Friday, February 13, 2009

Aussie childhood

My sister, Tricia's painting of original farm house

There are so many things in my life that I am grateful for, starting with where I grew up and the wonderful family into which I was born. I like to tell people my parents were so impressed with me, the oldest, that they decided they’d like a dozen of me. But the truth is my dad comes from good Irish Catholic stock and the change that swept through the world with the introduction of birth control was not felt in our household.

An early (and constant) influence in our lives were our grandparents. Dad’s mother was a quiet, demure, gentle little lady who I don’t remember as saying much but who often smiled gently. I’m sure she was made of sterner stuff than was evident to us in her old age. After all, she gave birth to 14 children and raised 12 of them when times were tough indeed. My dad was one of the youngest with a younger brother and 2 younger sisters. There is just one sister, Aunty Maisie left alive now and many lingering and fond memories of some of the others. Their lives were a testimony to their faith; they practised Christianity in its purest form.

Dad’s mother was roughly the same age as my maternal great grandmother who lived a creek and a paddock away from Grandma and Grandad Osborne. Whereas Grandma Ward was genteel and always seemed to be sitting in her easy chair when we visited, Great-granny Crosby was always on the go. Grandma Ward lived in retirement in a stately old home in Sandgate a
seaside suburb of Brisbane (only 4 train stations and a bus ride from where we lived) with her oldest spinster daughter, Aunty Dolly, who appeared to be “in charge”. The house was spotless, no clutter, no marks on the gleaming polished wood floors.

During the holidays we stayed with Grandma and Grandad Osborne but during school term we visited Grandma Ward regularly on Sundays. Mum would see that we were scrubbed and dressed in our best Sunday clothes, clean white socks and polished shoes, hair tidy, and Dad would take us to visit. These were not fun Sunday outings; in the presence of Dad and his family we were always conscious of the need to behave. No hanging out train windows getting soot on ourselves from the old steam train and mucking up our hair. No raised voices except Dad’s keeping us in line.

Reaching the Sandgate railway station was a relief as it was easier staying clean on the bus and therefore stay out of disgrace with Dad – and Aunty Dolly. Somehow we developed a ritual for when we arrived at Grandma Ward’s. Firstly we would take our shoes off at the door and line them up neatly by size, then traipse into the lounge room. I would sit on one end of a long lounge chair with the youngest brother or sister beside me, Dennis the next oldest of us would sit on the other end with the next youngest beside him and the other younger ones would be between us. And it would be up to the older ones to keep the younger under control. If any of the littlies misbehaved it always seemed to be MY fault, as Dad would say, “Pauline!” in his sternest voice. No wonder my younger brothers and sisters thought I was bossy for years!

But there were no rituals when we went up to the farm to Mum’s family. There was no sitting on ceremony, although we were regularly scrubbed and dressed up on Sundays to visit my Great-grandmother. We loved these visits because we liked to see Gran dressed up in her Sunday best. She looked so elegant and beautiful when she did her hair in her “fancy” style with deep waves on the sides of her hair and her bun secured with a pretty comb more loosely than on other days. I would wait with interest to see what broach she was going to wear and if she would put on a necklace. Her outfit wouldn’t be complete till we had crossed the creek when the stockings and gloves were put on, no matter how hot the day. Then, armed with towels, our shoes and socks in our hands, we would race down to the creek. The crossing place was shallow with lots of stepping stones, so our feet didn’t get dirty, just wet. On the other side, we’d add our shoes and socks and set off through Great Uncle Dave’s (Grandma’s brother who farmed the home farm) paddock. Crops were grown in the rich soil of this paddock so our shoes would have a layer of dirt (mud if it was being irrigated) and our socks far from their original white.

How we loved my Gran’s childhood home. Before it was moved to its current site it had been Laidley’s first hospital. A grand staircase led up to a wide verandah around three sides that had beautiful white wrought iron work. From the top of the steps you could go straight into a long hallway with rooms off either side. Living rooms on one side, bed rooms off the other. The far end of the corridor lead out to a walkway which was covered in corrugated iron, and had a hand rail but no sides. This lead to another verandah in front of the kitchen, which was one huge room, it’s length being the width of the house. A monstrous wood stove was down one end with a worktable, cupboards, etc and dining table and chairs down the other. Either table would easily
sit 12 people, but we rarely sat in there, as it was cooler out on the verandah. We would be given a cool drink of cordial and a piece of cake while Gran and her mother had a cup of tea. Then we would proceed to the other part of the house and sit on the side verandah facing the creek.

The move from one verandah to the other was the signal that the formal part of the day was over. Off would come the shoes and socks and we’d take off, usually to the creek to check out the Top Crossing – a concrete causeway. The only time an adult would reprimand us was if we chased Great-granny’s chooks. Occasionally we would run up the back of the house and visit Gran’s brother Dave and his family, but Aunty Laura wasn’t the best cook in the world and being expected to eat her offerings was a bit off-putting. We were raised to think we must eat food that was offered to us, so unless we were still hungry after eating Great-granny’s offering, we regarded Aunty Laura’s food as a bit of a trial.

These Sunday visits took about two hours I guess because we would always set out after lunch and sometimes we would leave our togs at the crossing on the way over and have a swim there on the way home.

We all loved Grandma and Grandad Osborne in a special way. They had the gift of making each of us feel special and never compared any of us to each other or to other cousins, whereas I always felt that we never quite measured up to Grandma Ward’s expectations. After Grandma Osborne died Esme, Tricia and I held a wake for her at the Irish Club in Mt Isa. We laughed till we cried, then laughed some more. All our memories of her were so positive! But the highlight of the night was when Esme announced that she had been Gran’s favourite! I couldn’t believe that she could possibly think that, as I knew that I had been her favourite but Tricia had the same belief. What a gift!

Grandad loved to tell us stories. Our Ward family tree tells us Ward means the Bard, the story-teller but I think the joy of spinning a yarn comes from Mum’s parents. Grandad’s best stories were about Tommy Day, an old bachelor who lived not far down the road who Grandad lead us to believe was “not all there” and Uncle Cecil who lived right at the end of the road and had been in Mum’s class at school. Tommy spoke with a high pitched, slow voice and Grandad could imitate him perfectly. Mind you, I think Tommy got his own back at least once. One day Tommy
came across a couple of men trapping parrots in Grandad’s Dam Paddock, the entry to which was opposite Day’s house. Tommy told them he wasn’t going to make trouble for them but to watch out for the old guy up the creek – “He’s as mad as a cut snake”. The trappers later went further up the creek where they came across Grandad and told him the story, asking where the mad old guy lived. Grandad thought it was a huge joke and told us they had been referring to Uncle Cecil.

He used “Uncle Cecil” to keep us from getting lost when we ventured into the mountains at the end of the road. He would tell us to follow the creek with a warning “Stay away from the road or you’ll go past Uncle Cecil’s house and he will come out and chase you.” We fell for his instructions hook, line and sinker, believing that if we went off the track we were to follow once we got to the next creek crossing (past the end of the road) we would be straying too close to Uncle Cecil’s property and goodness knows what would happen to us. Mum told me much later that Cecil, had indeed, been a bully and Grandad was right to warn us about him. He used to ride a horse to school and would charge it straight at any youngsters who were walking.

We spent all our school holidays up on the farm at Townson. The road from Laidley followed the creek up the valley towards its source in the mountains and everything was either ‘up the creek’ or ‘down the creek’. Only Grandma’s mother and brother and Uncle Cecil lived further up the creek. From there you started climbing up into the mountains. The mountain range formed a U at the back of the house with mountains running back down either side.

The farm as it is today

Time now to sit and reminisce and come up with more memories of my wonderful childhood.

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