This is the third in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
I wear my mother’s wedding ring. She stopped wearing it several years ago; possibly she worried about losing it. It’s a plain, narrow gold band – my father was broke back then, as for much of his life, so a larger or fancier ring was out of the question.
I love it. I remember as a child, trying it on and pretending that I was a ‘married lady.’ The idea had seemed both attractive and ridiculous. Now I wear it as a tribute to my mother – her absence of need for showiness, her discomfort with ostentation. Mum was – is – a simple woman in many ways, though possessed of complexities in others.
To me, this plain little ring also symbolises the ordinary comforts of Mum’s life: the old houses she lived in, which had needed close attention and much effort to become family homes; the plain but nourishing meals she prepared; likewise the many apple pies, jams, cakes and sweets she made for her family and for community fund raising; the clothing she sewed and knitted for us.
Almost everything Mum did was achieved in less than perfect circumstances, but added so much to the lives of others. All of which is held in the memories evoked by one unadorned golden ring.
I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.
These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?
The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.
There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:
When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.Everywhere I Look, p94
And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:
I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.Everywhere I Look p105
There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?
A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.
This is the second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, it may be worth having a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Mum sounded tired this morning on the phone, her words slurring a little. She agreed she was weary, adding that it was because she’d been on a long drive to Canberra with a car full of youngsters.
‘What were you doing in Canberra?’ I asked.
‘Well there were young people here in the nursing home wondering what they should be doing. I asked if they’d like to get a singing group together and they said yes! So that’s what we did.’
‘Fantastic! Were they a nice group?’
‘I got to know them quite well. They had to be escorted from one stage to another but they got used to it. Some of the songs were poking fun…’
‘Satire?’ I wondered.
‘Yes, I suppose so. Some satirical songs and some others.’
‘It sounds a lot like the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Going from stage to stage. Was it like that?’
‘A lot like the Festival, yes.’
‘Any wonder you feel weary today, Mum. You’ve been doing a lot.’
‘Yes, I think I’ll just rest today.’
For many years, Mum was a regular attendee at the annual National Folk Festival held in Canberra, Australia, over the Easter weekend. She’d stay with my sister who at that time lived in that city, and they’d come to the festival site each morning equipped with warm clothes, sun hats and water bottles, ready to enjoy a variety of concerts, dance displays, spoken word presentations and other cultural delights.
The festival is held over a large open site with most venues set up in large marquees. Wandering around the festival site is always a pleasure, as is sitting under the trees with their autumn tints, sipping a coffee and chatting with friends. Mum loved these times.
As her physical aches and pains increased and her eyesight started to weaken, her hours at the festival began to shrink. When my sister moved away from Canberra, going to the National was no longer an option. So these events are now in Mum’s past.
It’s a pleasure that is no longer available to her except through her memory and imagination. I’m certain that these earlier experiences are at the root of our conversation and her carload of youngsters, as she drove them to Canberra for performances on various stages.
After a long life lived with intelligence and a shrewd awareness of the world around her, my mother’s mind is failing. Not in a ‘railing at the world’ kind of way; hers is a much gentler decline, expressed in a vague blunting of her wits and a profound forgetfulness. I think her memory loss must feel like falling into a black hole every five or ten minutes. She often can’t recall answers to a question and will ask the same one over and over. Once a teacher, mentor and sounding board for her daughters and grandson, her attention now wanders, so it’s hard to maintain a conversational arc for longer than a few minutes at a time.
I treasure my connection with Mum, and this is painful to watch. She was the person who supported my learning and my studies: the boring parts (spelling lists in primary school, equations in high school) and those that were more fun (discussing books we’d both read, bouncing around ideas for an upcoming history essay for uni.) Mum and I enjoyed trips to the movies, watched classics together on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood TV presentations, held season subscriptions to the theatre, talked politics and current affairs, and debated social issues over cups of tea and home made cake.
She was a vibrant conversationalist with a keen interest in and knowledge of world history, geography, literature and politics—much of it self-taught, and squeezed into rare moments of leisure from her demanding roles as orchardist, store keeper, café owner and home-maker. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories.
Now, my heart aches as I witness her vagueness, her struggle to follow a conversation; her reduced engagement with the things and people around her. On my visits and daily phone calls, I keep up my chat about my life and things I’m doing, and also current events and important things on the news. But these are no longer meaningful for Mum in quite the same way.
I grieve for the connections we once had over ideas, places, people, books.
There is another side to this. As the insidious progression of her dementia damages parts of my mother’s brain and cognitive function, other facets emerge in original ways that are always fascinating, often surprising. After each visit or phone call I wonder about the conversation we just had, trying to parse the things she said or did, to pinpoint their meaning or origin. There is generally an echo of an event or comment from earlier that day or week that somehow makes sense in the fresh arrangement of Mum’s mind.
What this has meant for me is the possibility of engaging with my mother in novel ways, not informed by sadness alone. I am learning to see and appreciate the pleasure she might take from her perception of the world. Instead of mourning the erosion of her faculties, I strive to notice the beauty of her utterances and be intrigued by her sometimes startling statements. There is often humour, too—conversations with Mum are frequently hilarious.
All this is to say that I have recently embarked on a new journey with my mother, travelling with her on her winding pathway through the last months and years of her life. As I like to write, and writing helps me to make sense of my own experiences, I thought I’d begin a series of occasional blog posts about our explorations. Together, Mum and I will time- travel, meet people from the past, and venture into unknown territory. We will do some amazing things.
I invite you to join me on my travels with my mother.
OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.
So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):
And the books I read? Here they are along with links to my thoughts on each in case you missed them the first time. (There are a few additional books read but not listed here because I did not post a review.)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller
Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
Bruny by Heather Rose
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Songspirals by Gay’wu Group of Women
The White Girl by Tony Birch
The Lioness Wakes by Blanche D’Alpuget
No Small Shame by Christine Bell
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer
Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman
Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French
Evie and Pog by Tania McCartney
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente
When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Taboo by Kim Scott
Invisible Boys by Holden Shepard
Cutting the Cord by Natasha Molt
When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.
Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading. We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.
Today I was listening to episode 1 of a brand new podcast called AusFolkus, which will explore the people and stories behind Australian folk music and dance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is presented and recorded by my husband, Andy Busuttil from Blue Mountain Sound studio) The podcast guest chatting with Andy was Gary Dawson, who has been participating in and teaching dances from the Balkans region for fifty years.
I was intrigued and amused to hear him relate the story of how, as a young university student, he stumbled upon folk dancing one night, when he and a few mates were wandering around Sydney, looking for something to do. They happened upon some ‘interesting music’, as he recalls it, wafting out from a building. Deciding to investigate, they were invited to join in. That was it for Gary. He was hooked, and went on to explore the eccentric rhythms, exciting music and colourful energetic dances from the Balkans, and eventually to become one of Australia’s most respected and loved folk dance teachers.
This anecdote got me thinking about the way ‘happenstance’ can knock us off a trajectory, or start a new one. A new passion, as for Gary, or a new career, love affair, favourite travel destination, even a brand new country to live in. There are so many ‘sliding door’ moments in life. Have you ever stopped to consider all the ‘what ifs’ that brought you to where you are today? Those split seconds where you might have chosen differently, got off at an earlier bus stop, missed a flight or train, or not taken a phone call. We can never know what the outcome might have been had we done it differently, of course.
And how wonderful when happenstance leads you to something that changes your life in a truly positive way, introducing you to a fulfilling and absorbing new pastime or life path. When you land in your happy place, as Gary did.
Dance is one of those activities that appear across all cultures, because it allows us to express ourselves and experience the joy of movement. Our bodies were created to move, to express, to feel joy and exhilaration. The colours, the traditions, the music and the rhythms of dances from around the world show us that dance is one of the ways we can be comfortable in our human bodies.
Of course, your happy place may be reading, or writing stories, or horse riding. You might buzz from creating a garden, or painting one, or sculpting a native animal. Maybe creating a meal to die for is your thing. It hardly matters what it is that takes you there. We all need a happy place to recharge and to get in touch with what makes us, us.
And if happenstance is what connected you with your thing in the first place, so much the more magical.
Please do let me know in the comments if happenstance has happened to you. I’d love to hear your story.
And, if you are interested in folk music and dance and the community of people who make it happen, do have a listen to the AusFolkus podcast.
Clare Bowditch is an Australian singer-songwriter, journalist, actor and writer. She is also an ARIA award winner who has toured with Leonard Cohen and fellow Australian performer Gotye, has been on stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter, acted in TV and theatre roles, and has now written a book (published by Allen & Unwin 2019). Her eighth album will be released this year (2020) Check out her lovely website for updates.
With all this behind her, may come as a surprise that Clare is someone who has suffered mental ill health and struggled with serious doubts about her own self-worth. Which is, in part, what her memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is about.
Before you think ‘Not for me, then’, let me add that this memoir is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, incredibly honest, moving and encouraging. I listened to the audiobook format which had several bonuses—the story is told in Clare’s own voice, which felt like a warm and comfy chat over a coffee with a good friend. Also, her wonderful mum, Maria Bowditch, shares her traditional Dutch apple tart recipe at the end! What’s not to love? Each chapter is welcomed by a snippet of one of Clare’s songs, relevant to that part of her story. And most gorgeous of all, Clare’s mum also gives a ‘language warning’ at the start of the book, adding in an understated sort of way, ‘I was a bit surprised by the language.’
It is the story that Clare promised herself at age twenty-one that she ‘would one day be brave enough, and well enough, and alive enough, to write.’ from Your Own Kind of Girl Audiobook version 2019
Clare traces her life from her earliest memories of growing up in a loving family in Melbourne’s suburbs to the beginning and development of her career in the arts. Her childhood was essentially a happy one, but marred when she was still a pre-schooler by the illness and death of her sister Rowena. Clare’s memories of this time—the regular visits to the hospital, the kindness of friends and neighbours, the stoicism and enduring faith of her parents, Clare’s own thoughts and feelings—are told with sympathy but not self-pity. It was sobering to hear her description of the ongoing effects of this childhood loss on her own development through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
What Clare’s story shows is how children can be both resilient and fragile—that youngsters can come through all kinds of early trauma, but there will be scars. For Clare, the scars manifested as a ‘bad feeling’ that she couldn’t understand or name. Much, much later she learned that the feeling incorporated grief, and guilt, and fear. The ‘bad feeling’ was to have a profound effect on her life.
Throughout childhood and puberty she struggled with her size: being a ‘big girl’ became problematic once she was old enough to compare herself with other girls, and to realise that people treated her differently because of it. While still in primary school she lost weight by going on a strict diet. So began years of see-sawing weight, at times dangerously close to serious eating disorder, which flared and receded according to what else was happening in her life.
The ‘bad feeling’ also manifested in an inner critical voice, that told Clare she was too fat, too stupid, not worthy. This voice spoke most insistently whenever she thought of trying something new, like following her love of music and singing. Who are you kidding? the voice would tell her. As if you’d ever be good enough!
A relationship break up led to her a trip to in London while in her very early twenties, and it was here that she experienced a full blown breakdown which she later understood to be an episode of extreme anxiety. She returned home to Melbourne to try to recover. Her family and friends gave great support but most helpful was discovering a book called Self Help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes (pub 1962), who was an Australian GP and health writer, considered by many to be one of the early leaders in the field of dealing with anxiety disorders. (see Wikipedia article for more info about Dr Weekes)
This book provided a glimpse of a pathway to better health. Clare realised that what she’d experienced in London was a panic attack but also what she could do to manage her anxiety. This is where ‘FAFL-ing’ comes into the story, an acronym that stands for one of Dr Weekes’ techniques, which is, when faced with anxiety inducing situations or thoughts, to:
Face the fearful thoughts and feelings (don’t run away) Accept (don’t fight against it) Float (don’t freeze) Let time pass (let go of impatience)
Clare describes how she practiced this technique: when difficult emotions or thoughts appeared, she would ‘FAFL’ her way through. Her recovery was slow, but she persisted, establishing a meticulous self-care routine involving times to rise and sleep, healthy eating, quiet times, and FAFL-ing daily. This part of Clare’s story is poignant but as I listened to her sharing at such an intimate level, I could feel nothing but admiration for her determination in the face of frightening and confusing situations and emotions. It was a time in which mental health and illness was not discussed nearly as openly as today and she admits that she knew almost nothing apart from what she saw on TV.
So she followed the steps laid out by Dr Weekes and found that—bit by bit—she was getting better. One day she decided to give the negative, critical voice in her head a name: Frank. And so ‘FOF-ing’ eventuated—‘F#@k Off, Frank’. She realised that trying to ignore Frank’s harping attempts to undermine her confidence and self-belief was not enough. This moment, and subsequent descriptions of how she ‘FOF-ed’ whenever the voice tried to spoil things for her, gave me some laugh-out-loud moments. I still smile when I think of them and I’ve taken to trying out some (silent) FOF-ing myself when the situation requires it.
Claire describes her ongoing recovery, setbacks, first tentative steps towards a creative, fulfilling life with friendships that sustained her, travel, romance and parenthood. All of this leading towards the ‘Amazing Life’ she’d dreamt about but for such a long time did not truly believe was possible.
You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something/ You’ll be a little bit older in October/ You’ve been acting on your pre-birth promise/ Now you think that the story is over/ Let me encourage you to know/ You will feel it when it is over/ It feels like hell taking inside of me/ Time to be still and listen for a while/ You want this amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You think you have to be fully formed already/ Don’t you?/ You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something from ‘Amazing Life’ on the album ‘The Winter I chose Happiness’ by Clare Bowditch
At the end of the book there are additional resources for readers who may wish to explore ways to overcome their own ‘bad feelings’ and move towards recovery and their own amazing lives. I loved the way Clare gives these: once again it was like receiving a gift of relevant information from a close friend.
This is an honest, funny, poignant memoir that made me wish I could sit down with Clare and have a chat about her amazing life.
For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)
The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.
For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul
After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.
On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.
All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.
Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.
Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read. The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!
Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky, a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.
It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.
In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.
However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that:
There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.p. 68
Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:
Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)
Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.
Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:
What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)
And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)
Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.
Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.
Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.pp. 123 & 166
… It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.
I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.
So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.
The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:
I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.p.233
This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.
As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt.
‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed.
‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow.
‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’
‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too, don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone.
‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/