Authors: Jill Ker Conway
The hospital was much needed, its matron and nurses much appreciated, and the opening year a high-spirited and sociable one for the matron and her friend Eva, who had come along on the adventure as head nurse. Near the end of that first year, my father brought an injured station hand to the hospital and was much taken by the beautiful matron, and she by him. For two stiff-necked, cautious individuals they took very little time to decide on life together. They were married within a month of meeting, before my mother’s doubts about men could assert themselves, and before my father’s anxiety about establishing a family without a solid economic base could take hold. One possible bone of contention was quickly brushed aside as of no account. My mother was a modern feminist, a loyal follower of Marie Stopes and Havelock Ellis. Their views on sex and marriage
were her bible, and through them she knew that the Roman Catholic faith was anathema. She had delivered unwanted children of Catholic mothers, watched the mother’s life ebb out after botched abortions, and she would have nothing to do with a faith she equated with the irresponsible male domination of women she resented so bitterly. At that point in his life, my father’s Catholic faith occupied the background, not the forefront, of his mind. He had not lived in a serious Catholic community since his departure for the front in 1914. The experience of modern war had shaken his faith and left him lackadaisical in its observance. They settled for a Protestant marriage service, and there let the matter rest.
Nine months later, their first son, Robert, was born, and in the third year of their married life, their second son, and as they planned it, their last child, Barry, was born. My mother’s nursing training and her natural habits of order allowed her to enjoy raising her own children without the usual worries of young brides. Her infants were toilet trained before they were toddling, clean and radiant with health, dressed in neat starched clothes no matter how hot the weather. Their infant ills were speedily cared for, and they occupied a stable environment which made for regular sleep and predictable behavior. It is hard to speculate about what these two driven achievers might have done if the fates had presented them with a sickly child, or a slow learner. Might they have learned to bend a little before the harshness of fate? In any event, the first scenes in the founding of the family unfolded auspiciously. The boys were strikingly handsome, intelligent, models of good manners, and the envy of all who saw them. It was this young family of four which set out in 1930 to take up a soldier settler’s block on the western plains.
They called the new property Coorain, an aboriginal word which means windy place. The house they built was of weatherboard, with the ubiquitous corrugated iron roof of bush houses. It was a low-spreading bungalow, surrounded by verandas on all sides to
catch the cooling breezes of summer when the thermometer would settle in over 100 degrees for weeks at a time. My father’s bush sense made him site the house out in the open blazing sun, because wherever there were trees for shelter was where the water gathered after heavy rain. Visitors mocked his decision and asked why he had not taken advantage of the shade offered by the low-lying clump of trees just behind the site of the house. He was proved wise when the next wet year came. Other houses were flooded, but Coorain was not.
They were desperately short of water. The only supply came from the rain which was collected on the broad, gently sloping roof of the house. Optimistically, they planted a line of sugar gums along the east, north, and south of the house, and to the west, fast-growing pepper trees which were drought resistant and would soon shade the house from the afternoon heat. Climbing vines were planted to shade the verandas and a few geraniums decorated small beds by the front entrance. It was extremely hard to grow anything when the only water to be had was bailed out of the bathtub after the children were bathed in the evening. There was water deep underground, but it was costly to bore down to it, and the first investment had to be made in good water for sheep and cattle. So there was no garden, no fresh fruit or vegetables, and no way to mitigate the red baked soil, the flatness, and the loneliness.
Seven miles to the north was a tiny post office in the old coaching town of Mossgiel. In coaching days the stages had changed teams there; there was a hotel, a store, and a scattering of houses. After the automobile all that remained was the post office, the remnants of a hotel, and a ramshackle hall. There was a telephone exchange at Mossgiel, but Coorain had no telephone because the cost of seven miles of line to link up to the Mossgiel exchange had to be postponed until the sheep were producing wool and there was income from the property.
When my father left in the morning to work on the fences, or on one of the three bores that watered the sheep and cattle, my
mother heard no human voice save the two children. There was no contact with another human being and the silence was so profound it pressed upon the eardrums. My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.
Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices. As it was, once she traveled any distance from the house she would be swept by fear that she could not find it again. Each morning my father would ask her to drive him to a corner of the property where the sheep were and the horses were running. With the ease of one accustomed, he would catch a horse, saddle it, swing easily into the saddle, wave, and tell her when to expect him home. She would drive home desperately hunched over the wheel of the T-model Ford, peering for the tracks the car had made on the way out. She could tell no one place on the property from the other, and she was afraid to admit it to him.
At home, faced with the drudgery of cooking over a wood stove, laundering clothes in a copper heated by a wood fire, and baking bread after the day’s work was over, her mind turned sadly to her starched white nurse’s uniforms and the pleasures of being off duty. But she was no quitter. Her greatest strengths were an iron will and great powers of endurance. No standard of cleanliness or nicety of domestic arrangements was sacrificed because of the limited supply of water, the outdoor privy, and the never-ending red dust. By six in the evening the children were bathed, the struggling geraniums watered, the dinner table set
with starched linen and well-polished silver, and she was dressed immaculately for dinner. My father, freshly shaven and dressed for leisure, would join her, and they would dine as though there were a cook and a maid in the kitchen.
After dinner the kerosene lamps, shiny crystal with freshly polished glass chimneys, were lit. My father turned to his stock records, his day book and accounts. My mother began to read. She was acutely aware that she had no formal education. Lacking society, she made a virtue of necessity and began a program of self-education. Books traveled to her in parcels of twelve from a lending library in Sydney five hundred miles away. She read systematically: nineteenth- and twentieth-century English fiction, biographies of great men, the best commentaries she could find on current events. One evening a week was surrendered reluctantly to mending and sewing. Otherwise the hours after dinner were sacred to her reading. When the night closed out the wilderness, and her husband and children were beside her in the simple but charming house, she found contentment uniquely suited to her nature. They were hers alone. This was her world, responding to her sense of order. No hint of the complications of other human relationships need be considered except within the pages of a book.
My parents had begun their venture at the least propitious time possible. Sheep grazing is capital-intensive in its start-up and slow to yield returns even under the best climatic conditions. Their venture at Coorain began in a period of intense drought and coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, a time when the return on a pound of wool often did not meet the cost of producing it. They were desperately short of cash and had to live as self-sufficiently as the property would allow. My mother made everyone’s clothes and cut everyone’s hair. They ate the standard bush diet of meat (homegrown) and potatoes and pickles (inexpensive when bought in bulk). Chickens were kept for eggs, butter was homemade, and after a good rain there would be wild
spinach to pick for greens. Everyone was carefully dosed with cod-liver oil and lime juice to make up for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.
After three years of such effort, the annual wool sale produced a surplus. It was possible to make a trip to Sydney for dental and medical care, and for the luxury of buying some stylish and well-cut clothes. My mother discovered to her astonishment that the three years had made her a countrywoman. The hard pavements hurt her feet. The noise seemed unusually bothersome. The crowds were psychologically oppressive. She would actually be pleased to go home.
Her medical checkup produced an unexpected moral dilemma. She had benign uterine growths so large that they could cause a life-threatening hemorrhage. The same week she realized that despite her usual careful precautions, she was pregnant. Her response was characteristic rebellion. In no time, those stylish new clothes would be unwearable. Worse still would be the new economic burden just when the family finances promised relief from grinding parsimony. She tried all the methods to induce abortion she knew without success. Her medical advice swung her rebellion in another direction. She was told she must terminate the pregnancy at once and undergo a hysterectomy. Her usual resentment at male dominance flared up. No doctor was going to railroad her into an abortion. Determined to have her child, she returned to Coorain.
Her decision certainly placed her in some danger. The nearest medical care was seventy-five miles away, and primitive at best. If her gynecologist’s predictions were fulfilled, help would be minimal and very slow in coming. She would be alone for many hours each day, with no one to send for help. I do not know how much of the story she told my father. In later years, it was a tale she was fond of telling me. She did not seem to understand that I was troubled to know that on the one hand I had been unwanted, and on the other brought into the world at considerable hazard to my mother. In any event, she proved her medical advisers wrong, and
I was born without incident, in the small cottage hospital in the town of Hillston, some seventy-five miles away from Coorain.
My parents had wanted a daughter in the vague way people think about the gender of a child. Neither stopped to ponder what possible role a female child could play in the setting in which they lived. The out-of-doors world was exclusively male. The domestic world was exclusively under my mother’s control. She did not like to share it with other women, even domestic servants, or the governesses who now lived with us to teach my brothers elementary school. She preferred the help of immigrant Irish and Scottish youngsters who came to us from Dr. Barnardo’s Homes in England. They could be taught to do things exactly as she wished.
About the time of my arrival, my father could also afford help for the property. Beside the house there now appeared a cluster of outbuildings. Stables and a cow shed, a garage, and a cottage for the station hand. Housing for drays, farm carts, and a lightweight sulky used for fast travel over country roads when rain had made them impassable for cars. My impending birth had also added a telephone line as a necessary precaution against medical emergency. The place now resounded to other human voices and one could pick up the telephone whenever one wanted contact with the outside world.
My first steps were taken in a household in which the hard domestic chores were performed by men under my mother’s eagle-eyed supervision. Because of my mother’s orderliness, the household had an unbreakable routine so that I can tell from this early memory what day of the week it was. On Monday the laundry was done. White things were boiled in the copper and starched. Colored things were scrubbed by hand and rinsed in blue. Care was taken in hanging them out to dry lest the sun bleach the colored fabrics white. On Tuesdays the ironing was done with flatirons heated on the top of the kitchen stove. As the household grew, the whole of Wednesday was needed for sewing and mending. Thursday was for baking. Scones, cupcakes,
sponge and pound cakes for tea, tarts and flans for desserts, meat pies to use up leftovers. All were baked in the oven of the wood stove, with a quick test of the hand to determine whether the oven temperature was “just right” to brown pastry or make a sponge cake rise. Friday was for cleaning house. Every room was swept and dusted thoroughly, every floor was washed, wax polish was applied to the linoleum floors, and then they were shone by hand. On the Friday of my first steps, this task was being done by Jimmie Walker, a cheerful and willing Irish lad in his late teens. Jimmie had been sent out by an emigrants’ welfare organization to find his fortune in Australia. He was desperately homesick when he came to Coorain, and loved to play with us children because we reminded him of his brothers and sisters at home. We were entranced with a new playmate and were always by his side as he worked. His metabolism was attuned to gentler climates and we children were astonished and fascinated by the extent of his perspiration compared with that of the hard-bitten Australians we knew. On this Friday I was assisting the floor polishing by crawling backwards in front of him ever alert to the point when a river of perspiration would drop from his forehead and nose and smear the beauty of the floor he was polishing. While we were thus engaged, he on hands and knees, and I crawling backwards intently observing his forehead, I suddenly stood erect and went to fetch a fresh towel for dealing with the flood. I don’t recall the steps, but I have a clear picture of the excited faces of my mother and brothers summoned by Jimmie’s shout.