It was a childhood memory shared in my garden, under the palms. Full on summer created the lovely breeze only a lakeside home could indulge in. We each held a glass of chardonnay, and watched my children in the pool.
‘You know Darl, I don’t remember much about being a child,’ said our mother.
I was so surprised. It was rare for her to mention her early life to me. I held back from speaking, just in case she felt able to divulge something of her childhood to me. I sensed this was to be the first adult conversation we would have.
‘I don’t know who my father was,’ she said. She spoke so quietly I thought I’d misheard her.
‘They called me a bastard. They said I’d never go to Heaven. At school, that’s what the Nuns said. I like to think my father was a sailor, a Scottish sailor. That he was tall and red headed and strong and that if he’d known about me he would have come back from sailing the seven seas for me.’ Our mother had tears slipping down her plump cheeks, and she wiped them away slowly.
‘What was it like?’ I asked. ‘What was it like to never speak of him?’
‘My mother said he went to sea in a brown box and would never be coming back.’
Many years later, our mother talked with me as we sat together on her bed folding washing. ‘Keep this under your hat, alright Love?’
Our mother would say this and I’d know she was going to tell me something important. I’m not even sure this is the truth, because our mother was often caught out changing the ending of a story if it suited her. More and more she was remembering the distant past and with that came the surge of feelings she had held in check for many years. I’m not even sure I should share it. I don’t know if she confided in my siblings the same stories she shared with me.
As the elder daughter I at times felt the enormous weight of my mother’s pain, touched she trusted me and yet burdened as I was asked not to divulge her history that she shared with me.
This thing happened at a time our mother was old enough to remember, even though she was very young. She says maybe she was three years old because there is a sepia photo of her that she remembers being taken, in a frilly dress and one sock up and one sock down. It is retouched so there is a little pink on her cheeks and a little yellow on her dress.
Our mother was the child of a single parent, who worked outside the home seven days a week, from sun up to sun down cleaning in a wealthy woman’s home. Now a toddler, our mother needed a carer, so her mother paid a neighbor woman to mind her during working hours. The neighbor, being in a similar situation, would bind our mother to the end of the bed with a strip of leather or lock her in the wardrobe, a dark brown box, and then the woman would go away to do paid work in someone else’s home, returning to set our mother free in time to pretend she had been there all day.
Telling me how she cried so much as a little girl, our mother said that as a young child she was afraid to drink water in case her tears fell out of hers eyes in front of her mother, whom she adored.
Before our mother met our father, she worked for a year in New Zealand, mainly as a waitress in tourist hotels. She was twenty-eight and with her best friend and cousin set out for the adventure of a lifetime. The two of them survived an earthquake, met the Prince of Wales (who pinched our mother’s bum, according to her!), and met some high flyers with fast cars and tennis games and cocktails at noon. She became engaged to a bloke in Auckland, who was both wealthy and handsome.
Our mother suspected him of cheating and set a trap. Her cousin invited him to her room, and as he entered the door, our mother sprang out shouting ‘Rotter!’ at the top of her voice. All the hotel staff came running at the commotion.
‘The chappy was not happy!’ she laughed, recounting the saga.
As part of the engagement, the future mother-in-law had purchased a beautiful Royal Dalton dinner set, called Sweetheart Rose, for the happy couple, which was to be returned because the engagement was broken. Our mother arranged for the fellow and his mother to meet her in her room. As our mother carried the large brown box of crockery across the room she ‘accidentally’ tripped over his foot, dropping the whole lot with a great crash.
‘The Devil made me do it!’ She smiled and winked as she spun this tale. This was a phrase and gesture she used whenever she felt she acted out of character, although it actually describes the playful and sometimes cruel, side of her nature.
Our mother first met our father in a café. She and her cousin had returned home for a wedding, and now she was working for the State Railway, as a waitress in the catering car on the Sydney to Newcastle line. She had to wear a tight skirt and high heels that nearly crippled her, carrying trays of scalding hot tea and scones to passengers by crossing between the rickety carriages.
On her break one day she sat in the café across from the station, kicked off her shoes and ordered her tea. There were no other seats so the tall man with the moustache sat opposite her. Our mother wasn’t impressed. The gentleman placed a package, a shoebox wrapped in brown paper and string, on the table in front of him. He ordered the full breakfast and when he stuck his fork into his sausage, it bounced off his plate and onto hers.
This necessitated an introduction, and our mother boldly asked, ‘What’s in the box?’‘My life, would you like to share it?’ our father said. And she did.
The experience that was her honeymoon was on a property in central NSW, in the 1950s as the cook, during shearing. The shearers called her ‘woman’ and this set the scene as my father referred to her as ‘woman’ ever on. She told me after he died that she felt he always spelled it with a disrespectful lower case letter. She was a city girl thrown into the deep end. The situation of social isolation and forced compliance with our father’s every wish was set in place in this first week together as a married couple.
People always commented they could hear our mother coming a mile away. Cheerful whistling preceded her in every room she moved through. On a farm in western New South Wales, one of many, our parents worked and brought up us four kids. We were too isolated to attend school, so our mother supervised our home schooling to the best she could. She had only finished primary school herself. Her mother died when she was twelve, and the Nuns kept her for another year until she was old enough to work.
Our father rode a horse and kept collie dogs we weren’t allowed to play with. When he was home we kept out of his way because we never knew what would make him cranky. Sometimes he drank too much port from the gallon jug behind the kitchen door. We spent a lot of time playing whispered games in the home paddock.
Our mother cleaned house for the Cockies wife. It was winter and raining and the boss’s wife decided she didn’t want us kids inside her house, traipsing mud everywhere. We sat on the back verandah, playing with sheep’s knuckles, saved up from Sunday roasts. The chill affected our next baby sister and pneumonia resulted in a midnight trip in an open jeep in the pouring, freezing rain, to the hospital over two hours and a half away.
Lifestyle issues vary depending where you live. On isolated farms it seemed natural for us four siblings to just play around the property, to walk for miles following cattle tracks across the top of ridges pretending to be the first explorers, or digging in the sandy bottom of dried up creek beds to find dinosaur bones or sometimes making rafts to sail on the dam which became an ocean. Sliding down the wheat chute in the enormous silo that stored the year’s wheat crop was a forbidden pleasure. It was this game that caused a great gash on my leg, and as we struggled home with our older brother’s shirt tied around a painful, bleeding wound we tried to think up a plan to explain how it happened that wouldn’t get us in trouble with our father.
The wheat silo was out of bounds and our father’s punishment for being any nuisance was always swift and painful, whether it was from the jug cord, the wooden spoon or a peach tree sapling. It didn’t matter which child was in trouble, if one was the culprit, we all were. Our mother knew we played in banned places, though we’d never come a cropper like this before.
‘I’ll square it, Loves,’ she said, and told the lie that I’d fallen on an iron bar while feeding the chooks and the story was believed. The injury probably needed stitching, but down playing its severity worked to protect us all from a hiding.
Telling us how stupid we were, how dangerous our behavior and we weren’t to be trusted, our father sent us to our corners in the lounge room. We had to stand face into the corner with our hands behind our backs, and not move or speak until told otherwise. Our father used to say he only had four kids because there are only four corners to a room. The scar on my leg is a reminder of the bond between us all to keep the many secrets of our childhood.
After all four of us had left home, with my encouragement, our mother gathered enough courage to leave our father, and eventually settled in a country town. She joined some local clubs and enjoyed the company of friends. She took up lawn bowls in her late fifties and being younger and probably fitter than the other ladies, began to win.
Throwing away the game is seen as being unsportsmanlike, but that’s what our mother did. First she won the fours, then the triples. She conquered the pairs and nothing was said. But the day she won the singles tournament the silence in her home crowd was crushing. A few desultory claps indicated she had done something really out of place. She realized there was a pecking order, established in the 65 years since the Bowling Clubs inception, and she had inadvertently breached it.
Continuing to play bowls, our mother held her competitive nature in check, choosing infrequent wins. The ladies would sometimes comment condescendingly on how with time she could become a great bowler. Our mother would smile her pretty smile and pack up her bowls. She had been well trained in compliance and subservience.
Our mother always called herself a spring chicken. In her town she had to cross the main road to walk to the general store, and at various times heavy traffic, including coal trucks, passed through. Her main purpose for walking to the shop was to make sure the grocer included her favorite nightcap.
‘It’s just a nip of port, Darl. It gets me off to sleep.’ She always bought the same kind. ‘It’s the one in the brown box, Love,’ she would explain, ‘You know the one I like.’
She didn’t use the pedestrian crossing, preferring to cross at a spot nearer her home. She never looked left and right and left again as she had methodically taught us.
‘The drivers know me Love, they always slow for me,’ she would say and just cross the street. It seemed to us that it hadn’t occurred to her that there was more than one truck, and because one truck had stopped once twenty years before, she thought that was what would happen each and every time. We chuckled amongst ourselves over this story for many years.
Called to the hospital by the doctor, we were told our mother was critically ill. She was propped on pillows, a pink shawl around now thin shoulders. Her pale cheeks hung on her once jolly face.
What could we offer to help her recover? Perhaps by fixing a loose wheel on the bed, our brother could use his mechanical skills. Our littlest sister could busy herself with the oxygen bottle, this being a vital task for a general nurse. Sorting out sheepskin slippers and an eggshell mattress for our mothers’ bed, our next little sister could use her geriatric nurse’s experience, which had taught her how to avoid bed sores, and how to increase the comfort of the patient. I could check off the medication on her chart against the packets and bottles in the small brown box on the bedside table. As a mental health nurse I was aware of potential drug interactions and the risk of an accidental overdose in the elderly. I smiled when I saw the doctor had charted her ‘One small glass of port at bedtime’. Our mother recovered that time.
It was several years later, and the call came again to say your mother is terminally ill. I can only imagine what it was like to sit by her bed and farewell her for the very last time. She did not want me there, and told my siblings to make sure I stayed away, and that I was not to attend her funeral. Why? I’ll never really know. Perhaps she told me one secret too many, and didn’t trust I’d keep her confidence. I have, though. I’ll always be respectful of her faith that some things are never to be spoken of.
I can hear her voice…‘Now my Loves, come here and hold my hand. I’m not frightened of the brown box…I’ve lived with boxes all my life. They’ve helped me store my memories in separate safe places, and that’s how I’ve come to be this age and ready for the next adventure.’
*Winner of Lake Macquarie Branch, Fellowship of Australian Writers 2012 Biennial Alice Sinclair Short Story Writing Competition