For several years during the past decade I volunteered for one day a week at a nursing home in the city of Melbourne. My brief was just to help out – serve lunch, help in the laundry, participate in whichever of the craft or reading activities was happening at the time. (I learnt to play Bingo in Italian.) I also had the great privilege of engaging in conversations with many of the elderly residents who wanted to talk, and most did. I’m a good listener, but believe me, it was not a demanding task. I recall that probably 80% of the residents were women, and these were women who had tales to tell.
Many of them had grown up in rural areas, often in quite straitened circumstances. Some had been physically assaulted by fathers, brothers or husbands. Some had had to forego an education so that the son or sons in the family could go to school. Many wives were not allowed to go out to work as it might be seen as a reflection on the man of the house, a shaming suggestion that he could not provide for his family.
Of course there were also those who experienced happier times and led more fulfilling lives, especially those who managed to get involved in the war effort of World War 2.
But what made a lasting impression on me was the attitude of all of those who experienced hardship or disadvantage.
These were women in their 80’s and 90’s at the time, who had so often longed for love, adventure or fulfilment but had been denied all of these and had, nevertheless, kept going – dutiful and resilient.
When I expressed regret of any kind on their behalf, the most common response was ‘ah well, you just had to get on with it’. That was the prevailing mantra.
It was this that inspired me to write The Time of the Lilyweeds, a fictitious story in which I try to pay tribute to this generation of the most wonderful women whose yearnings were secret and unfulfilled. The protagonist, Bridie Bowden, is their representative, a woman of her time who longed for more.
In the forthcoming pages I will try to describe the times during which the story takes place, the place in which the story unfolds and, though not the specific characters who people the story, the prevailing characteristics of some of the people who lived in those times.
No doubt these are generalisations and others might recall different experiences altogether. However, these pages are based on the stories told to me by elderly women in the nursing home. These are their truths.
One of the women I spent a lot of time with was, as a child, the victim of a drunken and physically violent father. She married a man of almost exactly the same habits and temperament who beat her regularly. They had 4 sons in rapid succession and when the first one started school, the husband – a plumber with his own small truck – just didn’t come home one day. Ruby waited several days before going to the police as the husband had often stayed out all night on a drunken escapade.
No trace was ever found of him or his truck and Ruby was left to fend for herself and raise the 4 sons (none of whom ever visited her in the nursing home) alone. Her most enduring memory of this time was the fact that the 2 visiting policemen brought her a bag of groceries when they came to tell her that the search for her husband had been fruitless. She couldn’t remember how she survived thereafter, but told the story of the policemen with the groceries over and over again.
Edith grew up in remote rural New South Wales where her family worked a small dairy farm. She loved school as it took her away from the house where the duties looking after the four sons of the family had taken their toll on her mother’s health. Suffering from what they thought were bad asthma attacks, Edith’s mother was often confined to bed for days and died from ‘a chest infection’ when Edith was 12.
Edith was very good at school and especially loved ‘arithmetic’ at which she excelled. Her teacher suggested she think of becoming an accountant one day. She recalled coming home and proudly showing her parents tests in which she’d scored 10/10 and though her mother, when she was alive, had shown tentative pride, her father was scathing and suggested she ‘learn to do something useful’. After her mother’s death Edith was made to leave school and take over the household duties, putting an end to any thoughts of finishing school and having a career.
Edith showed no bitterness and accepted that her first duty was to her family.
Kath used to sit alone in a chair a lot, watching the comings and goings in the driveway below and ‘just thinking about what might have been’. Her words.
Kath’s mother had died in childbirth. She and her sister Mary, (18 months old), were reared by their maternal grandmother until she died when Kath was six. For a while they were cared for by a maternal aunt, Aunty Bib (Barbara) who was only 16 herself. Their father was an alcoholic which didn’t stop the girls loving him massively, for his kindness, his good looks and his wonderful musicianship.
The church, however, had its own ideas about their welfare and somehow (Kath didn’t know how) the two girls were taken into some kind of convent orphanage where she remembers the terrifying tales with which they were regularly threatened by the nuns who ran the place.
At 14, Kath was sent to work as a housemaid for one of the dignitaries of the church. She ‘worked like a navvy’ she said, but still spoke fondly of her placement there as she was allowed play the piano and read as many books as she liked from the extensive bookshelves in the house.
She still speaks about how lucky she was, but daydreams about what it would be like to have had a mother – and a family to grow up in.
My desire is to write about this generation of women, to create a fictional story about one who might represent their spirit, their resilience and their great capacity to ‘just get on with it’. I think they are severely unrepresented in Australian literature and soon it might be too late.