Chapter One: Early Fragments (Glenda Guest)
Gordon and Dorothy
She was sixteen and at a dance when she saw him. It was, she said, like the song, across a crowded room. And I did know immediately that this was the one for me. He was a young farmer, then, with no thoughts of uniforms or war. It was the eyes, she said. Those gorgeous hazel eyes. And whenever she talked about him, which was only when pushed to, it was always about the eyes until bitterness took over as she aged and other, less attractive, things surfaced. Photos show that I inherited those eyes, as did my own daughter. It must have been hard for her to see his eyes in my face.
Small fragments of the child
My in-betweenness started at birth as, during the disarray and movement of late World War Two, my mother and baby-me followed my father around RAAF bases, staying with various relatives or in inexpensive accommodation. I have been told fragments of stories of my own beginnings and baby-life: the dramatic, the memorable. There was my father’s mother’s home in Mount Lawley, where I, the non-sleeping infant, would be walked by whoever was available while my mother napped. There was the apartment on the beach in Geraldton where toddler-me was taken to the beach by a neighbour with her own children. My mother, watching from the window, saw me run towards the water. I had hardly time to get wet before she pulled me from the waves. She had run down stairs from the first floor, across the railway yard and the broad beach. I never knew I could run so fast, she’d say. I’d told the woman you had to be watched all the time as you were quick and always escaping to explore. But she didn’t understand.
When we went to Melbourne we flew on a RAAF plane. You headed straight for the biggest brass there and sat on his knee the whole way. Even at two, you went for the top. There we lived in Surrey Hills with a relative of my father’s. There the story is of me being pushed in a small wood cart by a distant cousin, one of the Redhead family, who lost control and let the cart run down a hill towards a main road.
The story I liked most was set at Greenacres, my mother’s parents’ farm, and was told many times. It was a hot summer day, early afternoon. The mid-day meal had been cleared away and the men were back in the paddocks, harvesting. Baby-me was asleep in a low open cot in a bedroom that opened onto a partly-enclosed verandah. I had a feeling something wasn’t right, she’d say. I tippy-toed along the verandah and looked into the cot. How I didn’t scream was a miracle, because if you had woken then, you wouldn’t be here now. There, curled up at the bottom of the cot was a brown snake.
What did you do? I was always fascinated by this story of life and death and my mother’s bravery. How did you save me?
There was no-one around. And it would have taken too long to run out to the paddock to get your Pop. Who knows what could have happened while I was away. So I crept up to the top of the cot and reached in so, so slowly. I put my hand over your face so you wouldn’t cry or make a noise, and lifted you out, very slowly at first, then with a quick jerk. And that snake stayed asleep until I had you out of the cot, then it uncoiled. I ran out of the room and put you in your stroller in the kitchen.
And then? I was always anxious to get to the next bit.
I got the poker from the fireplace. Then I went back and I hit that snake. I hit it and hit it, and I broke the cot getting at it. Your Pop had to fix it when he came in from the harvester. He made one with netting around so nothing could get in again.
So much danger for one so young, all told in a voice tinged with horror.
But these fragments are from before I remember being. They are pieces of stories and family mythology that tell me who I was, before I could know myself.
Air Force Blues — Gordon and Dorothy
Wherever we went she tried to make a home for him when he was off-base. He just wanted to go out and play, she’d say. Wanted to leave the baby, me, with a sitter, and go to dances and bars. But I couldn’t do that. Bob and Harry, Gordon’s brothers, had transferred from the army to the RAAF, and their wives were in the WAAF and the Army. I can imagine them meeting in Melbourne. St Kilda, she’d say. Such an awful place. So dirty and crowded, and with things going on that I can’t possibly tell you about. The service men and women would want to see the town, see the sights so different from their small farm small town origins. Dorothy must have felt isolated in her civilian-dom and her motherhood, not understanding the stresses of the forces and they not understanding the problems of the camp follower trying to create normality as she knew it.
So easy to see, now. For the farm boy the RAAF was a release, an escape to the world. For the young Methodist-conservative wife it was a threat to stability with the moving around and the partying instead of being a family. It was an often-repeated story that as a baby I never slept. I’ve had the fancy that my mother’s distress reached me in the womb, making me afraid to sleep in case my father disappeared.
When Gordon was transferred to Townsville Dorothy took me to Greenacres where we lived with her parents until he came home from the RAAF.