Them and Me.

2

What they all must have been thinking, as that tiny single engined plane hit the dusty runway on the outskirts of our small country town?

It was a sunny September day; a slight chill in the air. Winter still lingering.

Dad along with our grandparents, my brother David, 12, my eldest sister Lisa 11 and the youngest of the group, Trish who was 6.

They were all huddled together waiting to catch a glimpse of my mum, who they hadn’t seen for over a week. While my older siblings had enjoyed the fish and chips with Dad for dinner and later than normal bedtimes…everyone silently agreed it was time for mum to come home.

I often wonder, how they must have felt when I came home from the hospital that day.

I had entered their world with some complications so was quickly whizzed off in a plane to soar above the bright city lights of ’78, without getting to meet any of them. Despite all of this and my grand arrival via sky, into their tight-knit family unit, I was immediately one of the tribe and I took my position no questions asked; the baby of the family.

SO being the baby, I actually ended up with 3 mothers.

Well sort of.

I had my mum of course; the one who birthed me (and thank goodness that happened), raised, nurtured and loved me. But, she also recruited 2 offsiders, 2 cadets, 2 right hand men.

My sisters.

Those 2 had a lot of input in my upbringing; shaping my sense of identity, where I fit in the world, my sense of humour and any lingering neurosis. They also taught me all about go fish, elastics, roller-skates, slip and slide detergent ratios and what was going on with Boy George. They taught me how much better a trampoline could be with a sprinkler underneath it, how you could even make it more interesting by putting it up on its side and running and jumping on to the mat swinging it down with a thud. They were the main cause of laughter when we were kids, and a main source of tears.

I was forever trying to be one of them, to catch up to them, and they were always up to something, some adventure or bright idea. I followed them gleefully everywhere, wanting to be part of it all, willing my bones to grow so I was not left behind.

It was so hard when I was 4, watching helplessly as they would all march off to school together excited for their day ahead. I would stand at the gate and cry and then head back there at the end of the day, by the old galvanized fence covered in jasmine until they finally returned, dumping their school bags at the door along with my loneliness.

I got my first pair of roller-skates when I was 5 and I attached each one to my feet in seconds. Realising this meant I could now join their pack with the other neighbourhood kids as they skated down to the end of the street, to the ice cream truck and back again.

As soon as I heard that familiar ice creamy music wafting down the road and through our window to find us all, I was up and ready to join them. ‘You don’t want to come with us’ my eldest sister Lisa casually stated, ‘Mr Whippy doesn’t like little kids, he has big fangs and fiery red eyes and big claws’ and with that off they rolled laughing down the street.

I didn’t sleep for weeks, and I hid every time I heard that ice-cream truck tune from then on.

Once I could finally join their school uniformed march to school, they often had to babysit and look after me on the school bus which they hated. They scolded me like little mothers if I didn’t do what they told me to. I would always yell defiantly, ‘you’re not the boss of me’ as they gave me a good chinese arm burn to prove just how wrong I was.

My sisters also had a list of tactics when mum and dad weren’t around. One loved to terrorize me by putting on scary ‘I’m going to kill you’ faces and then switching off the lights, as I screamed with half delight / half fear for my life, as she chased me around the house. The other liked to wrestle me to the ground and pin me so I couldn’t move from the big long string of saliva she had skilfully spat towards my face before sucking it back up again, over and over.

On days when they decided to let me live, we would learn the words of songs together and record our duets on a little tape recorder in my sister’s room. We would include sound effects and jokes and lay across our polly pocket bed spreads and laugh till tears came. When my sister felt she had the directors gig in the bag, she broadened her repertoire, challenging herself to write and direct little plays for us and our cousins to perform together for the adults. She came up with pearlers like Lucy Licks Lollipops ( I was Lucy) and The Moon Men ( I had to be a moon man).

When they had grown bored of impressing the adults, on one particular hot summer day in our back yard; they directed their attention to me. Before I knew what was what, I was told to chew a whole 2 packets of Hubba Bubba bubble-gum – so like 10 pieces were encouraged into my 8-year-old gob and then handed over so we could join each fat, sticky wad together, stretching it to see how long we could get it. That thing went across the back yard and into the paddock next door. We were stoked! I then tried to impress them further by blowing huge grape bubbles, which didn’t go down too well with mum, who ended up cutting it out of my hair. It was worth the warm glow of my sister’s attention though, heating my skin like the sun above us.

There was of course, as with all sisters, major clothes fights too. Mum tried her best to be a UN Ambassador and work a peace treaty but usually ended up siding with me, the baby – which resulted in my teenage sister Trish and I in matching outfits. I was so very happy, my sister was so very not. Things got so bad sharing a room with Trish when she was around 15, she ended up putting a line down the middle of our bedroom from the A-Ha poster to the gold sparkled knobs on our dresser draws; my rainbow bright and care bears and I were not allowed to cross her line and tough sanctions were to be adhered to. I still look back at our bedroom and it sums us both up indubitably; chalk and cheese. She was chalk..and I was cheese. She was neat as a pin, nothing out of place..and well..I was cheese. Trish crossed her line eventually, to braid my hair and sing along to our new Wham record. Soon the line faded and we were a peaceful United States. On nights when I was scared of the wind howling outside, she would come over to my side, get into bed with me and read Dr Seuss to me until I fell asleep.

Despite our bond, the age difference sometimes got to poor Trish especially (being the closest in age to me). I was the pesky little sister, cramping her style. That poor burgeoning, hormonal tween even got given a barbie Ferrari for Christmas at aged 12, just so I would have someone to play barbies with…she was ready to hitch hike it out of that family and boy do I remember her clearly telling me just that. She actually did calm down and end up playing with me though. We sat together for hours doing Barbie hair do’s while she taught me how to spell my first words. Granted it took a while. ‘Trish, what does GRFQP spell?’

‘Nothing, it spells nothing.’

‘What about RFGDSCEI?’

They were and still are the best sisters I could have hoped for.

…despite them telling me all the time I was actually adopted. They used to love telling me the old gigantically fat lady down the road with no teeth, who smacked her kids with a cane rod and who couldn’t walk on account of her being so fat, was my real mother.

 

They are pretty good though. My sisters; my little mother hens who are still looking after me. There are 2 people I call when things get tough or if something needs to be celebrated. They are the first…even sometimes ahead of my husband and mum..the real one.

I went through a very bad day a few months ago and told a close friend, how I had called only one person, my sister. I was in a fetal position ready to give up on everything. My friend frowned and said ‘I wish I had of known and you called me when you were so upset.’ I smiled, warmly, at her kindness but explained, ‘I can’t help but call my sisters.’

They have been my refuge since the beginning. They are who I crawled under the covers with when the storms rolled in, they are the ones who held my hand all through the night if I couldn’t sleep. They were also the ones who I hid behind as we walked past the rough kids at the bus stop opposite ours..

I still find myself trying to catch up to them, to be an adult just like them. When they talk to each other at the kitchen table and give each other advice, I still notice I take on the role of the baby sister, whingeing to pay attention to me, whining that they ignore me still..

To be honest I don’t really mind all that much now, as being the baby sister comes with a lot of perks. It means mum usually still sides with me…which means I also get out of the washing up 99% of the time too.

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Em xoxo

14 South Street.

Jack and Beryl lived a happy life.

It was, of course, filled with ups and downs. But overall, so happy.

In a modest 1940’s weather board house, they lived quietly for most of their 62 years of marriage. The house was a lot like all the other houses in their neighborhood, a little bit faded but neat as a pin in a tree-lined street, in a small country town.

I can still sometimes close my eyes and see the bright green and white striped tin awnings over the front windows, against the stark white weather boards hugged by concrete verandas and enormous, colourful hydrangea bushes with a fish pond out the back amongst fruit trees.

That very house saw Jack leave and return from a world war, The Depression, 7 children grow to young adults and wave after wave of laughter, love, Christmases, teenagers sneaking out of bedroom windows, weddings, 23 grandchildren, even more great-grandchildren, card games, broken bones, Pogo sticks and tennis tournaments.

I was lucky enough that I was one of the many grandchildren that got to call Beryl and Jack my Nan and Pop. I was also a bit luckier, as I lived in that same small country town,so I got to see them a few times a week, particularly on a Sunday morning after church. I would always burst through the glass timber-framed doors of the sun room they had sleepily tucked away at the back of the house, finding my grandfather having a mid-morning snooze in his chair, with a paperback western in his lap.

He would open his eyes and always exclaim, “Wowee, look what the wind blew in.”

I would then always respond with a standard, “Where’s Nan?”

“She went mad and the police man shot her.” ..my Grandfather had a long list of ‘Jack-isms’ and us kids thought he was hilarious.

I would then giggle at his silly words and go hunt for Nan who would be predictably sitting up at the kitchen bench listening to a tape of church hymns as she would hum along to them while playing patience with her worn out deck of cards, until Mum finally caught up with me.
Pop would then usually retreat to his studio, while Mum and Nan made cups of tea, any excuse to remain in the warmth of the buttery, gold sun room and talk about every person they had ever met, never remembering any of their names. I loved watching them both, following them closely as they would then always meander around Nan’s bursting garden, for what felt like forever, as they talked about every single plant and swapped clippings.

The very best part of 14 South Street was whenever days would fall away quickly and holidays came along bringing a house full of cousins!

The absolute excitement, whenever we would hear our mother on the phone, talking to one of my aunties late at night, discussing them visiting Nan and Pop for the school holidays. My sisters and I loved Jack and Beryl’s house but especially when it was filled with cousins and aunties and uncles. So many beautiful, simple moments with my sisters and cousins were spent in that house, or on that neatly trimmed lawn under the old grey clothes line. We would sometimes walk to the corner shop and buy paddle-pops together or go to the local pool at the end of the street when the sun was too much to take. We picked strawberries from Nan’s garden and gorged on them when she wasn’t watching, and we would all beg Pop to let us feed the big fat gold-fish in the pond, whacking the feed pot on the rock to get them to all surface.

Learning early in life that all good things come to a swift end, I would find myself just as quickly back in the routine of school, holidays over for another long wait. With a mother who worked, it was often my grandmother who answered the call from school when I was sick. As she walked me to back to the car we would hold hands and I loved running my fingers over her soft wrinkly skin as she held mine tightly. She would then bundle me into the car and take me back to 14 South Street, letting me watch soap operas with her as she fed me Sao’s and Vegemite.

Nan was a very, VERY religious woman. A strict catholic who carried a prayer with her where ever she went, she even had one pinned up in her car and we would recite it together whenever I traveled with her. She also had one within reach, in her kitchen that we often recited whenever we cooked. She had rosary beads and prayer books, crucifixions and bibles. Such was her devotion, particularly to the mother Mary, she had an alcove carved out between her and Jack’s twin beds, where a large beautiful statue of Mary would sit looking down. I loved showing this to any school friends I had staying over on weekends..just to see faces of complete disbelief.
Beryl was also against any kind of swearing and blasphemy, so much so that you would open one of her many books in her book shelf and discover swear words covered over by liquid paper. My sisters, cousins and I always took great delight in unpicking the words to see what lay beneath.

My fondest memory of my grandmother was talking to her, while my mother would go about setting her hair once a week in rollers, and then once a month with a perm solution to give her a head of gorgeously golden brown curls. We would play word games, and she would tell me stories about when she was a little girl, all to the backdrop of a large chemical cloud burning all of our nostrils. To this day, I still love that smell and it connects me to that tiny space in time, instantly.

Jack kept to himself a lot when we would visit, he was a passionate and talented artist with a make shift art studio in one side of a two door garage, where he would spend much of his retired years, just as it should be. As a child I would prop myself up beside him and watch as he would work the paint over the canvas, often calling out what colour paint he had selected since he was completely colour blind. I would run my fingers over the dried canvases when he wasn’t watching and all along the lined up tubes of paint with labels on them telling him what each colour was. The rich smell of the oil paints and turps in the air on a cool sunny winter’s morning, is something that has stayed with me forever.

They lived a full life in that house up until the grey, rain-soaked day Beryl held Jack’s hand as she had done a thousand times before, while he quietly sat in his chair and closed his eyes and did not open them again.

Beryl with the strong, fiery spirit she possessed, remained living in that house for many years, tending to their garden, cooking meals for one, packing up Jack’s art studio piece by piece until the very day her children sat around her bed and held her hand while she closed her eyes for the final time too.

Lately, I have paid close attention to the fact, that not only did I grieve my grandparents passing away, but also the house fading away from my life also.
I have lots and lots of memories from my childhood of their house, some of my earliest. I can close my eyes and still see every detail and know it all like the back of my hand. It was more a part of me then perhaps even my own childhood home. My mother was born and raised in that very house as were her 6 brothers and sisters.

I think about the knitted purple dinosaur, that was a door stop to the spare bedroom, the large coloured glass bottles that looked like genies homes, the bathroom that had a 70’s black light in it, with fluro yellow and white patterned tiles for the full effect, sounds strange I know, but trust me, it was the coolest thing that ever was to a 10 year old. Patterns on the ceilings, crocheted blankets and side tables full of crossword puzzles and books. The plastic crocodile sitting on the ledge on the fish pond, the oil heater in winter time and the big old square TV from the 60’s. The amazing produce they harvested from their humble little garden, teaching me all I ever needed to know about planting food and the four seasons.

 

I don’t know why it seems to bother me more than most, that time does not stand still and those golden moments are forever gone. The way we used to pack that tiny house of theirs to the rafters, with so much love and noise it was bursting at the seams.

It amazes me to think that one small, modest weatherboard house, in the middle of a tree-lined street may not be even looked at twice by a passer-by, yet it was the complete story of us.

Our tribe.

If our home gets even a twinkle of an iota of love and memories that my grandparents little house did, I will consider myself very blessed.

I also like to think even though time keeps moving us further away from that golden moment in time, a little piece of Jack and Beryl will always be right here with me as I make the same memories in my home.

Em xoxo