Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #4

A helping hand can feel like a bridge from one part of your life to another
A helping hand can feel like a bridge from one part of your life to another

Today’s challenge is to tell us about the most surprising helping hand you’ve ever received.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of helping hands over the years but the most surprising one came at a period in my life when I was very down on my luck. It was 1992, I’d been living in a Salvation Army hostel for women with my two-year-old daughter for a few months when I finally managed to get on my feet enough to find a place to rent.

We moved in with our very meagre possessions – a small suitcase full of clothes each. And a beanbag, which was our bed for the first few weeks.

I was working full-time (in a voluntary capacity) at the local community radio station at the time, and a lovely older lady, Nan Walsh, cared for Emma through the day. Nan Walsh lived in a big house opposite the mouth of the river, and looked after children in the downstairs part of the house and lived upstairs. There was plenty of company for Emma, masses of toys to play with, books to read, good food and loads of warmth from Nan Walsh and her old-lady friends.

I’d finish work, pick Emma up and trudge home to our little unit that had no furniture in it apart from a bean bag that was both a bed and a couch – and a play area, a launching pad, an elephant. We had a bowl, a plate, a knife and fork, and a spoon. I think we also had a cup. I’d cadged those from the radio station.

Things were pretty bleak … but not for too long.

Trixie, who worked at the Salvation Army hostel, gave me an old single bed and a mattress. Emma was excited to sleep in a proper bed again.

Neil, the breakfast presenter at the radio station, was getting his mother’s old lounge suite and so he needed to pass his on. Generously he passed it on to me.

Sheridan, the manager of the radio station, gifted me a cutlery set that she’d been given as a wedding present twenty years before. They’d been given two and she felt that she no longer needed the second one. It had never been used.

Nan Walsh dug through her cupboards and found some towels, tea towels and sheets she could live without.

These people were generous and good and have no idea of the impact they made on my life.

Then one afternoon the doorbell rang. On the doorstep was a boxed crockery set and two shopping bags full of food, including a still hot barbecue chicken, fruit and vegetables, and some new tea towels. I looked out to the street to see an old lady walking briskly to her car. I dumbly waved my thanks.

Aren’t people amazing?

Posted in Learning, Life, Writing

2016 Writing Challenge: Day #2

Looking up

The topic for today is to dig through the couch cushions, your purse, or your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find, then share what you were doing that year.

The first coin I laid my hands on was from 1993. It makes me wonder how many pockets it’s been in in the intervening years, and what it’s been used to buy, but that’s getting off-track, and I need to focus on the task at hand.

In 1993, which was twenty-three years ago (in case you were trying to do the calculation) I was in my first year of university. It was an exhilarating time, scary to be sure, but exhilarating. I turned 31 that year, and had had many years of wanting to use my brain and here I was, finally doing it.

I’d been volunteering (full-time) at a community radio station the year before I started university, doing everything from gathering and reading the news (in the time before the internet), updating the music database, creating music playlists for 16 hours of programs (each day), recording and editing sponsorship announcements, interviewing ‘celebrities’ (some of them were even real celebrities: Jeanne Little springs to mind), producing and presenting a talk show in the after lunch timeslot, organising the Schools Out program, and a host of other duties. I loved every minute of it, except the part where the station manager told me that her prayer group were praying for me because I was living in a ‘sinful relationship’. But everything else was fabulous. It was real work, I was learning heaps, and surprisingly I was good at it all.

I was enjoying this work, even though it didn’t pay the bills, and not thinking of venturing into other things. But then an opportunity came knocking, and a deep-seated desire for learning reared its head, and you can’t ignore deep-seated desires now, can you?

The opportunity was in the form of a brochure which appeared on the front counter at the radio station. It was from the University of Tasmania and was promoting a teaching degree in English, Speech and Drama.

I had no ambition to be a teacher, but the English and Drama bits appealed to me (a lot).

I applied, went through the interview process, and was accepted. I can gloss over those moments now, but at the time each of those steps was fraught with self-doubt, what if …, how do you…, but …; agonising over whether I could/should, considering what the practicalities meant (one practicality was having to move to Launceston. I lived a two-hour drive away and it wasn’t possible to travel every day.) There were other, more important, considerations, but this isn’t the place to air them. Suffice to say that throughout the process I was feeling all sorts of trepidation but when the acceptance letter came through, excitement took over. For a time, and then, when the reality struck, trepidation made a return.

I enrolled, bought a house, moved to Launceston mid-February, found a wonderful woman to look after my three-year old daughter, Emma, and in the final week of February started university.

First day, Monday morning, 9am, Drama in the Auditorium. The class was relatively small, less than 20 students, many of whom knew each other, all of whom had studied Drama in college, all of whom were 17 or 18 years old. I sat on the edge of stage wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into. I was struck by how much I was behind, before we’d even started. I had been in a theatre group in my teens, but that was around the time these young people were born. I’d completed senior secondary education, but that was 10 years before (we don’t have time for that story now) … I felt overwhelmed by my lack of experience, my lack of knowledge, my advanced age, my newness to Launceston, even by my lack of work experience. These young people had had more jobs in their 17 or 18 years than I’d had in my 31.

But they were generous and because we had all of our classes together, we got to know each other quickly. I don’t know if that was helped by having to get up close and personal in many of our classes. In Voice and Speech we spent time in the early weeks massaging each other, in Movement we had to choreograph, rehearse and present dance pieces together which sometimes meant rolling over each other on the floor (or eating cheezels off each other’s fingers), in Theatre we had to pair up to run seminars, which meant hours of working closely together, in Drama we had to devise performances and rehearse which again meant working closely with others. We were at uni a lot! We had 24 contact hours that first year and many (many) more spent in rehearsals of one sort or another.

The age difference wasn’t ever an issue; in fact it was an advantage. The others soon learnt that I knew when assignments were due, that I could bake biscuits, that I was reliable when it came time to rehearse, that I wasn’t scared of the lecturers, that I was prepared to negotiate on their behalf, that I would accompany them to meetings when they were worried about those meetings being at the lecturer’s house after dinner (that’s just creepy, Sharon/no it isn’t Ashley, he won’t hurt you), and that I had done the readings. I was worth getting to know!

That first year I studied Voice and Speech, Movement, Theatre, Drama, Tech Theatre, English Literature, and an Education subject. I spent my time outside of class in rehearsals, preparing for seminars and presentations, being an assistant stage manager for the third years, on a two-week placement learning what it was like to be a teacher, sourcing or making costumes and props, creating lighting plans, learning lines, learning how to use the library and how to write academically, reading, talking about plays and poetry and monologues, rolling my pelvis to release my breath, learning how to use my organs of articulation more effectively … learning, always learning.

It was the start of a learning journey that hasn’t stopped.

Do you have memories of 1993? Was it a big, risky, scary year for you too? Please feel free to share your memories in the comments section below.

Posted in Life

Ordinary stories

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?