A Small Family
The noise of the prop-plane from
My stepmother had passed away six years before my arrival. I did miss seeing her - it would have been interesting to see how we related to each other after 14 years. I know I would not have been an easy child to rear, but I had mellowed. Would she have mellowed, too?
Peter was now a yachtsman of some distinction in the small craft category, having reached the trials in the ’56 Olympics. I was extremely proud of him. Peter, the tiny baby, born prematurely and weighing only two pounds thirteen ounces lived his first two months in an incubator at the Women’s Hospital in
When I left for the States, six months after the war in the Pacific had ended, most of the Aussie troops had returned home and they, too, had to endure food and petrol rationing. All the young soldiers who joined up after they left school returned with few trade skills and found it hard to get a job. Materials were scarce for new projects and there were more labourers than skilled people for the building industry.
One of the greatest projects that
Many of the European migrants proved their worth as workers on the dam. Although it took many men away from their families again, at least the reason wasn’t separation because of war. They still had the opportunity to plant the seeds of reproduction on weekend leave and raise healthy families.
Many stories came out of that project, some very humorous. I was told that the only English acquired by some migrants consisted of the phrase: ‘She’ll be right, mate!’ and the swear word, ‘bloody’.
Women, who had taken over so many of the male positions to allow the men to go to war, were then being retrenched once the men returned. Having had a taste of equality, many women were refusing to return to their pre-war, stay-at-home-Mum status, and were seeking employment in the work force.
On the drive through the city I couldn’t believe the changed face of
I had supposed that since I had become a housewife, mother and a practical nurse, living in a small farming community in a Mid-western town in
We arrived home at Auntie Lila’s house at number
Although the letters I received over the years, informing me of family members and neighbours who had died since I left
When I first received word in 1954 that my stepmother, Bertha had died, I prayed that she had finally found peace. She was not a happy person and never had the ability to change her lot. I missed seeing her on my return. Dad became maudlin when we talked about Bertha’s death, and insisted that I never forget his words: that she was a bloody good mother to me.
At the age of 18, when I found out that she was my stepmother, that discovery answered a lot of questions for me. It didn’t, however, change my feelings towards Bertha; she was still the only mother I had ever known. I have to admit she would have had her hands full with me; I wouldn’t have been an easy child to bring up. Forgiveness needed to come from both sides.
Auntie Maud, a closet alcoholic, and her husband Jim, a weekend drunk, had also died. Their son, Jack, was divorced and now living in his parents’ house with his long-time partner - both alcoholics. The two-roomed bungalow where Bertha’s alcoholic nephew Roy had lived when I was still at home now housed my dad. I then learned that my brother, Syd, was following his father’s drinking pattern as well! Number 32 had a reputation for fostering lost weekends for many of my stepmother’s relatives. Bertha, Peter, Uncle Harold and I were the only four that escaped the temptations of alcohol in that household.
Maud and Jim had taken our family in during the Great Depression and we shared their house and a tent in the yard. My father, unemployed for four years, had ample opportunities to move out and get a Returned Soldier’s house, but he drank and gambled away any chance of a house, and lost any incentive to change the situation for his family. He, of course, blamed Bertha for not wanting to leave the close support of her sisters. I certainly couldn’t blame her for that!
As a young teenager I had investigated the possibility of acquiring, under the Soldier Settlement Scheme, a delightful house by the
I had such dreams for that house: Dad would stop drinking, Mum would be happier, and we three kids could bring our friends home. Life would be peaceful, the way it should be - like other families. Those dreams were shattered when my parents turned down the chance to stand on their own two feet and live on our own, away from all the alcoholic influences.
My parents refused to even look at the house!
Sitting at Auntie Lila’s kitchen table was like old times, talking about her favourite movie star, Maurice Chevalier. She wanted me to go out and call on the neighbours right away - to tell everyone in the street that I was a personal friend of Maurice’s and we flew together to Australia. Auntie Lila had weeks (if not years) of pleasure spreading the word. By the time I left I would not be able to recognize my original story - it had expanded like the elastic on a shanghai.
I missed Lila’s husband, Albie, my favourite Uncle. He had died three years before my homecoming. He wrote the most wonderful letters to me in the States while sitting on the lawn bench under the lemon tree where he and I often sat together during World War II. He let me tell him everything that was happening in my life, and he was the only one prepared to listen without prejudice or recrimination, always offering encouragement.
What a great talent he had for writing! I missed him very much, yet I knew him only as Lila’s husband and ‘my favourite Uncle Albie’. It wasn’t until my visit home that I realized how much I regretted not asking him for his life’s story, instead of having him always listening to me. That, I suppose, is the penalty for being so young, insensitive, and self-involved.
Albie was the only one to whom I would read all of Bill’s letters. We were good mates, who used to enjoy meeting frequently on the garden bench and engage in serious, in-depth discussions about the war and the devastation it had caused (having witnessed the results at the veterans’ hospitals where I wrote letters for the troops). When it got too depressing and we both had tears in our eyes, we would agree to switch topics.
He was my sounding board. We’d laugh about the material I was writing for my comedy skits for the concert party; I could always try out a new joke on Uncle Albie and get an honest reaction. He had a great sense of humour and would have made a wonderful dad! In retrospect, I believed I was the child he and Lila may have wished for.
I took my cup of coffee out to the bench by the lemon tree, closed my eyes and felt Uncle Albie’s presence. Tears fell as I had a long talk with his spirit. That’s where my cousin Len Young found me, still in my dressing gown when he arrived on the second day of my visit. I told him I had been reminiscing with my Uncle. Len looked around, saw no one, shook his head in disbelief, and then asked if I was ready for the grand tour of
As I settled in his bright orange Volkswagen I handed him my written itinerary for the week. He insisted we do it his way on the first day, and then he would become my chauffeur and take me wherever I wished to go. By I was exhausted and Len had to take me home. Jetlag was catching up with me. I’d had very little sleep during the past six days between
“Oh, Ruthie! I thought you were dead! You had me so worried!” Auntie Lila gasped. I bet she gave me the mirror test to see if I was breathing! She’s a real drama queen, but I would never question her actions. She was my benefactor when I was young - paid for my tap and ballet dancing lessons and all the materials for my costumes. Although my mother could sew, Auntie Lila paid for a dressmaker to make all the costumes for the annual concerts. She held the reins as long as I behaved myself and made her proud at the dance school.
My stepmother only got to inflict punishment on me. She always played the part of the pitiful younger sister to Lila, Lily and Maud. “Poor Bertha, married to that hopeless drunk, Vic!” I heard the sisters say many times. She depended on her them to be supportive all the time. They were.
Auntie Lila brought out an old, faded, orange velvet costume that she had kept wrapped up in tissue paper since I was a young girl doing adagio dancing. She sat on the side of the bed, telling me how proud she was when she saw me performing and whenever I had my picture in the paper. She’d hoped I would some day be a well-known star in the entertainment field.
It’s tragic how people have to live their lives through others’ successes. I gathered that it must have been a big disappointment when I followed my own heart, going off to the
As Auntie Lila left the bedroom, I leaned back on my pillow and thought about the time when I wore that two-piece, skimpy, orange velvet costume. I remembered when one of the adult males at the dancing school was looking for a female partner to do adagio dancing. My teacher teamed Tom Hickey and me to try out our talents. Apparently we worked well together, and after weeks of intensive rehearsals we were hired to entertain at balls and special city functions. In the thirties that was big time!
My stepmother was against these travelling performances at night, but Auntie Lila said it would be good for me, good experience. ‘No one gets recognition from performing in the daytime’. Arrangements were made for Tom to pick me up in his car and take me to our venue. My mother insisted on going along with us, and I really appreciated her being there. Little did I know, at that tender age, about parents’ concern for their daughters’ wellbeing. I told her I was glad she was there; I needed help with my tight fitting costume and the hooks and eyes, and I felt more secure having her close by. I was only 13 years-old at the time.
I shall never forget one particular performance. The occasion was a very big affair at a Masonic Lodge Ball. The men wore dress suits, some with tails, and the women were all elegantly dressed in the finest shimmering, glittering ball gowns; quite a posh affair. The band gave a rousing drum roll after we were announced, and my partner, Tom Hickey - dressed as a pirate, bare-topped, red handkerchief tied around his head and a rubber dagger tucked in his waistband - approached memenacingly.
As the poor slave girl, I was wrapped in gossamer, wound around my body at least ten times and concealing my bright orange velvet, two-piece, skimpy costume. Acting as if terrified of the cutthroat pirate advancing towards me with the dagger between his teeth, I stumbled and fell. The women in the audience gasped, assuring Tom and me that our acting was beyond reproach.
During our practice at the dancing school, with only three feet of cheese cloth wrapped around me, it worked brilliantly; a couple of spins and it was done. When Tom started to pull the ten yards of gossamer and twirl me around the ballroom (it must have been quite spectacular judging by the audience’s reaction), I got so dizzy that I couldn’t find Tom. His checkered red headpiece kept flashing past me at such speed that I knew he would never catch me for that first over-the-head acrobatic lift. I collapsed on the still-spinning floor, dizzy and unable to comprehend.
It turned into a comedy act. Tom thought he could save the act by stabbing me with the rubber dagger then pulling me off the highly polished dance floor by one leg. The rubber dagger, however, had a squeaker in the handle, and when he stabbed me everyone thought it was part of the comedy routine and laughed and applauded accordingly.
Tom was possessed! He became a very angry pirate and was not amused. I had a few bruises from his tight grip by the time we were off-stage. Everyone clapped long and hard, demanding an encore. They really believed it was all part of the act. After I regained my equilibrium, Tom and I did our usual adagio routine. We achieved three more bookings that night for other appearances; they wanted the same act - comedy and the serious encore.
Tom was uncomfortable at being dubbed a comedian, as he considered himself to be a very serious performer. I loved it! That was my first taste of comedy - at the tender age of 13!
We were adagio partners for more than two years, until I jumped out of a tree and injured the lower part of my spine. I loved climbing trees; a good tree was hard for me to pass up. There was something ethereal about climbing and sitting high up on the branch of a tree, imagining travelling to exotic places, or joining a circus and becoming an aerialist. That was something closer to what I knew and felt.
When I jumped from the tree, I landed on a sapling that penetrated the central lower region of my body. My cousin, who had given me the ‘all clear’, laughed at my misery as I rolled on the ground in agony, sobbing. I forgave her for that, because she was rather slow-witted - short a few kangaroos in the back paddock.
Being warned by my parents against climbing trees, I kept silent to avoid a belting and no one noticed that I had trouble standing, walking and sitting. From then on, I could no longer perform acrobatics without excruciating pain.
A second back injury at the age of 17 was with a group of Melbourne Olympic Club swimmers giving a diving exhibition off the Frankston pier for the war effort. The crowds had to move back to open a path for the divers to run through to the edge of the pier, thereby gaining momentum for their dives. Unlike swimming pools, seaside piers did not have diving boards.
As I started my run across the pier through the opening in the crowd, a woman decided to cross over that space to be with her friends close to the edge of the water. It meant a snap decision for me; either I took her with me into the water, or I threw myself sideways and landed in the water on my back. I did the latter! They dragged me from the water in a semiconscious state, and I had no recourse other than to lie still and keep talking to a Lifesaver so that I wouldn’t drift off into unconsciousness.
After an hour they helped me to my feet, and my friends supported me as I tried to walk the length of the pier to their car. My legs buckled under me while I lost consciousness, and my friends had to carry me the last 200 yards. They deposited me at our front door, announcing that I had had a bad diving accident and should see a doctor. My stepmother led me to the bedroom, and that was the last I remembered till the next morning - I was no better, and there was no doctor!
I took a tram for a five-mile journey to see a doctor at Prince Henry’s hospital. After a three-hour wait in the outpatients’ department, and the ensuing seven x-rays, the doctor told me I had injured five vertebras. ‘Go home to bed with a hot water bottle,’ was his prescription. I had weeks of very little activity except going to work and coming home to bed with my trusty hot water bottle. I have carried that injury throughout my life. Not that it stopped me from doing some very adventurous things, but most times I heeded the physical warnings and knew when to pull back.
I often wonder what I might have been capable of doing physically if I had never sustained those injuries. I really don’t think I’ve missed too much.