Seeking Serenity

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The downside of the digital age is bad news travels more than fast – it’s instantaneous. At the moment in Australia, we have a Federal government performing poorly in so many areas that once again ‘the war on terror’ must take central place to keep us living in fear and to make an out of touch government relevant to ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, throughout the world, there are plenty of images and stories to keep the fires of fear alight. Many stories so horrible that it’s easy to forget the majority of people in Australia live life at peace. Daily life is caring and interacting with friends and family; trying to do their best at work, home, school or play, not coping with bombs like some other countries.

There are bad people in the world, in fact, the epitome of evil judging by the horrific scenes delivered in full cinematic colour and sound to our flat-screen televisions. However, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is not new as this Rabbie Burns poem  often quoted by my father reveals:

‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785

To appreciate life is not always ‘gloom and doom,’  I give my students a writing task to write about a favourite place. In the Life Stories and Legacies classes, they ponder about a place that is or was special and reflect on why. This pleasurable exercise invariably calms and reminds us life can be happy, interesting, even satisfying.

Most of us have an idyllic place we visit in our imagination, or a place precious in our heart, perhaps a childhood home or holiday. It may be a longing to visit a dream place,  the motivating thought of crossing it off our bucket list. Nostalgia or desire powerful draw-cards to provide a feeling of wellbeing, relief, and distraction.  It could be a memorable travel experience – finding your Shangri-La.

One of my favourite places is Stony Point on Western Port Bay. This quiet semi-rural coastal spot has a caravan park with 50 powered sites, but no obvious cluster of permanent houses. Popular in summer, it’s the railway terminus for anyone wanting to take a ferry across to Phillip Island (famous for its fairy penguins) and French Island with the little diesel train an oddity on the electrified Metro network.

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I’m a regular traveller to Stony Point since 2002 because my husband, John’s ashes were scattered off the pier at his request. The tide swept them far out to sea, an ideal final journey for someone ex-Royal Navy with a love of the sea. ‘I’ll be on every tide no matter where you are in the world,’ he said and this has been a great comfort to me and our daughters Anne and Mary Jane. We always head for the sea on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death whether in Australia, USA, Canada or New Zealand… places we’ve been at those times.

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Stony Point’s a popular fishing spot, but in earlier times was the centre of communication by land and sea for the whole of Western Port. All rail and ferry traffic began and ended at Stony Point. The locals were mainly fisherman and farmers and sent their produce to distant markets by train or ferry. A prison farm on French Island and the needs of nearby HMAS Cerberus naval base meant there were government contracts. However, the closure of the prison and subsequent development of French Island and nearby towns have left Stony Point almost in a time warp.

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Tourists who stay in the caravan park can explore the whole of the Mornington Peninsula including the galleries, cycle tracks, wineries and golf courses. The three-lane boat ramp kept in excellent condition and well-used. It attracts flocks of well-fed pelicans. The birds hang around the mud flats and gutting tables until boats return. They are rarely disappointed and fight for the scraps fishermen discard. This misquoted and misattributed poem always comes to mind:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the pelicans, on visits to Stony Point over the years. The girls laugh at my obsession, but I find the pelicans’ behaviour entertaining, and there is something comforting about their dignified presence. I’ve captured the place in all its seasonal glory, always amazed at how little it changes.

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Although there was drama in 2004 when the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard decided we must be “alert not alarmed.” Security around defence establishments was increased and Stony Point changed.

As a writer, carrying my trusty pocket notebook and pen, listening and observing, I share a story from that time – a snapshot of one visit…

Journal Entry January 2004

The kiosk atop the hillock to the left of the railway station has a perfect view of pier and harbour. The dowdy dull building could do with a makeover and I wish again for the capital to give the owners an offer they can’t refuse. It would be an ideal home and income – close to the sea and John. I’m struggling with being on my own with two teenage daughters – a quiet backwater seems attractive.

I buy a cup of coffee and sit down at an outside table to soak up the serenity I crave. A whiff of Peter Jackson brings back memories of John,  a waft of white wine makes me wonder if he floats in on the tide and visits the kiosk to be re-energised.

It’s Saturday. The baby blue water reflects a brilliant cloudless sky as the weekend summer crowd builds. A  light breeze plays with the multicoloured plastic strips hanging from the doorway of the dilapidated kiosk. They’re already pushed and stretched at regular intervals making their purpose of preventing flies entering the shop irrelevant.

It’s not quite noon, but Amy, a local, sits outside on one of the half dozen outdoor table and chair sets. Dressed in summer shorts and skimpy halter-neck top, she could be mistaken for a middle-aged tourist. Crinkled skin on a too-thin neck and slim berry brown arms and legs reveal a life exposed to the sun, salt and sea. Her only encumbrances, a cigarette in one hand, and a half-full wineglass in the other.

The constant chug of boat engines competes with the chattering of noisy miner birds, interrupted at regular intervals by the rhythmic thwack-thwack, as cars trailing boats bump over the speed hump, placed with strategic significance, at the entrance to the ticket box for the carpark.

On the wooden bench beside Amy sit a couple of similar age, plus a young woman bearing such an uncanny resemblance, including her attire, that she has to be Amy’s daughter. They all hold wine glasses recently topped up from a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay now warming in the sun.

Amy sips before speaking, ‘Lil, you should’ve seen the sunrise this morning. It was liquid gold. Just pure gold, before the sky, turned orange and pink.’

‘You must’ve been up early.’

‘Yeah, the navy boat for training cadets closed off half the pier – security they say.’
The occupants of the table follow Amy’s gaze, taking in the hastily erected wire fence.

‘I reckon it was spite meself,’ said Amy, ‘ that’s why they made as much noise as the invasion of Iraq. Honestly, I bet the poor buggers in the cemetery at Crib Point sat bolt upright!’

Lil laughs. ‘What dya mean spite?’

‘Well, there’s always fights at the pub between them and the locals.’ Amy takes another sip, ‘and the muscles you get from hauling nets and sails sure beats the hell out of training that revolves around pushing buttons and tapping keyboards. Navy cadets ain’t what they used to be Lil – not like when we were young.’

Lil blushes, twists her wedding ring, looks at the man sitting beside her. The fifty-something bloke with leathery skin and balding head stares at the pier oblivious to the banter. His deep voice almost a growl. ‘Not many fishing today… the locals are usually spread along both sides of the pier.’

The relaxed group follow his gaze as a ribbon of cars hauling boats, arrive and park. The kiosk a backstop if the anglers have forgotten some item of food or bait, but most are self-sufficient. Liquid to celebrate a good catch or lament a bad one stashed in Eskies amid layers of crushed ice.

Amy sips her wine looking pensive. ‘Word is Ted that they’re gonna erect a permanent wire fence so locals won’t get access to the left side of the pier at all.’

Ted shrugs. ‘Well, it does belong to the Feds. The Port Authority just enforces policy.’

Lil’s slate grey eyes have been following the stream of cars in and out of the carpark by the jetty. Her voice is sharp, ‘Always has done and no-one bothers, Ted. So why make a big deal now? My family’s fished here for years. Everyone knows the best elephant fish and salmon are bagged from that side.’

Amy snorts. ‘It’s all that war on terror stuff,’ she shakes her cloud of red-dyed curls and rolls blue eyes skywards, ‘as if terrorists could be bothered blowing up anything here.’

Lil’s indignation flames her cheeks. ‘HMAS Cerberus is at Crib Point, and the oil refinery, fractional plant, liquid petroleum and ethane gas plant and a crude oil shipping plant – every bloody plant except the kind that will actually keep us breathing!’

She empties her glass with a gulp, ‘the security fences should be a few miles up the road if they’re serious. They only man this depot here during the week.’

The young woman smirks. ‘Maybe we can ask Al Qaida operatives to work to union rules and only attack 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?’

Ted is not amused. ‘They might do it just for the helluvit – we supported the Yanks blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The whole point of terrorism is to be unpredictable and strike fear into ordinary people. To disrupt and cause panic…’

Lil places a placating hand on Ted’s hairy arm; her voice much calmer, ‘Okay Love, we don’t need a lecture. It’s too nice a day to worry about the war on terror.’

The persistent whine of a boat engine draws eyes seaward before Ted notices the source and points over to the far right. ‘Look at the yachts beyond that motorboat, not often you see yachts down here.’

Amy holds her hand above her eyes to deflect the glare of sunlight. ‘It’s sheltered here. I often get phone calls asking what the weather is like from people who are further up the coast. Mainly from Yaringa, that lovely boat harbour to the top of us.’

She lights another cigarette and takes a long drag. ‘Did you see in the paper a guy on a jet ski was fined for harassing dolphins? Another guy comes down with a hovercraft and goes over the mudflats – you should hear the noise that makes.’

Ted’s voice a grumble, ‘ Probably looking for abalone, the illegal trade will wipe out locals. Bet there’s divers on that yacht and they won’t stop at 5 bags.’

‘Mmm, the most delicious shellfish you’ll ever taste,’ said Lil, licking her lips.

Amy sucks at her smoke, ‘Abalone? Shell useful too, you know. They’re pearl shells,’ she stubs out her cigarette, ‘you can use them as an ashtray like this one.’

Lil’s expression suggests she can taste abalone right now. ‘You know if you are cooking Chinese stirfry cut it against the grain like you’d do meat. Don’t beat it, just dip it in breadcrumbs and egg, then drop in hot oil for a few seconds. Oh, it is beautiful!’

Sunlight bounces off the gleaming glasses, dances on the table, Amy’s silver rings and bangles shooting rays like spears. All eyes focus on several groups fishing at the pier. Families, father and son couples, mate duos, primary school children alongside teenagers, lone anglers. Mesmerised they appear to have run out of conversation. The war on terror may be headlines in the newspapers but is remote here.

Meanwhile, residents of the small fishing village use the kiosk as a backstop, a pick-up point for newspapers or the place to keep up with local gossip. Visitors to the adjacent Caravan Park or local fishermen collect the latest government circular, frequent the sandwich bar or perhaps buy the ubiquitous microwavable packaged pie and sausage roll.

Day-trippers, like me, from Melbourne, off-loaded at the terminus by the old-fashioned diesel train, sit at the tables beneath shady orange and red flowering grevilleas, sipping hot drinks from polystyrene cups or cold drinks from glass bottles or tins. We read the complimentary paper and tourist brochures or contemplate the surprising mellowness of this backwater until it is time to either catch the ferry to French or Phillip Islands or return on the train.

 I walk toward the pier. The tide is coming in with speed now and the water gurgles and glubs as it slaps against the pier pylons. I drop a sprig of rosemary and a strand of lavender into the water and whisper, ‘for you my love, memories of home. We’re doing all right.’

the flowers float from the pier

I feast on the glorious vista of the sea and islands beyond. This oasis of calm embedded in my heart. Worries dissipate and I know I’ve told John the truth – despite life’s upheavals, despite all the madness in the world, we are fortunate and doing all right!

I walk back towards the train station snatching a final look at the sea, sand and endless horizon. In a few hours, I’ll be back in the fray trying to make a difference, being bombarded by shocking news and reminding myself there is a place of serenity!

Carol always remembers
For 10 years on the anniversary of John’s death, Carol, who was the local florist and a close friend left 3 roses on our doorstep.

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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Remembering a Wonderful Life, Fleeting but Fulfilling Friendships and the Passing of Time

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.                   Thomas Campbell

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Kahlil Gibran

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven- A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.                          Ecclesiastes 3:2

sun setting Mordi

The second day of the new year, bittersweet for me as I welcomed friends Tanja and Andrea visiting from Europe and farewelled another ‘European’ and former member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group at the celebration of the life of Tonie Corcoran, who died peacefully on December 29th 2014, after a long struggle with vascular dementia, a disease especially cruel to a talented wordsmith and storyteller.

Tonie's Funeral

The quotes above sum up many feelings about Tonie expressed at the celebration of  ‘A Wonderful Life’. I have my own special memories of this engaging lady who attended our writing group for several years (2003-2008) and contributed to two of our anthologies. I also knew Tonie from the Union of Australian Women, and through my friendship with her step-daughter Ann Corcoran, who was a much respected and hard working local member of federal parliament.

The family has given me permission to showcase Tonie’s two delightfully evocative pieces. In our third anthology, Up The Creek, with a pen (2003), Tonie said in her bio:

‘Although at age twelve I self-published The Illustrated Chronicle of a Raindrop’s Amazing Odyssey and sold all nine copies, I never saw myself as a writer. Yet I have left a paper trail of jottings, scribblings, thoughts and sayings, and hundreds of letters, all along the road of my life. Words move me. And save me when the going gets rough. I came to this country from another culture and another language. And also from another time. With my writing I would like to give my Australian children and their children a glimpse into that other world, which is my world and inescapably also theirs.’

Cover of third anthology 2003

Page one of Bootspage two of Boots

One of Tonie’s daughters spoke about her mother’s love of words and stories, expressing gratitude that Tonie had taken the time to join the writer’s group and record some of them. And indeed when I read Tonie’s words again I can hear her voice, picture her sitting around the table in the story circle as we workshop, the memory of a small part of her well-spent life still vivid. The flesh may disappear, but the record of a life in words and pictures remains to be appreciated by current and future generations.

Cover fifth anthologyback cover 5th anthology

page one Gnotuk Avenuepage two and three Gnotuk Avenue

Tonie grew up in Switzerland between the two world wars. She studied and worked in the capital city, Berne, but loved the Alps, where she rock climbed, tramped and skied. In 1950, she came to Australia with her first husband,  and taught languages (German and French) for many years, within the public and private system, at local secondary schools. Her fascination with words went hand-in-hand with a serious interest in Australian culture and an appreciation of the Australian landscape. She believed one could not be understood without the other.

This philosophy contributed to her being an excellent language teacher, exhorting students to immerse themselves in the culture of the language – a method that a granddaughter acknowledged enabled her to be fluent in French and a successful linguist to make her grandmother proud.

As well as leaving behind a large loving blended family and written words, Tonie also leaves an array of looms and craft items from years of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing. Tonie so devoted and expert in these crafts that a son reminisced how as a teenager going on one of the many family skiing holidays, he had to draw the line at knitted underpants, but every other item he wore his mother insisted on making!

Toni’s cooking talents also praised, especially cooking seasonal traditional recipes from Europe. A daughter recalled how financially difficult the early days in Australia would have been for new migrants, but not as tough as the life Tonie had experienced during the war years. ‘We had a ration of a quarter of an ounce of butter to last a month,’ Tonie chastised as her daughter put that and more on her morning toast. Any anger from the observation lost as it triggered a story of Tonie’s war years working on a farm in Switzerland, and later in the Alps with refugee French children saved from the German occupation. Stories of a life her children, born in 1950s Australia, only imagined with the magic of Tonie’s words.

Ann recalled  the happiness Tonie had given her father Bob through their 39 years of marriage and the pleasure of witnessing  Tonie’s gardening knowledge  and recognition of rare flowers and herbs – a knowledge she was modest about possessing, but dated back to years studying homeopathy in Switzerland.

A lover of classical music and the opera, the musical tributes her family chose to welcome and farewell and to accompany a slide montage of Tonie’s full and fruitful life included: Suite popular Brazileira by Villa Lobos, Suite for solo Cello no 1 in G by Johann Sebastian Bach, Piano Concerto no 5 – The Emperor by Beethoven, Handel’s Water Music and the glorious Serenade #13 in G by Mozart.

The life given us by nature is short, but the memory of a life well spent is eternal.                                                                                           Cicero

The ceremony was another reminder for us all to record our stories and leave the legacy of words we want people to remember.