Between August and October 2010, I had a couple of long telephone conversations with my grandmother in Tasmania. She was 88-years-old at the time and I wanted to learn as much about her life as I could before she inevitably left us. And I did …
Nan’s father died when she was four, leaving her mother widowed at twenty-seven with six kids. She told me how, after his death, she used to hide behind the chaff shed and cry.
Her mother then took all of them on the boat to Melbourne, from where they caught the train to Sydney, and visited an aunt and cousin. On the train, her youngest brother, Bruce, embarrassed them all by proclaiming loudly, ‘Roma did call me a big poop yesterday’. My great-grandmother told him to, ‘Shshsh’, so Bruce repeated in a whisper, ‘Roma did call me a big poop yesterday’, and Nan said her mother wanted to sink through the floor. In Sydney, a policeman noticed her mother struggling to cross the road. He stepped out and stopped the traffic so they could cross. Nan said her mother loved to relate this story, of how she and her six kids held up the traffic in Sydney.
Nan left school at fourteen and looked after children, but when the Infantile Paralysis (Polio) hit Launceston, the family she was working for took the children to the coast to escape it. So she started working at the Launceston General Hospital, until they found out she was only fifteen — children weren’t allowed to work there because they might be exposed to the Infantile Paralysis.
Nan met my grandfather at a dance at the Albert Hall, and after the music stopped, he kept twirling her around the dance floor and then asked her for the next dance and the next three or four after that. They married and she left town for the bush and life as the wife of a sawmiller. They shifted around the northeast of Tasmania, moving every eighteen months to two years, once they’d felled the trees in the area. She described her days with no running water or electricity: keeping a fire going on hot summer days for the flat irons; washing by hand with grated Velvet soap; boiling sheets, pillow slips and nappies in the copper; starching aprons, table cloths, shirt collars and cuffs and whitening with Reckitt’s Blue (‘cos you need white cuffs in the bush!). She had a scrubbing board, but didn’t like it — it took the skin off between the knuckles of the two fingers that did all the rubbing.
She told me funny anecdotes, like how the relatives used to stay at their house during the Scottsdale Show, and she’d put them on camp stretchers and mattresses in the kitchen. She used to leave an empty pot on a chair just inside the kitchen door so the fellow on the corner who had a couple of milking cows could slip in at dawn and fill it with milk. He got a fright one morning when he opened the door and the kitchen was filled with sleeping bodies. Another time, Pa’s camp stretcher collapsed with a crash in the middle of the night.
When they lived in the bush, they couldn’t get to Mass but she still said her prayers and in May, they prayed the Rosary around the fire in the kitchen. ‘And the kids would be tittering and I’d threaten to knock their heads off,’ she said.
She had the last of her eight children at thirty-nine — twins. After settling them at eleven at night, her day started at 4:20 the next morning. ‘First one would start, then the other.’ For much of the time, she was on her own, as my grandfather camped at the sawmill during the week.
Nan told me these stories in her slow, crackly voice and her ancient Tassie accent that you rarely hear these days. ‘I’ve had a funny old life when you think about it,’ she said, and what came through in our conversations was her sense of pride and achievement. She hadn’t had an easy life and there was much to be proud of.
The conversations we had were enjoyable and I laughed with her, and respected her right to only tell me what she wanted me to hear. But I’d also heard the other stories, the truer and much sadder version of her life.
Of how she wet the bed into later childhood and was locked in the shed outside as punishment. And how seventy years later when driving past her childhood home, she could barely look at it for the memories it brought back.
She didn’t tell me that when a doctor told my great-grandmother she needed rest, she went to bed and didn’t get up again for twenty-seven years. After she became ‘crippled’ (as it was always told to me), my great-grandmother lived with each of her children for months at a time, and they waited on her hand and foot. When she came to stay, Nan hid their sewing machine and the kids were forbidden from mentioning it — my great-grandmother would have been annoyed that Nan hadn’t spent the money on her. (Miraculously, after twenty-seven years in bed, my great-grandmother cured herself and walked again!)
Nan didn’t tell me how she and my grandfather married the day before she had their first child. She left out how her mother wouldn’t speak to her and she had lived with a lady in town, working until two weeks before her baby was born. No one at her work suspected she was pregnant. She didn’t tell me how she had told her children that she and my grandfather had married a year earlier than they did, and how every wedding anniversary she pretended they had been married a year longer than they had.
Nor did Nan tell me how, at the end of her tether, she regularly belted her kids and called them bastards, how she hit her own son for wetting the bed, and how she did ‘knock their heads off’ when they tittered during the Rosary. She didn’t remind me of how she brought my youngest uncles to my childhood birthday parties wearing a jug cord around her neck.
She didn’t tell me about her depression and how she had spent weeks at a time in a psychiatric ward being treated.
She didn’t tell me about the nasty arguments with her husband, and how after one such argument, she found him a few hours later hanging at the end of a rope in the shed.
Nor could I ask her about these stories. I knew part of it was the era she was brought up in — there were things you just didn’t talk about. And I didn’t want to embarrass her — she had done the best she could. She didn’t want me to know the ‘shameful’ things, and I respected that. She no doubt thought that I would judge her as harshly as others had. As harshly as she had judged herself, perhaps.
I let her omit the stories she didn’t want to tell, and pretended I didn’t already know. But, gosh, how I would have loved to have heard the truth, and how I wish she could have told it. I would love to have heard how she felt, unmarried and pregnant in the early 1940s. I will never know how she reconciled with her mother, or what really happened before her husband hanged himself, or how she felt when she discovered his body in the shed.
The truth would have been so much better than the glossed-over version, and I would have respected her even more for telling it. What’s more, I could have told her so, and how much I respected and admired her for what she’d survived. (Not to mention, that no one gives two hoots about being pregnant and unmarried these days!)
My grandmother died September 1st 2012, and her secrets have been laid to rest with her, a chunk of family history buried forever. What a shame…
I know our family is not unique in keeping family secrets. What about yours? Are there things in your family that are shameful secrets, forbidden to be talked about?