Writing "One Life"

This book started as many fragments of memoir recorded by my mother over some twenty years. Some were written, others were spoken in to a tape recorder. She told many of the stories several times, with more or less detail. Some of the fragments are only a few lines, the longest are a dozen pages. She started with the stories she’d heard from her own mother, about earlier generations of the family. She wanted to be sure those family stories would be transmitted to another generation. Wisely, she knew that I was unlikely to remember them properly, so she committed them to paper and tape. 

“Je vais a la recherche de temps perdu, but not as Proust did for himself and his novel, but because my daughter has a sense of family and time. Nothing I am writing will be creative, but it won’t all be true either because sometimes I’ll have to say what I think happened. On the whole it is simply the history of a family living continuously in Australia for six generations. I am of the 5th generation and am getting on: like Proust, I must hurry.

Solomon Wiseman (born 16.4.1777, died 28.11.1838) was born in Essex & worked on the docks – we know he married and for some offence we don’t know of, he was transported to Sydney in 1806 on the Alexander. His wife came with him which suggests money and soon after they arrived he was not only freed, but given a grant of land at what is now Wiseman’s Ferry. He started the ferry, made money enough to build the hotel which is still there. The 2 lions at the entrance were brought especially from England. His first wife died and there have always been strong rumours that he killed her by throwing her down the stairs. 

Solomon Wiseman was an extremely cruel man. He had a number of assigned servants as convicts were called who were given to landowners. No doubt they did the building he required. The land around Wiseman’s Ferry is very good for crops. He was hated & feared, but when he died he had the usual flowery obituary notice. Sol had a number of children by his second wife and by this time was well off – sufficiently so to give his daughters a riding master. My Auntie Rose & I think my mother too, told the story of one of these girls being seduced by the riding master. When she became pregnant she was thrown out of the house. Mum & Auntie Rose thought the girl and her baby died and you can hardly wonder at it. What would a girl do? Just to get enough food to keep alive would be hard, & then to get sick would mean the end. It reminds me of Hatter’s Castle an early Cronin story which horrified me when I was young.

When we stayed there one night on the way to Sydney from Tamworth we were shown the "haunted" room & the stairs where she was supposed to have been killed. He soon married a local girl & had a number of children one of whom was called Sarah Catherine. She was my great grandmother. 

She married John Martin Davis & had a number of children one of whom was my grandmother who was also called Sarah Catherine. They had the hotel in Currabubula & when I lived there with Auntie Rose, a Davis was still in the hotel. I think when the Davis family finally left they had been there continuously for 100 years & strangely a Davis bought the hotel.

My grandmother married Thomas Henry Maunder who had come out with his sister from England, I presume as some kind of migrants. As a boy of 17 he was working on Goonoo Goonoo station with his sister and there are 2 stories that have come down: 1, his sister died there and this awful man King made him dig her grave. 2, he was ordered to take 3 sheep from one end of the station to the other without a dog. The station was huge stretching from just outside Tamworth to Quirindi. Grandfather Maunder was a famous shearer in his day & held the record at one time for shearing the greatest number of sheep in a day – with the blades, very hard work."

Then she recorded stories from her own younger days. This is about the Caledonian, a hotel in Tamworth that her parents bought when she was a teenager:

“They put everything into it and for the first three years everything went well. The Caledonian was the leading hotel in Tamworth and everyone of any importance stayed there. Visiting artists like Florence Austral and Isadore Goodman were guests, overseas as well as local tennis players like J.O. Anderson and Jack Crawford. When I was getting J.O. Anderson’s autograph he said make sure you get Jack Crawford’s he’s the coming player and of course he was. He died not long ago. When Polo was on the place was full of people from all over the north and north west and money flowed like water. Just feeding and looking after the ponies cost a fortune. Mum’s cousin George Wiseman had a son we called Possum and he kept his father poor with his polo.

                  The Caledonian was started by Mrs Trimm about 1870, you may remember we had a few old spoons with Trimm on them. A lot of the furniture was made from Northern Rivers cedar but there were some other lovely pieces from England. There were beautiful glass fronted bookcases with cupboards underneath, elegant chaises-longues and armchairs, fireplaces everywhere of course with wonderful fire dogs that people kept wanting to buy.

                  The laundry was an amazing place, a world in itself. The laundry staff was on the go every day, because nothing was sent out. You can imagine the sheets to be boiled, the tablecloths and table napkins to be starched and ironed, everything was white in those days. There were mangles, wringers, rubs, coppers, huge tables for ironing and folding and of course everything done by hand. There is a Degas painting that I saw in Paris “les Laveuses” which when I first saw reminded me of that laundry and the women working there so hard.

                  Part of the huge backyard was given over to “sample rooms”. These were like small halls were the commercial travellers set out their samples to entice the business men of Tamworth to buy. C.T.A. members stayed at the Cally at a reduced rate. 

There was one room I remember particularly it was called the Bridal Suite, a beautiful room with two sets of French doors leading to the widest verandah I’ve ever seen, a method of air that works very well. There was a magnificent eiderdown on the bed which had been bought at the Empire Exhibition held in London about 1923. It was made of gold taffeta, but of a quality I had ever seen and certainly have not seen since. Across the width of the eiderdown was a black crane and of course it was so light. On the way home from London these people stopped off in Monte Carlo for the clay pigeon shooting and there were pictures of Monaco everywhere. I wish I had appreciated them more. Most sins are those of omission.

                  As I said, the first three years went well, Mum was very lucky to have a wonderful man who ran the dining room perfectly. He was there I realise now because he was homosexual and he and his partner Con were able to live there quietly with no worries. Arthur was a clever man who could have done anything given the early opportunity. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.

                  I remember once I tore my school tunic and was very upset because I didn’t want to have to show Mum. He took it away mended it and truthfully you could not see where he had done it. I realised now he liked me and wanted to help.”

There were parts of her life she was reluctant to write about, and these were among the shortest fragments.

“I must start on my life in Sydney. Reluctantly. I will have to think about so many things I would rather had never happened.

I did badly in the Leaving Certificate & my mother was angry & blamed it on some boy she thought I was keen on. The plain fact is I did no work because I didn’t know how to – also I had no proper place to work, I was expected to help clean the bar everything morning with Olga my cousin who worked as a barmaid for us & we used to get up about 6, the yard man would come in & wash & polish the floor while we washed all the glasses – took all the bottles off the shelves, wiped & dried them, wiped the shelves, filled up the ice chest with soft drinks – the cook would be up & we’d get a lovely cup of tea & usually bread & butter about 7 – I loved that I remember.”

Her feeling for the importance of stories not being lost extended to other peoples’ stories too. People mattered, even people who had been forgotten by everyone except her.

“I’ve often thought about writing a book – other people do it all the time; it can’t be all that hard. Up till now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil but now that I have one foot in the grave so to speak it’s time to get on with it. I’m not going to write about myself though naturally I will have to come into it but I once had a lovely friend and her story should not be altogether lost.

                  We met at a student hostel when we were eighteen with what she called ‘the magical future’ all ahead of us.

                  She was born in Broken Hill and though I too was born in the country there was almost no similarity in our backgrounds.  She was four when her father died & her mother, a trained teacher, went back to work & her aunt came to live with them. They were poor and money was always a problem but their life was rich I believe: they had a piano & Meg learned to play the piano very well. I think she must have enjoyed her childhood because she was good at everything, loved school, rode a bike – encouragement & help from home and teachers meant she loved work & won an exhibition to Sydney University a tremendous thing in those days since only 100 were given in the whole state. The exhibition carried without it as well as fees paid & books bought the inestimable bounty of free board at the Women’s College. 

                  Remember I didn’t know her at this stage but I can imagine how she revelled in the life: dedicated intelligent women to help her – custom & order everywhere – gowns for dinner at night, formal parties where everyone was expected to behave as ladies & gentlemen – in a word a world now lost.

                  The exams came & she failed – the price was expulsion from paradise – the University and the Women’s College – descent into the hell of Teachers’ College and a hostel – it is only as I write that I feel those moments fully since I too have had my pride humbled and my life completely upset.

                  I too as I’ve said was born in the country but when I was 5 my parents began a roving unsettled life in and out of pubs – buying & selling to accumulate money but with no thought of settling anywhere for the sake of their children – there were 3 of us and because we were farmed out to relatives or sent to boarding schools we were strangers almost to one another. I personally went to 14 different schools some it is true for only a day or a week but in the desert of waste amidst the busy craze to make money I had 18 months at a magnificent school – a well run High School such as is never seen nowadays. St George Girls’ High School – I don’t suppose now it is any better than the others but in those days – ah me, if only I’d been left there to do all my High School work! For the first time in my life I met real excellence, every teacher was a graduate and I remember them better than people who were supposed to be closer to me.

Meg & I were both 18 when we met at the hostel, but very unhappy, lonely, isolated & ashamed of being all those things. I hated being apprenticed & tied down in 4 walls not only for the day but well into the night – pharmacies stayed open often until 8 o’clock as well as Sat & Sun nights – it was absolute slavery but when I dared to voice a very mild & nervous complaint I was quickly reminded how lucky I was.

                  It seems incredible now that things like that were accepted, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job & some money every week. That’s why I now understand why the unions have gone too far the other way – they remember those hard days & want a kind of revenge – I often think we will end with a dictatorship of some kind pray not as bad as Hitler. Why is it so hard to learn from past mistakes?” 

I think she knew that her own story was typical in many ways of a woman’s in the time and place and circumstances into which she’d been born. For her, that was a good reason for recording it – it was “ordinary” and the “ordinary” is so often overlooked. She knew that in fact there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” life – everyone’s life, no matter how undramatic in the eyes of the world, is full of dramas. There are the dramas of griefs and joys, of difficulties overcome or succumbed to, and most of all the drama of choice. What’s significant about a life is not so much what happened, as what you did with the choices that you had.

[KG question: What made you do pharmacy?] Oh Mum, of course. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. We had the Caledonian of course and the pharmacy man down the road used to come and drink at the hotel. He and Mum used to have long conversations. He put the idea of pharmacy into Mum’s head. And then nothing would change that. 

When I said I didn’t know what I wanted to do she said oh yes, that’s because you’re mad about that boy. There was some boy, Ray Brawne, he was in my class at school. We were friends and everything but it was nothing like that. 60 or 70 years ago, you know, you just talked to boys, that was about it. If they kissed you, that was going really a long way.

Then we had to find someone who’d take me – who’d apprentice a girl. I thought Oh, I’ll be right. I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t know how to beat my mother, I thought, Oh it’ll be okay, something’ll turn up that I won’t do it.

Then I realised how hard it was to get an apprenticeship. Dad had been down to Sydney and he had gone to Washington Soul’s and he saw Dr Pattinson and he said oh no, they didn’t take any girl apprentices. Only boys. He said, but you might get in with a small chemist – a chemist with just a small business. He might take a girl. That encouraged me. I thought, Oh I won’t be able to do this. I’ll be right.

I wanted to go to the Armidale Teachers’ College. But she said over my dead body you’ll be a teacher. I don’t know why. She was she was not a woman of rational mind at all. She used to get into these fearful rages. I think she was always a little bit funny. There was supposed to be a streak in the Wisemans. Dad always said that. She had us all bluffed.

Anyway Frank and I came down to Sydney and we were having this holiday staying in a boarding house at Bondi. Suddenly out of the blue, Mum rang. She’d met some man, just by chance – this shows you how your life is changed – a commercial traveller, but you know, silver-tongued – and he got round Mum, and  she told him all about this daughter who was going to be a chemist and how difficult it was to get apprenticed. And he knew a man. And that was it. That’s how it started. I could have said I’m just not going to do it, but I didn’t have that much go in me, to say I won’t do it.

I really hated pharmacy. I can’t tell you how much I hated it. The trams were in those days, and I used to – when I see some of these poor little kids that are out in the street, taking drugs, I think, They’re probably desperate in a much bigger, stronger way than I was. But I used to wish a tram would run me over.

I couldn’t tell anybody, because Mrs Glendon wasn’t a woman that you’d tell things to. I told Peg, but she said you’ve got to keep on doing it, you can’t stop now. Everywhere I turned, it was that feeling that everyone accepted what was going on and you had to accept it yourself. 

Dad of course did everything that Mum wanted. I suppose for a quiet life. I was weak. I was weak as water. But I don’t quite know how I could have done it. I would have had to stand up like these girls do now and say well, I’m just not going to do it. I didn’t have that kind of courage. And there was no one I could go to and say, because everyone else thought it was so wonderful.”

Behind everything she wrote and recorded lie puzzles in her life that she never solved, and which she came back to again and again in an attempt to understand. The biggest was about her parents: why had they not loved her? Why had they sent her away, again and again, to live with strangers? The need to understand that most primal of questions was with her until she died. She wrote about those puzzles because she knew the power of words. Her understanding had been enriched by the great poetry she admired and I think she felt that things could perhaps go in the other direction too: reading was one way to understanding the human condition, including her own, but writing might be another way to do it.

Nance died in 2002, and in about 2006 I got out the papers and recordings and typed them all up. My thought was to collate them into a chronological sequence and make five copies, one for each of Nance’s grandchildren.

What she’d left behind was a rare thing: the record of the life of an “ordinary” woman. By the time I’d typed everything up I was starting to feel there was something here that should be read by more than five grandchildren, but I didn’t know just what it was, or why I felt that. My brother read an early assembly and immediately likened it to A.B.Facey’s A Fortunate Life – the life story of a man from the rural poor of the late nineteenth century, told in his own words. My brother’s insight and encouragement let me see a reason to go on trying to tell our mother’s story.

However, unlike A Fortunate Life, the memoirs Mum had left didn’t make a narrative. Many important events were passed over in a sentence or two, many things were obscure without some background information, and she didn’t dwell on how she felt about them. If this was going to be a story, rather than a collection of vignettes, I was going to have to add to what she’d left. But I found that, as soon as I added my own narrative voice to her fragments, something went badly wrong. 

There were several problems. One was the cautious biographical voice of the early drafts: writing full of things like “she probably thought” and “she must have felt”. In the absence of definite knowledge, a biographer is stuck with that caution, but it saps the energy of the writing and the vividness of the moments. Another problem was that in these drafts, two voices were competing to tell the story: Mum’s voice, quoted verbatim, and my own, filling in the gaps. No matter whether I made my own voice lifelessly neutral or jauntily entertaining, somehow the life was sucked out of Mum’s fragments by being put in a matrix of another voice. I even tried to mimic the voice of Mum’s fragments and invent the material I needed to make a narrative, but it felt phoney and it sounded phoney.

Everyone I showed sections to said the same thing: "turn it into fiction". I could see all the reasons why they were right, but I couldn’t do it. The whole point of this story was that it was real. To turn it into fiction would be a betrayal not just of my mother but the whole idea of conveying the power of a piece of real life.

The book that’s now between covers is my attempt to find a path between all these obstacles. My mother’s voice appears both nowhere and everywhere: the verbatim voice has gone but phrases and often whole sentences from her memoirs appear on every page, almost in every paragraph. Where it enriches the texture of her story, I’ve added material that I found in research. Sometimes this is material she would have known so well she didn’t bother to explain it, for example the facts about conscription in the Second World War and how this affected her husband. Sometime it’s material she might or might not have known: she might well have read the issue of the Sydney Morning Herald where the “Grave Shortage of Rubber” is mentioned, and if she did, it might have made her think about her brother Frank, a PoW in Thailand. Occasionally it’s something she definitely didn’t know, for example details about her forbear Solomon Wiseman. In many other cases I’ve constructed a scene that’s grown out of my knowledge of my parents and their times. My father left a memoir of his young days that filled in some detail, my brother and other family members were generous in sharing their memories with me, and in some cases I was able to meet people who’d lived through the same events. Out of these sources (and Dr Google and Professor Trove) I’ve constructed scenes which are plausible, but not necessarily factual. The scene in which my mother’s husband-to-be invites her home to meet the family is one. Her reasons for not throwing herself under the Enmore tram is another.

This book, then, isn’t a biography or a memoir. It isn’t history, nor is it fiction. It has elements of all of these without being any of them. Like most of the tales we tell ourselves and  each other, it’s that compendious and loose-limbed thing: a story.

Nance Russell lived through nearly a century of dramatic events: revolutions, two world wars, a global depression. When she was born, it was nearly impossible for a woman to have the choices that come from being able to make a living and control her fertility. By the time Nance died, women in Australia could take birth control and paid work for granted.

She was born into a world of “small government” in which tax was low and services to citizens correspondingly low: a world where proper education and good health care were only for those with the money to afford them, and a world in which apart from the Old Age pension, only the charity of churches stood between the poor and disaster. There was no unemployment benefit, no widows’ pension, no supporting mother’s benefit, no workers’ compensation, and little regulation of workers’ conditions. By the time she died ninety years later, the role of the state had shifted, so that it now provided free education up to university level, free health care, and a safety net for workers, widows, the unemployed and the disabled. She died just as the current of political philosophy was changing, so that people who don't realise what it’s like to live in a world of “small government” are recommending we return to it.

She was very aware that her own life intersected with these enormous changes. She was no political theorist, but she’d thought about how her life had been shaped not just by the specifics of her particular circumstances, but by the big sweeps of social change she’d lived through. She often quoted Edmund Burke: “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.” She knew that her small individual story mattered because it provided a way of thinking about big issues and coming to understand them. It was what she’d done herself: she’d examined the events of her own life in order to see the pattern they were part of. She hoped that others, reading her story, might be helped to do the same.

Of course, this isn’t the book she’d have written. But I hope it does something of the work she wanted to do when she wrote down all those irreplaceable fragments of a life.