• History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my Mother VII: The Mystery of Keys

    This is the seventh 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.

    Doreen with her keys, winter 2020

    ‘Do you know what this is, Mum?’ I handed her a large decorative metal key.
    Mum turned it over in her hands, peering at the engraving on it. ‘It’s a 21st key, is it?’
    ‘Yes, and it was given to you by your dad.’

    I showed her the message her father had put on the key:

    To Doreen, Love from Dad. March 1950

    And there’s another one here, a wooden one. It’s a bit of a mystery.’

    I handed her the second key, a light wooden form, covered with signatures of people like an autograph book. She traced the writing with her thumb.
    ‘Whose was this?’ She didn’t seem to recognise it.


    ‘That’s the mystery! I thought at first it was Dad’s, because he signed it on the front, here.’


    I showed her Dad’s flourish, smiling as I did, because Dad had the most dreadful handwriting and he’d clearly made an effort here.

    ‘But it can’t have been his, because he turned twenty-one before you’d met. And see here, on the back? These are autographs by your family and friends. Do you think your dad bought this one for you as well? Was it the custom to also give a wooden one for people to sign?

    Mum considered this. ‘I don’t know…perhaps.’

    I spent more time reading out the names of the people who’d signed her wooden key, all those years ago. Her brother Art and sister Betty, her soon-to-be sister-in-law Norma, and many others whose names I didn’t recognise. The winter sun warmed our shoulders and small blue wrens pecked at the grass in front of Mum’s wheelchair.

    Mum seemed content to know that whatever the mystery of the wooden key, it had once meant something to her. And pleased to be reminded that the people who had signed it had wanted to wish a happy life to the young woman she had been in March, 1950.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother VI: Travelling back to colonial times

    This is the sixth 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.

    This, in conversation with Mum:

    Mum: I’m so tired, love. But I’m not doing anything today. I got back yesterday from a trip out, like I used to do, on a pony. Just me and another woman. We’d have a pony each and we’d set out from North Richmond and decide: this way or that way? So this time I chose north.

    Me: ‘What was there?’

    Mum: Not much back then. I’d follow the river for a bit and find a few people—squatters—on the river bank. I’d say ‘I’m here to help you. Is there anything you need?’ But they were usually very suspicious, like they thought I was there to interfere. They didn’t like the idea of being moved off the land.
    They’d say: ‘We don’t need anything, go away, leave us in peace.’
    Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Must be twenty years ago.

    Me: ‘Did you enjoy those pony rides?’

    Mum: It was an adventure. And I felt I was doing good for others because every now and then I’d come across someone who needed my help. But I don’t think I could ride all that way on a pony any more. I suppose if I tried it now I’d get a right old backache!’

    As usual after one of these chats, I went searching for the golden nuggets of truth in her words. To my knowledge, Mum has never ridden a horse or pony in her life. To dig deeper, to the emotion of her tale, I see it is about freedom and choice: the ability to make decisions about where she wanted to be; and to be able to move about with ease. Two things no longer available to her.

    And, just as importantly, the wish to feel needed – to be of use. Most of Mum’s life has been spent ‘doing’ for others in some way: home maker, income earner, family glue. And outside of the home and family, she took on roles in community, school, leisure activities. Always busy, a wonderful organiser and contributor.

    In the tale of her pony rides, she also references early days of settlement of the Hawkesbury district. She married into a family with deep roots in this region going back to the Second Fleet of convicts in the late 1700’s. The Eathers, from whom I am descended through my father, were among the earliest of English convicts and later settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Mum’s own family history also features several convicts who eventually settled along South Creek.

    In the past couple of years, I’ve been talking with Mum about our ancestors and about early colonial days. I’ve delved deeper into family history, as I began to write fiction inspired by some of these people and places. Several decades ago, Mum was a keen family historian and did a great deal of leg work in researching and documenting the lives of our forebears. I picked up from where she had left off. So perhaps its no surprise that images of ‘squatters’ and settlers along the once wild Hawkesbury region feature in her imaginings.

    I’m glad that she is able to live out stories of colonial days in her thoughts and fancies as she ventures into new territories.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother V: History

    This is the fifth 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 found Mum’s high school history notebooks, tucked away in a treasure box. On a recent visit, we went through them together. She had written copious notes in beautiful handwriting; no doubt copied from the blackboard or from textbooks, as was customary in the early 1940’s.

    The world was at war, Britain fighting to maintain its sovereignty but also its empire. The lessons Mum wrote were all to do with struggles of the past: British royals, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, British dominions in India and Australia. Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip, colonial expansion, ‘troublesome natives’ and ‘lazy convicts.’ ( Mum pulled a face when I read aloud the last two references, rightly shocking today. I was pleased to see her sense of injustice had not been diluted by the years.)
    She recognised her old Phillips School Atlas with it’s red cover. Almost half the world was coloured pink back then – pink for the British Empire.

    When we discussed her school years, she remembered some things differently. She said she’d had to go to the ‘domestic high school’ because she wasn’t good enough to attend the more academic school. I reminded her that she’d been more than smart enough, but economics and transport problems made attending the more distant school impossible; she’d had to be content with learning domestic science, sewing and cooking at the closer school. She looked both uncertain and pleased by this reminder. Mum was always justifiably proud of her clever mind and aptitude at study and I was saddened to think that this capacity was something she no longer recognised.

    The conversation showed that there can be different versions of history, depending on who is doing the telling, when and why. And that memory can be an unreliable narrator at the best of times.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother IV: Show and Tell

    This is the fourth 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.

    Mum seemed flat this morning: subdued and disconnected. I spoke about bits and pieces for a while and she was polite, but her interest flagged quickly. When I pulled out the items I had brought to show her, her demeanour changed.

    In the past few weeks I’ve used a sort of ‘Show and Tell’ on my visits with Mum. While her eyesight is now so poor as to make it almost impossible for her to properly ‘see’ an item, she can still touch, hold, or smell one. She enjoys old photos, not quite ‘seeing’ them, but hearing my descriptions of the people and places in each. I’ve heard Mum’s stories about the photos in the old family album – those tiny sepia images -and I can now tell them back to her. It’s the stories of the photos, not the images themselves, that we connect with. Occasionally, a memory will be sparked and Mum will travel down a path from long ago. At the very least, we talk.

    On this visit, the items I took for my ‘Show and Tell’ included a chic little navy blue handbag (circa 1951). Inside were several hat pins, a girl guide badge, and a tiny harmonica, no bigger than half the length of my thumb, in its little box.

    I placed the handbag on the table in front of Mum. Recognition was slow, but when I told her my guess that this was a bag she had purchased to go with her wedding outfit, an expression of puzzled pleasure crossed her face. We looked at the wedding photo on her shelf and examined the pretty pale blue dress she had worn on that day.

    Next were the hat pins, in their spongy cushion. I touched Mum’s fingers to the rounded bobbles on their ends. She had no recollection of hat pins. When I suggested she may well have used the one whose bobble was a soft blue-grey colour to hold her wedding hat with its tiny veil in place (the colour complementing both hat and dress) she nodded, pleased.

    The tarnished Girl Guides badge was another mystery to be explored. It prompted a look through the photo album and there, as I’d remembered, were three cloth ‘merit badges’ which Mum had earned during her time as a Girl Guide. She traced the stitching on the badges with a forefinger, with a look close to wonder. Was she recalling this long ago time? Or pushing her damaged memory to try, try, try to bring it back?

    Finally, I placed in Mum’s palm the miniature mouth organ. Her fingers explored it but no idea came to her as to its purpose. I blew into it gently and we heard its distinctive sounds.

    ‘Dad had a proper mouth organ,’ I said. ‘I don’t remember him playing it but he used to talk about his time in the brass band when he was a youngster. I think he played trombone?’
    I smiled: as always, the image of my skinny dad with a skinny trombone was irresistible. ‘I’m guessing this little mouth organ was his too.’
    Mum looked mystified.
    ‘But what would it be doing inside my handbag?’

    That, we will most likely never know.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother III: Wedding Ring

    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.

    My Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1951. Mum sewed the pale blue, knee length, sweetheart neckline dress herself. An unusual choice in the early 1950’s; I suspect partly out of necessity due to limited funds and partly Mum’s wish to be a bit different from the norms of the time.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother II: singing with youngsters

    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.’

    Photo by Guillame Meurice at Pexels

    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.