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Shifting Sands

Posts tagged Memories

   “Let’s remember this,” I said to my friend Michael as he plonked down next to me on the bench outside the school library.

“Huh?” he frowned and arranged his crutches on the cement floor, making sure he would be able to retrieve them without asking me to help. I didn’t know why Michael’s legs hung uselessly from his hips, with his feet turned out like a ballet dancer. It didn’t seem polite to ask.

“For when we grow up. Let’s remember this always.”

“Why?”

“I just want to.”

“Okay. What do we need to do?”

“Just close our eyes and say, we will remember this moment for all our lives – until the day we die. We will remember sitting on this bench outside the library. It’s 8.30 in the morning. Wednesday. It’s a warm, sunny day. I’m wearing –“

“It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing!”

“Yes it does. I’m wearing an Indian wrap skirt and wedge shoes with raffia ankle ties. Michael is wearing – ” I open my eyes and glance at Michael, pleased to see his eyes are closed. “A red and white striped T-shirt and jeans.”

“Is that all we have to do?”

“Yes. Now we’ll never forget this moment.”

“Cool.”

I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe Michael and I swapped Trixie Beldon books. Perhaps we hurried into the library when it opened and grabbed the best comics. Or my best friend Andrea might have arrived to school early – a minor miracle – and we may have abandoned Michael to play on the monkey bars.

But I do remember that moment in 1978. I was ten years old and determined to remember sitting outside the library with my friend Michael. I wonder if he remembers?

My habit of snatching snippets of time and committing them to memory began when I was five. Late one night I left my bed and crept into the living room, where I turned on the television. The reception in our part of the world for the one television station we received was grainy and I couldn’t put the sound on.

I was thrilled to find a film. The scene showed a woman cutting up tomatoes in her kitchen. I stared at the screen, transfixed by a new idea. Time races by. One day I too would be a grown woman standing in her own kitchen, cutting tomatoes. My childhood would be as dust unless I took steps to remember it. I hoped my adult fate would be better than the tomato cutter’s. An intruder murdered her in the next scene, using her own tomato knife.

I closed my eyes and committed the moment to memory – I’m five years old. I am sitting on the sofa in our house. It’s night – time. One day I will be a grown up lady cutting up tomatoes in my own kitchen. When I am a grown up lady, I will remember being five.

I became aware of another, related idea. Life brings good and bad times. One day I am running after the ice cream truck with my sisters, joyfully clutching my 25 cents. The next day I am lying on my hospital bed, sick with hepatitis and hoping the nurse won’t discover I have thrown my uneaten dinner down the laundry chute. The ice cream is eaten, the hepatitis is cured and life rolls along for another 42 years.

A lot has happened, as it will. But I have never forgotten being five, when I imagined the years ahead and accepted they would fly past, bringing joy and sorrow in equal measure. I still have the habit of occasionally stopping whatever I am doing and deciding to remember a moment in time, in honor of the little five year old who didn’t want to be forgotten by whoever she became.

The photograph is me with my Great Grandmother in Fiji in 1970.

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Scan

When I wore my new red, white and black striped pullover to school for my Year 3 photo, a boy in my class said, “You look like a dick-head.” I received the set of photographs a few weeks later during class and had to agree that perhaps he was right. Completely mortified, I hid the photographs in my schoolbag and wouldn’t let anyone see them. My mother wasn’t easily put off and I eventually handed them over. Of course, Mum thought I looked adorable and sent copies of the wretched thing to my grandparents in Queensland. It’s one of those copies I have now.

I had to admit Year 3 wasn’t going very well. My devotion to the sweets shop had resulted in an alarming weight gain and I was moved to the “dumb kids” Maths class, where I regularly made the teacher weep with frustration. The obvious answer to my rapidly developing self esteem issue would have been to cut down on the sweets and ride my bike more. I could also stop reading books under my desk in Maths and start paying attention in class. Well, that wasn’t going to happen! At the age of 7, I knew myself enough to realise it would take more than one bad school photo and academic demotion before I’d change my ways.

 If I was going to grow up to be dick-head looking and stupid, I needed to come up with a plan. After giving the matter some thought, I decided I’d become a nun. Of course I knew I couldn’t sign on or whatever you had to do for at least a decade but it was definitely an option.

I didn’t know any nuns and had no idea what religious orders actually do in the world. The tiny bit I did know- that nuns didn’t get married and lived in a nice convent, seemed to fit my needs. Being thin and attractive enough to find a husband would no longer be an issue. Nuns get married to Christ – he apparently had no choice in the matter. Becoming a nun also meant that, in the absence of a husband, I wouldn’t have to be clever enough to get a decent job and support myself.  Living in the convent meant no rent or mortgage, no utilities bills and all my clothing would be provided. As far as plans went, this was foolproof.

My sisters and I were interested in God because we were told in Sunday School that if you wanted something you could pray to God and he might give it to you, if you were good. Our concept of God was slightly confused with Santa Clause. We prayed for God to bring us a kitten (granted), puppy (granted), Barbie townhouse (granted), skateboards (granted) and a flying fox for our backyard (declined). It seemed to us the odds of getting stuff out of God were reasonably good, so we  became believers. I spent the next year collecting religious pictures, cards, candles, rosary beads and statuettes in preparation for my life of piety.

The plan was progressing well (I was still eating sweets and hadn’t learned my tables) until one rainy afternoon the usual Elvis movie was replaced with The Nun’s Story, a 1959 movie staring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. Suddenly being a nun didn’t seem such a great life plan. For a start, Sister Luke has to study and pass exams. Then she is sent to work in a mental hospital where she is nearly killed by one of the patients.Finally she ends up in the Congo and nearly dies of tuberculosis. While in the Congo she is spiritually tortured by her attraction to the surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, played by Peter Finch. When she reluctantly returns to Belgium, her father is killed by the Nazis and she is forced into moral compromises to survive the Nazi occupation. Eventually she leaves the order. The final shot is of her leaving the convent and walking down the empty Belgium street, carrying nothing but the tiny suitcase she arrived with some years before.

I was throughly shocked. This film was nothing like the religious life I envisioned, which mainly involved me drifting poetically around the convent sucking on sweets, looking holy and doing stuff-all.

Realising a nun’s life wasn’t the cake walk I imagined didn’t prompt me to change my lazy habits. During the next few years I  searched for a Plan B – a road to career and personal success involving as little effort  as possible. I never found it!

Would you share your most embarrassing school photograph with the world?

My life changed forever the year I turned 14. The change was seemingly permanent and caused a lifetime of frustration and expense that could have been avoided if action had been taken earlier. Thirty years earlier.

In July 1982, my mother drove me to her hairdresser and I had my long hair cut short. The die was cast and life was forever altered.

For most of my childhood I had waist length hair, as did my two sisters. It was poker straight, reddish brown and shiny. I was an awkward, dumpy kid but my long “swingy hair” (as my mother called it) was probably my only claim to beauty, besides freakishly long eyelashes. In fact, at our Grade 7 camp at the Lazy Crab Resort, I was involved in a brawl with some girls from a different school who thought I was getting too much attention from the boys at a social dance. My fabulous hair, glamourously blow dried by our teacher, was blamed.

The rot set in when I started high school at Santa Maria’s Ladies College. We had to wear our hair completely scragged off our faces and tied back. This was a terrible look for me with my chipmunk cheeks and rapidly developing acne. In primary school I could wear an Alice band or tie my long fringe back in a style called a “carousel” (probably not the official name!) with the rest of my hair flowing free. It was a softer look and I could still “hide” behind my curtain of hair.

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Caramel highlights and a fringed bob

 We were not allowed to wear makeup at Santa but some girls obviously did. They got away with it because they wore makeup on the Year 8 Orientation Day so the Sisters of Mercy believed they actually did have peachy complexions, jet black eyelashes and cheekbones. I regretted not sneaking into Mum’s bathroom and helping myself to her foundation, as I did most weekends before my stepfather took us to the roller disco, where boys invited you to skate around with them. I credited the liberal use of Estee Lauder natural beige to my social successes at the Roller dome.

Natural hair colour bob

Natural hair colour bob

After a few weeks of seeing my shiny, pimply, chipmunky face in the mirror every time I visited the school toilets/locker room, I decided to wear a bit of makeup as well. Of course, I didn’t get away with it. I had barely got off the bus before the Principal, Sister Sheila saw me and made me wash it off. Oh the injustice! I realised my error. I should never have let the  world see my natural face – a philosophy I have followed ever since.

Mum was sympathetic and suggested I get my hair cut shoulder length and permed. The perm was flattering, I was thrilled and got away with wearing my curly hair out for a few weeks until it grew too long and I was pinged by the school Hair Police (a Year 11 prefect). I was thrown into hair hell once again.

a red, layered variation on the theme..

a red, layered variation on the theme..

Mum’s hairdresser suggested I get the old perm cut out and my hair cut into a pixie cut with a side swept fringe. I agreed and admitted that having a fringe softened my features and more height on the crown drew attention away from my full cheeks and heavy jawline. What the hairdresser didn’t mention, however, was that fine, straight hair requires skilled cutting, hair drying and the liberal application of “product” to prevent it flopping and looking like a hairy swimming cap. If it’s cut too short, the scalp shows through. Basically, the only thing that holds a short haircut together for we fine haired folk is hot air, artfully blown in with a hairdryer and the liberal application of $50 hair products.

Lots of bobs- different colours!

The blonde bob- an expensive option!

So the next morning I stood naked and afraid in Mum’s bathroom, armed with her hair dryer and trying to shape my new haircut. This was to be my fate for the next 32 years. My hair as an adult has been a variation of the bob (of various colours and lengths, with or without a fringe) and short cuts. Because my hair is so fine, it doesn’t dry straight. It sticks out in bizarre angles. I was completely dependent on a hairdryer and styling products to make it behave.

My hair in 2012, lots of product and blow drying!

My hair in 2012, lots of product and blow drying!

When we moved to Nigeria a few years ago, I had extremely short hair. I realised it would be difficult to find a hairdresser in Lagos who would be able to cut it properly so I let it grow, with a few trims in London, Munich and Seattle. For the first time in over 30 years my hair is long enough to be tied back. What a relief! I can get up in the mornings, brush it out and tie it back with a band or hair clip. It is also easy to blow dry as the hair just hangs straight and I don’t have a fringe.

It sounds silly but the simple act of growing my hair longer has made life a lot easier. When we went on safari recently I was able to tie my hair back and forget about it.

On safari with my hair tied back!

On safari with my hair tied back!

The time and effort I put into my small ration of hair is pathetically slack compared to the thousands of Naira and hours of time Nigerian ladies devote to their coiffure. My housemaid, Angie, turned up yesterday with an elaborately coiled weave that completely transformed her from a shy wallflower to city sophisticate. She glowed with happiness and seemed taller than her 3 feet 11 inches.

My hair is finally long enough to be tied back!

My hair is finally long enough to be tied back!

  Gabriel Ba, the author of Day-tripper, described the importance of womanly tresses when he observed,  She was the most beautiful creature on Earth- her hair said so in that language only hair can speak.

What hairstyle do you find yourself returning to over the years?

A Australian Green Tree Frog

A  Green Tree Frog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago I had an email from my sister in Australia. It appears my lovely little niece, who is 3 next March, had been at the doctors because she put a bead up her nose. I reminded my sister that I too had once had a penchant for putting objects up my nose at around the same age, although my preference was for crayons. It’s obviously in the genes, I assured her.

My mother and the doctor gave me a stern talk about the dangers of putting things up my nose, even though I was quite young to be reasoned with. We lived in Fiji at the time and one aspect of life on the island was the huge number of dead frogs on the roads- casualties of the increasing number of cars and trucks in Suva. I was fascinated by tree frogs and would often sneak out of bed at night so I could watch them climb around the trees outside. I found the number of dead frogs we passed every day quite distressing.

My mother decided to use this as a teaching moment and explained in quite dramatic terms that if I continued to put crayons up my nose, I would end up like the froggies on the road. Dead! Gone! Finished! Forever! I don’t remember this but I can readily imagine the impression it must have made on my toddler brain.

A few days later Mum, my younger sister and I were walking down the road outside our house. Tina (my niece’s mother) was only a baby but I was in the habit of happily chatting away to her as she surveyed the scene from her stroller.

After staring thoughtfully at the hundreds of squashed- and most certainly dead – frogs on the road I whispered confidentially to my sister, “Tina, did you know that froggies put crayons up their noses?”

Neanderthal Silhouette

Neanderthal Silhouette (Photo credit: erix!)

Before any teaching graduate is let loose on a class of unsuspecting teenagers, the following mantra should be tattooed on their foreheads, “Preview all visual material before showing it to the students. This includes films, recordings of sporting events ( streakers) and documentaries. Ignore it at your peril.” Fortunately most teachers have large, alien foreheads.

The laws as they relate to Australian schools are clear. Any audio visual material above a General (G) rating cannot be shown to students without a permission note from parents. Is it always safe to trust the ratings system? Oh no, no, no as the lady said. Hysteria, tears, pyschological trauma and a tsunami of complaints from hypocritcal parents (who let their kids watch all sorts of crap at home) awaits the teacher who trusts the G-rating.

As a first year teacher in a remote country school, I was eager to enrich my students’ appreciation of the curriculum by using films. It also meant I could avoid the drudgery of lesson plans and well, teaching, for a few lessons while we vegged out in front of the television. In the pre-laptop days of 1995, nothing prompted more exclamations of joy from my Year 8 Social Studies class than the sight of the huge Phillips TV being wheeled across the quadrangle.

In keeping with our theme of “technological change” or some similar rubbish, I decided to show a G-rated film I had found in the local service station/video store called Caveman Monkey Sex. Okay. It may not have been called that, but it should have been. The film was Quest for Fire made in 1981 and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It won a 1983 Oscar for best makeup and 10 other awards. According to the blurb, the plot centered around 3 prehistoric tribesmen who search for a new fire source after their fire is extinguished during an attack by another tribe. They are unable to make fire themselves. The film is based on a 1911 novel by the Belgian J-H Rosny (1856-1940). It sounded harmless enough.

Excitedly I took the film home to watch in the evening before showing it to the class. I had a vague idea I should make up a worksheet, so the kids wouldn’t think we were having a complete skive.

I watched the film and was completely shocked.

Obviously Annaud wanted to explore what would happen in a world shared by 3 different species of humans; Homo erectus, Homo Neanderthalis and Homo sapiens. Apparently the main thing that would happen is a lot inter-species casual sex. It’s impossible to understate the casualness of caveman sex, as imagined by Annaud. Cavewomen couldn’t bend over to dig up a tuber or attend an infant without some hairy fellow taking her by surprise.

Being relatively mature farm kids, the students would have coped with the numerous sex scenes without being too scandalised. It was another aspect of the film that disturbed me. At some point in the film the Homo sapien woman is captured by an ugly ape man. He promptly cuts off her arm and hangs her in a tree,  like a leopard with its kill. Evil ape man squats under the tree, makes a fire and barbeques her arm for lunch. Ignoring her loud protests, he gnaws away at her arm while she watches. We assume she will be forced to observe her own cannibalisation as her captor hacks of limbs whenever he feels peckish. Fortunately she is rescued but this scene alone gave me nightmares for weeks.

Despite the General rating allowing teachers to show this film without parental permission, I decided it was too graphic for students barely out of primary school.

Foolishly I had told the students the previous day we would be watching Quest for Fire in class (not doing any work) so they were disappointed when we had to drudge through a chapter on the wonders of the spinning Jenny.

“So why aren’t we watching Quest for Fire?” whined Trent, the primary work dodger in the class, besides me.
“I decided it had too much caveman monkey sex and cannibalism.” I replied, thus ensuring Quest for Fire became the most borrowed film in the town’s history.

Anyway, the students had been promised a film so I had to find one. After feverishly searching the rack at the service station/video store for G-rated movies, I found the 1993 film, The Silver Brumby. This was more like it- a sweet kids’ movie about a wild horse (brumby) based on the series of books by Elyne Mitchel. It also starred a young and dreamy Russell Crowe. By now I had abandoned all educational pretext for showing a film but thought I could work in something about technology, horses and cars or whatever. No need to preview this film. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, it appears. The hero of the film, Thowra (the silver brumby) commits equine suicide at the end of the film rather than be captured. Oh the trauma! Eighteen years later I can still see their pathetic tear stained faces staring at me in horror as the final credits rolled on the screen.

The following year I showed Quest for Fire to the Year 8 class after devising an ingenious way to show G-rated films that include dubious scenes. Every time I showed a film I brought along a large pillow that I (or a trusted minion) could hold against the screen, blocking the offending image.

Brilliant!

Twenty years ago I accepted my first teaching position in a tiny town in the southeast of Western Australia. The town population was less than 400 people although it rose considerably once the entire shire (mainly farmers) was counted. Although the town is over 500 km from my hometown of Perth, I wasn’t worried about the isolation as I lived in a remote mining community as a young child.

It may be difficult to imagine in this more connected age, but I had none of the on-line resources teachers take for granted now. No one in the town, much less the school, had Internet or mobile (cell) phone connection. I received two television stations because my house was near the transmitter but families living further out needed a satellite dish.

The school was a little isolated

The school was a little isolated

I liked the freedom of country living and settled into teaching my high school classes without too many hassles. Towards the end of the first term I decided the students needed a more challenging English program. I visited a retired teacher friend and we excitedly planned a “proper Literature” program for the next term.

As a few of my students were no nonsense farm boys, I was slightly concerned by my colleague’s initial suggestion that we develop a program around the theme of Mystery and Romance, using Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca as the primary text. I knew the girls would enjoy the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning film adaptation. The boys I was not so sure about.

My concerns were unfounded. The class enjoyed the mystery element of Rebecca and didn’t complain too much about watching a black and white movie. I gave out the final homework assignment that asked the students to write their own short story using the Mystery and Romance theme. Things were going well and I smugly congratulated myself.

The first sign of trouble came on the weekend when I was shopping in the only store. More than one parent commented to me how much little Johnny* was enjoying his homework assignment. In fact, he had stayed up all night to complete it. I may have been imagining it, but I could have sworn one of the fathers gave me an amused look as he paid for his Coco Pops. A more experienced teacher may have sensed the coming storm.

English: Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock would have solved the mystery behind the smirk.

The following Monday the students handed in their assignments, with Johnny solemnly declaring, “This is the best thing I ever wrote,” as he handed over a bundle of closely written pages. Feeling like the world’s best teacher, I took the short stories to the staff room and made myself a warming cup of coffee before settling down to mark them. I decided to read Johnny’s first, guessing he would be eager to know his grade after working so hard on the weekend.

Oh my Godfather. Little Johnny’s romance story was not exactly pornography, but it was a near thing. Page after page described numerous amorous trysts loosely wrapped up in a Du Maurier plot. Suddenly his Dad’s smirky look in the Megamart made sense. Dad had obviously gleaned enough information from his son about the assignment to guess how his son had interpreted the Mystery and Romance theme.

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Did we all watch the same movie?

In a panic I examined the other boys’ short stories and found them all the same. Feverishly scrawled across the pages were long (very long!) tales of entwined limbs and lust in the moors. Spelling, punctuation and penmanship was all forgotten in their haste to get every sordid detail on the page. Good grief.  Grey hairs started sprouting from my 24 year old head.

With some trepidation I examined the girls’ assignments and was relieved to find they followed the standard Mystery and Romance plot without the carnal embellishments. I considered my options. To be fair, it wasn’t the boys’ fault. As far as they were concerned, they had written excellent Mystery and Romance stories and would be surprised to discover their work was more Penthouse than Poe.

It's important to be a good role model...

It’s important to be a good role model…

I wasn’t worried about the parents’ reaction to the students’ assignments. Reflecting on my weekend experiences, it was apparent most had a fair idea why their sons were taking an intense interest in creative writing. I imagined them having a good laugh at my expense. Bastards. As a newly qualified teacher on my first posting, however, I didn’t want the Principal to discover I had inadvertently corrupted my male pupils, the oldest of whom was only 14.

My first thought was to blame my dogs. The boys would believe me as the destructive appetites of my four dogs (including two rescue Labradors) was well known around town after they ate a council picnic table. “My dogs ate your homework, “ seemed an easy way out. On reflection, this seemed a bit dishonest and it would be hard to explain why the dogs had singled out the boys’ work.

My dogs ate your homework...

My dogs ate your homework…

Anyway, I arranged to have a private conference with the boys and did my best to explain the difference between soft porn (what they had written) and the Mystery and Romance sub-genre (what we had read).

They listened politely but insisted they had written brilliant romances with a dash of mystery thrown in. Eventually they agreed to revise their stories so everyone kept their clothes on. For the boys, the romance part of the theme equaled sex and nothing I said would dissuade them. For a woman who had grown up with three sisters and attended a girls’ school, the discussion was quite enlightening and explained a lot of my dating history.

The next year, I substituted Mystery and Romance for the Westerns sub-genre and received boys’ assignments full of horrendous bloodshed, wanton cruelty, scalping Indians and murderous gunslingers. It was a huge relief.

* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

American director Quentin Tarantino. Taken at ...

He looks like such a nice young man…

If you are a regular reader of my blog (God bless you, as we say in Nigeria) you may have noticed I rarely use swear (or curse) words. Some bloggers pepper their writing with profanity to appear hip and funny or because it suits their subject matter.  Mostly it works rather well. An expertly placed expletive is amusing, particularly if the reader is not expecting it.

However, as a frigid, dried-up old vagina (according to a former student) I don’t like reading blogs full of pointless profanities that distract from the writer’s message. Nothing will make me close down faster. I am not alone. Quentin Tarantino’s constant use of the f-word in his script for True Romance prompted one studio rep to write the following to his manager:

Dear Fucking Cathryn,

How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you. (Vanity Fair Magazine, March 2013, page 252).

I laughed for ages after reading this and feel the same way about Tarantino’s movies. They would be better without all that swearing.

But I digress. The primary reason I avoid littering my writing and conversations with expletives is the blonde ball of potential fury I will refer to as MM (My Mother).

MM’s mothering style could be characterized as relaxed but she had several non-negotiable rules: blood, pus, spots, swelling or vomit must be presented before staying home from school, bed – time is 7.30 and absolutely no swearing, including blasphemy.

My middle sister (MS) could have me in an apoplexy of terror if she threatened me with, “I’m going to tell Mum you used the f-word.” It didn’t matter I hadn’t said the “f-word”. Merely using this threat ended most childhood disputes and the victim would reluctantly hand over the cat or whatever prize we were fighting over.

Australia in the 1970’s was not a curse-free zone but it was easier to prevent children being exposed to bad language, if parents so desired. Adults generally didn’t swear around children and we never heard our parents’ friends or acquaintances use the f-word. The C-word was completely unthinkable. I can’t imagine what my stepfather would have done to anyone who used  it around “the girls”, as he called us.

We didn’t live in a protected bubble. Sunday afternoons we visited my uncle’s tavern where my parents had a few drinks while we sat politely and sipped our lemon squash, without interrupting the adults. Saturdays we went to the football where my stepfather chain smoked cigarettes and managed to abuse the umpires without incurring MM’s wrath. Radios, television and films were similarly censored. The Internet with its attendant benefits and horrors was decades away.

In fact, I was never exposed to hard-core professional swearing (including liberal use of the c-word) until I joined the teaching staff of a large high school. The students’ language was almost as bad.

Our childhood prohibition on swearing has stayed with me. Every time I let fly when the Internet won’t connect or I bash a toe on the coffee table, I look around to make sure MM can’t hear me, even though she lives in Australia and I live in Nigeria.

This piece cannot finish without sharing the following story.

About 10 years ago MM was rushing around after working late (she had a hat party to attend, as you do) and fell over a rubber doormat carelessly placed in a store door way. I inspected her battered shins and swollen knees and assured her she wasn’t becoming, “One of those stupid old ladies who falls over things.”

MM went to the party but the evening was ruined and her new, specially purchased hat was wasted. The next evening her injuries felt worse (no surprises there, party girl!) so she decided to spend the night watching television with my nephew, who was 10.

At that time MM worked as a mobile banker and received a lot of work calls on her home telephone, as cell phones were prohibitively expensive for long calls. This evening the phone rang constantly and each time MM had to struggle up from the sofa and limp over to answer it, muttering away to herself (or so she thought).

After an evening of this constant painful shuffling to and fro, the telephone rang for the tenth time. My nephew turned to MM and with a cheeky grin on his freckly face declared, “There goes that fucking phone again, Gran.”

Tabby cat

In 1977 Mum, my sisters and I lived in a cute duplex house in the Perth suburb of Maylands.  It was a great place to live, near the river and close to our primary school. Mum decorated the house in the fashion of the day with orange carpet and purple wallpaper, although it may have been the other way around. One afternoon Mum gave us packets of flower seeds and instructed us to plant them. In a few weeks the front garden was a riot of old fashioned flowers like stocks, nasturtiums and sweet peas. We spent hours playing fashion shows in the garden with our Barbie dolls, the flowers making a glamorous backdrop to the festivities.

Our happiness was complete when Mum let us have a kitten. He was a pretty tabby with big green eyes and lovely tiger stripes. I am sure we gave him a cute name like Tiger or Fluffy but he was soon re-christened Killer because he killed things. A lot of things. Barely a day passed without our finding a clump of lifeless feathers, a lizard’s head or the backside of a mouse lying on the doorstep. We found Killer’s habit distressing but in 1970’s Australia, cats and dogs lived outside, not in the house. Micro chipping and enclosed cat runs were in the more environmentally aware future.

One afternoon we came home from school to catch Killer in the act, with a small yellow bird clamped in his jaws. We grabbed him and managed to rescue the bird, which wasn’t hurt but couldn’t fly away. This bird was different to his usual victims and we guessed he had snatched it from our neighbor’s aviary. After a quick conference we decided not to turn KIller in to the neighbors, which meant we had to keep our new bird a secret from Mum, who would have made us return it. Besides, we had always wanted a canary.

My sister (the middle one) remembered the old birdcage rusting away in the disused chicken run. Before long we had the canary safely in the cage and hidden in the back garden with a generous supply of Jody’s budgie food. We may have been too liberal with the food because in a matter of days the canary had grown to an astonishing size. He was almost busting out of the cage. Reluctantly we confessed to Mum, who came to evaluate the situation and informed us, with much hilarity, that our “canary” was actually one of our neighbor’s chickens. Sadly we returned our battery hen to the bemused neighbors.

A few weeks after this incident Killer’s murderous activities came to a sad end. We woke one winter morning and realized he was missing. Four days passed and still no Killer. On the fifth day Mum opened the front door and found Killer huddled on the step. He was obviously very sick or injured. Mum scooped him up and ran up the road to get help. My last glimpse of Killer was his tiger tail dangling under Mum’s arm. I knew I would never see him again.

How did my mother handle this turn of events? She told us Killer was fine and had gone on a holiday. My sisters (aged five and six) accepted this, especially after Mum reassured them Killer had telephoned her. He was having a wonderful time. As the oldest child, I was more skeptical because we didn’t have a phone. Over the next few months, Mum kept to her story and by the time it dawned on us Killer wasn’t returning from scuba diving in the Maldives we were used to his absence and eventually forgot about him.

Current parenting advice is to be honest with children about what I have dubbed the “three D’s” –divorce, disease and death. In this post GFC world, parents could add debt to the dreaded trio. Discussions about death and the possibility of an afterlife (dogs go to heaven- the jury is out on cats) can be shaped to fit the family’s spiritual beliefs. My husband attempted this with my stepdaughter (who was four) following the death of Thumper, the guinea pig. After a formal funeral and burial complete with heartfelt prayers and a pop-stick cross they returned to the house for a solemn afternoon. The silent contemplation of life’s mysteries was broken by my stepdaughter wanting to know when she could go and get Thumper, as she wanted to play with him.

Mum’s desire to protect us wasn’t unusual. A surprising number of our friends had destructive dogs that went to live on a farm, kindly arranged by the vet. Children learn the harsh realities of life soon enough. My mother evaluated our lives and decided the death of a cherished pet was something we didn’t need to be dealing with. I never did find out what happened to Killer (karma, I suspect) but I like to think of him on his eternal holiday, chasing mice. I just hope he has enough credit on his phone.

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Most women raising three young girls in a rented house wouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of large scale pet ownership but my mother is made of much sterner stuff. She firmly believed all children should have pets and so by 1979 we had housed every link in the food chain: silkworms, a budgie, a cat and a dog. They all got along with only the occasional moth falling victim to the ever – vigilant cat, aptly named Killer. Jody the budgie (who largely rejected cage life) survived by the cunning and speed expected in a bird whose Kamilaroi name, betcherrygah, means, nice to eat.

Children don’t seem to keep silkworms now but we raised hundreds of them. I can’t recall where we got them, probably from a teacher, as most of our school friends had silkworms as well. Silkworms are extinct in the wild and have lost the ability to fly, making them completely helpless to predators. Even more bizarrely, they only eat mulberry leaves, although they will eat a variety of orange leaf as well. The worms lived in shoeboxes and we rode our bikes to the school grounds or the river every week to get mulberry leaves, along with hordes of other children. It was a pleasant, communal affair and much fun could be had on the park’s lethal flying fox when leaf – picking duties were over. Silkworms will grow as much as you feed them so ours were huge, well over the expected size of three inches.

Most people wouldn’t think of the silkworm as an interactive pet for children. The purpose of raising silkworms was probably to teach us about the miracle of life as viewed through the 28 day life cycle of an insect; egg, larva, pupa, adult. It was however, also tremendous fun to balance two silkworms on your face so they looked like huge green boogers and then to casually wander into the living room. This was even more satisfying if Mum happened to have one of her more cultured, childfree friends visiting. Further evidence I was never going to be a scientist could be found in the other attentions lavished on my unlucky worms. Weekends were spent making them little beds out of matchboxes (which they spurned), party hats (again, spurned) and taking them on excursions to the park (for fresh air).

Despite my determined anthropomorphism, they thrived and developed into handsome moths, who then mated and laid eggs, providing us with new silkworms. We heard horrifying rumours that some children put their cocoons in hot water, killing the pupa, and using the silk to make tassels for bookmarks. No such fate was going to befall our beloved pets. It was particularly tragic, therefore, when they all perished in the great Mortein accident of 1978. Our months of sericulture were over.

A few weeks later, I was delighted to find a colony of bright yellow spitfire caterpillars (future wasps) living in the back garden. I wasted no time in scooping them up, installing them in a shoebox and making them a set of matchbox beds. Within hours I was covered in painful red welts and Mum had to take me to the hospital. Reluctantly I let my new pets return to the wild and started a course of sleep inducing antihistamines that would have knocked out a cow. Despite my early experiences with silk worms, I don’t like the idea of other insects or spiders as pets. I have no desire to own a hissing cockroach, stick insect or tarantula (not terribly venomous, apparently). My ideal pet is a monkey, one I can train to iron and wash dishes.

sewing at the dining room table

sewing at the dining room table (Photo credit: pinprick)

My sisters and I stayed with my grandparents in their Brisbane house regularly as young children and enjoyed being spoiled with noon breakfasts of Froot Loops eaten in front of episodes of “Batman and Robin.” It was the kind of holiday only grandparents can provide, free of responsibility, rules and dietary restraint. However, the best part about staying with my Grandparents (Joyce and Sydney), was exploring the bottom floor of their house.

Brisbane is subject to regular flooding so a lot of houses are traditional “Queenslanders” or timber buildings on stilts. Using this building method, houses are raised and protected from rising floodwaters while cool air circulates under the building. Evidently, Joyce and Syd didn’t anticipate much flooding so they converted the underside of their home to a wonderful storage area. I can attribute my interest in History (which I studied at University) to the many hours spent examining Syd’s action photographs from World War II, where he served in North Africa against Rommel. It was difficult to imagine my Grandfather throwing grenades down foxholes and dodging bullets but he told me it was better than the fate of his younger brother, Ernie, who spent his 21st birthday in Changi Prison as a guest of the Japanese. All the Toovey boys returned home from the war and lived long, productive lives.

Besides Syd’s photographs, the underbelly of the home housed Joyce’s sewing area. This was the most wonderful treasure trove of original dressmaking patterns, fabric, buttons, zips, lace, ribbons and (most fabulously!) a dressmaking dummy. Joyce supplemented the family income by working from home as a dressmaker. I loved going through all the patterns and imagining making my own clothes from scratch. As a young girl about town, my mother often came home from work to find a new opera cape or dress waiting for her to wear on a special evening out.

Mum made our occasion dresses as well. My favourite was a red floral traditional party dress with a panel of white lace on the front. She also made some of our school uniforms and First Communion dresses. Unlike Joyce, my mother didn’t particularly like sewing and claimed to be bad at it. I didn’t care. It was exciting waiting in my underwear, trying on the dress as it took shape. I desperately wanted to make my own clothes.

When I turned eight, Joyce sent me a lovely orange floral wicker sewing basket and Mum gave me a small child’s sewing machine, that actually worked fairly well. I practiced for my fashion career making a toy cat, clothes for my Barbies and other projects from my “Learn to Sew” book. Encouraged by after school hobby classes, my sisters and I also did tapestry, French knitting, crochet, macramé, silk embroidery and rug making. My Stepfather regularly left for work wearing something one of us had made for him; a yellow crocheted hat with a pink pom-pom on the top, a knitted football scarf or a macramé belt. His good – natured humoring of our efforts only encouraged the onslaught.

I was not completely without self -awareness and it did not escape my notice that my sisters were far better at craftwork than me. My younger sisters made gorgeous crocheted and hooked rugs whereas my tapestries morphed into abstract shapes instead of the kittens and bunnies they were supposed to be. My macramé pot – holder quickly unraveled and the toy cat never could sit upright, like the one in the book. Not to be deterred, I told myself I was too impatient and needed to take more time on projects. I refused to believe I had not inherited Joyce’s talent, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Therefore, it was thrilling to learn I could sign up for three years of sewing classes at my new high school, Santa Maria Ladies’ College. Mum and I excitedly set out for Garden City Shopping Centre with the list of supplies I needed for sewing classes. It was an impressive and somewhat intimidating list. Along with the expected needles, thread and pins were other mysterious objects such as fusible interfacing, tailor’s chalk, marking wheels, marking paper in different colors, pinking shears, soluble glue, the lethal looking quick-unpick (later to become my most used item) and the suggestively named “stiffie roll”. Everything was stored in an ugly orange plastic container the size of an Esky complete with carry handle. My pretty cushioned sewing box was no longer up to the job. This was SERIOUS SEWING.

My first day of Year Eight was also my first sewing lesson and I spied many nervous little girls, all of us carting around the same orange containers. The lessons were distributed throughout the week so the first sewing lesson was forty minutes of theory (using an excellent textbook called Clothing and Fabric) and later in the week we had a double lesson for working on our projects under the watchful eye of our teacher (we will call her Miss Apple). I never had any trouble with the theory. Warps, wefts, the difference between satins and tweeds were quickly and easily learned. My theory test scores were excellent. The execution of my new skills, unfortunately, was a completely different matter.

I am sure Miss Apple was in every way a wonderful woman and warm human being. She was an attractive young woman with lustrous brown hair and luminous hazel eyes. Within the first week of sewing lessons, however, I was terrified of her. After recently retiring from a long teaching career, I realize now she was an exceptional teacher. Sewing classes were taught with the same intensity and academic rigor as a Year 12 Physics class, which was marvelous for the Italian girls (who were born clutching a needle and thread) but a nightmare for a klutz like me.

Before being allowed anywhere near our sewing machine (we were assigned one each) we had to practice sewing with an unthreaded machine over spiral shapes marked on thin cardboard. I sewed in the same way I would later begin to drive- with suicidal fits of speed around corners and sudden screeching stops. Night after night I sobbed into Mum’s Singer as I attempted to improve my machine sewing so I could be let loose on the school machines. Mum and I sadly concluded the sewing gene had skipped two generations and I wasn’t ever going to sew dresses for Lady Di. Eventually Miss Apple relented when a week of lunchtime lessons only marginally improved my accuracy.

Our first project was an embroidered cushion. Mine was made of peach fabric with an unhappy square owl chain stitched on the front. The embroidery looked like the work of a drunken monkey. This may have been because I did most of it standing on the school bus while gossiping with my friends. My large cushion was lumpy around the edges due to my crooked sewing, which didn’t fill me with confidence for my next project, an appliqued calico bag.

I don’t remember a lot about making the bag (traumatic memory loss) but far worse was to follow. For the next two years of sewing lessons, the “sample” became the bane of my school life. Before attempting any new technique, such as inserting a zip, we had to complete a perfect sample. This meant making a miniature example, pinning it to a piece of lined paper and then writing out the steps taken to complete the task. Miss Apple checked every sample and if the technique was sewn and described correctly, it could be completed on the real item.

Attempting a new technique on a 10 cm square of fabric was completely beyond my sewing ability. The reduction in size made it harder to control my stitching and I learned what happens when fingers go under a sewing machine needle (nothing too horrible, but I broke a lot of needles). To my infinite relief, I was not the only sewing dunce. My fellow dunces and I became devoted friends as we dejectedly trooped up the steep staircase to the sewing room at lunchtimes to work on our samples.

To her undying credit, Miss Apple was always waiting for us, eating her lunch at her desk but not interfering with our work. We had to learn to do things properly for ourselves, without a teacher storming in to rescue us. It was an important life lesson for young girls and the sense of satisfaction when the sample was finally completed (with a decent score!) was immense.

In the three years of sewing classes I completed some truly tragic items and others I actually wore. My scores for practical work remained ordinary but I enjoyed seeing the dresses I sketched on paper spring to life. I persisted and made my own clothes at home and continued to so for the next twenty years. Ironically, sewing became one of my most valuable skills. As a young wife, I learned how to cover old lounge chairs with fitted covers and made matching curtains. The elderly people I nursed benefitted as I replaced their buttons with Velcro and elasticated dress necklines. I sewed maternity dresses for my pregnant colleagues in the small country town where I began my teaching career and numerous costumes for school plays or fashion shows.

None of the items I made were expertly sewn. A trained eye could easily pick out the flaws. Three years of struggling through sewing classes taught me not that excellence always follows perseverance. Despite hours of extra lessons my projects were never as good as those of the other, talented students. They never would be. I gained something far more valuable. I leaned to follow my interests and develop new skills despite lacking natural talent. I have spent great chunks of my life doing things for which I have no aptitude. I am not athletic but I have run regularly for the last 25 years (old ladies power walk past me) and two years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my husband. Painting badly, singing terribly, burning cakes and coming last in the charity race are all part of life’s rich (and in my case, crookedly done) tapestry.