Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

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A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

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A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

Melbourne in Autumn – a Writer’s Delight – Especially for Poets!

‘A poem is never about one thing… you want it to be as complicated as your feelings’

 Terrance Hayes at NYT

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We farewell summer to greet autumn and I’m grateful Melbourne has distinct seasons. I’d hate to live somewhere without a changing climate for inspiration to write. (Not to be confused with climate change!) It is cliched I know, but the seasons are metaphors for our journey through life.

In Melbourne, known for having four seasons in the one day, autumn days usually begin with worrying about something as fundamental as what to wear!

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn is…
a time of falling leaves,
the days often have
a cooler breeze.
Morning and night are chilly
yet Melbourne days can be hot –
you have to dress silly…

at breakfast you don
warm jumper or jacket,
by lunchtime layers removed
like unwrapping a packet.
But, dinner time requires
warm clothes once again…

unpredictable autumn weather
can be quite a pain.

This morning, as I look out the window, the house over the railway line is barely distinguishable from the filmy grey wash of sky. Faint bruises of clouds drift from the sea,  promising a dullness to the day as a breeze carries the chilly air from the foreshore to swish through open windows.  Hopefully, by lunch time the sun will remove the blanket of autumn haze, and blue sky will triumph. It is Melbourne after all.

A Glimpse of Mordy Foreshore from The Bus
Mairi Neil

The sea, shades of grey, blue and green
has a line of white sails parallel to the pier
boats happy to leave the confines of the creek.
Tables and chairs outside cafes fill with families
soaking up the autumnal sun.
A  kaleidoscope of  colour dots the beach
as groups and singles lay claim to a patch of sand.
In the distance swimmers brave the chilly sea
their wet suits mimicking  dolphins
often seen offshore on warmer days.
Seagulls circle above gannets poised on rocks
myriad hungry eyes ever-watchful for a feed.

No butterflies are flitting gaily in the garden. Instead, the agapanthus droops and die, their brilliant purple flower head replaced by a crinkled fawn and faded green petals nursing tiny brown seeds, ready to drop and hide until spring. The wind is not strong enough to whip fallen leaves and other debris to skitter along the street like children let loose in a playground.

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Autumn Acrostic

Mairi Neil

Leaves die and fall in autumn
Each work of art farewelled
And as the trees become bare and
Very sad through winter days
Early buds herald the onset of
Spring and promise new life!

An  Indian Myna sighs and whistles in triumph from among the Banksia enticing mates to land. A juvenile Magpie declares to the world, in happy squeals, that he now hunts and fends for himself.   While his parents perch proudly on the overhead wires chortling and singing his praises, he makes considered stabs at the earth in a steady sweep of the nature strip.

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A single Blue Moon rose brightens my verandah, and I focus on its delicate beauty,  ignoring the scabbing paint that needs renewing and the couch grass to be removed before it chokes the flowerbeds. At least the geraniums splash a red, white and pink welcome to the constant stream of passersby on their way to the station or shops.

Autumn Chores
Mairi Neil
A surprising spring-like day in autumn Melbourne
Finds me on my knees, apologising to weeds
Pulled from their cosy beds.
Recalcitrant couch grass trembles at my curses
Muscles ache at each tug as trailing tentacles,
Loosen their choking grip on tender plant roots.
Perspiration weeps and eyes sting, but
I acknowledge passersby who pause to
Compliment the beauty of freed flora,
Inhale the wafting perfume of rosemary
And admire white daisies guarding the mailbox.
A baby wattlebird swoops onto the
Orange grevillea victoriae for its daily feed
Joyful satisfaction declared with distinctive bark
This rewarding distraction reminds me
To ease aching knees, massage throbbing back
And return indoors for yet another cuppa!

The leaves of the wattle tree in the right spirit of autumn, are beginning to turn yellow and drop, reminding me of a children’s poem I wrote to explain to my daughters about “Fall”:

Autumn Leaves

Mairi Neil

Colourful autumn leaves are falling
they carpet my lawn so green
the fairies have been at play again
silent and unseen.
They’ve climbed or flown into the trees
and selected a leaf for transport,
on their magic carpets they’ve race around
until too exhausted to cavort.
When gentle moonlight politely gives way
to the brightness of dawning sun
the leafy vehicles will be discarded…
until darkness permits more fun.

Despite the formidable reputation of Scotland’s weather, my early childhood, is filled with memories of playing outside, especially during the long summer school holidays in July-August, but even at other times during the year. Autumn days in the northern hemisphere, as I’ve mentioned before, were taken up practising for Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ night. I’ve written about Guising and Galoshens, published here and about collecting  ‘pennies for the guy’.

I recall more time spent playing hopscotch, skipping, tramping over the fields and hills among the heather (corny as that sounds) than anything else. We also played British Bulldog and the robust Relievers – boisterous games, which certainly kept us fit as well as warm. We performed impromptu plays for each other, along with the regular games of Cowboys and Indians and Robin Hood and his merry men, which reflected the influence of the fledgling British television industry in the 50s and 60s.

The yet to be developed, and newly established backyards and front gardens of the houses in the new Braeside development took on many personas.  Indian badlands, seas populated by Captain Pugwash and his inept pirates, Sherwood Forest, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Colditz prisoner of war camp, and many other land or seascapes from island to a desert. Locations and scenarios limited only by our fertile and stimulated imaginations fed on books, comics, television and radio.

The first couple of years in Australia we transplanted many of these games, revelling in the fact the weather was so much kinder. We could play outside for most of the year – no need to hibernate from winter snow. All those childhood hours, playing outside in different continents, provide wonderful memories.

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

Marthe Troly-Curtin

We are influenced by everything we have experienced in our lives and many in each generation experience similar things, therefore it’s natural there’s often a familiarity about stories. However, as I’ve discovered in my classes, most people will have stories from childhood or another period of life that can be shared in an original way, if written from a personal perspective including details and their reflections. 

AUTUMN
Mairi Neil

Autumn… a time to enjoy
Clocks altered to give
An extra hour snuggled beneath the doona

Autumn… a still warm season
Days pretending summer still lives
Walks in the park crunch leaves underfoot

Autumn… a time of colour
Rainbows drop from trees
Vibrant flowers play peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
Contemplate winter’s chill
Prepare body and soul with warming soups

Autumn… a time of contemplation
Remembering Easter sacrifice and ANZAC
Courage and Faith, admirable human qualities.

Autumn in Melbourne is a time of reflection for many people. It coincides with Easter, the most important Christian festival, and the one celebrated with the greatest joy. I was brought up in a Christian household and have many happy memories participating in rituals that gave meaning to our beliefs and practices.

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I never knew about the Easter Bunny until we came to Australia, nor did I consider the giving of chocolate eggs as the most important part of the celebration.  I no longer attend church, but still value and respect the rituals and beliefs inherited from my parents.  I try to avoid the rampant consumerism around Easter that appears to have become the norm just as I avoid the over-the-top materialism that has transformed Christmas.

In Scotland, and for many years here in Australia, we painted boiled eggs and rolled them down a hillside, the winner being the family member whose egg survived with the least cracks. This ritual (I think!) based on the stone rolled away from the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed. However, the most important part of the tradition being family get-togethers, sharing a meal and enjoying hot cross buns and each other’s company. There was also Pancake (Shrove)Tuesday, which was a treat.  All genuinely happy times.

As children, we received a chocolate egg or a selection box of chocolate bars to enjoy on the school break that coincided with Easter, and when my children were young, this tradition continued. Many family traditions, including those at Easter, have altered or been abandoned after the loss of my parents, and changing family dynamics over the years with siblings growing older and the lives of our children diversifying.  Such is life.

Perhaps future grandchildren may revive old traditions (with Fair Trade chocolate and Free Range eggs of course!), or create new ones. As the truism suggests – the one thing constant in life, is change!

Sister Cate's quilt block

Autumn hosts Australia’s commemoration of WWI on ANZAC Day. A special celebration this year because it is 100 years since the landing on the Turkish beaches of Gallipoli. ANZAC Day a ritual we only discovered when we migrated here in 1962. There is a family link because one of Dad’s Australian ancestors enlisted and went to Gallipoli.  George Alexander McInnes, only 19 years old when he died of enteric fever, six months after joining the Australian Imperial Force, raised in Williamstown. He is buried in Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria, Egypt.

My sister Cate (Catriona), a talented quilter, created the “lest we forget” block pictured above. It was chosen as one of the 100 finalists for the particular display at the Australasian Quilt Convention this April in Melbourne. The entries, along with their 100-word stories will tour Australia.

Postcards from Gallipoli
Mairi Neil

He survived the assault on Gallipoli
to die an unheroic death
from ‘enteric fever’ in Alexandria.
Weak, miserable, hungry and alone,
the tent hospital overcrowded,
too few nurses overwhelmed.
Our family’s Aussie digger
buried in foreign fields.
His working class parents too poor
to visit his grave
and the body count too high
to return him home.
A nineteen year old larrikin
eldest son farewelled,
a rabbit skin vest, Holy Bible,
and pipe welcomed home.
His war brief,
like his life.
Postcards ‘from the trenches’
sent love to family and friends
missing home and wishing for peace.
Passed down through generations,
the neatly pencilled sentences
hint at the man he could have been.
A great uncle I never knew.
Each ANZAC Day I think of
George Alexander McInnes
and the thousands like him,
acknowledge the debt owed
to previous generations
for sacrifice, trauma, and loss.
But, in the remembering there is
no forgetting the madness
and futility that is war.

To end on a happier note – form poetry is fun to try and with traditional Japanese haiku indicating the season is an expected feature. However, like everything else tradition does not always win and expectations not always achievable.

Autumn Haiku

Mairi Neil

The sea melds with sky
Dark shore dreams of light caress
And whimsy clouds flee

Holidays at last!
Slippery stairs to the sea
Leads to splashing fun

The artist’s eye rare
Vincent’s Starry Starry Night
A gift to the world

What differences do you see when the seasons change? Do you have rituals you follow? Have you written about them? Why not start now!

Advance Care Planning is Good for your Health

When people not used to speaking out are heard by people not used to listening then real change can be made’

John O’Brien (2007)

For over five years I have been a volunteer consumer representative at Central Bayside Community Health Services and often attend forums and workshops run by the Health Issues Centre. On Friday morning, I caught a train into the city to take part in a focus group about Advance Care Planning. As I’ve mentioned before, participation in events like this is a way of giving back, or contributing to a health system that despite its flaws, saved my life. Hopefully, the system improves when many different opinions are considered and ordinary people stay engaged.

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The discussion about planning for future health care needs and end of life wishes an apt one, considering I have a friend from university days currently undergoing palliative care and I know several others with failing health or with relatives in similar situations. All part of growing older I know, although I don’t want to be accused of being ageist.

The Health Issues Centre has been funded by the Department of Health and Human Services to talk with community members about their experiences of planning for future health care. How people want to be treated when they become ill, issues around the end of life, and if you have started to have this conversation with partners and family, what challenges have been discovered.

They have also been asked to test an internet-based tool that helps to identify personal values and record wishes regarding treatment. E-health is developing rapidly with the aim that most people will have an electronic file of their health information that can be accessed from anywhere in Australia. Your wishes about what treatment you want and what you will refuse can be noted.

Participants in the focus groups regarding Advance Care Planning discussed several questions:

  • Do you think about your health care needs into the future?
  • If time was limited, what treatment approach would you want?
  • Are you responsible for making sure someone else’s future health care needs and wishes are met?
  •  Would you use an online tool to help you identify your wishes for future health care?

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The group I attended were all Seniors and over sixty years of age – a demographic bombarded with advertisements about future lifestyle and health care needs. The Health Issues Centre, in partnership with Cabrini Health, ran the focus group and we discussed issues around planning for future health care. The information collected will be used to guide the work of the Department of Health and Human Services in relation to advanced care planning for Victorians.

Making sure you receive the health care you want’ was the central point of our roundtable discussion.

  • What are your concerns around life and health as you grow older?
  • Is there more to healthcare than keeping people alive?
  • If time was limited what treatment approach would you want?
  • What information and support would you need to plan your future health care?
  • If needed, do you have someone who could advocate for your wishes?
  • Have you shared your wishes with someone you trust?

The discussion recorded, and once transcribed, participants promised a copy of the main points raised.

We certainly gave the facilitators something to think about, beginning with challenging the title ‘Advance Care Planning,’ which appears to be interpreted by most people as end of life planning. One participant commented she was ‘getting older, not old!’ Preparing for health and lifestyle changes as you age does not, and should not, begin and end with palliative care issues.

I suggested more positive words would still let people know what the information was about. ‘Future Wellbeing’ or ‘Caring (or Preparing) for the Future’ would extend the discussion to everyone, not just seniors. After all, no one has a crystal ball and disease or accident can strike at any age and an advance care plan needed. Young people should be involved in the conversation.

In my writing classes I have several young people with an acquired brain injury because of car accidents – they need to be involved in planning for their future healthcare.

Although we were all seniors on Friday, there was diversity among the participants and our life (and death) experiences considerable. Everyone had thought deeply about growing old, everyone wanted to avoid a nursing home, and all, without exception wanted ‘death with dignity’ legislation. Several had already lost partners or other family members with positive and negative experiences of the health system. Some had a Living Will in place or Medical Power of Attorney.

These discussions need to happen and it is an important initiative. I was shocked at stories of elder abuse, the vulnerability of people relying on family members only interested in property or bank accounts. A representative from a multi-cultural organisation offered examples of elderly people being easily manipulated by grandchildren more fluent in English.

At one stage, listening to anecdotal evidence, I thought I must be unusual because I have a strong loving relationship with my two daughters and trust them implicitly to care for me if ever needed and to carry out my end of life wishes. In fact, because of what happened during my treatment for breast cancer, they already had to make decisions for me, run the household and deal with finances. However, it’s obvious not everyone has such comfort.

If you need more information and guidance or are worried about your health needs the following websites and phone numbers will be useful:

Council of the Ageing (COTA) 1300 13 50 90; www.cotavic.org.au
Advance Care Planning Australia www.advancecareplanning.org.au
Better Health Channel www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au (search for advance care plans)
Office of the Public Advocate 1300 30 93 37; www.publicadvocate.vic.gov.au

As well as varied experiences with family, participants shared their lack of confidence negotiating legalities like power of attorney, writing wills and the various cultural sensitivities around ageing, ill-health and dying. There was a role for government, especially the Departments of Health and Justice to ensure the best advice and assistance is available, if needed. Some people may be in a relationship where a partner refuses to discuss failing health, facing death and the future. Living in ‘the now’ or fearful that discussing deteriorating health may tempt fate!

I hope negative feedback about the general attitude of health care professionals towards older people will be addressed. Tales of GPs and others, showing lack of respect, being patronising and not listening properly, made me grateful I have good rapport with my GP, enjoying excellent care for over 20 years. Along with me, only one other participant, would go to the GP as the point of entry into Advance Care Planning.

People with mental health issues and those who can’t make decisions for themselves, need an advocate and definitely need a document guiding healthcare professionals, specifically in regard to surgical operations and whether resuscitation is desired.

Participants feared that nursing homes and hospitals may revoke any advance care plan, which indicated this conversation has a long way to go and dissemination of information must be a priority. Everyone acknowledged there was a need for better health literacy and many brochures, documents and websites need to be rewritten for clarity and understanding.

The meeting went over time even although the two facilitators did an excellent job of keeping everyone on topic. The group proved that people are interested in planning for future healthcare and have ideas about how to go about it. I’ll be interested to read the transcriptions of all the focus groups, although I’m aware many people are excluded from similar conversations because we have a two-tiered health system – private and public. It may be more subtle than in the United States, but your bank balance does count when it comes to choosing healthcare in Australia. Waiting lists can miraculously shorten if you have private health insurance. Money can give you a choice.

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I met several interesting people and gained insight into behaviour and areas  I didn’t know a lot about. Grateful for being given the opportunity to be heard, to share my story and thoughts, and hear the thoughts and stories of others, I look forward to hearing more about the Planning for Future Healthcare Project.

In the meantime I’ll  register my plan for easy access on E-health – access I hope won’t be needed for a long time in the future!

Family pets are important characters in your Life Stories!

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Anatole France

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Pets are not people, but most families if they have a pet become attached to the animal and some are almost treated like another child. Students in creative writing classes often include animals in their stories , but sometimes when people write family history or memoir, they forget the interesting stories pets generate, or they miss the opportunity to show why particular pets were important.

These stories don’t always have to be sad, or end with the death of the pet. Most people have lots of interesting anecdotes, and vignettes written from the pet’s point of view can be unusual and entertaining!

With an endless assortment of children and animals living under one roof, there was always some absurd crisis that gave comic relief to my problems.

Sally Jessy Raphael

One of my students who grew up on a farm in the country realised her only daughter, a city child, had missed building relationships with a variety of animals. ‘D’ came to my classes and by the end of a semester had produced a wonderful collection of animal tales. She included pictures of the pets from her childhood and after a trip to Officeworks,  various family members received a copy of the book as a gift. D’s daughter now has a priceless record of her mother’s memories of a childhood in the Australian Bush.

Writers can use a variety of techniques to convey the pet’s intentions and ‘thoughts’, particularly if writing about dogs and cats, the most common domesticated pets. Describe their body language: how they move, their paws, their ears, the sounds they make; how they react to the weather, interact with others outside the family, and so on. A pet becomes another character in your memoir.

A pet’s life span is usually short enough that humans can see a life journey unfolding from beginning to end. Often, our first lessons about birth and death come from observing pets. I can still remember a family cat, Smoky giving birth – she chose my brother’s bed and his school jumper for comfort!

We learn about love, devotion, belonging, life and death. In many cases, we learn about compassion, tolerance, responsibility and consequences of behaviour. Stories about pets  slotted into your memoir or collection of life stories will reveal a lot about yourself and family dynamics.

 Marley & Me by John Grogan was a runaway success as a book before being made into a very popular film. The pleasure, pain, embarrassment and pride of owning and trying to train Marley, a gorgeous golden labrador, is entertaining and memorable reading. The book and film’s success reaffirms there’s a market for animal stories!

All my life I’ve lived in homes with pets – growing up in Scotland we had a collie dog, Cuillin, and a black rabbit called Sooty. My brother , Iain also had  a hamster, but I can’t remember its name, or even if it had one. We spent most of the time retrieving it from a  variety of hiding places because it was a great escape artist.

When we came to Australia, to live in semi-rural Croydon, we inherited Tibby, a part Persian, part feral cat. We soon added other pets: Ossian ( a black labrador) and Lassie (a labrador cross), a blue tongue lizard and a hare we thought was a rabbit! When we moved from the rental property to our own home the menagerie grew: goldfish, more dogs and cats (strays and otherwise), plus chooks.  Notably a black hen and brown one that we named Gough and Billy after the Prime Minister of the day and the leader of the Opposition.

Ossian was bitten by a snake and died, but not before he and Tibby tussled for household supremacy, their tempestuous relationship always uneasy. The old cat would sit on the edge of the laundry roof (it was a separate outhouse) close enough for Ossien to see. He’d bark and jump up hoping to grab her. Each bark resulted in a flinch from Tibby, but she didn’t move away. I’m sure she enjoyed teasing Ossien and he never tired of reacting.

Along with a chum Ian McDonald, who was staying with us, I discovered Lassie. One Saturday morning, Ian and I met an old lady leading a young dog with a couple of men’s ties knotted into a halter. She explained that someone had dumped the dog from a car. Although she liked animals, her finances, age and health made keeping the dog impractical.

‘No worries,’ I said.  The McInnes household always made room for one more, whether people or pets! Luckily, Mum fell in love with Lassie, the dog’s quiet, sedate behaviour the exact opposite to excitable Ossien.  My  little sister, Rita put Lassie in a doll’s pram and wheeled her around like a baby.

Lassie lived to a good age before being hit by a car. The family bereft, and so my older sister and brother searched newspaper advertisements. One evening, they came home with two labrador pups – one dark-haired, the other a honey colour. ‘ ‘We couldn’t choose between them!’

Tommy Roe’s 1969  hit popular on the radio. The puppies named Heather and Honey were boisterous and mischievous. My brother, George who was always first up at 5.30am to catch the train to Burnley where he was serving his apprenticeship with Russell Manufacturing would wake me around 6.00am so I could study for my HSC. It was the only time the house was really quiet. However, Heather and Honey thought it was playtime.  I can still see George struggling to pull on his overalls, while Heather grabbed one trouser leg and Honey grabbed the other.

We found another dog wandering near the railway line with a severely broken paw, which had mended into a hook. We called this little terrier Faulty after Basil Fawlty.  A play on words, because of his disability, but also his strange personality. Faulty used his paw to lever the lid off the plastic bin where Mum stored the dried cat food, he’d also hook any food on bench tops or tables onto the floor. The cats and Heather and Honey loved the unscheduled feasts! One day, visitors commented on Faulty’s ingenuity and my brother Iain, known for his caustic wit, said, ‘Oh, he’s not that clever – I can still beat him at chess.’

When John and I bought our house at Mordialloc 30 years ago, of course we’d have a dog – I couldn’t imagine life without one! Luckily for us, friends were returning to Northern Ireland and we adopted their Irish Setter, Orla, who was beautiful to look at and also lovely natured.  We were besotted, as were many of our new neighbours. We discovered a dog-loving community in Mordialloc and Orla helped us make new friends. When Anne came along her first word was not ‘da da or ‘mum mum’, but “Orla”!

Orla and John 1985 Orla and Mairi 1985

Anne and Orla

Unfortunately, Orla took a stroke and died after an operation to remove a growth on her side. She was relatively young at nine years old and we were  devastated. Anne never forgot Orla and although we had Chirstie, a tri-colour Collie for a brief time, Orla’s name crept into conversations daily until we rescued Goldie, an abandoned labrador puppy, who lived until almost 15.

Anne & ChirstieGoldie as a pup

The story below features Goldie, but also DJ, another dog rescued after being mistreated. He was 18 months old when we got him, but lived to be a grumpy old man and holds an indelible place in my heart.

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A Bald Request
by Mairi Neil

John glanced over the top of his newspaper and smiled his thanks as I gave him a mug of tea. Gentle rain pattered on the tin roof of the veranda. Goldie luxuriated in the warmth of the summer evening, her breathing synchronised with the soft rhythm of the rain as she sprawled at her master’s feet.

Every now and then, the air punctuated with a snore and twitch of the dog’s long hairy legs. Did she dream of chasing sparrows and rock pigeons from her water bowl? Or maybe she relived running from side gate to side gate, guarding her territory from passers-by who walked along Albert Street to the railway station, school or shops.

I tapped John’s shoulder, ‘The old girl spends a lot of time sleeping and snoring now, she could do with some company to perk her up.’ John, looked up from his cryptic crossword, lips pursed, eyes wary. He knew me too well and his response abrupt, ‘we don’t need another dog while we have Goldie.’

At the mention of her name, the old dog’s snoring ceased; one ear stood erect like a sentry on duty. I paused in front of John’s Jason recliner, ‘Anne and you have Goldie. MaryJane and I don’t exist when either of you are around.’

John removed his reading glasses and placed them on the coffee table with his pen. I was going to get his full attention. His tone relaxed, he said, ‘well we bought Goldie for Anne to ease the pain of Orla’s premature death. MaryJane was a baby so Anne naturally assumed ownership.’ He massaged Goldie with a slippered foot, ‘and I feed the old girl. Of course she’s going to stick close to me, like Orla before her!’

Whack! Whack! Goldie’s tail a metronome, the wooden deck vibrating and my sigh just audible.

‘I understand all that and a pet is a wonderful way of coping with grief.’

‘Agreed,’ said John, ‘… and when Goldie dies we’ll obviously get another dog.’

Goldie quivered as if understanding every word. Her tail flopped silent. Quick to reassure the old girl, John said, ‘a long time off, I hope.‘ He sipped his tea and picked up the spectacles to resume his evening ritual of solving The Age crossword, but I was determined.

‘Grief isn’t just about death John. MaryJane’s best friend is moving to Gippsland next week.’

Only half-listening, John mumbled, ‘so?’

I felt my cheeks flame. Exasperation crept into my voice, ‘Emma’s been part of MaryJane’s life since they were babies. Don’t you remember how important your first best friend was? MaryJane’s devastated.’

For a moment, John closed his eyes. I imagined an image of Emma and MaryJane holding hands and giggling, merging with a recollection from his own childhood as it was with mine. I remembered John describing the pain of saying goodbye to his school friend Danny; being dragged by his stepfather while told not ‘to blubber like a baby’. I watched embarrassment stain his face. Defensive about underestimating MaryJane’s impending loss, he said, ‘and she’ll still be sad even with the distraction of a puppy.’

‘Not a puppy exactly… ’

John stared at me over the top of his glasses, probably trying to fathom what was coming next. The spectacles were placed into their case with deliberate care and the case snapped shut. He folded the crossword page into a manageable rectangle and let the rest of the paper crinkle to the floor. A startled, Goldie jumped up, assuming her ready-for-anything pose.

John patted her head, murmured reassuringly, ‘good girl,’ before his lips twisted into a wry smile, ‘you’re right Goldie, we both need to be alert,’ then grinning at me he added, ‘but not alarmed, I hope?’

I grinned back acknowledging the reference to our erstwhile prime minister and the wasted taxpayer dollars on fridge magnets delivered to every household after 9/11, advising citizens to be ‘alert and not alarmed in the war against terror.’

Heavier rain drummed on the roof. Resident possums foraging in the fig tree elicited a low growl from Goldie. A train rattled past in the distance; car tyres swished on wet streets. John’s sea blue eyes glistened. ‘You always have marvellous timing, my love. Plying me with a drink before introducing some controversial issue and hovering like a cat watching cornered prey.’ I shuffled uncomfortably as he added, ‘And I don’t like the sound of exactly – in fact I don’t like the way this conversation is heading.’

I picked up the abandoned newspaper and began to smooth and fold it methodically. ‘It’s just that I saw in the local paper that the young girl who assists the vet is…’

John’s interruption swift, ‘She’s always appealing for a home for unwanted pets. I don’t want some traumatised animal here.’

I waved the rolled newspaper in the direction of the chair, ‘John!’ He flinched. ‘Goldie was from the pound.’

Goldie placed a protective paw on John’s knee. John rubbed her chest. She snuggled a wet snout between his leg and the arm of the chair, waited for her fur to be ruffled in favourite spots. Contrite, John said, ‘ but she was a puppy, love…’ and I finished the sentence, ‘… who had been mistreated.’

Touché, I thought!

’Oh, all right what’s this dog’s story.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Well he’s…’

With memories stirred, John interjected while vigorously rubbing Goldie behind her ears, ‘I remember this one when we first spotted her at the RSPCA pound. Like a cross between a Labrador and a giraffe. Never seen such long legs on a pup.’

I laughed. ‘And once the markings developed we realised she had Rhodesian Ridgeback…’

‘As well as Lab, Whippet, or Greyhound,’ added John, ‘a real Heinz 57 variety.’

I steered back to my purpose, ‘this little fellow is pure-bred.’

John almost spilled his tea, immediately suspicious. ‘A pedigreed dog abandoned?’ He glanced at the scar on his wrist. Shuddered at the memory of his six-year-old self bitten by the German Shepherd trained to be a guard dog. His stepfather mistreated the dog and it became aggressive like its master. John was adamant, ‘he’ll be pugnacious. I’m not having an angry dog here.’

I kissed his forehead, lightly stroked the scarred wrist. ‘Darling, when you hear little DJ’s story you’ll weep. I know you worry about Goldie’s arthritis and I’ve seen your eyes tear up when you look at her and realise she’s over twelve – in human years that’s 61…’ I smiled and added, ‘almost ready for the pension.’

The rain had stopped, but the air hummed as the insects of the night made their presence known. Goldie fidgeted. John squirmed and blustered, ‘that’s because Goldie’s farts are getting worse as she gets older. If she flopped down near you and let one go your eyes would water too!’ He brushed dog hair from his trousers, ‘little dogs are generally house-dogs. We’d need to buy more plug-in air fresheners –– extra expense on top of dog food!’

The love accumulated in our twenty years together palpable as his lips twitched, and he tried to hold back a smile. I sensed victory. Muscles loosened as tension eased from my neck and shoulders. I kept my voice matter-of-fact , ‘yes, he will live inside most of the time because he doesn’t have any hair.’

The Jason recliner whipped upright with a loud metallic click. ‘You want to adopt a bald dog? For goodness sake, no wonder he’s abandoned.’ John shook his head in disbelief. ‘Who’d want a deformed dog? Or, was he burnt? Darling, please don’t tell me you want to take responsibility for an injured dog that’s going to cost a fortune in vet fees!’

At her master’s raised voice, Goldie shook her rear. Her tail wagged erratically, she pranced around, paws tapping and scraping on the decking. We both reached out to calm her, but I moved out of the way of the lethal weapon her tail had become, my voice soothing as I repeated, ‘calm down old girl.’ Through gritted teeth, I hissed, ‘panic over, John? May I please continue with some facts?’

‘Well, you nodded your head when I asked if the dog had been burnt.’

‘I know, but that isn’t why he’s bald. His breed has almost no hair – another reason why I think this dog is meant for MaryJane because she sometimes gets asthma.’ I lowered my voice, ‘the little fellow was deliberately burnt with cigarettes. He’s been starved and left out in the cold. ’

‘What?’ John exploded. ‘The cruelty of some people sickens me!’ He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Why pay a lot of money for a pure bred dog and then ill-treat it?’

Muted singing from cicadas and soft crackling from the overhead light the only intrusion as we pondered humanity’s capacity for brutality. John shivered and I assumed he relived again his stepfather’s treatment of the German Shepherd. The stories of his stepfather’s abuse of the dog, but also the treatment meted out to John and his mother, saddened and angered me too.

One day, John unwittingly poked his finger near the German Shepherd’s nostril. Chained and angry the dog snapped and his sharp teeth tore at John’s wrist. What followed still haunted John. His mother’s panic, her attempts to stop the bleeding, her worry about infection. His stepfather’s fury. ‘The dog’s tasted blood, he’ll have to go.’

John’s sobbing ended in a scream when the bullet from his stepfather’s rifle shattered the tethered dog’s skull. The silence that followed like a signal to his mother. She sobbed for a long time too. John often wondered if that was the moment she realised she had made a mistake remarrying.

I recalled the early days of Goldie’s settling in. ‘Do you remember John, how we had to lift Goldie over the threshold because previous owners had punished her if she tried to enter the house? Goldie never made a sound for days and we thought it unusual, until we found out she’d been debarked.’

John nodded. ‘Another act of brutality. Somewhere there’s a vet that should be struck off!’ Goldie inveigled her furry body between us as if reminiscing too.

John’s curiosity aroused, ‘This dog is naturally bald, you say?’

‘He’s a Hairless Chinese Crested Temple Dog. They look like those gremlins in the Disney movie: hair on the head, and around the ankles. Miniature Shetland ponies… that’s how they’re described because they trot and hold their head high like show ponies. They were rat-catchers for the Dowager Empress in China and also used aboard ships as ratters.’

‘Sounds a bit weird… and… they sound ugly.’

‘To some people perhaps. In fact, one of them was voted the ugliest dog in the world.’

I smiled and shrugged, ‘but they’re loyal, sensitive, territorial, and highly intelligent and like nothing better than to curl on your lap like a cat.’

At the mention of cat, Goldie bristled. We laughed. Our stroking hands and comforting noises provided immediate reassurance to the old dog. John’s blue eyes twinkled as the pulsating warmth of Goldie reinforced the joy she brought to our lives.

A light drizzle massaged the roof; the scent of wet grass filled the evening air. Still fussing over Goldie, John whispered, ‘and when do we pick up the four-legged Yul Brynner?’

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Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.

Alfred A. Montapert

Indeed! Aurora was accepted by DJ once Goldie died just as Goldie accepted DJ. Our pets great examples of love and tolerance.

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

papa and hole in wall bed

Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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Literary Non-Fiction – Marrying Creative Reminiscing with Factual Events when Writing Memoir

Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…

There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.

Phillip Lopate, 2008

This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of  ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.

We flatted together when I  lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel.  I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.

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Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.

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Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated.  Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.

When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends. 

And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001,  husband John’s death 2002,  Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time,  I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…

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I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.

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The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.

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At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low.  I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums.  Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.

Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of  leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at  a particular time, or about a particular experience.

All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life –  that’s what I tell my students  – and so it is true for me too!

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I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others.  Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

Friday 13th – Lucky For Me that Memories are Made of Love

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Stephen King, Different Seasons

Friday 13th, unlucky for some, but today, March 13, it is my Dad’s birthday. If he’d lived he would be 93 and would be expecting a Tattslotto ticket in at least one of his birthday cards because 13 was his lucky number.

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Dad had 13 letters in his name – George Taylor McInnes. He was born on the 13th March 1922; the thirteenth child in his family. I grew up with those statistics being recited regularly, but knew from my Irish Mother that the rest of us would not be so lucky with the number!

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In fact, one Christmas Day, when Mum realised there would be 13 around the table, we had to telephone friends until eventually my young sister, Rita, found someone able to come at short notice, otherwise Mum would have sat in the kitchen eating her meal alone. Rita’s friend Louise saved the day and enjoyed two Christmas dinners.

Irish Mum had other superstitions to avoid disaster:

  • never put an umbrella up in the house,
  • don’t put new shoes on the table,
  • if you spill salt, throw a pinch over your left shoulder,
  • an itchy palm means you will come into money,
  • an itchy, hot ear means someone is speaking about you and if you think of a number and apply it to the alphabet that’s the initials of the person,
  • if you break a mirror expect seven years bad luck!

Other beliefs were crossing the palm of any baby you meet with silver (Mum had a store of 50 cent pieces for just such an occasion), inserting a coin if you give a purse or handbag as a present, and exchanging a coin if you ever receive a present of a knife or anything else that has a sharp edge – this even applies to brooches. And of course the well-known ‘must haves’ for a bride ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.’

Dad was not superstitious, but indulged Mum, discretion being the better part of valour! He died in 2005 and I think of him every day and know that he loved me and my brothers and sisters unconditionally. He had his flaws, but was a good father and how I wish I could pick up the phone tomorrow and wish him a  happy birthday!

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

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A Pause in Time

A blast of night air penetrates the cocooned warmth of the bed. I shiver and pull at the dishevelled blankets, then roll over to seek comfort from my older sister, Catriona, who sleeps undisturbed in the three-quarter sized bed we share. Long black ringlets cover her face except for a gleaming white pebble chin atop snugly tucked blankets.

I sneak another peek at the window. The yellowy-green chrysanthemums on the curtains still bear a lingering resemblance to the leering gargoyles of the nightmare that woke me up. Shadows cast by the dying moonlight and the glowing street lamp, create menacing monsters of the bedroom furniture.

Fear fuels my urgent whisper, ‘Treena, Treena please wake up,’ but the ramrod figure doesn’t respond. Despite the thudding of my heart, a murmur of familiar voices drifts through the partly open bedroom door and without hesitation, I scramble out of bed, dash for the doorway and slip through the narrow opening.

A short scurry to the staircase and my hand finds the comfort of the polished bannister. A filtered strip of moonlight from the landing window beams torch-like on the carpeted stairway. I descend on tiptoe, avoiding the stairs that creak, until the smell of cooking and promised warmth seeping from the kitchen, spurs a race to the bottom.

The icy coldness of the waxed linoleum of the lobby floor ends my flight and has me gasping in shock. If only slippers could magically appear. Hand-me-down floppiness unsuitable for silent speed, but so necessary as another Scottish winter day begins.

Breathlessly quivering, I gently twist the kitchen doorknob and push, squinting at the harsh incandescence of the naked light bulb, suspended from the whitewashed ceiling. Mum materialises beside the stove, stirring porridge in a large aluminium pot. Dad sits nearby, his folded arms resting on the grey Formica table; his newly scrubbed face ghostlike above soot-stained railway overalls. He senses my presence and stops mid-sentence, turning toward the cold breeze I’ve let in from the hall.

Our eyes meet. Smiles a mirror match. ‘Come into the warmth little…

Interrupting another sentence, I catapult into outstretched arms; burrow deep within his loving hug. Snug, safe, relaxed – not a monster in sight. Coal dust mingled with the distinctive smell of Lifebuoy soap, teases my nostrils. Rough stubble and wiry moustache scratched soft six-year-old skin.

With a knowing smile and without comment, Mum ladles porridge onto another plate. I bask in the joy of this attention; dip my spoon into Dad’s cup of Carnation Milk…

All too soon, the ceiling light vibrates as slamming doors, running feet and the flushing of the toilet, announce my three brothers are awake. Uneven thuds and bumps herald the usual morning competition as the boys race downstairs. A prolonged wail from baby Rita sends Mum hurrying up to collect the toddler.  Catriona still sleeps soundly.

Dad whispers, ‘here come the rest of the clan,’ and reluctantly places me on a nearby chair. Mum returns and so begins the breakfast melee that so enthralled Catriona’s friend when she visited. ‘Breakfast at your house is like a party,’ Wendy declared wide-eyed and envious.

I suppose it seemed like that to outsiders when the eight of us crowded around the table to eat porridge, toast and marmalade, or if it was the weekend, slice (Scottish sausage), egg and tattie (potato) scones. Unlike my parents’ Victorian upbringing when children were to ‘be seen and not heard,’ our mealtimes mostly noisy and cheerful affairs whether breakfast or supper. My parents’ mantra ‘don’t speak with your mouth full’ often ignored.

Although Irish, my mother cooked porridge the traditional Scottish way – soaking the steel-cut oats in water overnight and boiling in the morning, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, and clockwise to prevent bad luck! The only additive, a sprinkling of salt.

I remember the shock of discovering on the migrant ship to Australia in November 1962 that others put sugar on their porridge! On P & O’s SS Orion other choices were tastier, the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of Kellog’s Rice Crispies and the crunch of Cornflakes. Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent! The Portuguese gave English the word

Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent!

The Portuguese gave English the word marmelada and shiploads of the fruit-based jelly. The first imports considered a digestive or dessert and eaten at supper. By the 18th century, tea and toast with marmalade became the standard Scottish breakfast with Scottish manufacturers favouring bitter Seville oranges and creating their own recipes. I can remember Mum searching the supermarket shelves in Australia to buy the imported tangy Scottish marmalade she loved. Some of us, however, acquired a taste for the Aussie staple of yeast laden Vegemite with breakfast toast. Nutritionists insist breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing us not to leave the house ‘on an empty stomach’.

She regaled us with the tale of my Scottish papa who in the ‘Hungry 30s’ had only a spoonful of jam to ‘break his fast’. My parents struggled financially most of their working lives but I never experienced real hunger, a testimony to their hard work, good household management, and Mum’s eye for a bargain ‘eking out’ meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables bought on special. Childhood meals consisted of plain food, with breakfast the plainest meal of all, only varied at weekends or holidays if our much-frazzled mother had the time and energy.

Dad, always diligent, tried to do his best for the family – at one stage as a new migrant, working three jobs to ensure our quality of life. The pressure to always provide for our big family must have been difficult, but he never shirked the responsibility. A shift worker for most of his working life, his body clock had to adjust and adapt to mealtimes and sleep patterns that affected his health – no doubt there were times when he went to work exhausted yet he contributed to church and community life, was active politically and in the trade union movement. When he worked for British Rail in Scotland, he’d walk 5 miles in the snow to get to Ladyburn Depot to drive the first train out, and a similar walk home when he finished on the last shift.

All his life Dad showed a work ethic not many people can rival, but more importantly he was my mentor in so many ways. Full of wisdom, patience and encouragement, he also had a keen sense of humour and sharp wit. Some of the best memories I have are of family mealtime discussions and riotous practical jokes and laughter. I count myself very lucky indeed!

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The personal is political – celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and the right to be me!

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Yesterday, I marched in the city with my daughter, Anne and a few hundred others. We were a small, eclectic and vocal crowd who patiently listened to several speeches while trying to avoid the burning rays of a sunny Melbourne Sunday. I observed and chatted to several fellow marchers and reflected on my early involvement in the women’s movement, the issues that were in the forefront then in the 1970s and those still on the agenda today. It was lovely to share the afternoon with my daughter and know that both my girls are active feminists, not only caring about gender equality, but prepared to act and speak out, loud and proud when the occasion demands.

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The term ‘International Women’s Day’ is important because although many western women in the ‘first’ world appear to be doing very well thank you, there are millions of girls and women in other countries we refer to as ‘third’ world, who are born into slavery, denied education, beaten, raped, and basically controlled, manipulated and abused from the minute they are born till the day they die.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard mentioned the denial of education to 31 million girls as an example. In a previous post I’ve highlighted the epidemic proportions of family violence and its impact on women and children. I’ve also written about another shameful scourge –  the suffering of women and children in detention, their only ‘crime’ seeking asylum in Australia thinking we are a haven from oppression.

There were several signs pointing out that we still have a long way to go even in Australia if we want true gender equality. There are always politicians prepared to deny what was fought for: abortion has been decriminalised in Victoria for several years – let’s hope it remains a woman’s right to control her body. We are still struggling for equal pay for equal work, and for occupations seen as ‘mainly female’ to be as highly regarded and paid as well as those occupations deemed traditionally for males.

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A woman who influenced me greatly in the 70s was Peggy Seeger and her rendition of  Gonna be An Engineer clever poetry (read the transcript), like most memorable songs. I was fortunate to meet Peggy and Ewan MacColl when they were brought out to Australia to tour by the AMWU in 1976, when John Halfpenny was Victorian Secretary and still cherish the double cassette produced on their tour. I remember mercurial Melbourne  played its part that night too with a summer storm. The room at Trades Hall steamed as we dried out, but our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. To the patter of heavy rain,  we stamped our feet, clapped and roared to the folk duo’s amazing repertoire. A wonderful memory of the joyous feeling to be among like-minded thinkers!

When I went to university in Canberra in 1971 I joined Women’s Liberation. We met at Elizabeth Reid‘s house. This amazing woman became Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s advisor when the Labor Government was elected in 1972. A watershed appointment and one many people didn’t like. It was the beginning of women being appointed to positions of power – and so began the culture of vilification of these same women.  Australia’s ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ ensures the media still goes into a frenzy when it denigrates women in power. (eg. the treatment of our first female Prime Minister,  Julia Gillard)

It would take decades before the media could handle issues concerning women with maturity, about the same time it took for Reid’s significance to sink in.

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Liz and my bosom buddy for much of my time at university, author Drusilla Modjeska, were great influences on my philosophical and intellectual development. Thy gave me courage,  helped me find my voice and because of Drusilla, I began to believe I could be a writer – a dream and career still a work in progress!

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The early marches in Melbourne for International Women’s Day focused on equal pay for equal work and health issues such as abortion and contraception. A lot of young women were activists, and the 70s saw the inclusion of the Gay Liberation Movement too – of course Australia is still struggling with the idea of equal marriage rights for all. We were noisy and I can remember lots of chanting and singing. We rewrote the words to many traditional songs with our own flavour and enjoyed the dulcet tones of musicians like Judy Small, another influential woman I admire. Judy’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives, one of the best anti-war songs around, but also an amazing social commentary, as is my favourite one of Judy’s and so relevant now as we suffer the ‘war against terror’ scaremongering and demonisation of refugees – You Don’t Speak for Me. 

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I am still active in the Union of Australian Women and equality before the law, at work and in our education and health system is very much on our agenda. Many people may not know about the Human Rights Law Centre, established in 2006 with half a dozen lawyers who care about humanity. It is an NGO relying on private donations from philanthropic organisations, other law firms and private individuals with a small contribution from government. Their independence from government important because they work on making the government fulfil obligations under the various national and international laws.

There is an education component to their work as well as litigation, and they have publications plus a website with an amazing resources page. The copies of submissions under ‘Women’ include equal opportunity, decriminalization of abortion, family violence, and equal pay.

The Centre does a lot of work on refugee rights responding to government policies. They have also tackled Gay and Lesbian rights from the perspective of equality under the law. They do work for Amnesty International to improve Australia’s foreign policy. They monitor police powers and investigative techniques, keep abreast of the UN and other peak bodies and Australia’s compliance regarding international obligations and women’s rights, especially the right to be free from violence.

In September 2013, at a UAW Southern Branch meeting, Emily Christie, a human rights lawyer gave an eloquent and passionate rundown on her work, in discrimination law – particularly discrimination on the basis of disability, sex identity, and sexuality. Emily works for DLA Piper Australia, a global law firm, and is part of a pro bono team handling cases with a public interest aspect,  on behalf of people who may be too poor to go through normal legal channels. Emily’s work and experience covers a broad scope, she chose two areas to share with us:

  1. The story of Norrie who does not identify as male or female and the fact that under the law ‘she’ can’t be protected because there are no appropriate words to describe or protect someone of non-specific sex in current gender and identity laws.
  2. Changes in the law at national and international level that push boundaries and close gaps in women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion and domestic violence.

Norrie was born male in Scotland with gender dysphoria. Convinced to take ‘the cure’ of sexual reassignment surgery Norrie couldn’t identify as female either. Under Australian law after surgery a birth certificate can be changed, but you couldn’t choose to be intersex – or non- specific gender. Our society has definite gender boundaries. Norrie and others have basic problems like what toilet to use, who to marry and what to put on official forms – especially since so many insist on knowing your gender even if it should be irrelevant.

Norrie applied to have non specific on ‘her’ birth certificate, which the Registrar had no problem with, but that decision made the news and the Attorney General intervened to insist male or female must be stated. Norrie took the decision to VCAT. Sex is not defined in any legislation – it is just taken as read and although losing the first appeal, Norrie won in the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately, this judgement was also appealed. The High Court case 2014 was successful, mainly because there is a groundswell of supporters for sexual diversity.There was also a change to Federal Sex Discrimination Act on August 1, 2013 to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status unlawful.

The law has to define sex by what is happening in the real world, with categories broader than male or female. Norrie’s case records the first time judges recognised that people may not fit into a predetermined understanding of what they should be. The case is important because once people are recognised in law they can be protected and services provided for them. Gay, transgender, and intersex people now have protection at federal level. There are new guidelines created for official forms like Passports, Centrelink, Medicare whereby a person’s sex is only asked if necessary, and there has to be the option of “X” (intersex) as well as male or female. Emily noted that the enrolment to vote forms have already been altered to reflect the updated law.

Australia is one of the first Western governments to take this step in law but cultural awareness will take some time. Interestingly, India and the Philippines have a cultural history of acknowledging an intersex community – with 6 million people in India identifying as intersex. Internationally Australia is ahead in laws pertaining to sex and gender diversity but not in marriage equality. Unfortunately because the section in UN Human Rights Charter still delineates marriage between male and female it is interpreted as being against same sex marriage making it difficult to cite a UN convention in any legal argument. However, the UN Committee on Human Rights regarding sexuality may be conservative, but at least they are doing better on women’s rights.

International law has never been good on women’s rights, especially in the private sphere. The laws written by men focussed on the public sphere with issues such as domestic violence and abortion unaddressed. This is changing with private issues made a public responsibility mirroring changes on the domestic front in Australia.

The UN has legislation about torture and this has been used to change the rhetoric on domestic violence enabling the use of international law to protect women at home. The UN recognises that gender discrimination and violence against women is systemic. Many governments are now forced to address these issues like war crimes. A recent case in South America used international law to procure an abortion for a sick woman citing the denial would be tantamount to torture and cruel and inhumane.

However because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights to protect human rights  (one of the few western countries who don’t), individuals can’t sue the government if they don’t fulfil their obligations.The best tool we have for change is Federal Government intervention when the States do something wrong: e.g. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality. A man took the issue to the UN and because the Federal Government makes laws to deal with external issues and obligations under international treaties they can pull the states into line and make state laws invalid.

However, if the Federal government chooses to ignore international conventions there are no real consequences except loss of reputation and being scolded before a review board as we have seen recently with the  report into children in detention.

I’m glad we celebrate International Women’s Day and I know we have a long way to go, especially changing cultural mindsets and challenging ingrained prejudices. However, tackling the injustices in the world and society is important – and speaking out for those still voiceless an imperative for those of us who live in a free society.

Last night, the ache in my ageing bones after traipsing through the city was definitely worth it! The right to protest and march in the street one I’ve enjoyed for a long time and to some people synonymous with who I am.   I hope I can still march on IWD next year, and the year after, and many years to come!

My desire a bit like the dream to be a writer. Each day I’ll face the blank page and start writing, editing and rewriting and hope people read my words…

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Reality versus Dreams of the Writing Life: Choosing Fulfilment over Finances!

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Kurt Vonnegut

In March 1995, five people sat around a laminated table at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House one Wednesday night at 8pm. We put in a $1.00 each towards the nominal rent, and formed the Mordialloc Writers’ Group. Those first attendees included a singer songwriter, a writer illustrator, a poet, and two short story writers who also presented a community radio writing show. I had arranged the evening and took on the grand title (and job) of coordinator/facilitator, helped tremendously for the first three years by Noelle Franklin who was one of the presenters of the Moorabbin FM writing show Write Now.

The writing show still exists (with a different presenter) as does the writing group, but I’m the only original remaining with the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, although there are several longtime members and others who return for periods to reacquaint with us, like the proverbial boomerang. Such is the writer’s life.

Over the years, the group has remained active because of the commitment and support of people like Glenice Whitting, Maureen Hanna, Barbara Davies, Coral Waight and Steve Davis, not only attending workshop nights, but also hosting Readings by The Bay, our monthly get-togethers to encourage and share writing with the community. I may be the public face and contact person, but Mordialloc Writers is an eclectic, vibrant, active, talented group being renewed all the time by others interested in creative writing!

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The group, like the moon, has waxed and waned – some workshop nights 18-20 people crammed around the table with barely time for discussing any piece of writing in depth. Other nights 3-4 writers talked into the night deconstructing each other’s work, sharing personal joys and woes,  solving the problems of family and the world!

Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down.

Neil Gaiman

Over the years we published eight anthologies with the work of over 66 writers  included  – many for the first time. Some went on to publish poetry books and novels, blogs, win writing competitions and awards, write family history and memoir. Some established other writing and poetry groups in nearby and far away suburbs and countries, and participated in successful events and festivals.

This year, we celebrate our 20th Anniversary and are currently compiling an anthology of personal essays around the theme of – Kingston My City.  Some of us will be moving out of the comfort zone of particular genres we’ve grown to love, there will be first time published writers, regular attendees who consider Mordi Writers and writing as part of their life routine( Ilura prizewinner, Glenice Whitting) , and there will be invited guest writers from the Group’s past: Lisa Hill of AnZ Litlovers blog fame, Sue Parritt, Dorothy PlummerHelen Merrick-Andrews, Dom Heraclides, Mari Iwa and Jillian Rhodes.

The title and focus of the book a small tribute to the community and councils that have supported our growth and development over the years.

We’ll also be travelling into unknown territory –publishing an E-book as well as the traditional printed copy. (As the publisher for the last four books this is another steep learning curve embracing the digital age!) At the moment, the book is shaping up to be a great read as fellow writer Glenice Whitting and I edit the submissions. Variety is definitely the spice of life and we all have different perspectives of living in Kingston or have interacted with the city’s services and people in different stages of our lives.

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Watch this space for updates:)

A Sense of Summer Triggered by Your Nose!

Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

The last few weeks in class we have been discussing summer and writing to prompts. We discussed the sensory detail of smell, one often left out of writing, yet the sense that is usually the best trigger for memory.

We live in a sensory-rich world and our five senses should not be left out of our writing if we want to evoke a reaction and engage readers. In class, we brainstorm and list ideas for stories and then write whatever imagination and memory dictate.

Grilled meat – BBQ stories – bushfire experience
Citronella candles, mosquito coils – camping escapade
Chlorine, salt, mud – water adventures – seaside, river, pool, garden
Car smells – road trip
Flowers, trees, cut grass – garden and park settings
Does dust smell? – drought, hay fever

Stories set in northern or southern hemisphere, or both…

Summer in Scotland – gardens, hedgerows and fields displaying colourful wildflowers in shades of purple, white and yellow: bluebells, thistles, heather, daisies, dandelions and buttercups. A handful picked for Mum, who placed them on the kitchen windowsill in a jam jar vase.

In the 1950s, The Davaar Road gang as we were called, played outside until mums grew hoarse calling us inside for our tea, bath and bed. The long days seemed endless because of Scotland’s close proximity to the North Pole – it could be nearing midnight and yet seem like day, to be followed by a prolonged, breathtaking gloaming (twilight). Something we sorely missed when we migrated to Australia.

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me with the Docherty girls in the background wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

The area where we lived, Braeside in Greenock, aptly named because the housing scheme rose up the side of a hillside sandwiched between hills towards Loch Thom and hills overlooking Gourock. We’d climb the brae opposite our house to hunt for blackberries, ignoring thorns and nettles that tore at tender skin. The purpose of the expeditions – to fill Mum’s biggest saucepan so that she could make her bramble jam and bramble jelly. When we were old enough she let us stir the pot and I’d inhale the wonderful aroma as well as be fascinated as she used a nylon bag to strain the fruit pulp. The whole house smelled sweet and fruity, and the thought of homemade steamed puddings, jam rolls, fairy cakes and lovely jam sandwiches (jeely pieces) made any scratched arms, skint knees or bee stings worthwhile.

Blackberries.Photo

Most bumblebees and wasps were repelled as we clutched buckets, old pots, jam jars – any available receptacle – and filled them with the delicious, juicy bunches gathered from wild bushes. Of course, our purple stained faces and fingers testimony that many of the berries were eaten before we got home. How shocked we were when we arrived in Croydon, Australia to large tracts of land sporting lots of blackberry bushes, but the fruit off limits because the plants were considered toxic weeds and sprayed regularly!

In Scotland, if we weren’t collecting brambles we were playing ball games like rounders or lying on dewy, soft grass, the smell of the River Clyde and distant Irish Sea drifting over the brae as we made daisy chains and tested who liked butter with delicate buttercups held under chins. We giggled and made each other touch dandelions, which supposedly made you pee the bed.

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Sitting on the soft fragrant heather making daisy chains we’d slice each stalk with a fingernail making an opening big enough to poke the next daisy’s head through and continue this until a chain was long enough to be a necklace or bracelet. Glamour plus!

To determine whether a boy loved you or not, we pulled petals from the daisies one at a time, chanting ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ until the poor flower completely mangled fell to the ground. Flora vandalism!

The other pastime of picking buttercups and holding a flower under each other’s chin to witness a yellow glow was supposed to decide whether we liked butter. I don’t think anybody ever failed the test, yet we never tired of doing it.  Just as we never tired of searching for four-leaf clovers to have magical protection and good luck forever.

The dandelion, another flower we rarely picked for posies and guessing games because being seen with them was risky to your reputation! We called dandelions pee-the-beds and to be seen touching them meant you’d be accused of wetting the bed!

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The tiny yellow flower, the scourge of gardeners who regard them as weeds, but golden seas sprout in fields, parks, gardens and road verge across Scotland. Beekeepers, the only people happy about the glorious yellow carpets, because the protein-rich dandelion pollen and nectar a boon for bees. Each dandelion plant can produce 20,000 feather-light seeds, which are blown on the wind to colonise gardens in a short period of time. They thrive in nutrient-rich soil and destroy other flowers by encroaching on their habitats. No wonder gardeners get annoyed.

When in the puffball stage, we used the dandelions to tell the time – blowing the seeds into the air and chanting whatever wish we wanted and it would be granted in how many hours ‘the clock’ said.

Although classified as weeds, dandelions are also edible and can be used for cooking and medicinal purposes.The white sap from its stem said to cure warts and dandelion tea supposedly helps calm stomach aches. The plant, which is rich in potassium, zinc and calcium, also used by some herbalists to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds, hot flushes and has a diuretic effect when eaten. A long way from the stigma of ‘pee-the-beds’!

Only in summer did we taste ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place hosting delicious smells from jars of lollies and other goodies: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice and other pervading sugary and syrupy smells. With money tight buying sweeties was truly a rare treat.

And as if that wasn’t magnet enough, Peter installed a jukebox that ate any spare change we could wangle from mum if we were sent for ‘a message’. I always put on Roses Are Red My Love by Bobby Vinton, a hit in 1962, or Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday. My big sister, Cate chose Adam Faith’s What Do You Want?

Summer holidays, the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night to make a guy and drag him around the neighbourhood on a bogey (homemade go-cart) yelling ‘penny for the guy’ to amass money for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Air Bombs, Sparklers, but mainly penny bungers. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our parents we were exploding fireworks without their permission or supervision. Another custom sensibly abandoned in Australia because of the fire danger, but these pictures typical of my childhood were found in the Geoff Charles Collection.

Playful Seasons
Mairi Neil

In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
Buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
While strolling upon this carpet of gold
A test is remembered from days of old
A yellow flower waved under the chin
Do you like butter, we asked with a grin.

In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
Childhood revisited as we have some fun
Clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
Their perfect white petals fluttering free
A bunch of daisies transformed with love
Necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove

In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
Dandelions transform into puffballs
With gentle breaths, we blow and blow
Discovering Time as spores drift like snow
One o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
Until a naked stem is all we can see.

In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
The puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
Splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
A flashback to childhood appears in the rain
It’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.

What does summer smell like to you? Put the smells in context – what memories do they trigger? Create a poem, a memoir, or story with fictional characters – have some writing fun.