Jean & David

Journal: 035

Alla 2003 001

Another couple of weeks in Melbourne putting together a load home, another couple of weekends staying at mum’s. Week days at truckstops – Dandenong, Somerton, Sunshine, outer suburbs respectively south, north and west, reading, writing, talking sometimes, doing a couple of pickups and one day of local work delivering dead forklifts to the recyclers.

Mum has a new hip, was in a rehab hospital when I arrived, spent a few days in a real hospital, a few more days in rehab and then home in time for the weekend. We are both deaf, in a getting old sort of way, so conversation is a trial, especially when there’s background noise. But, surprisingly, I learned stuff I hadn’t heard before and if I don’t write it down what will happen to it, so here’s a story: Jean & David.


At the end of 1948 Jean was an awkward sixteen year old farm girl who wanted to be a teacher. Her father, Fred had left school at 13 to help out his widowed mother and older brother George on the family wheat, sheep farm in Victoria’s Mallee. As they got older and married, the original farm, of 5 one square mile (640 ac.) blocks, was divided up between them and their younger brother Bert.

There were sisters, my great aunts, Annie who told me she remembered the family’s original move from Maldon at the turn of the century, she and George and their parents in a flash sulky; Mavis who married a farmer; Alice, a lifelong teacher; and another boy, Jack, who stayed on at school, became an engineer and died in the War.

Annie married a farmer too but he died and she was back with her daughter Marjorie, living on the home farm, when I wrote ‘Educating Women‘ a few years ago. She moved to Melbourne, remarried late, bought an old farmhouse in (relatively inner) Surrey Hills, hawthorn brick with a slate roof, stables and beehives out the back, providing all us country rellos with a city base. I would lie in bed and listen to the clang, clang of the Wattle Park trams, and the buzz of Box Hill station in the distance.

Fred married (a different) Annie from a nearby farm, and they had daughters Lucy, Jean, Mavis, then, after gaps, boys Allan and Les. Those gaps were stillbirths, mourned by Grandma years later mum says now. I never knew. The girls went to school at their father’s old school, Tungie, a little weatherboard shed, in endless acres of wheat, sand, and mallee-bordered fences. One teacher and ten or twenty kids.

After Tungie, high school at Sea Lake Higher Elementary (K-10), Lucy was soon back on the farm, outside on the tractor mostly, but helping too with baby Les, and with the pigs, cows, chooks – farms were pretty self sufficient back then.

So 1948, 1949. Lumpy – her word, tall, big-boned, she never really made it past plump, and is tiny now in old age, Jean failed Geography in Leaving, had to do it again, and some other subjects. Social Studies where the new teacher, going on 22, tall, dark, handsome, up from Melbourne, helped her out with extra notes, while she was also part-time as a student teacher helping out with the littlies. By the summer break she and the Melbourne guy, David, both socially awkward, were going out.

May the following year, 1950, David and Jean were in Healesville, 250 miles away (400 km) on David’s motorbike – think poor, not cool – waiting for permission to marry. Their parents came, I don’t know how long they took. The impatient couple were married, spent the remainder of the year at a one teacher school at the furthest, opposite end of the state.

Another year, another school, Leonard’s Hill outside Daylesford. I was coming, a farmer drove Jean to hospital, David followed on motorbike. These were the days of wood stoves, cool safes, chip heaters, a little damp weatherboard house in a tiny community in a gloomy forest. The doctor recommended warmer, drier climes. Back to the Mallee.

Underbool. Fifty kids, two rooms, one teacher. The assistant was gone missing. Jean now 19 employed as ‘sewing mistress’, given the littlies again, a few months till the Inspector could produce a replacement, the last time in her life she was paid to work. William turning 1 then 2, left to run free, the school darling. I remember bits of it, crawling up the two or three stairs to Dad’s classroom, Dad facing me down the aisle and all the kids turning to look and laugh. I had always thought it was a memory from the next school, Bonnie Doon when I was 3, but Mum says no, that the kids told their parents nothing about school except ‘what William did’.

Wm, Underbool 1952

That’s it. I didn’t know Dad had (briefly) been Mum’s teacher and I didn’t know Mum had ever been paid to teach, beyond her months as a student teacher. I know bits and pieces about their wedding, Mum always unhappy about the photo of her in a fawn suit that hung in their bedroom. But the more I learn, the happier I am. Why is that, I wonder?

Since writing this, I am back in Melbourne again on another trip (and now back in Perth). I phoned Mum after I finished unloading, her rehab’s going ok. She left hospital early because Gee, my youngest was over for a visit, her kids variously with their other grandparents in north Qld and their aunty in Darwin. Gee’s in her thirties, the baby in the photo above is 68, but the baby in the photo above that is now 15. I’ve always enjoyed calculating Mum’s age as 18 years above mine (it’s 18 years and 50 weeks). She ran round the backyard pushing me and my mates on my new bike when I was six; did the same for my kids; only a few years ago she and Dad were conducting ‘old people’ on national park walks. I can’t imagine having grown up with old parents.

 

Recent audiobooks 

Julian Barnes (M, Eng), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
Alfred Bester (M, USA), The Stars My Destination (1956)
Philip K Dick (M, USA), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)
Elizabeth Berg (F, USA), The Year of Pleasures (2006)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, (M, Rus), The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Sergio Rodrigues, (M, Bra), Elza: The Girl (2008)
Jane Austen, (F, Eng), Northanger Abbey (1817)
Charlaine Harris (F, USA), Shakespeare’s Landlord (1996)

Currently reading

William Dick, A Bunch of Ratbags
Alice Nannup, When the Pelican Laughed
Lily Brett, New York
Jess White, Hearing Maude
David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

26 thoughts on “Jean & David

    • I guess so. They mostly read via the link from facebook. No comments yet. It’s interesting how little children often know about their parents, let alone their grandparents.

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      • Exactly. When we’re younger, we tend to think there’s nothing interesting about them, and time goes by and sometimes a subsequent opportunity doesn’t come along. Next thing you know, you’re just like all the other ancestors in the family tree, just a name on a certificate and no glimpse of the personality that went with it.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Conversations like this are precious but we don’t always appreciate them at the time. Then decades later we berate ourselves for not having listened more… I wish I’d listened more to my grandmothers stories

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    • That’s the thing isn’t it? My maternal grandparents grew up in horse and buggy days – they still used a horse and gig when I was 5 or 6 – so the farm hand didn’t have to use the car probably – and didn’t get electricity until even later, and yet they died 2 decades after the moon landing. They had so much to tell me that I didn’t ask, which is why I pester mum.

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  2. I love these stories Bill.

    I am reminded of the silence that surrounds lost babies. Alas, nothing much has changed – these losses are still borne by the mothers in a way that is difficult to ever really understand, and therefore not shared in the way that other losses are.

    The photo on the stairs? My favourite. I love that for so many kids, their only memory of primary school will be you 😀

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    • Thank you Kate. I don’t think we’ve really (society I mean) worked out how to deal with babies who are not born alive. It’s happened a few times since in my wider family. Interesting that it took Mum so long to bring it up.
      Interesting too in all the stories Dad told about teaching he never mentioned that for a few months he had mum as his assistant. As for me being remembered in Underbool, you’ve got to remember Mum’s a partial witness when it comes to her sons.

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      • I’m not sure that we will ever find a way to deal with lost babies because it represents the worst, most unimaginable pain; and it challenges many Western religious beliefs (i.e. how can God take an innocent baby?). Usually, the comfort comes from others who have had the same experience (and for better or worse, online communities play an important support role). Your Grandma, perhaps isolated and not knowing about other women’s experiences, may have nursed that grief for decades.

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  3. She wasn’t isolated, her sisters were on neighbouring farms, though I can imagine they mostly kept their troubles to themselves. But yes, Mum says exactly that. That Grandma never stopped thinking about the two she lost.

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  4. The Brothers Karamazov has been on my TBR shelf for too many years. I own a copy that I think has some notes, etc. to make the reading less impossible for an American whose knowledge of Russia is slim. Are you going to review it? If not, please let me know your overall impression in a response comment!

    It is weird knowing that some people have “old” parents. My parents were 23 and 25 when I was born, which seems quite young these days.

    I love that you crawled around your dad’s classroom. I’ve written about my great-grandmother, who was a teacher in a one-room school house. She also had a few miscarriages before having a living baby. Those stillborn babies are buried in the cemetery with my great-grandma; she was Catholic, and I know this made a difference in how those infants were treated. When my grandma was born, she was a premie, so they kept her in a shoe box next to/under the kitchen (wood burning) stove.

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    • Brothers Karamazov self-destructed (third of 3 mp3 discs lost part of its surface in my cd player) so I didn’t hear the end and anyway I would like to hear it right through again before I wrote anything. That said, it’s about people rather than about Russia, so you don’t need any local knowledge. It’s very intense in the way that DH Lawrence is, with furious internal dialogues all the time, though from multiple viewpoints. It would be a big effort and time consuming to read – I was listening over the space of about 6,000 kms driving without getting to the end!

      The oldest parent that I knew of was a mate born late in a second marriage and his father was 70 when he was 20. He hated it, felt no connection at all.

      I’ll have to ask Mum where she was born, but I think probably at the local bush nursing hospital nearest the farm (within 10 miles). We were all sturdy 8 pounders and I think she was too.

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    • Thanks Emma. We learn a lot by sharing our parents’ and grandparents’ lives and I guess we often think that we know it all. My kids have been on long trips with me (as teenagers) but they still sometimes comment on these journals – “Gee, we didn’t know that!”

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    • Thanks Liz. You’re right, though we wonder from time to time what permanence our WordPress writings have. I get slack sometimes about archiving my posts on hard disk. But anyway, the kids have read it now, so the story survives another generation. When Dad was a boy he was in a multi-generational house (in Brisbane) and so had lots of stories from the last decades of the C19th, but I think they may have died with him.

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      • I think there’s a way to archive your WordPress blog but I can’t remember how. I think I’ve done it once. All my book reviews are in hard copy in my notebook but not my running bits.

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      • I used to do it by writing in Word then copying across, then I began writing in WordPress and making copies, then I got lazy. But I’ll check out what you say. I have in the past used a forum to discuss WordPress problems (not that I got a solution).

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  5. Enjoyed this story Bill. Lovely that you are learning more about your parents. My Mum was one of the younger ones too among my friends though 22, not still a teen like yours. Very different from Mr Gums whose mum was 36, and he, like me, was the first.

    Anyhow, as Lisa says your kids will like this, if not now, very likely later, so it’s great you’ve written these stories down.

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      • Yes, he was born in 1920, so does tell some stories, and I think his determination even now to not run out of supplies (like his medical supplies) must come, at least partly, from those days. Mum also tells stories of her days as a teenager in Brisbane when most of her school was given over to the US Army from 1942 to 1945. I love reading novels about Brisbane during that time.

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