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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Passing of an Era

Aged 91 years and 9 months
           The Riverina Girl left the Riverina at the age of 22, and lived a full and long life. Too long, in fact. She spent her final two years in a nursing home, suffering from severe dementia. While there, she would often talk of going back to Wagga, which she appeared to confuse with Brighton, her home for the previous 46 years. It was a blessing when the tragedy was cut short by a fall from bed, which led to a broken leg, requiring an operation.  The ensuring immobility then led to pneumonia, which mercifully brought her life to an end at the age of 97 years.
          The following is therefore taken from the eulogy I gave at her funeral. All that was left was to celebrate her life. She had certainly been the major influence on my own life, and most of my general attitude to social issues was inspired by her rather forthright comments during my childhood.
One of the minor things I miss about her is that I will now never taste the celebrated biscuits she used to make all the time. Once I took them back to Sydney with me, and they became so popular, that one of the girls asked for the recipe. It turned out to be something like: “You take a handful of this, and a bit of that, and another handful of that”… and so forth.
“Clare Smith,” a friend once said, “is one of life’s classic characters.” One could go on and on about her foibles. For example, all house and garden pests were regarded as my personal possessions. She would say such things as: “Your sparrows have been eating my seeds”, or refer to “your cockroaches” or “your spiders”.
And one of the foibles I discovered when I was very little. Whenever she told an anecdote, she wouldn’t trim it down to the essentials, but would start off two or three of generations before, and then ramble on and on till you had to exclaim: “For heaven’s sake, Mum! Get to the point!” On the other hand, she was totally impatient when listening to anecdotes herself. If you were telling a story, no matter how brief, you would only have to pause at the end of a sentence, for her to jump in eagerly with: “Well, what happened then?”
Hopefully, this story won’t be as rambling as hers were. Mum was born in 1909 at Wagga Wagga, the first girl in the family, the result being that she acquired the nickname of Girl. In fact, when writing Christmas cards, she had to remember what the recipients used to call her: Girl, Margaret, Margy, or Clare. She adopted her middle name, Clare because she couldn’t bear hearing her first name shortened to Maggie.
There were nine in her family, and at that time it was considered unusual to have so many survive to adulthood. They almost lost Mum before she went to school. She was so sick she was hospitalised for 10 days. She remembered that because, although she was too young to count to 10, she drew four dots on the wall with a pencil, and “one in the middle”, then another four, and another one in the middle.
Sometime in the 1980s I realised that her childhood years represented an age and a world which has now disappeared, so I got her memories recorded on tape, but only a few can be mentioned now. She developed an abiding passion for horses, and she rode her last horse at the age of 83, in Mexico. Just before she went into a nursing home, when her dementia was growing acute, she used to keep Desmond Morris’ book, Horsewatching on the table to thumb through, as her favourite book, and it was the only one she actually took into the nursing home.
She also acquired a passion for reading, and told me how, when she was young, she used to be afraid she’d die before she read all the books in the world. Which was a losing battle, I’ll agree. But she was fortunate that she and I had similar tastes in books – especially history and travel – so in later years she never needed to buy a book. She would just walk into my room and search my bookshelf for anything that looked promising. In fact, I remember a time both of us took the train into town, and spent the time talking excitedly about books we had just read on Eskimos, and I wondered what anybody listening in must have thought.
           She also had a passion for gardening. Often, she would work the whole day in the garden. Even on her "non-gardening days", she said, she would devote two or three hours to the occupation. It was not work, in her mind, but a hobby. Her orange trees produced so much fruit, that they were collected in buckets, and had to be given away. At other times, for months on end, I would be taking to work a box of strawberries - admittedly, small ones - as part of my lunch. As for flowers: well, one year early in our marriage, whenever we visited her, we would come back with a huge bouquet, without leaving any obvious gaps in the beds. Even in her last days at home, when she was already suffering severely from dementia, the next door neighbour testified that she was in the garden "all day, every day".
But getting back to the old days, she used to talk about how she was boarding with her Aunt Ada, who had a chiming clock. It used to drive her mad that, whenever she was trying to get to sleep, the wretched clock would chime a quarter hour, then twice on the half hour, then three times on the ¾ hour, and finally the hour itself.
She often used to talk about her experiences as an unregistered nurse, first at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and later at a private hospital run by a Matron Jones, whom she always admired. One of the matron's sayings she would often quote was: "I would rather be taken in than refuse help to a genuinely needy person." Mum had to give it up because of sickness, but it always remained in her heart as the lost career she wished she could have kept. Only later did it occur to me to ask the question, “Mum, since you left school at 14, how did you manage to pass the entrance examinations for nurse’s training?”
“Oh,” she said, “I just read up everything in my spare time.”
Even at that stage, she had a spirit of adventure. At one point she was planning to buy a few sheep as the nucleus of a herd. Later, in 1938, she took a cruise which she often used to talk about. First, there was the rail journey to Sydney, costing a whole £2/10/- , then by ocean liner to the exotic foreign capital of Brisbane, where the natives lived in houses on stilts, then to the Whitsunday Islands, and finally to Nouméa.
Then in 1939, she came up with the ultimate plan. She and her sister, Lil decided to take a trip to Brisbane and look for work there. Now, remember, this was when Brisbane was still an exotic foreign capital, before the Pacific Highway became the major thoroughfare it now is, before motels became the norm, and when towns in between were a lot smaller and rarer. They actually intended to ride all the way from Sydney on bicycles, and camp by the side of the road. Unfortunately (she said), the war intervened. Even in later life, she never acknowledged that there was anything extraordinary about that plan.
         During the war she worked in a munition factory and an aircraft factory. Before that, she had become a professional milliner.
Syd and Clare, not long after their wedding in 1947.

         After the war? Well, let me fast forward and tell you a story. Once I invited a pretty girl home for lunch, and she and Mum got into conversation. Halfway through, Mum casually commented: “Long ago, I learnt the lesson with men: either marry them quickly or get rid of them. Don’t just let it drag on and on.” I immediately cringed, and thought: “Why’d she have to say that? She’s supposed to be on my side.” And sure enough, the girl decided to get rid of me. Much later, when I was bringing Esther over, I said to her, “This time don’t tell her your philosophy of either marrying them quickly or dumping them. Though,” I added, “with this girl it might have the opposite effect.” (We were engaged a month or so later.)
Clare with Malcolm (eldest) and Warren
Anyhow, it was a philosophy which kept her single until the age of 38, when she married Syd Smith – thereby ensuring she had two sons, at the age of 40 and 42½ respectively. What a way to solve a mid-life crisis! At first they had a thriving bakehouse business, but when they lost it in 1952 they entered the phase that most dominated my childhood: we were poor. It wasn’t that Warren and I suffered too much from this; from personal experience, I can confirm that poverty doesn’t harm a child. But it was certainly a hard row for my parents to hoe. For example, above the kitchen sink we used to have a collection box for the Spastic Children, but Mum remembered having to raid it for small change on more than one occasion to make ends meet. I once even heard her let slip the phrase, “the worst years of my life”.
            My dad passed away in 1969. She was to be a widow longer than she was a wife. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
In 1959 she got a part time job cleaning St Margaret’s and St Nicholas’ churches, in the Anglican parish of Sandgate, which she would do every week without fail, even taking off time from the cannery, because it was her one steady job. She only stopped when it was cancelled in 1981, when she was 72 years old, and since there was no public transport, she used to walk from Sandgate to Shorncliffe and back. Then, as we boys went to high school, producing more and more expenses, and particularly after Dad went on an invalid pension, she took more and more seasonal work at the Golden Circle cannery. I’ve worked there, so I can tell you what it entailed: it meant standing up for eight hours, slicing pineapples in sweltering heat and humidity, while the juice trickled down her apron and gumboots. She worked her fingers to the bone, and often she would come home utterly exhausted, and still have to prepare dinner and undertake some degree of housework.
Nevertheless, Mum was most upset when the cannery ceased employing anyone over the age of 70, because by then she was using it to finance her holidays.
As an example of what she was like: in 1969, at the age of 60, Mum went with me on bus tour of Tasmania with a bunch of student teachers – so everybody was 40 years younger than her. We all had to camp in YMCA halls and similar venues, and she took it completely in her stride that she had to sleep in a sleeping bag on the hard floors, without even an airbed. Once she and the younger ladies slept in a greenhouse between rows of plants, while we boys slept in the washroom. However, when it got too cold, she bought a pair of green stockings – which she kept for more than 20 years, I might add. The next day, the group decided to liven things up by appointing a sergeant-at-arms, and one of the first people to be fined 20c was Clare Smith – because research had shown that the sexiest colour for stockings was green.
Two years later, in 1971, a developer offered to buy the 6 acres she and Dad had purchased in Bensville, near Gosford, years before. It was rather amusing. She wrote to her brother Alf, who was a solicitor in New South Wales, asking him to do the conveyancing, and her letter crossed with one from Alf, which ended: “PS: When are you going to sell that useless piece of land at Bensville?” The result was that she paid off the house, and then took a 5-month cruise around the world.
That was the start of a 21-year Indian summer, in which she did what she had always wanted to do: travel – mostly overseas. What it meant to her might be gauged by what she said to the geriatrician, when she was being examined for Alzheimer’s disease: “I’ve had a good life. I’ve travelled a lot. But now it’s over.” And, of course, the actual travelling was only part of it. There was also the anticipation and planning and, afterwards, waiting for the slides to come back, and watching them. Once, when there was nothing on TV, we took out a set of slides at ½ past 8 or 9 at night. Just then, a couple of Mormons arrived. So we invited them to the slide show.
But Mum always laughed when she mentioned how people would say to her, “Aren’t you lucky, Mrs Smith, to be able to travel!” Luck had nothing to do with it. It was due to hard work at the cannery and the church, and frugal saving from her pension and my board.
There are endless stories about Mum’s behaviour on her travels. One was how she climbed a staircase of 500 steps in Greece, I think it was, because there might be something worthwhile at the top – but then, she was always one to climb over a gate rather than open it. When she went camping on Cape York Peninsula at the age of 77, she was always involved in some minor crisis, but the big discomforts of camping didn’t faze her. When we came to the far-flowing Jardine River, she joined the rest of us, and floated down the river on her airbed. I’ve also got a slide of the same trip of her fording a river above the Roaring Meg Falls by holding onto a rope.
And one thing she was famous for: despite the extra weight, she would always pack a small billy, miniature stove, and solid fuel. Then, it didn’t matter whether she was in a 5-star luxury hotel or a zero-star dive in the Middle East, she would take it to the bathroom and boil some tea. Once, when she and Hilda were in Turkey, they saw some eggs in a market, and they promptly bought them and boiled them in the hotel.
As you might expect therefore, one day when there was a gathering of the clan at Melbourne, the conversation got around to the antics of the elder sister. Hilda explained it this way:
“Girl told me that, if you can’t find a small billy, what you do is you take an empty peach tin, punch a couple of holes in it, and then thread a piece of wire through the holes, and you have something big enough for a single cup of tea.”
“Did you say a peach tin?” one of the other ladies asked.
“Well, it could be a jam tin,” said Hilda.
At that point, her neice, Hazel virtually threw up her hands and cried out: “You’re all a bunch of raving ratbags.”
When she was well over 70, she decided to paint the outside of the house. I told her I’d do it on the weekend if she’d wait, but she insisted on doing it herself. But since she had trouble with neck pain at the time, she graciously left it to me to do the upper corners. I told this to Christine when I sent her a birthday card. Back came the reply: “Here I was, busy painting the ceiling, and thinking that, at the age of 40, I was getting too old for this, when along came your letter…”
At St Margaret's Anglican Church, Sandgate
          For more than 43 years she had a pet dog, and in her latter years she was known in the neighbourhood, even to strangers, as the lady who walked the dog. Of course, I also had to do it on the weekends, and one day a little boy asked me: “Is vat your dog?”
“Yes, it is,” I said.
To which he replied: “I fought it was your grandmuvver’s.”
Which made Mum complain: “Once I used to be known by my husband. Then I was known by my son. Now I’m known by my dog.”
But at least she had a good innings. She always said it was due to drinking the water she boiled her vegetables in. Perhaps we should all try it.
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