Please welcome the one and only CerebralMum!
I’m fair-skinned and freckled. I look very Australian, in that Anglo mother-country sort of way. But I’m not. My father’s heritage is Spanish-Portuguese and my mother is Dutch, born and raised in Indonesia until Sukarno’s “guided democracy” made it unsafe to remain there. While the bullets penetrated the fence of her privileged, colonial, guarded home, my mother’s family caught the last international flight out. To New Zealand. Where I was born.
I don’t know what that makes me, but my mother, my adoptive father, my sister and I migrated to Australia just before I turned seven and North East Victoria will always be the landscape of my childhood and the image I see when I think of home.
My adoptive father was a dentist and only had a position as a locum when we arrived, working in different towns throughout the week. We moved 3 times in that first year, first Mt. Beauty, then Bright, before we finally settled in Myrtleford, where I spent the next 9 years of my life.
Myrtleford, then, was a town of about 3000 people (it still is), with 3 pubs, 4 schools (2 primary, 2 high), a Chinese restaurant and a large Italian community. It was surrounded by farms growing hops and tobacco and sheltered by a large pine plantation which provided work saw milling and pulping to make Scott’s tissues. It was close to the snow fields and in winter, on sports days, we could go and ski at Mt. Buffalo and still be back in time to hear the final bell.
But I always remember it as summer.
Even with the evergreen hills behind me, and the skiing and the floods, I always remember it as summer. Hot. Dry. Hard. With the smell of sweet, green tobacco drying in the kilns. With the tar on the roads melting, and the river calling.
We lived in town, because my adoptive father was one of the local “professionals”, the big fish in that small pond. He, along with the doctors and the businessmen, were members of the Rotary Club and played golf at the weekend. I spent as many weekends as I could out of town on my friend’s farms.
You never had to go far to see long stretches of empty, dry land; fields overgrown and long past browning. Australia is golden. I loved catching the school bus on Friday afternoon with my pyjamas in my bag, driving over the creeks and criss-crossing the countryside over roads growing increasingly rougher, stopping to drop off the other children before arriving at one of the farmhouses where the wood-burning stoves were always on and my friends’ mothers would greet me with the words “Mangia, Mangia”. (Eat. Eat.)
These were my happiest times, and the happiest places. My friends’ families were larger, and noisier, and extended. I remember hanging upside down from a big brother’s muscular arm and swinging as though I were on monkey bars. I remember strong, feminine arms elbow-deep in flour and gnocchi. I remember being teased about boys by fathers in gruff, strongly-accented English, and being offered glasses of vino for my breakfast.
I was teased a lot, actually. Because I didn’t have their native skills with spaghetti. Because I lived in town. Because I didn’t know how to pick the chickens up to put them away for the night. One of my friends swore that if I grabbed them by the ankles and held them upside down they would tuck their heads under their wings and go quietly. Let’s just say, I still don’t like picking up chickens.
But I loved being out on those farms. We would climb in the haysheds, moving ridiculously heavy bales to make cubbies, oblivious to the discomfort of the hay working its way through our clothing, until we grew bored, then itchy. We would run down to the creek and swim, ride motorbikes, play in the empty workers’ accommodations. But there was always work to do.
We were just young enough to escape most of it and only had small chores, but I was just old enough to recognise the way their lives and their work blurred into each other, seamlessly. I was just old enough to recognise the breadth of their hospitality and I treasure those values I learned from them to this day. Nobody “brings a plate” to my house.
I had other friends of course, town friends, but it still wasn’t far to go to reach wilder parts, slow river beds where we collected dragonfly wings and hunted for leeches. I spent many afternoons during the week riding “my” horse through the pines with the doctor’s daughter. Her mother and mine had started the local chapter of Riding for the Disabled and I took care of Misty in exchange for my freedom.
Freedom. Summer and freedom. That is my country.
I have no national pride or national identity. I lack sentimentality. My family is spread all around the globe and I now live in Melbourne, a city I love and will always belong to. In spite of that, I can still raise a tear listening to Hey True Blue or Tenterfield Saddler. I still know, when I hear Dorothea McKellar’s My Country, that she is speaking for me.
I love the sunburnt landscape of my childhood. It isn’t an easy place. It is hot and dry and hard. But it is golden. And it’s air is sweet. And it is home.
CerebralMum – You have no idea what a flurry of activity this post set in motion. I went within 20kms of the snow – just past Jindabyne – in 2006 and I could swear I took photos, but I cannot find them anywhere. The photos are in my mind, I just wish I could post them to my blog as well.
This post is a perfect start of summer post. If only we were having some summer here! The weather is all haywire and right now it’s blowing a gale and probably about to thunder. This time last year I was snorkelling. It isn’t hot enough to go and do that just yet.
You can read more from CerebralMum at her blog – The Cerebral Mum.
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