The road twists and turns around gently wooded slopes that rise up to form part of the caldera. We travel through farmland where lumpy cattle graze between old-fashioned fences, and then through bushland with shards of red and a thousand different greens. Tufts of grass draw a seam down the centre of the narrow potholed road whose edges are battered by heat and too many vehicles. An occasional house, a school, a rash of letterboxes: signs of human occupation, but you’d be excused for thinking that you’d travelled to a different time. It’s hard to believe that the shiny brashness of the Gold Coast is less than an hour away.
We turn left at Chillingham towards Tyalgum and I ask if Nan and Pop had ever lived here. No, they lived at Limpinwood, 15 minutes away (although possibly longer then), in a hut on the farm where Pop worked. And Nan worked there too: she cleaned ‘the house’. The hut Nan and Pop lived in had a dirt floor and my Dad, a baby at the time, slept in a box. Or so he tells us. The owner of the farm was ‘mean’ – but my mother isn’t sure what Nan meant by that.
I realise that while I have my own memories of Nan and Pop, I don’t know their stories. I am fascinated by my grandmother’s life because it’s so removed from my own. But I won’t ever know much of that life because the stories of ordinary life and ordinary lives get locked away; they remain untold. Not deliberately untold, but they seem not worth telling, unremarkable, just ‘how life was’. We lived here, we worked there, we drank tea, cooked meals, danced, laughed, cried. Ordinary things done by ordinary people.
And still I’m fascinated. And not just by Nan’s story but of other stories I hadn’t considered before.
I hadn’t ever thought to ask before how my sister came to be born in Murwillumbah when my parents lived in Sydney. It turns out that it was something Dad wanted. My mother, living alone while Dad was at sea in the Navy, lived in Sydney – the same city in which her parents, brother and sister lived. My father’s parents lived in Murwillumbah, with Dad’s two younger sisters and his (much) younger brother.
As Mum answered my questions, I started to think about how each family member’s story was different and unknown – at least to me. How did Nan react when Dad told her that her daughter-in-law would be moving in so that the baby could be born in Murwillumbah?
How did my mother react when she was told that she’d be having her first baby a thousand miles from home?
How did Dad’s teenage sisters and 7-year-old brother Robert react to the reality of a new ‘big sister’ living with them for an indefinite amount of time?
How did Mum’s mother react knowing that her first grandchild was going to be born in a little country town so far away?
How did either Pop react?
I have a thousand other questions. What drove the decision to move from a dirt-floored hut in Limpinwood to a room in a cottage in Byangum Rd Murwillumbah in 1938? Who was the decision-maker? What conversations went on between my grandparents to initiate the move? Who was the decisive one? Was ambition a part of the decision? Did my grandmother insist, or was my grandfather the decision-maker, as my father had been in the decision about where his eldest child would be born?
Dad and I went to the Tweed River Regional Museum in Murwillumbah through the week and read stories of the prominent people of the area: pioneers, entrepreneurs, business leaders. Mostly men, but stories of women too; people who nurtured the town into existence.
I sit at the kitchen table that has been part of my life since I was a teenager and think about all the generations who have come before me, nurturing the families of which I’m a part into existence.
In the centre of the table is a fruit bowl that is part of a set that was given to my great-aunt as a wedding present in 1934.
There are many such things tucked away in this house. Bowls that Dad brought back from an overseas trip in 1959 not long after he joined the Navy, the wooden tongs hanging in the laundry that Mum used when she washed clothes in the copper in the early 60s, the drawers that used to be in the bedroom I shared with my sister in the 70s.
Ordinary things that have stories wrapped around them. Things that have been, and will be again, passed down to those in the next generation – or the one after that.
What stories there are in the midst of the ordinariness of family life.
Which ones will be passed on?
Which ones will stay locked away?