noticed blood on my pants. My mother was horrified, and panicked. I could not go swimming she said, and I’d have to put bits of towelling between my legs, and I’d have to soak them and rinse them out carefully and … and … and …

No suggestion that this was a perfectly normal happening in the life of a young girl, even though I had ‘come’ a bit early. I was convinced I had a terrible illness; an illness that would wrench me away from my favourite pastime, the beach. None of my girlfriends had spoken about this, and we didn’t talk about sex and suchlike anyway. I was in despair.

I didn’t put births and periods together in my mind until I bought a book at the newsagents probably four years later. I could then tell my worried sister that no, she would not have a baby if she kissed her first boyfriend.

So I had no real idea what was going on with my Mum all the way through her pregnancy, and reality set in only months later when we were called out of class at school one afternoon. My father had come to pick us up early: our brother had arrived. He was beside himself. A son filled a void in his life. Girl children were really of not much account. But boys … !

Dad was the only boy child in a family of four, and his father had doted on the girls and even bashed him to make him a ‘man’. He always had to work extraordinarily hard for his father and received no tenderness in return. When his own first two children were girls it was too much to bear, and he had to wait another nine years for a son.

Girls were a burden and boys were mates. My father rarely showed any animation when he was around us and I don’t remember him making any toys or spending time playing. My sister and I often asked for a swing and I wanted a book shelf, but as children we never got them. Dad was the good provider though and we always had excellent food, clothing and shelter.

When my brother arrived we suddenly saw a new side to him. He played with my brother and made him things and they actually had real conversations as he grew older. He was spirited when my brother was around. When he was with us he withdrew into himself and ignored our presence. My sister and I were astounded at first, and later we just got angry.

On the other hand, Mother loved us all, and there was never a shadow of favouritism. Somehow we grew up loving our brother fiercely, and jealousy wasn’t part of the scene. I’m sure that was her doing. Mother the miracle-worker.
* * *
Dad always smoked and we always breathed it in. We didn’t know then what tobacco smoke could do. Later, I blamed my mother’s illness on a combination of this smoke and the asbestos in the fibro sheeting in the cottages Dad built. She began coughing a hacking cough, and could not breathe properly. She gave up tennis and lost weight, and became old before her time: transformed from a vibrant vigorous woman to a tiny gaunt and feeble physical wreck.
The doctors were puzzled. They told her to do away with her pet birds, suspecting they were implicated, and she travelled to Sydney for all sorts of horrific tests. A hospital technician, shaking his head, told one of my aunts that he saw no reason why elderly people should undergo such tortures, especially as they were unlikely to do them any good.

But Mum’s nimble brain remained active, and when they took her to a nursing home her eyes were the same as they had ever been … intelligent, insightful and kindly.

The staff loved her too and helped with little personal things as often as they could.
My sister arranged a small stand with pot plants outside her window and each day the gardener set a can of water out there for her. Mum would struggle out of bed and to a chair placed near the stand. She’d settle painfully onto the seat, breath whistling reluctantly into her lungs and out again. Then, when she had recovered a little, this wizened little person would water each plant separately, admiring the flowers and scratching around for weeds. In between plants she would drop back into the chair to replenish her strength.
When she could no longer do this, nor care for herself in any way Mother decided to die.
And she did just that.

She asked the nursing home chaplain to visit, and made sure she saw everyone she loved, seemingly making peace in her world. Then she ceased to eat and she ceased to drink.

She lay there for many days, as determined in her decision as she had been throughout her life. I saw tears come to her doctor’s eyes because the law wouldn’t allow him to shorten her misery.

‘One day there will be a way for doctors to help people such as your mother,’ he said.

All we were allowed to do was hold her hand and watch her battle to die.

* * *
Our mother asked us to put her ashes beneath a Queen Elizabeth rose bush, with flowers just like those on the back of her hand mirror. I have such a rose bush in my garden now, planted there the week she died. There is always a flower on her rose bush whenever I am troubled. It never lets me down.

© June Saville 2008. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without written permission of the author.