Category Archives: House

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 morning with wrens

UntitledThere’s a particular crispness we get in the air in Bathurst at this time of year. This morning I found myself at my sock drawer, because my feet were cold. This is right on cue. This is almost the last day of summer. On Sunday it’ll be autumn. The garden just outside the back door is now a messy tangle of growth and decay and impossibly juicy, sweet, tangy, big red tomatoes. The tall withering sunflowers throw jagged shadows against the fibro shed wall. Busy brown fairy wrens, tails sticking straight up or swaying from side to side, land on the giant brown leaves and take rapid sips. Sip, sip, sip. They’re sucking up the tiny insects that are coating the dying leaves. A couple of weeks ago we had a luminous red and green king parrot standing on the great saucer of the sunflower head, binging on the seeds. Orange-backed beetles join at the tail and walk around like Siamese twins. There’s the hum of bees visiting the small yellow flowers of the straggly thin-leaved rocket that has gone wild, filling in all the spaces. The bees are wearing little yellow pantaloons of gathered pGarden at the end of summerollen. A wren lands on the windmill my nephews got at last year’s Easter show. She goes for an unexpected ride as it twirls under her weight. She rights herself with a bit of a flap and flies off stage right. I think back to the end of last winter when I planted seeds and tried to keep the seedlings alive in a wonky plastic greenhouse from Bunnings. Just the tiniest cotyledon leaves, then. And now – this tangled mass attracting swarms of insects and birds that you can harvest for lunch.

 

***

I’ve been running around like a chook. As the year got going, it picked me up and took me with it. Last year it left me alone, and I did my own illness thing. People shuffled themselves around me and my illness. Now I’m back in this general stream, out and about in town, sitting in committee meetings, work meetings. It’s all about talking things up, talking things down, opposing, celebrating, organising. People persuade me to get involved in their projects; I persuade others to get involved in mine. We’re all in there, haggling it out. So this morning it was good to just stare at the garden.

***

My Afternoon Teal went off brilliantly. The oven had conked out, so Larissa, up from Sydney, whipped things up in her giant brown mixing bowl and took everything next door to bake. She got the timing absolutely right, going back and forth, pulling things out at exactly the right time. Meanwhile Steve and I gave the house a once-over from front to back that still really only scratched the surface of a year’s dirt and dusty corners. Then, suddenly, everyone was there, eating cupcakes, drinking tea and bidding on the merchandise. A teal pencil sharpener, worth $2, sold for $30. It went on like that. My sister Deb, her husband Bernie and their two kids, Max and Joey, were enthusiastic auctioneers, thoroughly fleecing all present. We made a thousand dollars in one afternoon for Ovarian Cancer Australia. More money has been coming in since. This money will go into medical research and support for those who get this stealthy disease. In order to nurture and protect life. All life on earth has to end – we bloom and droop and die – but it’s nice to stretch it out a bit.

Living in a tiny house

It was dark and I was lying flat on my back on a mattress in a moving van. Out of the window, all I could see was the dark sky, and power lines and the tops of trees. The van was a camper van and we were being transported through the streets of Melbourne to an address in Coburg. It was mysterious and tiny. It was a capsule for living in, going camping in, sleeping in.

cabin
Cabin No. 4 at the holiday park in Port Campbell, Victoria.

Steve and I got back from our two-week holiday along the Great Ocean Road on Sunday. Until the last three nights in Melbourne, where we had urban experiences, we were camping in a tent and living in holiday cabins. All tiny houses. Tiny houses are, like kale and beards, a Thing. You can see them in hipster corners of the Internet in all their Tiny stylishness. Really, they’re just another riff on cubby house or caravan, but now they’re being promoted as a way to live lightly on this earth, not taking up too much space. Instead of a giant McMansion that you have to burn truckloads of coal to heat and cool, you can live in a mini-home that you can heat with a candle and cool with an icy pole.

As a short person, I love them.

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.
If you take your eyes off it, it grows.

I love the way everything in a caravan or holiday cabin is in easy reach. Here, in my own house, I have to get up on a stepladder to reach the blender. The sink and kitchen benches are just a tiny bit too high, making me feel like a toddler at a hand basin. My face is at the very bottom of the bathroom mirror. Even my pot plant, getting in on the act, has gone for giantism, nearly reaching the extra-high ceiling that everyone admires (they admire both the ceiling and the pot-plant, although some find the plant a bit scary). When we book into holiday parks, I’m usually hoping they’ve got a small ’70s caravan out the back that we can have, preferably complete with orange and brown curtains. When I was five we lived our first months in Carnarvon at Baxter’s caravan park. Mum set up her sewing machine in that tiny space. Everyone had an annexe. A lot of people lived there permanently.

As I walked along the beach at Blanket Bay in the Great Otway National Park on the Great Ocean Road, I crunched over some tiny homes. They were tiny grey shells, the shape of a soft-serve ice cream, with tiny snails in them. They inhabited shallow pools of sea water on the rocks. They moved slowly from here to there, sucking at the sand on the bottom, creating beautiful patterned trails, some ended forever by my Goretex boot. Crunch. Sorry.

As I walked along the beach, I scribbled cosmic thoughts on a scrap of lined paper:

The universe unravels and knits something else.

Too, too, too beautiful! I almost don’t want to see it. I’m not alone. I’m not homeless. I’m held in the universe.

The ocean is working as hard as it ever was. I’m Alive. This moment is life. There’s no break between rock and limpet.

There are just outbreaks of energy. “Just.” Stars explode. Just another outbreak of energy. There is no illness, no death. Just a suck back, like a wave, breathing out, crashing against the shore.

Later, back in the tent, I was reading my iPhone 4 (reception was surprisingly good) and came across an article about the work of young physicist Jeremy England, who has come up with a theory about the origin of life being in the dissipation of energy, and how the theory of dissipation applies to living and non-living things. The important thing is not “life” as such, but how systems cope with energy. As usual, I had that fabulous feeling of almost-but-not-quiteness I get around ideas that feel right but about which I know next to nothing.

But I do think that we “have” this planet earth in the same way as the blue periwinkle “has” its tiny shell home. The periwinkle both has a home and is its home, made of stuff that is living and non-living. And it is fragile. Just like our planet, a tiny home in a vast universe.

Snow and other stories

Tiny snowman, Mt Canobolas, July 2014.
Tiny snowman, Mt Canobolas, July 2014.

This morning at ten to six, Mum left town on the Bathurst Bullet. Because I came home and went back to bed, this feels like yesterday, or some other dreamy incident in the past. She was here for a week, and Steve was away at the ranger conference, so it was just Mum and me 24/7. It was one long pot of tea, really, and the telling and re-telling of stories, some with striking variations depending on point of view, some with suspicious holes in them, some we’d be proud to announce to the world, others – the juiciest, of course – that mostly live in the dark. And others not mentioned. Thought, maybe, but not given voice.

We were carless for the duration, so a lot of this was conducted at or near the kitchen table. We spent the last two days working on a scrapbook called A Day in the Snow, Now and Then. The pictures were assembled according to the following themes:

  • Cars arrive in snowy territory.
  • A snow ball fight.
  • The making of a snowman.
  • Putting the snowman on the bonnet of the car.
  • Seeing how long the snowman would last before melting/sliding off.

The Now photos were taken on July 7 this year at Mount Canobolas near Orange; the Thens were taken in the winter of 1972 near Thredbo. Everyone’s laughing, smiling, having fun in the snow. All sorts of other stuff was happening on both occasions. For example, in July I was in the middle of chemo so my head was bald. But you can’t see that in the photos because it’s beanie weather and everyone’s wearing beanies. My little nephew was in a bad mood from his epilepsy drugs (or just a common-or-garden bad mood, who knows) but you’d never know from the pictures how much he had to be cajoled to look at the camera. The photo of Dad back in 1972 shows him breathing out misty vapour; warm air from his lungs condensing in the freezing air of the Snowy Mountains. It adds wonderfully to the “it’s cold” effect. Only it’s not what it seems. “That’s cigarette smoke,” says Mum, giving me a new way of seeing an old photo. And other stuff. Layers and layers and layers of other stuff. But the fact is that we did all do those things on those particular days, and the photos are there to show for it. We all saw snow, had a snowball fight, built a snowman … and everyone had a different day in the snow.

Rain and chemical substances

Raining, raining. Painting the inside of the windows with PENETROL – great name! Will paint the outside when it gets warmer. Squirting DERMOTIC into Bertie’s ears – another great name! Listening, while sanding and painting, to a whole day of BBC world service. Again and again, reporters stumbling over or at least hesitating over the name of the Georgian luger (lugeman? luge person?) wiped out on the Vancouver track. And a beautiful Punjabi Indian Scottish poet … pause for quick switch over to Google … by the name of Imtiaz Dharker who repeated the line how beautiful you are … can’t find it now… but I have found tiffin boxes. I love the word tiffin.