The Sociology of A Place To Call Home Part 9
by Sandshoe (Honshades)
My father kept his own secret from me in the year I went to Townsville and from my ill mother.
My mother was crippled with polymyalgia rheumatica that was sudden onset. I was sitting at the kitchen table arranging postage stamps in an album, in 1966 still at High School, summer and my mother at the other end of our long kitchen sitting as was her wont on the kitchen linoleum floor in a breezeway, crocheting with her back lent up against the kitchen sink cupboard. She drew to my attention she had tried to stand up and could not. She was wincing and half up holding onto the sink behind her as I went to help her. By the time I got to her she was sobbing. She tried to walk and screamed and sobbed alternately in pain. I left her where she was, leaning against the sink and recalled my father from work. I asked him to first phone our family doctor.
By evening my gracious and gentle mother was sedated and bedridden.
discussing whether we would accept housing in a sugar experiment
station property that came available and was offered to my father.
When two years and a little more later she attempted suicide in a fit of demented hysteria, her face scarlet, anguished, I was alone with her. I was talking with her where we had been seated at the dining table.What happened was extreme that her mood went from confidential to hysterical and she was on her feet in the second. A tray of her medications was near where we were sitting.
I was home on holiday from University although I did not always fly home between terms. More often I went interstate with other choristers to Intervarsity Festivals and other meets.
My father who was my primary care giver volunteered to me to not come home every term holiday. He wanted me to enjoy my youth. I appreciate his intentions. He communicated a viewpoint that included concern about the impact on me of my mother’s continuing poor health.
So I took opportunity to go on holidays that cost little and were spent in company as much fun in the evenings as our soujourns singing for meals and milkshakes, hitchhiking as we were legally able then, billeted where we could find, a NSW outback lock up when we knocked on the door of the police station and guard dogs we were told to ignore but barking enraged in cages at its door if we as much as moved, in a remote location in Tasmania finding an abandoned settlers home that rose bushes in scattered bloom occupied grown through the roof and its windows, all the same white delicacies set in an encroaching surround of native forest and we drank ice cold water from its cottage stream, a bare dirt floor in barracks without furniture, squashed in a utility sharing talking night long on his instruction to an oil industry trouble shooter to keep him awake on his drive Brisbane to Adelaide, on the Adelaide outskirt a mound of sleeping bags except waking visible to Monday morning workers’ traffic in the central wide strip of a four lane highway whereas in the pitch dark of a starless night and no traffic we thought we had been dropped off at a rest reserve, on a New South Wales roadside in the night and the stars above in quintillion thousands agreeing to catch the next road freighter heading anywhere to escape the cold, my highlight three of us lying asleep on the bare ground flat on our backs in brilliant sunshine spaced like soldiers with the soles of our shoes upright a considered distance from highway bitumen and my opening my eyes on nothing but blue cloudless sky, not a single sound of civilisation to be heard, feeling my heart leap this is Australia, the very expression, fallen in love.
I am a better socialised human being than I would have been without the explicit freedom to holiday in University breaks. I was never allowed in Primary and High Schooling the social freedoms of my peers and no siblings at home. I feel no part that is manipulative my father volunteered to me I not go home from University. I never complained to him during my High School days I was restricted. When I was a small child and whinged I was not permitted a freedom another girl was, he taught me a sharp lesson. He retorted she’s not my daughter and I thought it was clear instruction.
Once only when I was young I was thrashed which was by my mother for getting home late from the library via a friend’s place, My regret remains my father did not intervene. Once more only in my late teenage years I and my friends pushed a broken down hire vehicle for a very long way to find assistance, but were treated with so little respect by both of my parents I was late home I was incredulous.
I reserve judgement of that part that was my father’s influence in effect on my mother she did not see me and not either my siblings by virtue of their distance for times that were so long they could not have been good for her mental health.
Could I do it again I would fly on long week-ends and mid-term holidays to tend to my mother and my father’s better care. Air fares were half price for students virtue an arrangement of the Students’ Union. In
emergencies my responses were almost always unerring. I would know however the mental health first aid skills I have acquired and avoided the error that distressed my mother.
I had voiced in a kindly way on this occasion of her attempt to end her life, but refusal of her insistence I support her in attempt to convince my visiting brother to return with his wife and children to Sydney and leave them to live with my parents in North Queensland. My brother had taken my sister-in-law who I loved dearly and their children for a drive. I jumped to my feet and with care to support her head because of the pain of her arthritis caused her to gag, extending my hand and extracting in the same move a quantity of pills she had thrown into her mouth screaming she would end her life.
Her decrepit and extreme physical and mental ill health was diagnosed as consequence of the sudden withdrawal of prednisone from its successful treatment of her arthritic symptoms. She was severely ill again without advantage of diagnosis.
The reasons for her catastrophic reaction to my protection of my brother on whom she obsessed and his wife I feared would soon return from their drive with their small children will be complex. My viewpoint is isolation and suffering a chronic medical condition with only my father’s care and companionship crippled her as much as arthritis had wrought its damage.
My father’s secret was angina. He described to me many years on he lay at work across the seat of his utility to stay out of view agonised by gripping chest pains. He had especial reason to attempt secrecy apart from his compromised position as primary care giver for an ill wife. He feared for his employment and he had been offered an opportunity he did not want to forego.
Due to retire in a few short years he had been an attendee at his first international conference. Despite he described to me like a child as I had never seen him before anxiety he would not measure up on the world stage, he enjoyed academic success and social popularity. The conference was in Taiwan. He had never travelled other than to conferences in Queensland. He was invited to chair a session at the next scheduled conference in Louisiana in America. He would meet up with his new friends.
The only friendships my father had in the scientific community he enjoyed through professional letters to his position and the respect of visiting scientists. Two scientists in Canberra were his only friends he visited once. I was sent to stay in Canberra for a holiday with one of the families.
Being a scientist in the sugar industry in North Queensland and remote from his Head Office in Brisbane was an often thankless position without glamour. I commented to him once he was not so well paid. He said that was not right, startled that did I know he was paid at the same level as a Senior Lecturer at the University when he retired.
I reflected on the years it took to get there and how poor that sounded to me for the days staking field trials, at nights setting and collecting rat traps, away from home writing papers, driving cane farms around in North Queensland’s tropical heat without air conditioning, dealing with chemicals in inadequate research facilities that may have contributed to the poor condition of his heart, exposed to crop dusting trials, a colleague of his who died a shocking death from a motor neurone condition and was refused compensation, his skill delivering public address through radio interview, staff responsibilities and his classic story he had never told anybody but I quietly that I had never told as a child on his instruction of his attempting protest being threatened he would lose his job if he revealed he had discovered using a chemical the rat’s babies were malformed, the sniggering he had to put up with regards his compromised position distributing cane toads when they were released, his tears running down his face when he threw the newspaper down in front of me with the headline DDT was blanket banned and he announced the deaths that would follow from mosquito infestations nothing else would combat…and he was right.
He was flattered by the invitation to Louisiana he had admitted to me when he told me of it, so shy and radiant.
I have a tape recording of excited Taiwanese school children cheering my father and his colleagues in 1968 as they alight from a bus at a village school and among segments of my parent methodically describing in his Scottish accent local sugar industry technology as he
views it, of delegates taking turns to sing songs, the winding mountain road, the reverberation of the bus engine their backing track, my father’s melodic baritone hitting the sweetest high notes in his solo performance of ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’ … there are hands that will welcome me in/there are lips I am burning to kiss/there are two eyes that shine just because they are mine…
to be continued…
Christina Binning Wilson