early memories

my first sensations are of the light and the sun.. flooding into the front room of my grandparents’ house where my parents and i were living in Farrer, Canberra, in 1978, and the sounds of mum playing the clair de lune on the small ‘minion’ piano there.. the green sofas of that front room and smells of nana’s noodle soups wafting around the corner from the adjoining kitchen. …the very next memory is also infused with the sun.. now at Burra in the garden which mum and my dad’s parents were summoning out of the dry earth.. the constant flow of hoses and sprinklers through hot summer, sitting in buckets with green hoses gushing in.. the thick green grass of grandad’s lawn and the crunch underfoot of sharp orange pine needles from the tall radiata pines which fringed the farm. these places are the rich and golden faraway lands of my earliest thoughts and becomings.. my sense of being alive and a thing or a person in a mysterious world. i felt safe and happy. my traumas were the stings of bees, the scratch of a kitten, a sudden loud sound from one of dad’s powertools. i had no sophisticated fears.

my mother, Rhonda, was only a year out of school, a student at piano, who had met my father, Jim, at a local house party of mutual friends, and quickly fallen pregnant. the first pregnancy was terminated but when mum fell pregnant again soon after, they decided to keep the baby, although knowing that they were not well prepared for it. dad had a job fencing in far off rural locations and could be absent for days at a time, mum had been living with her parents, although at some point, perhaps around the time of the first pregnancy, they rented a flat together in Lyons. Mum and dad always say that their relationship was basically a very close friendship and companionship at these early times. Dad was six years older than mum and might have been a bit more eager to settle down. They both faced family pressures to marry when the pregnancy was announced, and so without much resistance to the idea, they did, mum with a bulge and dad in a brown suit, in a small backyard ceremony at Farrer.

they told the story of their coming together, the somewhat accidental pregnancy, submitting to the pressure to marry, and the ugly brown suit, many times when i was growing up, seeming to laugh at the ease with which their lives were fixed together in a play of chance. a message they sometimes seemed to want to impress was to take more care with life decisions.. and yet they didn’t express very strong notes of regret.. not to me then.. there was only a vague sense of other life courses missed.. professional careers .. studies.. travel.. but i don’t think either had a strong sense of purpose or direction.. and so new life just spontaneously emerged from that vague place of indecision, as it so often does.

dad’s parents had moved to a property at Burra, not far from Canberra in the early seventies, part of an arrangement following their daughter’s marriage into a local family, and dad, the youngest of their three children, had already been living there on and off in a caravan with his first girlfriend Vivienne, and helping his dad and brother-in-law to build fences and restore the old 19th century homestead ‘Lagoon’, which was just down the road. Shortly after I was born, he and mum decided to move to the farm too and dad bought some old shearers’ living quarters from the Lagoon property, which were just a pile of tin and timber, and started to rebuild them right next door to his parent’s house. After about a year of construction, which dad did almost all on his own in between his fencing work, he made a small three room cottage, and they moved out from Farrer where they had been living for some time with mum’s parents. I was about 18 months old.

the early days at the farm were pretty basic. there were just a few items of furniture – a chunky pine table and white chipboard shelves that came from the flat, and a sofa that was just a big lump of foam- and the first winter the only heating was from portable heaters which smelled strongly of kerosene. we all slept together in the same bed although at some point i was moved out into a pine cot. dad installed a franklin stove, which then became the spot to squat, back to the fire, through the cold winters. He built a wide verandah on the front and laid a thick brown shaggy carpet in the lounge – and painted all exposed wooden beams ‘mission brown’ – mum often commented on their nearly exclusive preference for dark brown in those early days. the house was then continually being added onto and improved as we grew up in it, and never in a state of completion, even now.

My early memories of that house are that front room, of there being cats and kittens about, and of the record player in the corner. Dad’s presence in my life in fact, apart from the shaggy beard and green cyclone fencing t-shirt, is in his choice of music – and the sound i remember is that of steely dan, the rolling stones, blondie, and 45s like ‘jolene’ and ‘the lion sleeps tonight’ or ‘the wimba-way song’ or the ‘three kittens’ which was my favourite request. there was only one fuzzy channel we could pick up on the black and white TV (ABC), so music was a key feature of entertainment in those days. Mum hadn’t moved the piano out yet, but dad had a yamaha acoustic guitar which he’d play his own compositions on, as well as various bits of the shadows, beatles ‘hide your love away’, and ‘leaving on a jet plane’ which would sometimes bring me to tears.

Dad’s parents were directly next door, and were on something of a mission to create an enormous luxuriant garden on the farm. Dad’s father and my grandad, Andy, was near the end of his career as the head of maintenance at the Australian National University and had been bringing home plants and ideas including a love of fish ponds for many years. They planted many trees and shrubs over the bare bones of the simple farmstead garden that had existed before, especially elms and manchurian pear, and laid out a pattern of winding pathways and ponds to create a cool tranquility around both houses. Mum added to this a love of old roses and English garden plants which grew to fill up our side of the property over the years. various pumps and lawn mowers were continually being repaired by my grandad in those early days. As dad maintained a collection of old cars and car parts i was surrounded by machinery in my early life and grew fascinated in the inner workings of engines.

in the centre of all this, my early life on the farm with mum was slow and easy. I had her all to myself.. a constant presence through every little discovery.. every moment.. sometimes my cousin Leigh, about my age, would walk up over the hill from Lagoon and we’d hang around in the house next door with grandma drinking lemon cordial and drawing on the sunlit bench in the kitchen. There were a few other kids around.. cousins from canberra would visit en-masse .. a cause for excitement at christmas and easter.. some other farm kids from nearby drifted in and out.. but from them i kept a distance, close by mum’s side, nervous of people i didn’t know well. there were farm cats and dogs – my favourite dog, ‘bampsie’ led me down the creek once when i was 2 or three, where mum found me standing up to my knees in water shouting ‘naughty bampsie!’.

although i don’t remember too much commotion around it and have only a few memories of them arguing, mum and dad first separated when i was around four and i moved with mum back into town to live in a rental next door to her parents that we called ‘the white house’ (as it was painted white). there was a hole in the fence and i spent that year back and forth between my grandparents house and ours. Grandpa once carried me on his back and stooping down to go through the hole accidentally clonked me on the head, a story he regretfully remembered to me a number of times. their backyard was full of stone-fruit and almond trees and had a large swimming pool with a diving board.. dad was still a regular visitor and mums brother and sister were a continual presence around the pool in summer, and at nana’s dinner table.

In fact mum and dad were still getting on well enough that we went on a family holiday to queensland at about this time.. i seem to remember feeding a killer whale with a fish at seaworld, it jumped out of the water and took it from my hand. or maybe it was a dolphin. there was a terrifying experience of a waterslide in a swimming pool which put me off waterslides for the rest of my childhood. there was a visit to a parrot sanctuary and i here made my first new friend: ‘brook’, who i called ‘brick’, and we spent the rest of the holiday running around the galleries of the hotel together, visiting each others rooms, having a wild time.

back at home, school was looming and i had no luck making friends as good as dear old brick.. i suppose there were limited opportunities with few people my own age very regularly about.. mum’s friends had no children yet being still in their early 20s. Mum’s best friend Margaret who i fondly remember visiting, committed suicide at about this time. i don’t remember the event, or its effect on mum, and found out about it much later. my cousins on dad’s side, mostly older than me, were influential connections to a sophisticated world of mainstream culture which i dimly understood.. their orbit was different to that of my mum and I.. the sounds of michael jackson, the smell of mcdonalds, the existence of coca cola.. these things were distantly perceived by me only through them.

At the Farrer preschool i have happy memories of sliced fruit and playing in the yard on a big old dead tree.. playing by myself.. but starting kindergarten was a huge trauma. i cried and cried, sitting on the knee of my teacher Miss Sharah in front of the class. i was overwhelmed by the other children, the sudden exposure to a world they all seemed to familiarly inhabit, and incredibly distraught by the loss of mum. I recall being taken out of kindy for a few weeks and then being put back in.. however hard it was at first , by later on in the year i seemed to have got used to it. i remember learning to spell using cut out words stuck onto a board.. discovering words like ‘and’ and ‘this’ .. the big old colour TV that was wheeled out to watch playschool.. and one day when some year 6 kids who came to show us their invention – glasses with windscreen wipers.. one of my first direct encounters with a kind of scientific invention, it impressed something on me. i soon decided that i wanted to be a scientist — an ‘everything’ scientist.

and in the same year, 1983, there were several other changes.. mum and i moved back out to burra with dad, her parents sold their farrer house that i had grown up around and moved to a big brick house in the new suburb of tuggeranong. but most cataclysmic and exciting for my world was the birth of my sister Evie. I remember when the call came through that she was born. i was eating rice bubbles at the kitchen table at nana’s new house, the phone was on the wall and nana told me the news.. i was so excited without knowing what it all meant except that i would have a friend to play with… i remember that dad was trying to finish lining the roof of our bedroom at burra with new pine tongue and groove timber but characteristically he didn’t quite get it finished before mum came home with the baby.

we were all together in that bedroom for at least the first year of Evie’s life, although i remember nothing much of being woken by crying or anything like that. i experienced all the other baby stuff though, nappies and a yellow soft sheepskin blanket and baby toys filled my life, as it did all of our lives. it was a little disappointing that she wasn’t ready to play games straight away. and although i didn’t register it at the time, i think i must have missed being at the focus of mum’s attention. instead my life expanded out into the farm and its events, my new pet goat Henry, my lawnmower collection, my cubby house with the huge radiata pine tree behind it which could be climbed to great heights, my uncle’s electronics collection which he donated to me and which i took into the garage, prising valves and transistors from old circuit boards.

that’s how it all began for me.. maybe i’ll write the rest another day.

update: i have written something about the next few years here: Primary years