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.
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:
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.
And 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.