Authors: Jill Ker Conway
Another of my earliest memories is of my mother singing me to sleep seated on a cane chair on the front veranda of the house. She and I, and the governess instructing my brothers in a nearby room, were a tiny island of women in a world that revolved around male activities. Her voice was cheerful, positive, and relaxed as she hugged me warmly. I recall the comfort and security of being sung to sleep and also some tentative efforts to struggle out of the warm embrace. I was born with a different type of skin and hair from the rest of the family. Their hair grew
luxuriantly and curled. Mine was fine and limply straight. They tanned in the sun. I freckled and grew scarlet. The tweed coat my mother was wearing as she cradled me scratched and prickled so that mixed in with the security was a sense of being ill at ease. The memory is symbolic of the way our relationship was to unfold.
We did not see my father until he came home from the run in the late afternoon or early evening. As we saw the car on the horizon or his figure on horseback silhouetted on the skyline, we would rush to finish whatever task or game was under way to be ready to greet him by the gate to the stableyard. He would stable the horse, or put the car away, and then make his way to the house carrying me on his shoulders, with the two boys circling around, our questions about his day tumbling out helter-skelter. Had he seen any snakes? Were there any lambs yet? Was there much water in the dam at Brooklins (one of the largest and most distant paddocks), part of the recent addition to the property, a second grant, which brought its acreage to thirty-two thousand acres. Occasionally we would have news of our own to offer. We had found an emu’s egg on a walk. Jimmie had shot a hawk with a wingspan of four feet. Bob had reached the top of one of the climbable trees nearby. Our world revolved around the land and its creatures, the weather, and our parents. After my father had bathed and changed he and my mother would sit in the shade, on the edge of the front veranda, drinking a glass of ice-cold beer before dinner. We were instructed to keep our distance and to remain quiet during their one moment of relaxation in the day. We would watch from a distance as they sat, close together, enjoying a stirring evening breeze. Their feet rested on the large nardoo stone which formed the front step, and as they talked they would gaze out over their land, discussing this project, or that pipedream. My mother’s conversation would be intense and serious, but before long my father’s way with words, puns, and storytelling would have her laughing. They would look out on their world with high good humor. They seemed content.
ECAUSE OF MY
parents’ thrift, hard work, and ingenuity, the sheep station of my early childhood became a more and more delightful place to live. Each year after the wool sales, some new comfort was added. A kerosene refrigerator appeared to replace the old burlap drip safe, bringing ice water into our lives. My mother acquired a 1934 Ford V-8 sedan, with leather upholstery and unbelievably comfortable springs. Our clothes now came from mail-order catalogues, and an occasional case of crisp red apples would arrive from the irrigation area orchards several hundred miles to the east. A small pond was made for the poultry yard, and my mother added ducks to the chickens we had to protect each night from the foxes.
In the year of my fifth birthday, the totally unexpected happened. It rained five inches in one night, and we woke in the morning to see our homestead sitting on a comfortable island. The clump of trees behind the house was half submerged. The chickens were clucking nervously on their perches in the night poultry yard, sitting just above the water, and the ducks were sailing magisterially around a vastly enlarged pond. The sheepdogs sat on top of their kennels gazing at the water swirling by, and an army of ants, beetles, scorpions, and other insects milled about at the water’s edge driven before the slowly advancing flood.
In the next few weeks it continued to rain more, so that an unheard-of eight inches had fallen within less than a month. The transformation of the countryside was magical. As far as the eye could see wild flowers exploded into bloom. Each breeze would waft their pollen round the house, making it seem as though we lived in an enormous garden. Everywhere one looked the sites of old creek beds became clear as the water gathered and drained away. Bullrushes shot up beside the watercourses, and suddenly there were waterfowl round about, erupting into flight as one approached. We saw the sky reflected in water for the first time. Stranger still, the whole countryside was green, a color we scarcely knew. Evidences of the fertility of the soil were all about us. Trees sprang up as the waters receded around our house, and before long a new clump of eucalyptus saplings was well launched in life. On walks we would find enormous mushrooms, as large as a dinner plate, but perfectly formed. These we would gather to take home to grill on top of the wood stove, filling the house with a wonderful aroma. Walks became adventures of a new kind because they were likely to reveal some new plant or flower not seen before, or show us why the aboriginal ovens were located where they were, close to what was once a stream or a water hole. We made a wooden raft and poled it cheerfully around the lake near the house, alighting on islands that were old sandhills, now suddenly sprouting grass.
Everywhere one went on the property was a vision of plenty. Dams brimmed with water. Sheep and cattle bloomed with health and nourishment. It was clear that there would be an abundant crop of wool, whiter and longer than any we had ever grown. On the heavier land, tall strong grasses grew resembling the pampas grass of Argentina. My father looked at it dubiously. When it dried it would be a fire hazard, and so a fresh herd of cattle was bought to eat it down and fatten for the market. Best of all, my father planned a late lambing season that year, and the young lambs, nourished by their mothers’ ample milk, frisked away like creatures in a child’s picture book.
My parents were jubilant. My mother was forty-one, my father in his early fifties. I recall them then, in the prime of life, surrounded by their young family, full of plans for the future. Success did not make them complaisant, for in one very important respect they were not like other people in our part of the world. They did not simply concern themselves with local affairs. Their dwelling might be remote but they were conscious of living in a world touched by important political and economic events. They took the Sydney newspapers, even though they came a week late. My mother read avidly about the rise of fascism in Europe. We heard them discuss when war would break out, and what the conflagration would be like this time. My mother, ever passionate in her opinions, was scathing after listening on the crackling radio to Chamberlain’s speech about “peace in our time.” My father, remembering the Somme and Passchendaele, was less certain. Every evening after we children were sent to bed, they sat, by the fire in winter, or in summers on the veranda, while she told him what she had been reading. My bedroom was close to both, so that I have dim memories of her describing the earliest reports of the persecution of the Jews, of Mussolini’s Blackshirts and their use of castor oil. The most heated discussions concerned the rise of Japan as an industrial power. My mother was an avid reader of Pearl Buck’s novels and had a strong sense from them of international rivalries in our Asian Pacific world. She predicted that after Hitler provoked war in Europe, the Japanese would begin to expand in the Pacific. Such conversations always ended with my father reminding her of the might of the British navy and the impregnability of bases like Singapore. Very shortly we were all gathered around the radio straining to hear Churchill’s great speech after Dunkirk, my mother weeping, my father looking very grave.
I hero-worshiped my older brother Bob, six years older than I, and the leader of our childhood expeditions. He was tall for his age, blond, with vivid blue eyes. From an early age, he impressed
people with his sense of composure and unusual emotional and physical energy. When you were with him you
interesting things would happen. He was just enough older than I and our brother, Barry, to be allowed to ride the biggest horses, shoot the best rifles, carry out commissions to do this or that on the place alone. There were enough years between him and me for him to treat me gently as his baby sister, whereas I scuffled and occasionally quarreled with my brother Barry, four years my senior. Of our family, Barry’s was the sunny disposition, and the gentlest of temperaments. Both boys were generous in playing with me, reading to me, entering into my various forms of make-believe. When we were older, both were ready to take me along on the projects I longed to be part of. We rode fences together, often too deep in conversation to pay more than passing attention to the state of the fences. We explored, stopped to climb trees, investigated eagle’s nests, and out of sight of the house, broke the rules against the galloping of horses. As a trio, we were so close to one another that each knew without speech what the other was thinking and feeling.
Mindful of her own childhood, my mother encouraged a strict equality between us. As I played more with my brothers, I was inclined to run to her when the going got too rough. It was not tolerated. “Don’t come running to me,” she said. “If he hits you, hit him back.” On the next occasion when my brother Barry hit me, I had a cricket bat in my hands. Remembering the injunction, I struck out furiously and broke the two newly grown front teeth, previously part of Barry’s customary sunny smile. My parents were shocked, but my mother kept her part of the bargain. “I told her to do it,” she said. “No one must scold her.” Later, away from the heat of the moment, she explained that she had meant hitting back with one’s fists, not more dangerous weapons.
I learned to read sitting under the table where my brothers were being taught school. Miss Grant, their governess, a short, stocky young woman of limited imagination, was perpetually attempting to establish what she thought the proper schoolroom
discipline. Hers was a taxing job. Her young charges were both of energetic and inquiring minds which quickly moved well beyond the store of knowledge she had acquired in her country high school. English lessons were simple drills in grammar. Arithmetic was also a question of rules, and geography a matter of memorizing maps. My brothers were diligent enough but quickly became bored with their daily drilling in facts and recitation of rules. Sensing the potential for rebellion, I would often choose such a moment to tease them, tie their shoelaces together, tickle their feet, or engage in other provocations to get them in trouble with Miss Grant. To keep me quiet, I was usually given letters and numbers to trace, and then to copy. My mother, on her endless afternoons ironing in the kitchen, found I knew my letters and set me to reading aloud to her. She told me it was to entertain her and relieve the boredom, but she had me reading proudly before I knew I was being taught. Then, as an encouragement, she would discuss with me which children’s book we should order from her lending library. Thereafter, the weekly parcel brought eleven books for her and one for me. Her teaching was always carried out so imaginatively that her pupils simply had fun gratifying their curiosity. Poor Miss Grant, perpetually afraid of being challenged, tried to rule by threats. “Drink your milk, or you’ll never grow big and tall like your mother,” she would say to still my mutiny at being made to drink children’s milk instead of adult tea at mealtimes. My mother quietly filled a teacup with milk, added a faint dash of tea, and the problem was solved. Inexorably, Miss Grant became a figure of fun for us children. When playing, we would imitate her threats to one another. My brothers, perfect mimics, would set about teaching me something in precisely her tone of voice. Hers was a lonely life, devoid of recreation outside school hours. She left after eighteen months. She was, however, the very best type of the country governess, and her limitations made my parents advance their plans for sending the boys away to school.
So our idyllic routine was interrupted in 1940 by my brother
Bob’s departure for boarding school in Sydney. We had never been parted before and the wrench was as though we were being physically severed. My mother, who adored her handsome firstborn son, was particularly stern with Barry and me as we went to leave Bob at his new Sydney boarding school, five hundred miles and a day and a night’s train journey from home. “If either of you cry, or so much as let out a whimper, I’ll never forgive you,” she said. We obeyed and she fought back her tears till we were out of sight of the school.
My parents now paid the price of having taught us all to be self-reliant and to make our own minds up about things. Bob would not stay in school. He left many times, even going so far as to prepare to ride ticketless on the eighteen-hour train ride back home. After trying several alternatives, my parents dispatched Barry with him the next year to a new school and the two kept one another company so that there were no more breaks for home.
The boys were sent to the oldest and most prestigious boys’ boarding school in Sydney—the King’s School, a school where many sons of the old landed families went. It was, like all boys’ boarding schools, modeled on Thomas Arnold’s muscular Christianity. My parents were intent on giving their children the best of the world they knew. They didn’t realize that it was hard for bush children to make the transition to the city, and that the contingent of country boys in the school, many of them sons of landed rich, saw no reason to work hard intellectually. They expected to go back home to a cheerfully horsey life on the land. My mother cherished dreams of her sons becoming lawyers or doctors. My father wanted them to find a secure place in the world, and dreamed that one of them would take over a much enlarged Coorain from him. Intent on establishing their sons securely within Australia’s class-conscious society, they pined at the separation, but knew it was for the best.