Photo found on Flickr by Colesworth
There were many iconic symbols of my childhood. I noticed them mostly through the eyes of my mother and the way she wished to conceal them. It wasn’t anything she said but I knew as a child, for her, leaving England was hard. I knew this when she painted the outside dunny can (toilet) blue, having read somewhere that spiders are repelled by blue, and placed it inside the shower. We were English and so we took baths, not showers. Most of the events of my childhood were recorded in my journal. I still have those journals even though I am well into my 40s now. Recording stories has always been my favourite thing to do.
As a child, I was always entranced by relationships. I loved to watch the way people interacted with one another, how they responded, how they survived. I can remember recording the details of my observations in an exercise book that I kept with my pen in a plastic bag in the fork of the enormous jacaranda tree in our backyard. My mum who is an English lady, in every sense of the word, preferred to think of the back yard as a garden but apart from her trellis of sweet peas, her rockery and the jacaranda, it was really a yard and in its centre, under the spotlight of the Australian sun was the ‘eyesore,’ the bane of her existence, an iconic Australian – the Hills Hoist. This metal structure dominated the yard.
We lived in a rectory on the main intersection of two highways, directly across the road was a night club. On Saturday nights our house vibrated to the beat of the music. I learned to sleep through the drumming, the farewell conversations and the car lights. My parents never did. My father made his way to the pulpit bleary-eyed every Sunday morning as my mum collected broken glass from our driveway. I recorded these details as if I were Harriet the Spy. Mum’s complaints were inaudible, muttered under her breath, impossible to catch. I watched and though I was only 8 years old, I knew this wasn’t the life she’d hoped for.
Our house was surrounded by car yards and industry. The neighbour over the back had wild parties, the one a few doors down, behind the church hall, had a pet ferret. Mum feared that the ferret would attack our ducks which she kept in an enclosure around the Hills Hoist. I’ll never really know why mum kept ducks? I think she was attempting to rebuild her memories from childhood holidays in the Lakes District. My sister, the practical helpful sibling, would dance as she hung out laundry trying to avoiding the pecking ducks as they nipped at her heels with their rubbery beaks. I recorded this too.
While mum tended her plants and the ever growing menagerie in the backyard, I wrote the facts and turned them into stories. Sometimes, I created imaginary places of my own. Places far from the chaos of home, away from the drunks that arrived on our doorstep, away from the telephone where the man from Rookwood rattled off names for Monday’s funerals. Late in the evening, I watched the shadows form; as the sun began to set the Hills Hoist grew. It stretched its towering arms across our yard. It was no longer a rotary clothes line but a terrifying monster mocking my mother’s dreams. She had not traveled to Australia to live in suburbia with a ‘fibro’ house and a concrete path that led to a clothes line. She had dreamed for more than this.
Over time she adapted to the expectations of what it was to be Australian. She baked cakes from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Book and before long she added a Hills Swing Set and a Clark Rubber pool to our collection. In that awful rectory my mum showed me how to pick myself up when life got hard. It wasn’t what she said but what she did. Like the way she made cucumber sandwiches for the drunken men who came begging for change.
Sometimes life is ugly. For mum, the dream she had of living abroad was not quite what she thought it would be. Yet in spite of it all she learnt to plant a garden. Even the ugly Hills Hoist with its metal frame proved to be brilliant for drying clothes. Between the piles of washing she picked us up and taught us how to grasp the metal bars and then spin us around. Mum always remembered to enjoy the moments, to do what was in front of her and to see the opportunities that abounded.
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