THE SISTERS' SONG coming in January 2018 from Allen and Unwin. Sign up to my newsletter.

In the lead-up to publication of my novel, I want to write a few posts about the inspiration for my story.

Last year, I wrote about my grandfather in ‘The Story Behind the Story‘. In that post, I talked about how as soon I started writing my novel, my grandparents’ voices came to me, along with many memories and snippets of family folklore. 

This post is about another of my ancestors: my great-grandmother. She died when I was eight, and because I didn’t have as much to do with her as I did with my grandfather, I don’t have many memories of her.

However, she did leave a legacy, both good and bad.

 

 

In a Midweek Moment in 2015, I posted a photo of a silk bed-jacket made by my great-grandmother. 

I have two of these jackets, which I keep wrapped in acid-free tissue paper in a box on the top shelf of my wardrobe.

 

 

They’re a little stained by the passage of time, and dated, both in fashion and because no one wears bed-jackets anymore, but I think they’re beautiful. They’re special to me because they’re two beautiful things I have from my family history, and I don’t have many of those.

They’re completely handmade, even the seams are hand-sewn. The stitches are so fine and even, it’s hard to believe they weren’t sewn by a machine. Both of these jackets could be worn inside out and no one would notice. 

They’re designed to be worn, but they’re much more than functional clothing—they’re art. They’ve been made by someone with endless patience, a perfectionist even. Someone who took pride in their work, who had an eye for beauty. Someone who was creative, who didn’t just sew two pieces of cloth together to form a covering, but added extra touches to make the garment special—french seams; pintucking and embroidered rosebuds on the sleeves and epaulets; and crocheted cotton loops for the buttons and a trim around the lapels.

 

 

My great-grandmother was born Noreda Alice Clarke in 1900. She married Ernest Hill at the age of 16, and ten years later, at the tender age of 26, she was widowed and left to raise six children on her own.

It was heading into the Great Depression, and there was little money—I’m not sure pensions were even around in those days. My great-grandmother struggled to raise her family, and she and her six children moved in with her mother-in-law.

At some point during the next decade, she injured her spine when jumping from a moving bus, and from that time on, she was crippled. This is the story I was told, anyway.

I’ve calculated she must have been in her mid-thirties when this happened, and her youngest child, my great-uncle Bruce, would have been ten or eleven at most.

 

 

For the next 26 years, she was bedridden. Once her children grew up, she lived with them and their families, staying for months at a time until she moved onto the next.

Because she couldn’t walk, she was dependent on others for everything—she was carried everywhere; her meals brought to her; her chamber pot emptied; and a washbowl and flannel brought every day.

By all accounts, she was rather demanding, and I know that whenever she visited my grandmother, the sewing machine was hidden because my great-grandmother would have been annoyed the money hadn’t been spent on her.

 

 

Then, one Christmas Day, 26 years later, to everyone’s surprise she got up and walked again. Her recovery was talked about as nothing short of a miracle.

Many years later when I studied Medicine, my suspicions that spinal injuries don’t miraculously heal like that were confirmed. I was in my early twenties by then, and my great-grandmother had long left this earth. I asked my grandmother—her daughter—about the story.
‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘It was nothing to do with when she jumped from the bus …’

The real story was that one day a doctor had told her that she needed to rest, so she went to bed and didn’t get up again. At the time, everyone just accepted that she could no longer walk.

 

 

When I first learnt about this, I judged my great-grandmother quite harshly. What a manipulative woman! Lying in bed for 26 years and being waited on hand and foot. I felt sorry for her kids—she’d bailed out of her maternal duty and abandoned her young family. Instead of being the carer she should have been, she’d reversed the role and become the needy one. All for a made-up illness.

This only added to my personal memories of her as a tiny (less than five feet tall), old woman, dressed in dark grey, and perpetually grumpy. She was always seated, and if she did move, everyone jumped to attention, and a throng of people helped her hobble from the room on her walking stick.

We had to call her, ‘Mumma’, because she didn’t like ‘Grandma’, and were forever being told to keep our voices down and behave ourselves around her.

To me, she was like a gloomy presence at Christmas and family gatherings, and I avoided her. I was frightened of her—terrified, in fact. I stood as far away as I could, and had to be prodded forwards for the perfunctory kiss.

It was never said outright, but I heard the whispers of resentment towards her, including from my grandmother. I was only a child, but I knew it wasn’t just me who was frightened of her.

 

 

Mumma was killed in a car accident in 1975, and at the funeral I remember looking up at everyone crying and wondering why—they’d all disliked her when she was alive.

While she was alive, criticism of her was whispered, but it was quickly silenced after her death. I remember saying I hadn’t liked her, and being told off for being disrespectful of the dead.
‘She had a hard life, you know. She was a cripple.’ 

Decades later, one of my uncles referred to her as, ‘That bloody old cow, Mumma Hill …’ and I laughed out loud. It was a relief to finally hear the unvarnished truth and not an idealisation of this grumpy and, it has to be said, manipulative woman.

 

 

All of this is most likely true, and she might have been a manipulative old cow, but these days I feel more compassion towards her than I used to. I can only imagine how hard it would have been as a young woman in the 1920s, widowed with six children to raise on her own in rural Tasmania, without adequate financial and emotional support.

I suspect it was so hard she was unable to keep going. I suspect, too, that she couldn’t just say, I can’t cope anymore, and throw in the towel, but perhaps needed a physical illness to justify taking time out.

When I was a doctor, I saw this time and again—people stretched beyond their limits by circumstance, but who, for many reasons, felt unable to admit how much they were struggling. They developed physical ailments, often pain or weakness, which they genuinely felt, and which I viewed as their minds pleading for help via their bodies. 

In this day and age, with much more known about psychology and with better community and government support, my great-grandmother might have been diagnosed with depression and given treatment and support to get her functioning again.

I’ve no doubt the circumstances of my great-grandmother’s life had a lot, if not everything, to do with her demeanour and life’s choices. She had her good points—her creativity being one of them—but she also had her bad ones. They were both a part of her, as they are of us all.

 

 

While she lay in bed, her hands weren’t idle, and she’s left a beautiful legacy: embroidered tablecloths, sheets, and jackets; brooches, sewing baskets, and pin cushions. As a child, I played with many of her things, giving little thought to the painstaking work that had gone into them. (I must say, I wish now that I’d treated them with more respect.)

When I hold these bed-jackets, I see the beauty she was able to create, and I wonder at what such a woman might have been able to do had her circumstances been different. They’re literal threads back through the generations to something good that became buried by grief and sadness and desperation. 

The more difficult aspects of my great-grandmother’s life and personality have rippled through the generations and impacted on mine, but I have these to remind me of the beauty that was there, too. 

One day I’ll pass them on to my children and, hopefully, they’ll survive to be passed onto their children, and the jackets, along with the stories, will be their threads to the past.

 

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THE SISTERS' SONG

Coming January 2018 (Allen and Unwin)

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