Category Archives: family

Things on a table

I took this photo as soon as Judy left, struck by all the stories flowing from the things on this table. And the table itself. And the tree you can see through the window. The more I look, the greater the orgy of gratitude. That after everything, I get this table, that shaft of light, that tiny kookaburra with a hole where there was once a tinier black plastic snake.

So, to explain: Judy came round to drop off a stretch of the crocheted Macquarie River that a group of us have been making. We’ve been doing this since the end of 2015, when we heard a gold mine was sniffing around wanting to divert river water into its cyanide-laced belly and excrete the leavings into the water table feeding the Belubula River. We began stitching, and completely forgot to stop. The river is now about 80 metres long. The decision about whether to sell water to the gold mine is on hold, but as soon as it goes back to Council, our river will be ready to join the fray.

So Judy came to drop off a stretch. This contained a very neat green length stitched by Mum during a visit here, and some orange-bordered fish created by Judy herself. On the weekend, Vi and I will occupy the Girl Guides Hall, stitching the river in the company of local Aboriginal women making a possum-skin cloak. The possum skins for this exercise have come from New Zealand, because possums are a feral animal there.

Judy was in a hurry, had errands to do, is off to Western Australia with her husband, but I convinced her to sit down and have a cup of tea. The house is in uproar, dozens of work-in-progress projects strewn about, but the table was wonderfully bare and inviting. We soon changed that. On the way to the table, before she even got to the table, Judy spotted Gribblies. This is her name for the plastic cereal toys you used to get at the bottom of packets of Cornflakes. A long time ago. Cough. These Gribblies were lying about amongst bits of half-dead succulent and tiny stones in a dusty terrarium on the kitchen counter. She told me they were very valuable. We fished them out and while we drank our tea I lined them up in a circled wagon around the wooden vase in the middle of the table. The pokerwork vase itself (a bit like this) came from my Newtown friend David Haag, who’d found it in an op shop, the design mostly rubbed off. The dried flowers in the vase were everlastings. I told Judy that in Spring, parts of Western Australia are carpeted in these flowers, and the ones in the vase were grown in my back yard in honour of them. Judy is the sort of person who likes such details. She really liked the Gribblies. When she married, she brought her small box of Gribblies and added them to her husband’s bigger box of Gribblies. The Gribblies solemnly mingled together in holy matrimony. The marriage produced two children, and these children obliviously played with them, chewing on them, losing the tiny black snake out of the mouth of the tiny kookaburra.

Talk of collections moved on to a discussion of buttons. Judy said a button tin was one of the “sacred possessions of a woman”. I’m not willing to generalise but I will admit that this is true in my case. I ran and got out my grandmother’s button tin, which lives in the cabinet holding her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine. The round tin itself, which you can see there on the table hails from 1981, which, in the context of my grandmother’s long life, makes it quite “new”.  It celebrates the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles, son of the man who is, as it turns out, Not Dead.

Judy’s hands moved swiftly. These are war buttons, she said, grouping them together. I peered more closely. Gee. Yes. Buttons from army uniforms, and what looks like airforce uniforms, or are they all army? These are buttons from work shirts. Fancy buttons from coats from the 1930s. I went for the self-covered buttons. Mum was a dressmaker when I was little, and I enjoyed watching her cut a circle of fabric and use a special contraption to press them into something so neat and perfectly stretched. Judy wasn’t so into the covered buttons. Her Mum never used to do that. In all of this, my grandmother’s hands. Here are her hands at work. Here she is carefully sliding small buttons onto the shaft of a safety pin to keep them all together. Here she is wrapping a piece of wire around a finger. Here she is dropping a round plastic Tiddlywink into the collection because it is round and plastic and button-like. Here she is snipping the metal pieces out of the back of a bra because they might come in handy, later. She is here.

And there was a tiny glass jar with some white covered buttons in it and a tiny scrap of paper, hand written. A message in the bottle, written to the future. To her descendants. “Buttons from my Moroccan wedding dress”.

And then Judy and I confessed our love of picking things up out of the ground. A shard of willow pattern plate. A nice piece of green or blue glass. So I ran back to my study and brought forth the large jar labelled Blayney Road Common. I pick things up when I go walking with Bertie (and earlier with Taro, when she was still walking; her bones are now resting peacefully in the back yard). The jar had a bit of dirt in it still clinging to bits of metal and a whole bakelite light switch, so I grabbed a bit of newspaper off the pile to protect the table. Newspaper. Such an ordinary thing, but threatened. It will be quaint, in the not-too-distant future. Yellowed newspaper will be like other things of the past that nobody uses any more, like box Brownie cameras or  manual typewriters. Fairfax reporters are on strike. It’s important to fight, but we all know it’s over. Not for journalism itself, hopefully, but for newsprint. For piles of inked paper lying carelessly around houses, ubiquitous, used to wrap scraps or start fires. Still, today I have a house with a pile of newspapers in it, and I used a bit to protect the table that was passed on to us by Steve’s Mum. It’s a piece of light mid-century furniture. It pulls out to a longer version if there are more people to seat. Judy and I talked about how found bits of glass and ceramic are more interesting than gold. Gold may be beautiful but it doesn’t exercise our minds. This tiny bit of pink flower might have been a teacup that might have been used by a woman a hundred years ago. She might have taken sips of tea as she sewed buttons on her children’s coats.

What else is in the picture of my table? The tree through the window where our own possums – protected native animals, not allowed to surrender their skins to Aboriginal women who might like to make a cloak – spend their nights prowling for something to eat, things to do. They clatter across the roof at dusk and dawn. There are three of them. What looks to be a teenager and a mother with a joey riding on her back. I love their big eyes, their cute pink noses They are wrecking havoc in the ceiling cavity. They have to go, but that means another project on the to-do list that is already very long and doesn’t include stolen mornings over tea and a button collection. And on the wall there’s the cockroach painting created by my artist friend Karen Golland out of sequins and there are the little woven mats Steve and I bought in Peru? Bolivia? and the Country Women’s Association cookbook, a new one Mum gave me only last year, and the collection of ring-pulls from Mount Panorama telling the stories of wild weekends of beer and car races and a spider plant that I call Deb after my sister because she gave me the plant (or its ancestor) and there are more stories in that picture but this will have to do for now.

Judy and I admitted we were borderline hoarders and discussed the minimalist movement that is fighting the good fight against clutter. But I don’t see clutter. It’s only clutter if there are no stories attached. Until the stories have finally and fully leached out, I’m quite happy to live amongst these things.

A crocheted cup of tea

Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.
Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.

Last night I made a cup of tea. I’ve almost finished it. There’s no chance it’ll go cold, because this is a warm, fuzzy, crocheted cup of tea. Have I mentioned that I have a mad desire to crochet everything? Like, everything? I walk down the street looking at trees and letterboxes and thinking about how one could render them in crochet. I know. I’ve got it BAD. Anyway, this cup of tea is to give to Mum because it’s coming up to three years since we said goodbye to Dad.

Steve and I happened to be visiting at the time, with Bertie the Lab. Deb and her family lived around the corner. So everyone was there, available, and it was pretty-well the ideal time for Dad to drop off the perch, as he’d been threatening to do so for some time. So once we were all in position, he made his exit. Steve and I changed our plans from a holiday up the coast to hanging around with Mum until the funeral. It was a profound time, throwing up the inevitable existential crisis – who am I now that one of the great overarching personalities of my life is no longer sharing this earth with me? -combined with the need to make a lot of odd choices, such as what does a person wear for their cremation? Mum got a full set of clothes ready, including underpants and socks and shoes, and put them in an ordinary shopping bag. For some reason dropping off this bag at the funeral director was far more disturbing than going to see Dad laid out in hospital a couple of nights before. Then, he’d looked perfectly peaceful, like someone sleeping. The nurses gave us a cup of tea. We sat companionably with him for a while, drinking our tea with him as we had done all our lives. That was quite nice, really. But dropping off that bag of clothes, the last clothes he’d ever wear – that was a much harder call.

I hadn’t rediscovered crochet at that time. It would have been a perfect companion through those strange days, but I didn’t think of it. The crochet obsession kicked in about six months later. Anyway, I’ve been going round the house looking for bits of wool to finish this cup of tea. I found some gold metallic yarn to suggest the gilt rim on saucer and cup; I’ll stitch a frog motif on the side of the cup because one of his nicknames was Frog. I’ll curve a bobbly length of crochet into a handle. Anyway, I’m glad there’s always cups of tea and I’m glad there’s always crochet.

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

Help Deb make a difference!

Deb_Tracy_Nighties_early_70sMy first memories of Deb are sketchy.

My Pop hands me a doll. We seem to be high on a balcony. Decades later Mum and I work out that this could be a memory of the day Deb was born. The balcony might have been at the Mater hospital in Brisbane. I can’t have been more than 22 months old because that’s how old I was when Deb joined us.

And then there’s Deb in a cot, and me standing next to it with chocolate cake in my hand. I divide up the cake, some for Deb, some for me. I give her the cakey bit and keep the icing for myself. I was only two and a half years old but I already understood that she had no idea she was being diddled. I remember that actual wicked thought.

And then Deb was my companion all through childhood. And the decades rolled by and one day, on the phone, Deb said she had bad news and I immediately thought something must have happened with Dad. But it was about Deb herself. She had breast cancer.

That was five years ago. Since then, we’ve both discovered we’re carriers of the BRCA1 gene mutation and I’ve joined her in the cancer trip, only mine was of the ovaries, which is generally considered to be the nastier straw to draw.

As I’ve documented elsewhere on this blog, the BRCA1 gene mutation is a horrible piece of work. When I was in Tasmania earlier this year, I saw a poignant drawing by Melbourne artist Cassandra Laing on the wall at the MONA museum. The drawing is of a photograph of two young girls beside a dead and tagged bird lying on its back. The title is “Darwin’s Girls” and it’s about Laing’s own inherited predisposition to breast cancer. Mutation allows evolution. It’s through the infinite possibilities, the trillions of “mistakes” made in the genetic code, that species evolve and become more robust. Meanwhile, the same process can cause all sorts of grief for individual families.

Both Cassandra Laing and her older sister Amanda died early – in their late thirties – of breast cancer.

Fortunately, Deb and I are now in the clear. On Sunday, October 25, Deb is going to take part in the Seven Bridges Walk to raise money for the Cancer Council. It’ll be a 27 kilometre walk around part of the spectacular Sydney Harbour. I can’t go myself because I’m already committed to the Plants and Animals exhibition here in Bathurst, but I’ll be there in spirit! See Deb’s donation page here, if you’d like to support the cause.

Who do I think I am?

It was the night before the flight to Tasmania. I still had a pile of marking to get through. I was procrastinating by trawling through the ancestor-hunting Ancestry.com.au. I’d trawled before, but always signed out before they got my credit card. Now, I’d finally succumbed. Once I had, I wished I’d signed up earlier*. So here it was, the full story on my computer screen:

Dawes
Dawes Who Rode

During the American Revolution, my ancestor, William Dawes, had teamed up with Paul Revere to ride through the night and across rivers and streams, warning, “The British are coming!” This ancestor is now known as Dawes Who Rode. A few begats down the line and we arrive at a John Pomeroy Dawes who sailed for Australia on the Golden West in 1858, aged 23. He begat Sidney Dawes, father of my Nana, Doris May Dawes. She married Francis Sorensen and had Dad, and Dad had Deb and me, and Deb had Max and Joe. There are two interesting middle names that appear through the family tree: Pomeroy for boys and May for girls. Both are the maiden surnames of the wives of earlier Dawes.

Growing up, we knew none of this, and nor did Dad – at that time. He found out in the early 2000s when a friend of my sister Deb began trawling Ancestry.com. It would appear that even Dad’s mother, Doris, was ignorant of her family’s past. If she’d known about the outstanding historical personage in her family tree, she might have made something of it. Or perhaps not. Was there any cachet, in a still very British nineteenth Australia, in saying your ancestors had fought the British? Instead of passing on facts, Nana appears to have made stuff up. She apparently liked to say the snake skeletons on the ground where she grew up were so big that you had to jump over them on your way to school. She said the kangaroos where she grew up were so tall that they could look over the tops of train carriages. The generations of Boston Dawes appear to have been well-to-do, establishment families. By Dad’s generation, there was no hint of that. He knew his family on his mother’s side as Queensland timber-getters. His father, Francis Sorensen, was a carpenter. Dad left school at 14 to become an apprentice suitcase-maker (a project that didn’t last long). When we went to sprinkle Dad’s ashes around Moreton Bay, we caught up with our cousin Sandra. Sandra, unlike us, had grown up around Nana. She said there’d been a point in late childhood at which she’d stopped believing Nana’s stories. Dad never got on with his mother. Perhaps that’s why we grew up on the other side of Australia, in Carnarvon, as far away as you could get from Brisbane without actually leaving the country. I remember Nana sitting on my bed during a visit to Carnarvon when she’d tried to talk Dad into going back to Brisbane. She’d come with her other son, our Uncle Frank, and his girlfriend Lorrie. I looked at the vertical lines on Nana’s top lip. She spoke vigorously, emphatically. I noticed she said “orf” instead of “off”. That’s the last I saw of her.

I do have a couple of earlier memories of her. In one I’m lying on what might have been a window seat in what must have been her house at Ormiston. I can only be about three years old;  it’s before we left Brisbane. Across the room, a black and white television is on. I’m going in and out of sleep. I have a strong, eerie sense of deja vu or perhaps premonition. I dream that a pipe or cylinder will rise up out of the ground and there will be an old, admonishing man in it, waggling his finger at me, and this will be terrifying. This is exactly what happens, on the TV.

SnapdragonAnd then, a few years later, on a trip back to Brisbane from Carnarvon – it must have been the trip where we drove across the continent to see Pop, Dad’s father, in hospital – Nana is showing me her snap dragons. She’s growing carnations and snapdragons at commercial scale on the property at Ormiston, or nearby. She squeezes the snapdragon to show how it opens its dragon mouth.

But Dad didn’t get on with her. He got on with his Dad. They’d worked together on Stradbroke Island, working for the sand mining company, making functional asbestos buildings. Pop died at 64 of something wrong with his lungs. Dad died at 72, held together by modern medicine, also of lung disease. They were both heavy smokers, but maybe asbestos filaments were also part of the story. Dad never had a biopsy, only X-rays that showed the creeping fibrosis. I typed Dad’s details into Ancestry.com. It killed me to add the end date, now known: June 18, 2013.

Steve came and stood next to the computer, looking over my shoulder at what I was doing. I was brooding over the births and deaths. Not marking. Not getting ready for Tasmania.

The next morning, I did finally get ready. We spent two rich weeks in Tasmania.

And now we’re back. Today, I have bedraggled, frost-bitten snapdragons out the front of my house. I’m dragging away the remains of last summer’s veges and herbs and masses of nasturtiums from the garden just out of the back door. It’s cold here, just as Tasmania was cold. We’ll be adding chook manure to the garden and digging it in, ready for Spring.

* This is not a sponsored post for Ancestry.com!