Sue Chessbrough - End of an era
One of my first memories of my father, when he picked me up, was to rub against his chin, the stubble a few days old and I’d say, “You have splinters in your face.” His wool tweed coat had the pungent aroma of pipe smoke.
We lived on a rice farm in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Areas. At night I snuggled down to sleep in the little unlined cottage miles from the nearest neighbour and listened to music. If I was not listening to music before I fell asleep, I’d hear the gentle patter of winter rain drops on the tin roof, or the occasional deafening thunder followed by a battering downpour.
The music was not from an old wind-up gramophone, but from my parents playing the piano. Sometimes my father played the violin. My mother was a trained pianist who could sight-read anything but barely remembered ‘God Save the King’ without the music in front of her. Or so she said. Before she married, she had accompanied Peter Dawson when he visited her parents’ home in Melbourne, playing “The Floral Dance” and “On the Road to Mandalay”, while he sang. Peter Dawson, the well-known bass-baritone, had asked if she could be trained to be his professional accompanist. Her mother wouldn’t hear of it. No daughter of hers was going on the stage!
On the other hand, Dad had a wonderful ear for music and could pick up a tune, add the bass and away he went. Later he earned extra money during the Depression, playing for the silent films at our nearest village, Yenda, a six mile drive. On an old piano, he pounded away for the sound of galloping horses or tinkled tender love songs for the romantic scenes. In that corrugated iron hall on bitterly cold nights I was wrapped in a kangaroo fur rug in my mother’s lap as we watched the flickering films. In the blistering heat of summer we slapped at mosquitoes and inhaled wafts of citronella.
Out west, where we lived on the 300-acre farm we had named “Kalora”, the land was flat, essential for large irrigation farming. Ours was a mixed farm, and Dad was allowed to grow only eighty acres of rice per year. The rest of the farm was for wheat and pastures. Dad grazed several hundred sheep, and we had one lonely cow called Primrose for milk. Away behind Yenda, I could see the faint blue outline of the Cocoparra Range, or the Binya Hills as we called them. The nearest large town, Griffith, was about ten miles away over rough unsealed roads. Behind Griffith and not visible from our farm, was the Scenic Hill, a mere pimple on the horizon.
The timber cottage looked like a child’s drawing: a narrow front verandah sheltered the front door, which was surrounded on each side by a small casement window. A central hall divided the two bedrooms, before it led to a small living room. My parents’ bedroom was jammed with a huge ornately carved bed and wardrobe, a wedding present from my mother’s mother. The roof was unlined and cobwebs dangled from the rafters.
The kitchen was detached and built of iron to reduce the risk of fire. A tin bath shaped like a coffin stood in one corner and the big pine table was the centre of our family life. A large fuel stove stood against the back wall.
A shovel stood outside the back door, ready to impale a dangerous brown snake. Snakes often lived under the tank stand, attracted by the saucers of milk I placed for our cats. A wood-fuelled copper and a couple of cement tubs were nearby, ready for the washing that was hung out to dry on a line stretched between two posts. The outside pit toilet was a little further away and reached by a tastefully curved chip path. The inside walls were papered with newspaper clippings, mostly photos of the Royal family. The previous owners had ten children and no doubt they gave them something to do on a wet day.
As I was an only child until my brother John arrived four years later, I had the full attention of two doting parents, and two indulgent grandmothers when they came to stay. Nana, as I called Mum’s mother, was fair-skinned with clear blue eyes, tall and slender. Nana always dressed elegantly in what I called ‘city’ clothes. As I was her first grandchild, she made me delicately smocked and embroidered dresses, quite unsuitable for the dusty or muddy farm life. We loved each other dearly and I always tried to please her.
Granny, Dad’s mother, was a handsome woman with an imposing bust. A country woman, she wore stout shoes and sensible clothes. As she was short-sighted, she carried a lorgnette, a pair of eyeglasses held up with a long handle. When she peered down at me, I felt quite intimidated. She knitted frantically left-over balls of wool in ‘old lady’ shades of dusty pinks, grey and magenta. I hated wearing the knitted dresses in horizontal stripes. As I was a chubby child, they were not becoming.
Once when Granny was staying, Mum managed to persuade Dad to let us have Ricketty Kate, our old light weight truck, to drive into Yenda for shopping. That was as far as Mum was allowed to drive. We stopped at the little café. While Mum and Granny talked over morning tea, I drank lemonade. I was told to be a good girl.
“Do sit still on your chair, Sue, and do stop chattering.”
Bored and fidgetty, I was entranced by all the unused cutlery on the table. Granny’s magenta parasol was hooked over the table’s edge so I quietly slid all the knives, forks and spoons into the parasol.
When the waitress came with the bill, she asked, “Where has all the silver gone?”
Granny stood up and fixed the poor girl with a stare through her lorgnette and said, “We wouldn’t dream of taking it,” and stepped outside into the hot sun. Up went the parasol and down showered all the missing cutlery. I remember being shut in our new bathroom for quite a long time.
My mother was always so busy, cooking over a fuel stove in the detached kitchen for Dad and the men who worked for him at rice harvest time. She roasted lots of our own mutton and made delicious wholemeal bread from our ground-up wheat. Sometimes she attempted a cake but the failures usually ended up in the chook bin. Or she boiled up washing in the outside copper, or ironed with heavy flat irons heated on the stove. No such thing as electricity.
As a child, I was quite unaware of my mother’s battle with cooking and cleaning. She and her two sisters had grown up in Mosman in a two-storey Federation home supervised by a housekeeper, assisted by a daily maid. Mum’s father was a gem merchant who travelled the word buying and selling precious stones. He often took Nana or one of his adult daughters with him. My mother had travelled with him to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where she wrote in her diary of luxurious shipboard life, sumptuous hotels teeming with native servants, and playing golf and dancing with tea planters. No wonder, when she married Dad, she couldn’t even boil an egg. Living in the country with house-proud farmers’ wives, who endlessly polished floors and furniture, I heard her say, “I prefer a matt finish.”
I was enveloped in my small childhood world of caring for my pet lambs, feeding the chooks and riding my pony, Jimmy. I loved the lambs with their tight white ringlets of warm wool, but I loathed the fowls – evil smelling things that pecked me as I gathered the eggs. How I hated mixing up the gluggy pollard on cold winter mornings and dolloping it into a tin dish, while those brainless birds fluttered and squawked greedily around my bare legs.
Jimmy was a very quiet and accommodating pony. When I tapped him behind his front leg, he knelt down for me to scramble on his back. My father taught me to ride bareback first, guiding Jimmy with pressure from my knees, then to a flat jockey’s pad before graduating to a regular stock saddle. Having grown up on a farm, my father was an excellent horseman and he later served in the First World War in the Seventh Light Horse in Egypt.
Apart from Ricketty Kate, we had a sulky and a horse called Wander for her wandering habits. My mother, the city girl, was quite unused to horses. With great difficulty she harnessed the horse and sulky and loaded me into it with a billy of boiling hot tea and some home made rock cakes to take down the paddock to my father and a workman. Alighting at our front gate she undid it to let the horse through and it sensed freedom. It bolted down the road sloshing tea and hurling rock cakes overboard while she screamed, “Stop, stop!”
Holding onto the back seat of the sulky, I yelled my head off, calling frantically, “Mum! Mum!”
Dad, hearing the commotion, came running to shout, “Whoa! Whoa!” which the horse understood and it slithered to a standstill. Dad put his foot down firmly. “Forget the horse and sulky, Doris.”
My embarrassed mother tried to redeem herself by releasing Wander from the sulky. She began by undoing every brass buckle until the leather harness fell in ribbons around the horse’s hooves.
The horses, dogs and cats were my closest companions. I wasn’t keen on dolls, protesting , “They are dead.” After throwing a golliwog up on the roof, made by my paternal grandmother, I was banished to my room.
I became my father’s shadow. Happiness was following him about the farm, watching him milk the cow or check on the new lambs. Often, if a ewe died while giving birth, my father would lay the lamb on a wheat bag in front of the fuel stove to warm it back to life on a frosty morning. I had the task of helping to ‘poddy’ the lamb, feeding it warm milk from a bottle. Eventually, I had three or four lambs which all had names and they would answer my call. Peter was my favourite.
When the Stock and Station Agent came to buy my father’s fat lambs, I asked him, “Will you buy mine too?”
“Here you are, girlie. I’ll pay you the same as your father.”
“Thank you very much,” I said as I pocketed the money. “I’ve never had so much. I’ll put it in my Savings Account.”
“Good girl,” he replied.
“Tell me, please, where do the lambs go now?”
“To the abattoirs, of course.”
I turned and ran into the house so he wouldn’t see my tears.
That night, Mum said, “Eat up your dinner, Sue.” I pushed my meat to one side and only ate the vegetables. I could not eat a chop for weeks. The smell of a roast dinner sickened me. Poor Peter.
With the Great Depression upon us all, we were more fortunate living in the country as we had plenty to eat. We had our own orchard with peach, apricot and almond trees and a vegetable garden. Dad often killed a sheep. He sometimes gave half to a neighbour to barter whatever produce we lacked, such as a case of oranges.
Shops gave us groceries ‘on tick’ to repay when money came in from our harvest. It was called ‘after harvest terms’. My brother John had been born on after harvest terms when Dad was able to pay the doctor’s and hospital’s fees.
Bedtime stories were our special treat. Once we were in bed, Dad sometimes read to us in his deep voice but we often nodded off before the story ended. Mum had more dramatic flair. Our first books were by A.A. Milne about Christopher Robin, Pooh Bear, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga.
When Australian stories became popular, I’d ask Mum to read ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ by May Gibbs as I loved the gumnut babies. But when the Banksia Men entered the story, I woke in the night with terrifying nightmares. Hordes of big black Banksia Men, wielding clubs chased me over never ending hills. My screams woke my parents who tried to pacify me without success until they hit on the idea of burning the book. They took me outside, built a fire, tore out pages and fed them into the flames.
John always asked, “Please read the adventures of ‘Blinky Bill and Nutsy’, followed by, “I want to hear more about ‘The Magic Pudding’. Norman Lindsay’s story became his favourite book.
The nearest school was nearly four miles away. There was no such thing as a school bus and Dad had to use our old Ricketty Kate for farm work. From the age of seven I was taught at home with lessons, supervised by my mother, from Blackfriars’ Correspondence School in Sydney. The lessons arrived weekly by mail. My teacher wrote, in red ink, rows and rows of perfect pothooks for me to copy carefully. Neatness was next to godliness; for a smudge made by a small, sweaty finger meant no marks at all. Her first instructions were, “Use a sharp pencil. Keep your book clean.”
She also wrote notes to my mother in my exercise book. In July, 1935 she wrote, “These first leaflets will give Susanne the foundation she needs. They teach the first steps in reading, sounds, spelling, writing and number, and will pave the way for more difficult leaflets later on. I am pleased with her first attempt. Love to Susanne.” By leaflet 9 she wrote to me, “This work shows me you have tried very hard.”
In 1936 I had progressed to 2nd class and I began writing in ink with a fine nib. Later my teacher asked me what my father grew on his farm, or to describe my mother or tell her about my pets. Thus the teacher was able to form an understanding of my life and I learned to love words. My first composition read: “ My mother is nice. Mother cooks me nice hot dinners. She has brown eyes like I have. My mother is five feet four high. She is not very pretty but I love her because she is good to me, and is sweet to Dad.”
Each week my exercise books were returned to me with corrections written in perfect copperplate style in fine red ink by a teacher who addressed me as “Dear”, signed off “with love”, and whom I never met.
As soon as my mother busied herself with cooking or cleaning, I slid out the door and escaped to find my father as I padded around behind him along the irrigation banks. He’d ask, “Finished your lessons, Sue?” And I’d mumble a vague reply. He always carried a shovel over his shoulder to adjust the water flow into the contoured rice bays and he perpetually puffed on his pipe.
I was not allowed this freedom for long, as on our next Christmas holidays in Sydney, my parents engaged a governess to take over from my mother who was hopelessly overworked, cooking for the men at harvest time. She sat in the back of our little car during the two days’ journey back to Griffith. I hated her. ‘Miss Jones’, who would have been considered ‘on the shelf’, spent her spare time cutting out and sewing a dainty, pale green organdie evening dress. She’d hopefully thought she’d snare one of the many eligible bachelors in the area. A year later she returned to Sydney, still a spinster, and with the green organdie dress sadly folded away.
While I was busily employed during lesson hours, my little brother Johnny played alone quite happily. One day he came into lunch flushed with excitement, telling us of the great game he had played with Hibby.
“And who’s Hibby?” my mother asked, mystified.
“Hibby’s my best friend,” was all he would say, proceeding to stuff bread and jam into his mouth.
Dad is his practical way, probed for more details, and it seemed that this Hibby played with him all day. “And he doesn’t make fights either,” with a glare in my direction.
Now we knew that Hibby was his imaginary playmate.
We were disappointed to learn that Hibby was not a sturdy, good-looking boy like Johhny, because he soon went on to say that Hibby had a nose that went like this as he squashed his round little nose flat on his face. “And Hibby has big ears what stick out like this,” as he indicated with his hands, “and teeny, weeny little eyes.” He squinted at each of us in turn. “And only one leg – poor Hibby.”
“Now go and play with Hibby,” Mum said as she shooed him out of the kitchen.
Whenever we were going out in the truck, Dad asked, “Is Hibby coming too?” In our foolishness we completely overdid the whole affair, telling everyone as if it were a joke.
Soon I had a lonely little brother, sick of the teasing, who said, “Hibby’s gone, and he’s not coming back. Never!”
Parents may fret about children having imaginary friends but many years later, psychologists now say that unseen playmates teach infants the art of communicating. When a child has an imaginary playmate, he or she has to invent both sides of the conversation. Princess Margaret had a troublesome make-believe friend called Cousin Halifax. I don’t expect many modern-day families have a Cousin Halifax!
GAMES WE PLAYED
As we rarely saw other children in the early days, John and I learned to play together. We began with tea parties, sitting under a tree on wooden butter boxes drawn up to a large packing case, using cups and saucers from my doll’s house. Mum provided a small teapot of weak tea and some cakes.
Later, we moved on to dressing up, wearing the smart city clothes my mother had in her trousseau, but had no use herself on the farm. We’d put on elaborate silk dresses she had bought on her travels to Ceylon with her father. Or I’d deck John out in a black velvet gown, drape a mauve shawl around his shoulders and pin a silk flower behind his ear. This didn’t have any effect on his later manhood and marriage and, as far as I knew, he never became a cross-dresser! I favoured fancy dress. Dutch starched bonnets, white organdie aprons and Mum’s high heels, or gypsy-style skirts and boleros. We must have looked an odd pair tottering around the garden.
It wasn’t long before John protested, “I don’t want to dress up any more. It’s sissy stuff. It’s your turn to play some boy’s games.”
The small muddy dam, no more than three or four feet deep, beside our house became the centre for our games. I can still see that graceful green willow tree with its strong branches reaching out across the dam. It was our sailing ship when we played at pirates, and our swords were peeled white willow-sticks thrust through belts of string.
A small wooden jetty ran out a few feet into the dam. Sitting on it, we fished for yabbies, using a bent pin baited with a small piece of fresh meat and tied to a length of black string. As soon as either of us felt a nibble, John yelled, “Grab the colander and put it under the yabby when I pull him in.” As we didn’t fancy eating them, we emptied them into a kerosene tin of water, then forgot about them.
We’d hear a roar from Dad, “Those damned kids have let the yabbies die in the heat. The water’s dried up and the smell is woeful. Sue and John, come here. You can both bury them.”
We soon lost our enthusiasm for fishing. As well as the willow tree, sweet-smelling climbing pink roses grew over the fence, adding a splash of colour. But the bamboo growing on the far side was our favourite source of material for our games as we grew older.
We cut it into lengths then split it into fine pieces lashed together to fashion kites. Again, John took charge. “Sue, see if you can raid Mum’s rag bag for old sheets. You can cut them up and sew them to the bamboo.” On windy spring days we’d chase the kites across the paddocks, frightening the sheep.
John found a more adventurous use for the bamboo poles. We bound old sheets to bamboo rigging and attached it to our bikes. We’d sail miles along the flat road in a strong westerly, then pant home pushing our bikes.
Other games emerged over time. Empty jam tins, pierced to take lengths of strong twine, became our stilts as we tramped around the open space beside Dad’s shed. If Dad was away, we’d roll out empty 44 gallon kerosene drums, then like monkeys on a barrel, we’d trundle around, often slipping and landing with a thump on our backs.
The wheat shed was my special space to escape to, as in winter I’d clamber up among the warm bags to curl up with my favourite book. Eventually, John worked out where I was hiding. He’d quietly climb up behind me with a dead tarantula he’d tied to black cotton. When he dangled the spider in front of my face or into my mass of curly hair, I’d scream madly, much to his delight.
We were able to play with neighbouring children after we had acquired the car. At Bilbul School, Nan Chauncy in a class or two lower, was my closest friend, as our parents often visited each other with children in tow. The five Chauncys and the two Cheesbroughs used to spend long hours making rafts from kerosene tins lashed to old timber flooring. We propelled ourselves around the Chauncy’s large dam with the aid of long bamboo poles. We gave names to our special landings such as: ‘Willow Tree’, ‘The Bamboos’ and ‘Chooks’ Water Supply’.
When John turned five and old enough to begin school, my parents also considered him old enough to look after his sister on the long ride to Bilbul Public School. No more governesses. We would be company for one another of the long dusty road. Also, our parents were fearful of the deep irrigation channels running beside the lonely road, as there had been several instances of small children drowning. We were forbidden to swim in the channels.
Founded in 1922, the little buff-coloured weatherboard school had timber steps leading up to a narrow verandah where we hung our hats and leather school bags on wooden pegs. At one end was a washroom with tin basins and rainwater taps. The dirty water flowed out to an open drain. I can recall the mental image of a big, strapping, freckled Australian boy face down, drinking from the drain. His mother always sent him to school with a bottle of boiled water, making him promise never to drink from the school rainwater tanks in case it contained frogs or dead birds! He had dropped and broken the bottle, and the fierce summer heat had driven him into a frenzy of thirst – but he still obeyed his mother.
The school consisted of a double room divided by folding doors where one harassed and overworked teacher, with the aid of a cane, taught about 35 noisy energetic children. Mostly Italian, they ranged from the age of five to fourteen. There were always a couple of older students studying by correspondence until they reached the legal school-leaving age. The girls were not caned but made to stand in the corner of the room if we talked or giggled in class. I still marvel at the patience of that school master. He coped with children from different ethnic backgrounds, their language and learning problems, together with the fact that there were not more than five or six pupils in each class.
With only a handful of students in each class we were all grouped accordingly. In that one room, when I began in 3rd class, I could hear the younger ones’ lessons all over again and revise the work. I also had a taste of things to come in 4th, 5th and 6th classes.
Years later, I met an academic who was writing his thesis on small one-teacher schools. He aimed to prove that we were at an advantage over large single class schools because of the constant repetition. This also reinforced my belief that I was lucky because I always loved learning.
When I was in 4th class, a photograph was taken of me on the sunlit school verandah. I am sitting bolt upright at a school desk in a quite unnatural position, reading at arms’ length. As I was very short-sighted, I used to bend low over my work, nearly cross-eyed, while I read or gripped my pencil with ferocious tenacity. I have no idea why I was chosen. I believe that this photo was taken for the School Magazine, published in Sydney.
Two large playgrounds were on either side of the school building, one for girls the other for boys. The whole area was ringed by lofty sugar gum trees. In spring we all wore protective hats because the magpies dive-bombed us. Some children walked to school, others like my brother and me, rode bikes. Two or three rode horses that were tied to the rails for the day, their tails swishing at the flies.
One afternoon a week, while the boys kicked a football around, we girls sat in the teacher’s cottage with his wife who taught us sewing. On fine white lawn we learned how to make French seams and invisible seams with tiny stitches. In our hot little hands, the material always ended up looking rather grubby.
Bilbul was surrounded by small farms run by Italians. They were splendid horticulturists who grew grapes for their own winemaking, long before marijuana. Vittorio de Bortoli acquired a small farm near Bilbul and began constructing a winery and in 1928 made his first wine. When Flora de Bortoli attended school, I was fascinated to see a small bottle of homemade wine she carried in her cardboard case with her lunch. One day the teacher spotted it and poor little Flora was sent home in disgrace.
After school, most of us raced along to the Bilbul Store, which was also the Post Office, to collect our parents’ mail and to buy sweets or biscuits. No ice-creams or ice-blocks in the early days before refrigeration. Children pressed their noses against the glass show cases to select bulls-eyes or licorice all-sorts but I liked to buy three Adora Cream Wafers with my threepence.
My mother tells the story of how she arrived at the store to pick us up in our newly acquired car. In the dusty road, I was straddling a little Italian boy and banging him with a schoolbook.
“Sue, get up at once. What are you doing?”
I replied with great dignity, “He said the ‘F’ word and I won’t let him get away with it. He would not be able to say it in school, or the teacher would cane him.” I think my mother was quietly proud of me as she said no more about it.
It was hot, thirsty work pedalling along the dusty road in the hot summers. When John complained he wanted a drink, I would hang onto his heels, terrified he would slip in, while he drank from the fast running canal. John’s bike was smaller than mine and his little legs pumped away trying to keep up with me. Often one of us would run over a snake as it slithered across the dusty road, and we would have to back pedal to dislodge it from the wheel. I would grab it behind its head, give it a good whack on a fence post and hang it over the barbed wire.
At the end of sixth class, the usual break-up party was held in an unlined tin hall. My mother thumped away on an old piano while I danced the polka with the ‘big’ girls around a maypole. Each of us held a brightly coloured streamers cut from crepe paper.
Against the walls, seated on long uncomfortable wooden benches the parents mostly Italian, watched proudly. To keep away clouds of mosquitos on a stifling December night, my father, politely murmuring, “Excuse me…excuse me”, gallantly sprayed the women’s bare legs with Mortein. We didn’t have Aerosol cans in those days, but pump-action spray tins, that operated rather like a bicycle pump.
The grand finale was when I was awarded a silver cup for the best drawings in the district. I was so overcome, I hid it behind the piano.
Several years ago, when visiting my old haunts, my friends took me to see this same hall. It seemed so small, I wondered how on earth it had contained the children, parents, maypole and piano. It looked very sad and neglected. The door had fallen off, the windows broken and when I peered inside a cloud of birds flew over my head and out into the sunshine. I have since heard that it blew over in a storm.
In September 1939 all our lives dramatically changed. It was springtime, the beginning of World War II in Europe. Hitler had marched into Poland, then Belgium surrendered, followed by France. Then Italy came into the war against the Allies. The Italian settlers around Griffith were as sad as we were. These Italians, who had come out here in the early days, had later brought out their families and their friends and relations. They had played no small part in the irrigation area’s development. We had lived side-by-side most amicably and now, to our distress, we were enemy aliens. The Italian children had been my fellow students and playmates.
Young Australian men rushed to enlist. Their fathers, many of whom had been soldiers themselves in World War I, had let their sons go, if sadly, but quite willingly and proudly. The whole district was fired with an intense patriotic spirit. But nobody stopped to wonder how any of them could carry on their farms.
The Italian men were rounded up and taken to an internment camp further out west near Hay. I remember only too clearly when a police car pulled into our driveway. Our trusted Italian workman who had been with us for years, was digging holes for our newly planned tennis court. When I saw him bundled into the car and driven away, I cried. I had loved to hear him sing Neopolitan love songs while he worked.
In recent years the farms had prospered and rice had brought high prices. Our little unlined cottage was now fully lined and painted throughout a pale cream, giving it an air of space. Dad, with the aid of workmen in the off-season on the farm, had added a splendid little glassed-in dining room shaded by the willow tree. Bliss of bliss, Mum had a new modern kitchen, all electric, as we were now connected to the town supply. We wallowed in the comfort of a cooler kitchen with an electric stove, a hot water service and refrigeration. No longer did we rely on kerosene lamps, candles and a Coolgardie safe. We had a proper bathroom, too. The old chip heater, that went choof-choof at an alarming rate, the more chips John and I fed into it, was gone. Also, Dad had added a wide gauzed-in verandah running the whole length of the house. And we had a half-finished tennis court.
To celebrate our new kitchen and dining room, Mum cooked like mad for a special dinner, using her latest ‘nally-ware’ dishes to keep the food hot before we sat down to eat. Dad, of course, was served first, then we kids and Mum last of all as she scraped the end of the casserole onto her plate.
Suddenly, she gave a sharp cry and rushed outside, retching onto the lawn. We all followed her. I began to feel ill and John complained, “I have a sore tummy. I’m going to be sick.” Dad was the only one feeling well, having been served first. It transpired that the new type of plastic dishes, patterned in green, contained Paris Green, a poison, which slowly seeped into the hot food. Dad in his methodical way, lined us all up with cups of warm salty water. The end of a delicious dinner.
As well as the labour shortages, we now had the memory of the previous summer’s heatwaves when the temperatures broke all known records. Babies died until they thought of keeping them alive by placing them in the huge cooling chamber at the Producers’ Fruit Packing House. Tap water was so hot it burned us; the refrigerator couldn’t cope; meat went bad; and the butter was an oily mess, just like the old days.
The only way to keep food cool now was in the old Coolgardie safe, or drip safe as we called it. It was my job to make the butter. The cows were behaving well and we had masses of rich, creamy, yellow butter. As I removed a large plate of freshly made butter from the drip safe for lunch, it had melted around the edges and sat in a golden, oily pool.
I slipped and sent it all over the verandah floor where it spread, soaked up by the tinder-dry boards. My mother gave a shriek as we tried to mop it up.
When she saw it was hopeless she said, “Let’s do the whole floor.”
With mops and brooms, we spread all our butter over the floor, then polished it with dry cloths until we had a richly shining dark brown verandah. Admiring friends asked, “How on earth do you get such a finish?”
Now the labour shortage was too much for many farmers. It was too much for my father. The hard, slogging work of irrigating on his own, the rice to be cared for seven days a week, the shovelling and the tramping around the bays exhausted him. Dad just couldn’t cope.
My father was looking tired and ill. Our family doctor, a close friend, advised Dad to sell up and move to a better climate on a smaller property nearer to Sydney. The local solicitor with a son too young to be called up, was anxious to buy our farm and run it with a share farmer until the son could run it on his own. My mother was sad to see the new owners move into the home she had worked so hard to improve.
It was a perfect December day in 1940 when we bade ‘Kalora’ goodbye. Sadly and silently in bright sunshine, we shut the gate and drove away up that long straight road beside the land that was not our land now, and never would be again.
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