Yesterday I received in the mail an envelope full of letters from my childhood. They were letters that my mother, my brother and I had written to my Father’s Mother, my Nan Runciman between 1982 and 1991. My aunt had kept them after Nan died and was now passing them on to me.
In 1982, I was 6, my brother was 5 and my mother was 24. We had just moved from Sydney up to the mid-north coast of NSW, inland from Macksville in the Nambucca Valley, deep in middle-of-nowhere territory.
My mother and father had divorced a couple of years earlier and my mother was finding it difficult to cope. When her parents moved to a farm in the country, we followed not long after, as did one of her brothers and her sister.
The farm we moved to had a little rundown farm-house and a dairy. The dairy was on top of the hill with a great view. My grandparents wanted to live there, so they were converting the dairy bails to a house. We moved into the farmhouse at the bottom of the hill.
My mother’s letters to her mother-in-law were upbeat and descriptive. She didn’t own a camera but she could draw; in the first letter she drew the house 3 ways (including the first drawing):
She describes thickets of lantana that grew right up to the house, tobacco bushes with tree-like trunks, enormous fruit trees that had been left to grow so high that only the birds could reach the fruit, and the ubiquitous rubbish tip right next to the house, so common in those days.
She does not write of loneliness, although I know she was lonely, or of fear, although sometimes she was afraid, especially in the middle of nowhere with an asthmatic daughter.
In one letter dated February 1984, Mum writes about having everything go wrong when her parents and her sister go away to Sydney:
‘…first I was bogged for 2 days and after fruitless efforts finally got a tow out from a passing tractor. Then the hot water pipe broke and it took me half a day in the pouring rain to fix it, then we ran out of water, 10000 gallons in five days, oh no there must be another pipe broken. I was scared stiff because I had to get the pump going; that took 4 hours, 2 ½ million ticks and three journeys up the big hill to Mum and Dad’s (where the tank was) and many prayers that the pump would start working properly…I’m determined not to freak out and not to ring round for help.’
Mum worked so hard. She writes of levelling half of the backyard and filling in the other half (with a shovel), clearing, digging, making gardens, pruning and experimenting with animal husbandry. We were given a broody chicken with 12 tiny chicks – who all turned out to be roosters, fighting bloody battles in the backyard as they got older. Determined to do everything herself, she borrowed a gun, using 100 bullets to kill 10 roosters because every time she pressed the trigger she closed her eyes. She saved up and bought a goat to milk, which was so naughty she had to give it back. There was also a dog, a Wymerana pup given to the RSPCA because its city owners couldn’t stop it from jumping the fence. The dog lasted one night at our place before it hung itself from its lead – Mum had tied it to the clothes line to stop it from running away.
Mum wrote about my brother and me; how we were settling into school, how well we played together and how helpful we were. In one letter she says of me:
‘Sara is very studious and infinite attention to detail, although she is very unsociable, nicking off in recess and lunch to read.’
I couldn’t help but smile when I read that. I became more sociable but retained my habit of occasionally nicking off to the library right up to the end of high-school. I like libraries 🙂
Gardening, escaping cows, frisky horses (later on), the weather and floods were topics common to every letter, even the ones that Ben and I wrote. Maybe that was because flood weather was a good time to write letters. Later on, Mum wrote about meeting my step-father, her yoga practice and teaching and even her spiritual explorations.
Reading these letters has been a deep pleasure for me. Hearing my mother’s voice as a young woman and seeing her make her own way and live a life of conviction and authenticity is inspiring. It wasn’t easy, but Mum has never been afraid of hard work. She has had some weird and wonderful ideas in her time, but my childhood was never dull – and all of my friends thought she was so cool 🙂 Mum was so different from the other country mothers. She was young, vibrant, modern, independent and carefree – she stuck out like a yellow umbrella on a rainy city street. She told everyone to call her Belinda, not Mrs Foley, which shocked the pants off them. Most kids back then even called family friends uncle and aunt, but mum wasn’t into titles.
Thanks Mum for being you, no matter what. In doing so, you have taught me to be happy being me.