Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cancer is really hard to go through and it’s really hard to watch someone you love go through, and I know because I have been on both sides of the equation.

Cynthia Nixon

This year, as I tiptoe towards 5 years of being clear of breast cancer, the disease seems to haunt me. My dear friend Margaret lost her battle a few weeks ago, another friend is beginning the fight again after being 13 years clear, and I’ve reconnected with a past student because she wanted me to edit what she has written about her battle with depression after her diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard to remain positive and I’m grateful I’ve been able to use my writing as therapy to work through a lot of negativity.

Rainbow in NZ leaving Oamaru

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010 after my 57th birthday mammogram I was stunned into silence – and for anyone who knows me that is a rare state! I’ve been described as chatty, sociable, loquacious and vocal as well as the negative connotations – talkative and verbose!

You can’t plan or know how you will react when you receive a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes silence is the best option until you work out how to knuckle down and get on with the treatment – one day at a time.

Through the several operations, chemo and other treatment my mantra became “This too shall pass.”  I had to survive. My girls had already lost their Dad, it was too soon and they were too young, to grieve over their Mum!

Fortunately, I had friends who had survived. They were only too happy to support me, share their journey, and show me there was a future.

me and Diane

However, chemotherapy takes you to a place you never want to revisit, but you do get through it and recently I found this piece I wrote about my experience.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Mairi Neil

The rows of chairs along the walls face each other like a hairdressing parlour. They are reclining armchairs, not the swivel seats found in salons, but the clientele has a fixation on hair even if fragrant shampoos and conditioners are absent. Everyone aches to be transformed, hopes for some magic from the experts.

Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, wearing trackie pants and t-shirt to be beautified for a glad-rag event later in the evening, I take great care preparing for an all-day stint in the Chemo Room at Cabrini Hospital. Personal grooming necessary to feel good, clothes chosen to lighten spirits. A whiff of antiseptic with metallic and chemical strains assaults the nose and salivary glands, intensified by the pungency of rubber aprons and gloves. Amidst this proliferation of hospital smells, diligent nurses measure each person’s dose of poison for the day.

I’ve massaged copious moisturiser into skin and discharged several sprays of perfume to mask the clinical and industrial odours wafting around the armchairs, where even the white freshness of laundered pillowcases hint at harsh detergents.

Turban or scarf selected with care so I can pretend to be Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain or Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Acetone from the black polish layered on brittle fingernails the night before still teases my nostrils. I hope the effort will save them from disintegration considering the treatment already wreaks destruction on my scalp.

If a real hairdressing salon, I’d sue, but I’m told bald is beautiful and a more common ‘hairstyle’ today than years ago. I’m a reluctant convert.
Nurses squeak a metal trolley over the gleaming waxed floor, a testimony to the courageous cleaners’ care. They too work in this dangerous environment, put themselves at risk of exposure. The waste receptacles of bright purple and yellow, scream danger as I am hooked up to the IV machines beeping loud and insistent as prescribed concoctions are programmed.

I murmur appreciation as the sweetness of mint-scented buttercream drifts from my feet where Marge, a regular volunteer, caresses and smooths. Closed eyes and a huge sigh tunes me out, as valium laced relaxants transport me to a far-off tropical beach. My destination any of the idyllic scenes depicted in the array of paintings decorating walls and softening the harsh reality.

Music flows from my iPod and John Denver reminds me Some Days are Diamonds and Some Days are Stone. Without thinking, I feel where my breast once was and tears well again. Marge senses me tense, encourages me to concentrate on the healing rhythm of her massage – or we could discuss the latest book her bookclub has chosen – have I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel? A joyful book celebrating how reading brings people together, affirming messages about the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In the past, a trip to the local hairdressing salon referred to as a life-saver, but the Cabrini visits have actually saved my life. Each trip I’m challenged by the stories shared by other recipients: tips to adapt to loss, shared fears and tears, deliberate efforts to laugh, and always admiration at the dedication of staff.

Life will never return to what it was before breast cancer and I may never find the person I was, but surgery and chemicals triumphed to keep me alive. Hair regrows and protheses improve – I’ll just dig deeper for the diamond days.

One wonderful diamond day was the night the girls took me to see Neil Diamond. Lost in the music and flanked by Anne and Mary Jane, I swayed to Song Sung Blue and other numbers. The wonderful evening concluded and a complete stranger appeared at our sides. She said, ‘I’ve been watching the love between you three all night,’ she squeezed my shoulder, ‘you’re going to be all right.’

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 There were many random incidents like that – complete strangers coming up to me in the street or in shops and telling me I’d come through the breast cancer and be stronger for it. Supportive friends visited prior to hospital visits to cheer me up, remind me that sisterhood is powerful!

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Courtesy of the ABC, I won a lunch date with NZ cooking guru Annabelle Langbein. I may take her up on an invitation to visit her farm one day!

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I returned to work and coped better after an 8 week stint with Encore, a wonderful program that helped me regain body strength and my equilibrium.

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I walked the Larapinta Trail, camped in the desert, and reflected on my life and future.(The story of this journey still to be published.)  The last day in the desert I texted my daughter: “Yay! I can feel the wind through my hair.”

 My hair almost normal when I farewelled daughter, Anne on her travels to North America in July 2011. Twelve months still to be reached, but the worst was behind me – I hoped. More up-lifting news of  a student achievement award and receiving my master’s degree helped too!

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I ‘m praying nightly that my friend in NZ will come through her cancer’s return and recover quickly to enjoy life again. I pray too this depression and foreboding I feel will pass…

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We will remember them… and celebrate their life and our links to the past!

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning
We will remember them.

Extract from ‘For the Fallen’, The Winnowing Fan: Poems on the Great War, 1914, Laurence Binyon.

Who was Private George Alexander McInnes?

100,000Australians, our war dead, are buried overseas. Most graves have never been visited by their loved ones, including  that of Private George Alexander McInnes, Grave A.64.

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Nineteen years of age, when he died of enteric fever in Alexandria Hospital, Egypt, George is buried in Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War memorial Cemetery, along with 510 Australians from both wars.

Many of the young men, like George,  forever remembered as soldiers, the sum total of their life a caption at the Australian War Memorial, or an inscription on a local cenotaph.

Often family history researchers, relatively new to Australia discover an ‘ANZAC’ and seek no further information if the relative died. However, in recent years there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Anzac legend, and this year with the Centenary of Gallipoli, more people are trying to understand what their relatives must have experienced and the devastating affect the missing lives had on the people left behind.

These young men had a life before the war, and probably a fruitful future if they had lived. When studying for my masters degree I began to explore my connection with the Anzac legend from a family researcher’s point of view, but also from a creative writer’s perspective. If I was going to write about family, I wanted the stories to be readable, believable,  to engage the reader so that the people will be remembered – not as a statistic or an entry in the family tree, but as a person who laughed, cried, loved and hated and contributed to the rich tapestry of the human story.

How do you go about researching a life when all you have are a handful of postcards written from Gallipoli?

How do you recreate a family when you never met, or knew the relatives well?

Can a combination of document research, family oral tradition and personal views recreate a life to write a sufficiently interesting tale that is ‘true’ to their memory?

To reclaim the first nineteen years of the life of George McInnes, it was necessary to begin the search with the fact that he had been killed in the Great War and download his army file from the National Archives of Australia website. They have generously made information on WW1 soldiers available for researchers.

George Alexander McINNES

Regimental number 2657
Place of birth: Williamstown, Victoria
School Number 1499 State School North Williamstown, Victoria
Religion Presbyterian
Occupation Labourer
Address Newport, Victoria
Marital status Single
Age at embarkation 19
Next of kin Father, A McInnes, 67 Oakbank Street, Newport, Victoria
Previous military service Served in the Citizen’s Forces
Enlistment date 31 May 1915
Rank on enlistment Private
Unit name 6th Battalion, 8th Reinforcement
AWM Embarkation Roll number 23/23/2
Embarkation details Unit embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A68 Anchises on 26 August 1915
Fate: Died of disease 15 December 1915
Place of death or wounding Alexandria Hospital, Eygpt (died of Enteric)
Age at death 19
Age at death from cemetery records 19
Place of burial Chatby War Memorial (Row A, Grave No. 64), Egypt
Panel number, Roll of Honour,  Australian War Memorial 47
Miscellaneous information from cemetery records: Parents: Angus and Hannah MCINNES, “Gairloch”, Croydon, Victoria

Family/military connections LCPL, CG Leslie, 1st ANZAC Cycle Bn, CO, DOW 30 October, 1916

Copyright, AIF Database. May not be printed or reproduced without permission.

Armed with information from these files more data could be gleaned from the Public Record Office of Victoria and other sources, including an inherited box of old sepia and black and white photographs, faded and stained – and of course not labelled or dated!

Setting the scene – Highland Laddies The World O’er

The word Anzac was a new word to me in 1962, when I arrived in Australia from Scotland with my family, at nine years of age. We came to stay with an unmarried cousin of my father’s, Catherine McInnes the first person we met from the Australian branch of the clan. Aunt Kitty, as we were encouraged to call her, was 72 years of age and had never married. She lived a reclusive life after the death of her mother, Hannah the previous year and it must have been a shock when our family of eight exploded on the scene.

Aunt Kitty as I remember her   30s

Her old neglected weatherboard house in Croydon sat on the corner of Lincoln Road and a selection of potholes called James Road. Kitty’s outings, apart from shopping, were to the Croydon Presbyterian Church, Country Women’s Association meetings in the church hall and regular visits to donate blood to the Red Cross in the city. When my parents, a determined Scots/Irish couple arrived with six adventurous children, ranging from three to 13 years of age, her ordered solitary lifestyle changed forever.

Local children had declared Kitty’s rambling dilapidated house haunted, but the  unkempt bush block, encompassing a disused sawmill and overgrown orchard an ideal setting for the release of stored energy after our month’s journey on P & O’s Orion. Like Apaches in the popular Hollywood Westerns, we whooped and cavorted free from the confinement of small cabins, narrow corridors and the crowded decks of the migrant passenger ship.

At Croydon, we climbed trees, staged plum and apple fights, searched through remnants of sheds and chicken coops, discovered deserted bird nests and fox dens, blue-tongued lizards and grumpy possums and discarded rubbish from the turn of the century. We built escape tunnels and stockades to resemble those in Combat, a favourite TV show about a platoon of American soldiers winning the Second World War in Europe. When we wanted a change we escaped Colditz after all as 50s children we still lived in the shadow of WW2.

The old house provided a daily escapade outside, and inside it promised a fascinating adventure of the mind and soul. Gloomy timber-walled rooms, a grim contrast to the wide-open spaces and subdued colours of the garden of Australian bush and imported fruit trees, always coated with a layer of dust common in the dry Australian bush. We arrived a week before Christmas into a heatwave, a baptism of fire as we adjusted to our new home.

Dark cedar furniture deprived of the thrill of polish for a long time, crammed into the 12’ x 16’ lounge-room, lined with brown-stained weatherboards. A huge dining table sitting on blocks because of three broken castors, two lumpy shabby sofas huddled in a corner, horsehair interior leaking onto the dull brown linoleum.

An enormous sideboard, overflowing with ornaments, crockery and other paraphernalia of indeterminate origin, took up most of one wall. This room, out of bounds to us, but we often used it as a shortcut to other parts of the house when playing hide and seek, or tiptoed to peek at forbidden treasures when adults were busy. This was Aladdin’s cave in our eyes and like most curious children we found forbidden places the most exciting.

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My favourite objects, a huge emu egg and two large peacock feathers, their multi-coloured hues catching the limited sunlight and trembling in the breeze we made when running past. Rotten stumps meant you could feel the floorboards bounce and squeak beneath your feet. Sometimes it felt as if the room swayed. We were the cliched ‘herd of elephants’, Mum accused us of being whenever we played indoors.

Aunt Kitty retreated to the lounge room each evening, to listen to programs on a valve wireless, which squatted on the mantelpiece, above a fireplace flickering flames, even in summer.

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Placed at the centre of the house, the dark and cold room had one window. This overlooked a tumbledown veranda in a dangerous state of disrepair. The tall and narrow sash window jammed shut, its cracked pane held together with discoloured sticky tape. This reminded my parents of the tape to prevent windows breaking from the German bombers that blitzed Scotland, but never reached Melbourne. The atmosphere of neglect that pervaded the property nowhere more evident than this once splendid room.

The ramshackle veranda on rotting stumps sagged against the side of the house, minuscule natural light valiantly trying to penetrate the lounge room. Wild honeysuckle and out of control jasmine provided a haven for mosquitoes that feasted regularly on our Celtic blood. A thicker blanket of greenery blocked out the sunlight as it trailed along the inside of the verandah roof to curl around the window.

A naked drop-pearl light bulb, hung from the ceiling, its flex covered in disintegrating brown cloth. It provided an inadequate 15-watt glow; the bulb a relic from between-the-war years, the same vintage as the cracked patchwork of dull brown linoleum.

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The world of television didn’t exist for Aunt Kitty and being too expensive for our family budget as Mum and Dad tried to establish themselves in a new country, our favourite programs relived in conversations and games. Therefore, when Aunt Kitty invited us into her sanctuary to listen to the radio, or hear her stories of the McInnes Clan in Australia we hurried through bedtime rituals to sit at her feet, faces scrubbed to shine by the glow of red gum logs. We heard tales amply illustrated by artefacts and pictures adorning the walls, or crowding the sideboard.

There were poison-tipped spears from New Guinea and other islands to the north of Australia; hunting boomerangs from Central Australia and nulla-nullas fashioned to kill. Fodder to excite imaginations.

Two huge blown emu eggs sat in patterned porcelain bowls – to us they were dinosaur eggs. Cassowary and peacock feathers protruded from dull brass vases, mother-of-pearl shells gleamed and a single large conch shell still whispered the sound of the Pacific Ocean when held to your ear.

Aunt Kitty fascinated us to silence with tales of brave Captain John McInnes from the Isle of Skye, travelling many times between Europe, the Americas and Australia until going down with his ship, in faraway Portland, Oregon. His clipper Cadzow Forest often mentioned in newspaper articles because of his seamanship. We absorbed the pride in Aunt Kitty’s voice, and demanded more stories. After spending a month travelling the high seas, but in a larger ship we wondered how the men aboard the Cadzow Forest coped with cyclonic winds, sheets of rain, mountainous waves and burning sun?

Relatives we’d never meet stared from behind ornately carved wooden frames, adventurers who had made Australia home or pioneers born here when the country colonised. However, their attempt to establish a dynasty failed with childless Kitty and her older brother, Jack, who married a woman long past childbearing age. Their younger sister, Jessie produced one son, but he would not be continuing the McInnes name. An older brother George, stood resplendent in his army uniform in a picture frame hung prominently above the sideboard and flagged by two poison-tipped spears. His Aussie slouch hat, set at a rakish angle and adorned with the rising sun Anzac Badge worn by diggers familiar from ‘postcards from the trenches’ Aunt Kitty kept.

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‘That photograph was taken prior to his departure for Gallipoli,’ whispered Kitty. Although ignorant of where that was, we recognised the finality and pain in the sentence. We didn’t ask where George lived now. He smiled from another photograph; this time dressed in full Highland regalia: kilt, sporran, beribboned bonnet, sgian-dubh (the highland dirk) – a picture postcard Scot!

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‘Why is he dressed as a Scottish soldier?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Was he in a Highland Regiment and fighting for Scotland?’ My eyebrows knitted in consternation. ‘Where is Gallipoli, Aunt Kitty?’

She smiled, and with the patience of a teacher said, ‘Gallipoli is a long way away in a country called Turkey,’ and then proceeded to talk about Scotland as ‘home’. She said it was important to keep our culture alive. George had borrowed the outfit from his best friend, another George who was a piper in a local Scottish band. Kitty’s voice softened at the mention of the other George and she twisted the shiny Celtic friendship ring on the third finger of her left hand.

‘George Martin was my fiancé. We got engaged before they set off for their great foreign adventure.’ Her mournful face stared at the photographs imprisoned behind carved frames. ‘Neither of them returned home. ‘

We knew to remain silent as we watched emotions flit across her face, her lips quiver.

‘Your Uncle George took ill in the trenches, along with hundreds of others. He was hospitalised in Constantinople and died from enteric fever. He was only nineteen years old.’

The spluttering and wheezing from the fire ceased. My chest ached from holding my breath. I could feel my brothers and sisters tense. Even the flames appeared to freeze. Aunt Kitty stared into the fireplace and spoke as if alone.

‘My fiancé survived Gallipoli, but fell wounded in a great battle in France beside the River Somme. Taken to England he was recovering … until the flu epidemic.’ Tears glistened at the corners of her pale grey eyes, or it may have been a trick of the light. She straightened her shoulders and sighed, ‘he never returned home.’

The sadness in the room, suspended from the cathedral ceiling like a dark cloak, ready to smother happiness and laughter forever. We had learned enough history at school, albeit about the more recent Second World War, to know that soldiers died far from home and the grieving lasted a lifetime.

As sometimes happens in moments of emotional intensity, a circuit breaker occurs. Six-year old, Alistair often did or said the unexpected like most young children. He’d been staring at the photographs, not really following the conversation and his childish voice began singing the popular Scottish song ‘Donald Where’s Your Troosers.’ Quietly at first…  then raucously.

The poignancy of the story passed him by, but his uninhibited singing drew a twitch of a smile from sombre Kitty. This gave the rest of us permission to laugh, but not forget the story of our ANZAC and Aunt Kitty’s Highland laddie, their absence lacing her life with sorrow and planting a seed in me to find out more about the man who shared two of my Father’s names.

Today it is 100 years since George and others left on what they thought would be a great adventure – that’s what war seems to mean to young men of a certain age when patriotism is whipped up by politicians and those in power with vested interests.

In reality, the war to end all wars a myth, but we must remember those who lost their lives, who suffered injury and the dislocated families on all sides of the conflict that had to live with stories of horror and hardship.

There are no real winners in war and as I find out more about the effects of George’s death on Angus and Hannah and his siblings I hope to do justice to their legacy and ensure George Alexander McInnes is not just a name on a war memorial or gravestone.

A good place to start (and to end this post) is to reveal what I know of the day he was born.

Williamstown, County of Bourke, 24th February 1896

George Alexander McInnes’s, birth on the 16th January 1896 is registered by his father, Angus McInnes and his mother, Hannah. Angus is a thirty-eight-year-old labourer from Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, Scotland and his thirty-two-year-old wife Hannah McDonald formerly Leslie, is from Colac Victoria. They were married on 4th June 1890 at Colac and there are two daughters listed: Catherine Ann (4 years) and Jessie (2 years).

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HR Mclean, and a midwife, Mrs Sanderson are present at the birth, rare assistance in the economically depressed 1890s. McLean listed as an accoucheur was probably a male doctor. More than likely, George was born at home, 67 Oakbank Street Newport, because women avoided the humiliation of existing services of understaffed, over-crowded hospitals, where their modesty was rarely considered. The Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital (initially called Victoria Hospital) did not open for business until much later in the year to be ‘one of three hospitals in the world founded, managed and run by women, for women.’

Victoria was changing rapidly as the new century approached and for George it was a good time to be born. Factory Acts introduced in Victoria in 1896 tightened control over the employment and exploitation of children in the industrial workforce, the emphasis being on children as the economic responsibility of parents not as a contributor to the family income.

There was already a uniquely centralised model of school education in Victoria set up in 1872, based on the principles of free, secular and compulsory education. The expanding industry and commerce changed labour patterns and created a demand for improvements in the literacy and numeracy, of the working population.

George would get educational opportunities only imagined by his parents who still spoke Scottish Gaelic as their preferred language. In 1897, the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established ‘amid great community concern for child abuse and the plight of children growing up in impoverished and socially inadequate conditions… The value of children was seen to extend beyond the family to society as a whole.

The wages board system, began in Victoria in 1896 whereby wages boards
represented different industries or occupations, comprising equal numbers of
employee and employer representatives, presided over by a neutral chairman who, if necessary, exercised a casting vote. This industrial mediation system designed to prevent the growth of ‘sweat shops’ and rampant exploitation.

Fortunate George would later join his father, an employee of the Victorian Railways in June 1883, a time of great expansion. In a list of permanent railway employees, Angus is recorded as a labourer in the Locomotive branch.

The Newport Workshops started in 1884, and later employed George as a ‘lad labourer,’ but either because of his youth, or his lack of permanency, George is only listed in one annual report – and that is the year of his death, 1915 where he is praised for joining the Australian Expeditionary Forces. He then appears in an obituary column with 55 of the 2,073 railway employees enlisted for active service. Fifty-five young men who ‘ gave their lives for the Empire’.

And again we have returned to the end of George’s life and it promised to be a good one if the war hadn’t intervened.

Victoria spearheaded the movement for an eight-hour working day, and in 1896 incoming ships were met and new arrivals told not to accept any other conditions than that provided by the eight-hour system. Although wages fell to 3s. 6d. for a time, the eight-hour day remained the standard working day for most classes of labour. Railway workers like Angus were fortunate to be on 8/- a day and the McInnes household living in a railway cottage were probably better off than many working class people.

For a long time the character of Williamstown’s industrial development was essentially maritime. The early development directly linked to the development of the port. Williamstown handled most of Melbourne’s shipping before the gold rushes, and boat building and repair yards and associated iron foundries developed.

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However, when the massive Newport Railway workshops were established so too were many new industries. ‘The railway employees together with those in other government employment, gave Williamstown the reputation of being a government town…

The McInnes home in Oakbank Street is two streets away from The Strand and within walking distance of the Newport Railway Station, convenient and prime real estate. The detached house single storey weatherboard (now part of a heritage precinct) set back from the street boundary by a small garden and low front fence would have been considered comfortable for a young family. The wide streets with bluestone kerbs a safe play area for children although no doubt George and his sisters had many trips by Cobb and Co Coach to visit Hannah’s family in Colac before that mode of transport  was superseded by the motor car.

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On his enlistment papers when he joined the Australian Imperial Force on 31st May 1915, George states he has been a senior cadet for four years and one year with the 70th Infantry Militia Citizen’s Forces, ‘still serving’. In 1911 when universal military training was introduced, George would have joined Senior Cadets.

The Defence Act at that time prescribed training in the Senior Cadets at ages 14 -18 and in the Citizen Forces from 18 – 26, he was 19 years 5 months when he joined the AIF. During 1914 with World War I in progress he probably carried out guard duties at munitions factories, oil installations and railway bridges.

The enlistment papers also state he attended North Williamstown State School number 1499 but it is actually No. 1409. Errors like this common in many of the army documents where they even have his address wrong.

The most useful information from the enlistment certificate is the physical description. A picture of a fit young man emerges: 5’8 1/2 inches tall, weighing 9st 11lbs with blue eyes and brown hair. He has two moles on his left cheek and a small scar on his centre back. Imagination starts to speculate how he got the scar… and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. All the photographs of soldiers in WW1 play in a loop in my head,  I can picture young George’s journey and tears flow…

WAR AND PEACE
Mairi Neil

We had the war to end all wars
And yet it happens again.
Confrontation and conflagration
Serves power hungry men.
Uncle George
Buried in Egypt
Like many of his generation
Died a 19 year old ANZAC
To earn our veneration.

Those young adventurers
Volunteered for a melee
Naive and ignorant
Of what was to be …

The trenches,
The slaughter,
The mud,
Screams of pain,
Stench of death,
… the blood
They discovered
Brutality’s
Deadly finality.

In war, no winners
Only propaganda spinners.

Humiliation     Retaliation
Radiation         Defoliation
Emaciation      Starvation

Why not mediation and conciliation?

The ghosts of diggers weep
Sacrifice did not keep
Future generations safe from war
Let us demand peace
All military actions cease
Bring all troops home
NOW!

Quintessential Quilters With an Abundance of Talent.

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This could have been my beloved Aunt Chrissie’s motto as well as my older sister’s! Both talented artists displaying brilliance with needle and thread and sewing machine. Aunt Chrissie taught sewing, Cate takes what she absorbed to prize winning levels beyond basic dress-making and design …

I was privileged (and gobsmacked) to attend the Australasian Quilt Convention on Sunday 19, 2015, at the  Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. A memory day with delightful company ( thank you DF and CG) plus unforgettable images. I left with an increased appreciation of the amazing talent of many people – my older sister, Cate included!

In a world where we are bombarded daily with doom and gloom, it’s important to seek joy and immerse yourself in beauty and see the constructive side of humanity, whenever possible.

Motivated to see Cate’s entry in the Lest We Forget Challenge organised by the AQC to commemorate the centenary of the ill-fated WW1 Gallipoli Campaign, D and I caught an early train into the city and walked up from Parliament Station. The free travel for seniors on a Sunday a price hard to beat. There is no excuse for Melburnians not to explore their city by public transport on the weekends because even for others the travel is cheap.

Arts and Crafts really grew as an arts movement in the 19th century, but sewing patchwork and quilting has been around a lot longer. As a skilled activity it is growing in popularity in our society, probably because people have more leisure time and disposable cash, to turn what were items of necessity into beautiful works of art. These slide shows of the other entries in the Lest We Forget Challenge show just how creative and beautiful quilts can be.

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Talent Exhibited 2015
Mairi Neil

A salute to Australasian Quilters
their art worthy of the Tate
Delightful treasures to enjoy
Sighs of envy at  awesome talent…

Sewing a skill forever developing
begin early or late
stitch by hand or machine
tackle projects big or small

Quilts on display perfecting
the importance of the artist’s eye
Colour and perspective creating
visions beyond the mundane

Nuanced narratives revealing
words as stitches
stitches as story
story as history …

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The grand venue perfect for the convention. Magnificent 19th century architecture surrounding and complementing the designs displayed. How wonderful for these high-domed ceilings and ornate walls to echo with the buzz of chattering visitors, exhibitors and enthusiasts explaining and discussing the delightful work on show.

Paintings of cherubs and angels smile benignly at modern art and craft suppliers spruiking their wares.  Experts in their craft conducting seminars and workshops, companies advertising the latest machines, demonstrating kits and finished products.  Rooms off the main area filled with keen learners and experienced quilters glad of the opportunity to indulge their passion.

And it is a passion.

I loved hearing my sister’s expert commentary as she discussed the merits of exhibits, the level of difficulty, the immense skill necessary to achieve the desired result – and of course the difference between hand sewn quilts and machined quilts. I appreciated her enthusiasm because that’s what I feel about words and writing.

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Cate has experienced complicated grief like me and as I turn to pen and paper, she picks up needle and thread. Many of the quilters submitted pieces they had started when diagnosed with breast cancer or were experiencing other trauma. Just as writing can be therapeutic, so can any form of art and craft. To ease pain by focusing on a project or labour of love instead of the grief or challenge is a good start on the journey of healing.

In 2009, when Mum was dying in Maroondah Hospital, a nurse suggested we place the beautiful quilt Cate had made for Mum on the bed, to remind her  of home, and to brighten the harsh whiteness of hospital bed linen.

Memory triggered, I reminded Cate she had started making me a quilt to comfort me through chemotherapy in 2010. However, life can intervene, projects can remain unfinished or lose their focus, other priorities occur. If it arrives, it will be treasured, but as a writer I know all about the dips and curves and changing nature of creativity!

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 sewing defined

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
As she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
As she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
Contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
Many still struggle in shadowed light
Exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

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No sign of sweat shops at this convention and plenty of laughter and intense conversations as people took respite in several cafes sensibly placed in corners. We too succumbed to the enticing aroma of fresh coffee, toasting bread, naughty fried food and sweet scrumptious desserts.

Because of the record crowds we nipped across the way to the Museum thinking their cafe would have smaller queues. However, it was the opening of their WW1 exhibition so it didn’t take us long to rush back, flash our butterfly stamp at the gatekeepers and grab something to eat with other quilters.

Of course, there was another gallery of quilts to show the spirit of the ANZACS and honour those who sacrificed their lives at Gallipoli. Jan Irvine-Nealie, one of the world’s most talented quilters honoured those early soldiers in beautiful quilts presented as a retrospective and Lucy Carroll’s Gallipoli Quilt honoured all soldiers moulded by the ANZAC tradition.

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But the exhibition wasn’t all about the Gallipoli Centenary – thank goodness – because in the last year we’ve been into overload in Australia with every aspect of the campaign and WW1 dissected and projected on our screens, at festivals, museums, on stage, at book launches, photographic exhibitions… You name the media and it’s been done.

There were magnificent examples of work representing various interpretations of “True Blue”. I loved the variety. They reminded me of the astounding varied responses from the same writing prompt! To think these pictures are created by scraps of material and wool, hand stitches and machine – what patience and persistence, what talent!

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There were quilts that made you have a double-take and ones that immediately inspired verse or a story – many of course a complete narrative in themselves:

The Connection
Mairi Neil

The glance
Has lingered
Emotions soar

Caresses and whispered words
Open eyes; feed a receptive heart
Natural laws of attraction at work
Nuances of touch press flesh tenderly
Ephemeral or eternal memories,
Casual coupling or
Ties that bind?
In a moment of passion
Our lives change
No turning back time…

There were plenty of quilts showing a sense of humour as well as social commentary and one that poked fun at the judges:

the judges are so particular

Intricate designs passed down through centuries and reinvented by modern quilters, William Morris influenced panels,  interpretations and  new creations showcasing the boundless expertise of Australasian quilters. A comfort to me who has difficulty threading a needle nowadays never mind planning a masterpiece!

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A truly inspiring day and one last look outside at the wonderful trees in autumn finery and my pocket notebook works overtime.

Autumn Leaves
Mairi Neil

autumn leaves and tree exhibitob bldg grounds

Autumn, a time of contemplation; leaves
Underfoot, scuff and swirl
The wayward wind encouraging dance
Unaccompanied by music…
Maroon, magenta, green, gold, burnished brown
Never dull. Colours raked and piled
Light fades early
Easter celebrations and
Anzac marches ensure
Valour and sacrifice remembered at
End of day fireside reveries
Smoke and thoughts wafting skywards

Some days we are truly blessed to be with people we love and to experience the inspiring and creative qualities within our community. The following witty observations spot on!

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Memories are important, they help me understand who I am!

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

Susan B. Anthony

A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.

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For Mum
Mairi Neil

I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

This poem was first published in February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.

It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.

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In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.

MUM’S HANDS

When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.

However, a bruise can appear with a minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.

Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.

Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.

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Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.

On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.

I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.

I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.

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The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.

Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.

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The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.

‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.

Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!

Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.

There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.

Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.

Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.

I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.

When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’

‘How did you become so good at baking?’

‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’

I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’

‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…

When my Grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.

Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.

Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.

Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.

Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.

Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.

Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’

I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.

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After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.

Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.

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The Writerly Self – A Reflective Essay on a Personal Journey of Professional Development

‘Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold, and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries… the moment of exquisite joy when necessary phrases come together and the work is complete, finished, ready to be read.’

writers by the bay - anthology 1, 1997
writers by the bay – anthology 1, 1997

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged with reading and writing. In school, ‘to be a writer’ the first and latterly the only desire expressed whenever asked ‘what career do you want?’ At high school during the end of the sixties the education system, and indeed society, acknowledged females could dream of a career and not a job, however, the proviso ‘until they married to produce the next generation’ was implied.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch opened up an amazing new world of questions and ideas.

My working class migrant home and public high school considered creative writing something done in your spare time; innate talent may lead to ‘discovery’, but rarely financial success. No courses teaching the craft existed as far as I knew and the feminist rewriting of the male-dominated canon of Australian fiction did not begin until the late 1970s. Parents and teachers assumed ‘journalist’ and ‘writer’ interchangeable.

So, I studied history (another love) at university, travelled, worked at various skilled and semi-skilled jobs, married, had children, started a writing group, became involved in schools and the community, cared for my dying husband, devised courses and began teaching, and always kept writing: academic assignments, articles for magazines, newsletters, stories for family, poetry for myself and others, letters, postcards, haphazard journal entries, lesson plans, even some imaginative creative pieces. Enthralled by the power and beauty of words, I tried to harness the thoughts and stories swirling in my head.

No passion has been as constant, as true as this love‘.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts (Writing) after encouragement from Glenice Whitting, a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group. A trusted ‘critical’ friend, Glenice finished a novel, won a literary prize, and launched her book at the Writers’ Festival after studying a similar course at Melbourne University. This inspiring journey of achievement culminated in a PhD (well done Dr Glenice Whitting) and the completion of another major writing project.

Each fortnight, workshopping at our local neighbourhood house the group gained valuable tips to improve our writing when Glenice  shared philosophical and theoretical ideas from her readings. This generosity, found in the Mordialloc Writers’ Group contributes to the quality of each other’s work. The listening, the absorbing, the constructive feedback, the valuing of learning and always striving to be better writers.

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In 2010, with Glenice’s insistent ‘do it,’ I took the plunge and enrolled at Swinburne University: to focus on my writing dreams, to transform entrenched habits and improve my craft, stretch reading horizons, and move out of my comfort zone by seeking help from more accomplished writers within and without, academia. I hoped the experience would make me a better teacher too!

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The online course suited family, financial, and work commitments. However, returning to tertiary study after almost forty years absence, a challenge with difficulties I didn’t foresee! The volume and academic style of most set readings confronting and at times overwhelming. Academic texts needed examination, deconstruction and clarification. What did they mean, if anything, to my writing life and style? This deep reflection of my work a new concept, as well as being time-consuming and requiring discipline, but two years in a life of over half a century didn’t seem much of a sacrifice – or so I thought.

I embraced new technology with limited expertise, trusted disembodied relationships with tutors and students, many living interstate and in different countries. Despite being ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter, the joy in writing I sought returned, albeit slowly. I began to reflect on the process itself when the initial shock of ‘settling in’ was compounded by a diagnoses of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.

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A new world beckoned. With help and support from family and friends, I adapted my lifestyle, extended boundaries and learnt the true meaning of flexible hours: working into the night, forgetting what television looked like and leaving more of the day-to-day running of the house to my daughters. Although, always open to change, this unplanned border crossing never foreseen for my late 50s. On reflection, the journey not only proved worthwhile, but gave me a fantastic focus and distraction through a health crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! In modern parlance, working towards and achieving my master’s degree a definite ‘game changer’.

The richness of other student contributions gave new perspectives as well as exposure to a variety of genres. Could I write a suspense novel? A gritty screenplay? A monologue? Poetry? Be a short story writer? What about creative non-fiction? Historical romance?

I had been writing everyday, but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self discipline to create time to write every day on a desired project and not because a deadline loomed, seemed elusive. The intensity of study, the volume and regularity of the submissions required, left little time for stream of consciousness writing or spontaneous creativity, but there was excitement and developing friendships amongst all the learning.

The concepts of dramaturgy and frame theory were new to me, although perhaps I’d been applying frame theory and considering dramaturgy for years without knowing the theoretical name. I visualise each scene before I write and edit – almost as if watching it on television, or acting in front of a mirror – the preferred method of Charles Dickens who created characters and acted them out to perfect expressions and voices.

From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in Dickens’ art.”

I work out the order of the detail in my short stories to help with sentence structure and avoid dangling modifiers. I’m an ‘outliner’, not a ‘pantser’. The dictionary defines dramaturgy as ‘a theory, which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self’. I create characters, put them into situations, and imagine how they walk, talk, and act. I draw on my observations, but also personal experience. Some see dramaturgy as ‘a way of understanding and analysing theatrical performances… to help us understand the complexity of human interactions in a given situation’.

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe, if I can write undisturbed. The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

On the city-bound train , two deaf people are having an animated conversation. Six metal bangles on the overweight woman’s right arm so tight they don’t jangle as she waves her hands. The man unkempt, yet an expensive camera hangs across his chest. Are they tourists tired or stressed from travelling? What is it like coping with such a profound disability on public transport where commuters rely on announcements over the tannoy? What if the train breaks down?

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” ‘Playing our parts.’ Yes we all have to do that and from childhood on, I have found that my own character has been much harder to play worthily and far harder at times to comprehend than any of the roles I have portrayed.”

Bette Davis 1908-89

I prefer this quote from Bette Davis to the Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage‘. I’ve struggled over the years being dutiful daughter, loving and supportive wife, responsible, nurturing mother, loyal friend and sister, diligent employee, interested teacher… ‘playing’ roles yet aching to be a writer and wondering how well I ‘perform’ when my heart and brain are focussed elsewhere. Everybody is an actor on a stage Shakespeare called ‘the world,’ however, for most people, the stage is a much smaller ‘my life’.

Shakespeare’s gift of using the stage as a metaphor for living clever  because everyone is born (makes an entrance); dies (exits) and plays different roles from birth. Researching to find the context for the now clichéd quote I’m sidetracked as usual ( a major failing). So many Internet sites and tomes from bookshelves cite, deconstruct, dissect, and revere Shakespeare.

My ego wonders if in the future anyone will read my writing. Can/will I ever write anything as profound or memorable as the speech by the melancholic Jaques in As You Like It? The ‘seven ages’ of man condensed in cynical terms in a limerick by British poet Robert Conquest:

Seven stages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling;
Then fucks and then fights
Then judges chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling!

When I think of writing Dad’s story and his love of pithy poetry and the verses he made up, I wonder if I should frame each chapter around poetry. Introduce the stages of his life using either a poem or song by Robert Burns, his favourite bard. I reject the last line of Conquest’s limerick. Dad’s dementia and the long period of emotional stress the family experienced will not be reduced to such an image. My Father’s life should not be defined by the changes wrought by illness and ageing.

I want my world to end with a ‘bang’ not a ‘whimper’ to borrow from T.S Eliot. A couple of my short stories work as ‘faction’ so I will keep experimenting. Sometimes it’s easier to fictionalise traumatic events or deep feelings, be the cold observer rather than a participator!

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An article on Dramaturgical Analysis gave me a new perspective and some good ideas on a play about the environment I was asked to write for Grades 5 and 6. An idea to teach the children about environmental sustainability and along a similar theme to Sense and Sustainability: A Fable for our Times. If developing the play, I’ll consider the ideological frame as well as the structural frame. I want the children to identify with the issues and realise they can make a difference. I hadn’t considered using a myth or folktale to provide organisation for ideas, but appreciate how reference to well-known stories may add depth to the script and enrich an audience’s understanding. In Australia, because of our multi-cultural population there are myriads of folk tales to draw on.

It’s a steep learning curve to look through a playwright’s eyes and use dramaturgical analysis as a critical tool, but I enjoyed finding out about  the proscenium arch and other terminology associated with theatre; how a play will be presented and the difference images and symbols make. The proscenium arch is the performance area between the background and the orchestra or between the curtain or drop-scene and the auditorium. Many innovative ways to use this space present themselves.

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In a piece of happenstance I won free tickets to the Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Chekhov’s The Bear. There was a split stage, which gave wonderful visual framing ideas. Aleatory, another new word learned: ‘technology is used to suppress aleatory results‘. Aleatory is defined as ‘depending on the throw of a die or on chance, depending on uncertain contingencies or involving random choice by the composer, performer, or artist.’ Learning to use the Internet for research, it seemed the exact opposite sometimes.

I typed ‘workhouse’ into Google for family history information and came up with 3,460,000 links in 21 seconds. No doubt the number and speed increased since 2010. By only using the word, many irrelevant results and often random associations appear. To save time and get the most benefit out of the Internet I learned to be smarter.

The exposure to other writers in the course led to discussions about books by ‘colonial’ writers revealing heritage and raising issues of identity. I determined to reread many loved favourites as a writer as well as a reader, especially after a tutor asked, ‘to what extent do white writers have to consider their colour as writers?

A difficult question to answer as a white woman, who has always lived in a free society. I agree with bell hooks, there is a ‘link between my writing and spiritual belief and practice… how our class background influences both what we write, how we write, and how the work is received.’

Most white writers don’t give their colour a second thought if they live where they are the dominant culture. However, an Australian writer Harry Nicolaides while living in Thailand was incarcerated for insulting the Thai royal family in his novel. I would think many writers living in some Islamic countries need to be careful. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and even Turkey imprisoned journalists and writers make the news. We tend to think of Europeans being the main colonial powers in recent history and the colonised non-white, but in the 1930s and 40s Japan expanded its empire. Even in recent times, the Indian sub-continent and African continent have more than their fair share of colonial trauma.

To write my family history with an Irish mother and a Highland father the experiences of the Irish and Scottish populations must be considered and the effects of England’s colonial behaviour. Dr Johnson’s view in his journal, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,reveals a narrow, disdainful individual, whose sojourns into that which is unknown to him may be compared to the impressions of those first Europeans who penetrated the African interior, socially placing its inhabitants as inferior.’

The Highland Clearances and the aftermath sent many people, including some of my relatives to Australia. They lost their land and came out here to displace the indigenous population. I’d like to explore this sad irony and grave injustice in my writing. You can’t rewrite history, but you can examine the story from different angles and make an effort for a balanced account.

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How does my hybridity affect my writing? I feel like an uprooted tree with memories and attachments to many places. I travelled a lot when younger and hope to do so again. I struggle to keep a journal yet when travelling, writing became second nature, especially letters home. Boxes of paraphernalia sit in the garden shed to be turned into stories ‘one day’.

I found a handful of old postcards after an aunt died and a fascination with a first cousin of my father’s began. He bears Dad’s name and is buried in Egypt – another nineteen year-old casualty of Gallipoli. I empathised with Hélène Cixous when she stood and cried at her grandfather’s grave, a person dead long before she was born – a photograph in an album, a family legend.

All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another story.

I wrote a short piece of prose about discovering our family’s ANZAC, but further research makes the story change. I learnt his parents still spoke Gaelic and try to imagine what he thought in the trenches of Gallipoli fighting beside Scots as well as other nationalities. Did he identify as an Aussie? Did he think himself noticeably different?

One tutor asked, ‘What do you think of the idea that writing itself is a process of self-knowing… we come to know ourselves through the things we write? Post examples of your ‘voice’ to illustrate how you use language.’

Are the paths our writing takes us down, paths to self knowledge? Often I surprise myself when I read a poem or story I’ve written. I ponder: did I write that? Even when I think I’m in control of the pen and words, my writerly self takes its own path!

I’m an ‘inheritor as well as an originator,’and like bell hooks I believe my ability and desire to write are blessings. I am the keeper of the stories of parents’ and family, in particular my mother’s. Mum spoke into a tape recorder for several hours telling ‘herstory’, and I am immensely grateful we spent time together to record the events she thought important. It’s still a painful task to listen and type. Mum’s voice triggers strong emotions; fingers freeze on the keyboard and tears flow. Complicated grief can last a long time, her death still feels raw.

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A sense of ‘voice’ crucial in writing therefore I want to make sure it is Mum’s voice and not mine when I write her story. Yet, as I record extracts for a women’s memoir site in America, and life story classes here, my story is being written too. I know my voice changes depending on what I’m writing, sometimes from a conscious effort because I don’t want fictional characters to sound like me, or all the factual characters either!

Years ago, my brother George rang me after reading a story of mine in Mordialloc Writers’ third anthology, Up the Creek With a Pen. ‘Mairi, I had to read it twice it was so good. It’s very different from your other stories, I didn’t even pick you as the writer.

Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003
Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003

This ‘backhanded compliment’ made me go back and read the story again! What made it so different? The topic? The male protagonist? The language ? The pacing? Another step along the road of maturity in the craft; learning to pay more attention to how the words sit on the page?

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it’s my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for the English language, its nuances, its flexibility, the chance to experiment, and the fire of imagination.

I recall a student comment about family history , ‘It’s funny though, that the stories we tell the most are often the hardest to put to paper. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we are so comfortable with that they live and grow with us and so writing them is counter-productive.

I noticed repetition in the stories with Mum, as I interviewed her over four years, yet the telling was different. Dad, an entertaining raconteur repeated the same tales with or without embellishments. I don’t see writing them down as counter-productive, rather I consider the stories are part of our family lore, they’ve made an impression to be retained over the span of a lifetime (in my parents’ case, 80 plus years). I want to record the memorable ones, work out why they remain important. Retain them for future generations because idiosyncratic tales make each family unique. I regret not recording Dad before Dementia robbed his memory.

Another student, an accomplished writer commented on poems I’d written, ‘I suppose I’m looking for you to take it one step further – is this the only side of Mum? What brings you to remember? and similarly for Journey home – are you there? What’s it feel like? I want some personal insight or big picture analysis.’

For Mum
Mairi Neil
I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

He squeezes past me
on the escalators
at Melbourne Central
overweight and red-faced
wheezing in time
with the clunk
of her strapless high heels
clattering like hooves
on cobblestones of old

He flings a challenge
over his shoulder
‘The train leaves in one minute!’

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

She puffs and pants
heels galloping
breath exploding
the momentary hesitation
as the ticket machine swallows
and reluctantly spits tickets
into waiting fingers
frantic eyes balloon
at more escalators
to be negotiated

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

Mum was not just the cook, nor indeed ‘just a mum’. I’ve spent a long time (perhaps too long!) researching to ensure her time in the army, as a nurse and many other experiences BC (before children), as well as her achievements and contribution to community and church in Scotland and Australia are recorded. The jigsaw of her life complete so people understand the big picture. We are all complicated human beings.

I wrote the poem about the scones as a special memory to read at mum’s funeral and it struck a chord with others to be published elsewhere.

‘Although I have not written in this journal for a month, storytelling has been an active and dominant part of my life during this time.’

Skywalker Payne

My writerly self understands imagination works overtime, characters and plots in abundance go unrecorded or not shared with writing buddies. Family history/tales come alive when we recount parents’ or our own lives to children and there’s an urge to record them for posterity. That’s what writers do.

Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Thoreau achieved much in their journals. The beneficial aspect of keeping a diary well-documented. It can be the start of poems, prose, and novels. One of my students kept a journal for 35 years before substituting it with a ‘blog’.

I often think of ‘the women writers whose work and literary presence influences me, shaping the contours of my imagination, expanding the scope of my vision.This blog could help me too.

Novels may still be unfinished, stories lacklustre, poetry mere doggerel – some days I feel everything, but a writer. The longing to write what I want instead of what seems to be needed (by deadlines, briefs, other people) exists. A deep yearning drives me to counteract the reality of creative writing as something squashed between other life commitments. To feel gladness, not just relief, when the words are on paper, will probably always be a difficult goal to achieve.

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I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.

Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau