Monday, March 25, 2013

For Molly: Where I Come From

I come from the steam train huffing and panting at the station, while  the chute swings over and gushes water into its innards.  The grimy men wink at the  kids and bellow the whistle and shovel coal into the firebox., sweating. My father and I wave my mother and sisters off, and I can sense the spring in his step as we leave, and he buys me a threepenny ice cream. Lavish. A penny one is a treat. Bully Howe, the doctor's  labrador, is no threat at all with my hand in my father's large hard hand.
Since those days, when children in calipers were commonplace, and tragic young were negated implacably and forever with port wine stains across their face, everything has only got better.
Five houses. At the first, I overheard my parents saying that "she" had left for Melbourne. I knew that my sisters belonged to my parents but that I belonged to "her". Resignedly, I set off after her. Some workmen driving home come across my toddles and bring me back, My sister taunts me because, while doing so, I had forgotten to put on any clothes. I am about 2.
Songs. "Lili Marlene" on the radio, and others. "I threw a kiss to the ocean, I threw a kiss to the sea, And from the  - a - came ' Twas my bluejacket answering me." My parents sing in this house, 2, and so do we: solos, duets, rounds, "Oh how lovely is the everning, is the everning.."  "Gentle maiden, welcome here, You in all the world most dear." We break the ice on the dog's bowl in the mornings.
 Swagmen call in at house 2, shabby, worn  and supplicating.  My mother gladly feeds them, ladlling  roast lamb and veg  into a tin dish.Richer houses, behind hedges, have enameled signs on the gate: "No Hawkers or Canvassers". As then, as now. There are flag lilies along the path: untidy looking flowers to me.
When my mother is talking to her friend, the catholic priest butts in and asks why she missed mass on Sunday.  She never enters a catholic church again.
We are offered a drive to -. and my sister and I sit, embarrassed, in the dicky seat.
D comes here, rosy cheeked and fair haired, tiny pale freckle spots above her smile. I think that she is gorgeous. On a holiday to the city, a van crushes her father, Later we visit her in an institution which is praised for its modern replication of a home. It is obviously a cruel place.
Times are kinder now. I no longer see young people stigmated by purple birthmarks blotched across their faces.  I no longer see tattered and ill clad - old or young.
On the overnight  to Brisbane as the train hurtles through the wild McPherson Ranges, ihe isolated kids' cries of "paaa -" makes us throw any comics and papers through the windows, because that is their only contact with the 20th century.  How lordly and privileged we feel tossing out this largesse.
 Queeensland, with its stilted houses, its technicolour,  lime grass on red earth, scent vying against scent to overpowering  sweetness, wins my heart. My mother and Gran argue about whether petunias are weeds or not, but Gran determinedly tosses them away. French doors are open to the verandahs at night,   Looped mosquito nets, polished floors, sugar bananas. Oh, and cane toads.
Not long after this, everything changed. Or, maybe I just grew up.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Presbyterian manse was up the hill from where we once lived. We would plod up there, a stick making satisfying rhythms as we trailed it along the picket fences.  Gwen, a manse daughter,  was my sister's best friend. Once I went to tea/dinner with them.  Mrs Manse - I won't insert her distinctive surname, - apologised for her make do meal, which was leftover breakfast porridge made into fritters.
It still stands as one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire life. I haven't been able to replicate it.
When the Manses had their 5th child, yet another girl, she was given the soubriquet "Boy".

I was 7 years old when we left there.Forty years after I left we drove through the still tiny village, and  I could unerringly find my way around. Childish memories, eh?  But I saw what I didn't see then, that this village on the ranges western slopes, shaped out of local golden sandstone, was very beautiful. And that it was a dot in a swamping, almost menacing,  sea of hills and dales of bush: swallowing, impassive eucalypts.

I had actually, back then,  often watched the sun setting through a great gum tree in our backyard. and reveled in  its beauty. I'm inclined to think that the adult world underestimates the young in all kinds of ways.
Allan Sillitoe came from an impoverished background, made even worse by a brutal father. He talks of starting school: "Each morning the teacher read about God creating the heavens and the earth, and every living thing. She read from her own black leather bound King James translation of the Bible whose English, whether or not all parts were immediately  understood, entered my soul for life."
Little kids not only often respond to beauty, but can hunger for it.

At the end of each year the school had a "sociable." Kids, parents and whoever came together for the excitement of the "hokey pokey" and such. Plus sandwiches and cordial.  What a wild night.
We rejoiced, for a while when  the Manse girls excitedly told us that their father had agreed to them going  to the sociable the year that they all turned eleven years old  together.  I wonder what happened to their beliefs?

Life has its compensations, adequate or not.
The Manses had an amazing seesaw that not only reacted vertically, but also traveled horizontally.
Heavens, I loved that seesaw.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

We make mistakes

The second time I went to the winter snowfields was to Thredbo.  I had previously worked, as a student in long socks and eidelweissed drndl at Perisher Valley in summertime.
What a pretty winter village this is - or was: I haven't been there for ages.
I was with people I didn't know very well, in our small flat,  but delightfully I felt at ease and happy with them quickly.
What a hard slog learning to ski is. The physical toil, the biting cold, the cement boots, the bodily unintelligence, the surrounding throng  sailing past like Alis, floating like a butterfly. Or was that a bee? People, like dolphins, physically attuned to their environment.
How richly satisfying after a days hard slog - frustration mixed with moments of triumph and hope - to relax and eat and talk in the evening.
One evening when we were feeling wonderful, the chair lift suddenly came alight.  Lit by torches that flamed out across the snow, we were entranced by the drama and spectacle as the chairs sailed up and around the mountain, flares hissing pulsing light aroubd them. What a wonderful show they put on for us.
We didn't know that they were searching for missing children. Three siblings, village children, found the next morning, frozen.
We make mistakes. that is our nature.
What seems to be may not be what is. That is our reality: our world.