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.


  1. Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading over your writing.

  2. I became quite nostalgic when I read the first paragraph of Lamb Chops and Apple Pie. I was transported back to my childhood. My Father was a Builder and couldn't join the Army for reasons you have stated, and he worked on a Military site. We lived in a small town not far from Albury N.S.W. You write very descriptively, and should keep writing,I am an avid reader.

  3. Thanks for the comment Tricia - good to hear from another Aussie. We seem to have some common interests/experiences.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. June what a life your Mum had and what a woman ! Mum's are all the same - they seem to give and give and sometimes get precious little in return. It's not until they are no longer there that a lot of us realize how much they did for us.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story as usual. Cheers Kate x.

  6. Hi Kate
    I wish you hadn't deleted the comment of July 18 12.17am - it was a beauty - just you bubbling on a being so honest and entertaining! It came through on my email - that's how I read it. Loved it.
    By the way Laxettes was a cure for constipation - little squares that looked like and supposed to taste as though they were chocolate. Mother used to be so intense about going to the loo - and often!
    I remember saying yes when I should have said no when the question came - I hated the taste!
    Sorry I was so long replying - have been off my noodle for a week.

  7. Hi June - you OK ? I must admit I did wonder if the martians had hauled you away or summat hehe - Blimey didn't know even deleted comments could be read ! I just haven't a scoobie how this PC really works - shades of the Jaws music creepin in ! I had only deleted once ever before your post - need to watch out! As far as I remember it 'was' just me blabblin on.

    I was up the night before last and wrote all about my Dad that I could remember, then I had a real good weep - nice ?? I then went to bed with Rob cuddlin in and slept for three quarters of an hour to wake with the phone ringing in me lug-hole - me Sis asking - would you believe-is it morning or night time ! Flamin' Hell! was knackered... She had been up all night too - only playing ruddy games - I'm telling you we are both well ensconced (sp) Oh what the hell- in our second (or third) childhoods....

    We must have been telepathically sending each other messages through the ether - she was down and I was down - great! (my Sis is the one who got my fantastically perfect (well it was at that time) bone marrow - we are medically perfect matches - though not always agreeing on too much - sisters huh? anyhow, I wrote all that I could remember 'bout Dad and blow me - after I came off the phone and had another ten minutes kip I woke with a start and 'knew' exactly how to start the story - completely differently... more like a story and not like me telling my memories of him from when I was wee - I could see his Mum going over to Dunoon - where she would be alone (Oh the shame of unmarried mums eh?) ... isn't it terrible how there is such suffering gone through by some folk..

    AWWWW flippen Hell I'm away again... Shit! Gonna give this up for a game a soldiers - My God my swearing has improved since I got in tow with you Ozzies hahaha. need ta button me lips... Oops need to go and get on now - haven't even had me fix of tea yet and I's gasping. Cheers for now Kate x.

    Jeezo.. just re-read this - what a load of bull I do come out with sometimes - still now there is no point in deleting some clever-clgs with just read it elswhere - right?
    Bye - K.(Should name me posts 'bubbly rubbish' or ??? )

  8. Kate you are beautifully nuts!
    I think the email of your deleted comment must have come through to me before you deleted it. So there you go - no magic!
    Or silly-buggers.
    You had an ah-ha when you suddenly knew how to do your story. Idea is to do the research and think about it awhile, then let the stuff lie fallow in your brain a bit and then - bingo! The ah-ha!
    May there be many more of them for both of us.

  9. Thanks again June, I spent time today checking over all I had written in 'A working Man' which is in draft atm. God! I thought I'd lost it this afternoon.. I changed a few things and rearranged a few things and wrote it like a story (well it is but you know what I mean) saw as I said in my imagination his Mum , Margaret going over to Dunoon where she went to have Dad. then I proceeded to tell (well made up) how she arrived and spent two months there in a rented cottage - told a story of how she lived and paid her way while staying there. She ended up having T.B. in the story and dying and Dad was sent to Glasgow to be brought up by friends of Margarets..we don't know why he was taken to Glasgow to McTavish's then he was given a different name - none of us knew this we only found out after he died. and no-one else was alive by then - Now I found it incredibly difficult to continue to write how his life went on after he arrived in Glasgow apart from it being difficult, I could be writing this using a million words rather than a 'short story' know what I mean? and because all of us, his kids have diffirent memories I have asked my 2 sisters to write out any memories they have and I will edit and muck about writing them out on system as a memory trip to fill in bits and pieces of the parts we know about - what sort of man he was,how he played football, was friends with Jock Stein (does the name ring bells)? Dad got one of my brothers the chance of a try out with Celtic, how Dad was a dancer (I'm talking Gene Kelly here, character, kidder, gambler,but a great Dad etc. Col wouldn't go for a trial he wouldn't go 'cos it was Celtic, if it had been Rangers no probs... crazy I know but we stay in Glasgow and its endemic(sp)? again wot the hay- me spelling has gone down the tubes... Flaming Hell June I'm not half excited about this I'm on fire.... I read out to D tonight what I had written, she was astouded, said it sound like she was reading it in a book only she knew part of the story... Bloody Hell it's not like her to give compliments so it must be alright...(O.K.) I mean, I'm still a tiny bit wary and I'm a bit scared I make an arse of it or can't finish it or something...It's like giving birth,mind you how would I know- my two are adopted... don't know how I'm gonna let anyone see it when I'm done.

    You know somewhing funny though I hated my name when I was growing up, fancy being labled McTavish as yer name, Oh how embarrassed I was, yet I should have been proud after all the McTavish's brought my Dad up just because he needed a home. That was something special! Now I'm adult and have had plenty of life's experiences I'm so proud of my heritage (especially in Scotland- Hoy June, did ya hear of Chris Hoy ? he got (3) gold medals for Scotland - OOps U.K.

    OK I'm done - thank God says you eh? Do you realize you have created a 'writing' monster?? hehehe.. Going for me shower that's now half nine so I will have an early night - still trying to make up my sleep from the other night... see when I think of all the nights I stayed awake and painted and stayed awake when I was married the first time and Roy worked in the Middle East I didn't even go to bed 'the two boys were asleep upstairs' I would put them to bed and start to repaint the living room or bedroom or hall - Roy didn't know what colour the house was gonna be when he got back for 3 weeks leave... He was away 4 months at a time he used to go for... Crazy times right enough.. OK Good night, Kate x.

  10. Loved your latest Kate.
    I'll reply when I have a bit more time - to do it justice! Soon ...

  11. Well my Kate
    I've read your post again and I'm almost as excited as you are. I am proud that I have created a 'writing monster'.
    But I remind ya Kate that sleep patterns are soooo important. Take care.
    You have so much material already about your Dad and your family and it's bound to grow a stack. How about getting one of those big thick spiral exercise books with pockets in them - you could begin a journal and keep everything together - as well as clippings and pix etc. Keep it by at bed time (if your better half doesn't mind) and then you could make a brief note if you do think of something in the middle of the night and then turn over and have some more kip.
    I loved the Celtic/Rangers story and the Gene Kelly and and and ...
    Your Mum's story is so poignant - Remember, there's short stories (as you reminded me) and then memoirs and biographies and autobiographies, and they all have their place. After all the journalling, it's perhaps good to make up your mind to write one of them and keep to that plan. You know all of the material is in the journal for a stab at another form later.
    Our writings are our babies and we scribblers are never confident of the results (unless we keep the stories for five years and judge them then).
    Hope this helps.
    Love your enthusiasm.

  12. By the way Kate that doesn't mean you must bury your stuff for five years - be confident!
    Of course your sister was impressed.

  13. Hi June, I sent a copy of 'A Working Man' to my Brother in law in Dumfries the other day and asked him for his opinion - told him I wasn't looking for compliments and that I would value an honest view - the ' beggar' told me it was slightly Dickensian in style and said (It was the hardest of days etc) - bugger of Hell hehehe... mind you, I did ask... so I can't moan... he did think it was quite good so that's something. Dad has been constantly on my mind recently and even on today's post I included a piccie of him and Mum - 'that ' picture was "Him" encapsulated in a photo.. he could make you feel a million dollars with that smile... Anyhow - I'm gonna get one of these spiral note books tomorrow at the Cash and carry and get stuck into scribbling... I think it's gonna be a long time though - I can see why it could take a year or so.... never mind though - it's a labour of love so I must get it done.... I keep hearing him singing "Oh Rosemarie - I love you " and the ancient "Alice Blue gown " too.... He couldn't sing for toffee ... I wonder if doolally junction is me next stop -teeheee!

    Cheers for now, Kate x.

  14. Oh Kate it was so good to hear from you - wondering what was going on. Now I can see that you've been up to your ears in writing.
    Writing can certainly be cathartic - especially about things from the past. Mums and Dads need sorting out very often, and writing through a childhood can be a very good way to do it.
    It's very hard to show one of your writing babies to anyone - let alone a relative who may have their own view of what you are writing about. Just press on and be confident I say. How old is your brother-in-law? Youngish? Then anything at all would feel Dickensian!
    Both your father and your mother look charmers, as Judy says on your blog Shambles Manner.
    I haven't got to my blogs this week as I was down in Coffs Harbour(four hours away there and back) for two days at a mental health conference. Tomorrow I'm off to Brisbane to stay with friends and attend an exhibition of Picasso paintings - whacko! Maybe I'll sneak in my camera!
    See ya
    June x

  15. This is a beautiful story - my parents came from country NSW and met playing tennis too! I read it and I just felt as though it had a familiar feel to it in some way. I love to hear Aussies stories and it seems they are few and far between on the net. Your writing is wonderful and I hung on every word. I shall come back and visit again. I also hope you get some of this published as well. And I applaud you getting your degree as well. I only said to my sister tonight, wouldn't it be great to be a writer - age isn't an issue, location isn't an issue nor time (mostly anyway).

  16. I'm enjoying reading through your blog on this cool Canberra morning. :)

  17. I just noted I hadn't replied to your earlier comment Lilly - sorry. I know I read it and we have spoken a lot of times otherwise...
    Thanks for being so supportive of my writing.

  18. Thanks for visiting Leslie. Weird weather eh - it's supposed to be warming up!

  19. Hi June. Lovely story, I am so sorry your mum went that way.

    I should get my mum to do her writing on a blog, at least it will never suffer the ways of computer hard drive losses... as she has had in the past.

  20. Pleased you like Lamb Chops Dee. It would be fun to have your Mum on the blogsaphere - believe me!
    The joys of dialup eh? And I get impatient with my slow old broadband.

  21. I enjoyed this very much, though at your mother's painful death I was reduced to tears.
    So many familiar things about your childhood, & the things you noticed & loved- the beach, the little sea creatures. Even the books & the characters you loved, are so familiar to my young days.
    I need to write another post about my childhood.

  22. Ah I've inspired you Meggie. Great you enjoyed yourself.
    Yes - so many things in common it seems.

  23. Wonderful, funny and so moving. Why do we humans see putting an animal down as kindness and being "humane" and yet refuse to do it for our own kind?

    My childhood was in Africa, but we had the laxative chocolate as well. Who was the evil person who thought they could fool kids that way??

    Good to meet you through writing. I enjoyed your poem 'Homeland' and it has encouraged me to look further at your work.
    I see you liked my 'Lamb Chops and Apple Pie' - I do think the issues it raised are big ones. Thanks.

  25. Thanks June

    My gran fought death to the last. I swear she scared him off at least once. My granddad was more like your mother. It is hard to describe the pain of standing by and watching someone you love will themselves to die. I have a poem for him on my poetry blog - Old Man in a Window.

  26. Hi Michelle
    I read your poem and left a comment - I really loved the lines:
    'A paperweight of sunshine
    Just beyond his reach.'
    Little could be more heart wrenching than watching a helpless loved one waiting to die.


Thanks for leaving a comment. Its good to know who is having a peek! I will certainly send a comment in reply.

To move directly to all other stories. Go to INDEX at

Also, you may like to have a look at my other blog 70 Plus and Still Kicking.

Cheers June