Thursday, September 23, 2004

time stretches out before us ...

My great aunt Ruby Lorraine died on Monday morning - aged 92.

Mum called me in the afternoon after getting a call from Lorraine's son who lives in England - the other is working in Africa at the moment. Lorraine had been having heart problems for a while, but I saw her on Saturday evening and she appeared to be in good health.

This IS an amazing woman. A seasoned-traveler; a cosmopolitan citizen of the world; a learned and experienced matriach. Married three times - most recently at 81 to a university sweetheart. Lorraine graduated form the University of WA with a degree in Mathematics during the 1930s, after growing up around South Western Australia.

Lorraine lived on her own up in the hills (Dandenongs). She lived on a beautiful property and in an old house built in the 1890s as a guest house, which she ran herself back in the late 1940s after WW2. I have been visiting her since we arrived in Australia back in 1982 (when I was about 6 or 7). She's been an important part of my life, as well as an inspiration for my professional life, being a teacher herself.

The funeral is next Tuesday. I have been asked to speak.

I once wrote a story about Lorraine and her sisters Ena and Cora (my grandmother - who died back in 1990). Here is part of it.

My great grandmother, Caroline Louisa, once peered out a window like mine. As I have imagined it, her window is much older. Her window frame is painted white, but is slowly turning yellow and is chipped and faded by the West Australian sun. Verandahs front and back; old steeped red iron roof; aged timber posts and handrails, and bare wooden floors clothed in places with heavy rugs. She stands by a rough-hewn table, baking. The tabletop is covered with the day’s labours and awaits the family’s hungry attention. The afternoon sun is an amber rainbow and pours through the window, bringing with it the playful sounds of small children – the Collins’ girls. Her three daughters, Ena, Cora and Ruby. They play contentedly in the long, partbrown-part-green wild grass but also half listen as if waiting for the reassuring and occasional clang of their mother’s spoon against the big white enamel bowl. An Aberdeen Angus stands off a little distance, untethered. And the girls talk. They talk of other worlds, of cities far away, of rivers and rocks, and animals that run; of trees and fairies and sprites, but mostly of adventure. These warmed sounds mingle easily with the aromas of the long lazy day and rise slowly in the nose and gently soften the neck.

Caroline and her husband, David Collins, moved to Albany, south of Perth, early in 1921. They built a house, and made their home on the Kalgan River, where the leaves from tall riverside gums quench the sun and cool green light bends off every ripple. Swimming in the river was to live. Floating, top up, staring blue-skyward, ears submerged listening to the water run underneath and around. The underwater sounds of crawling leaves and shifting rocks made the spine tingle.

The most important part of Caroline and David’s lives were these three young girls. Both parents were literate in the traditional sense and instilled in their daughters from an early age, by example, practice and habit, the importance of talk, imagination, and education. Ena, Cora and Ruby really believed they could be, and do, anything they really wanted. Perhaps fortunately, much of their early schooling was completed by correspondence, with mum and dad filling in the gaps left by teacher absence. Although limited early on in an institutional sense, the Collins girls’ education continued in a variety of ways. Letter writing took a prominent place, as did story books, poetry, singing and music. In later years a piano and violin could be heard from one corner of the house as Ena and Cora attempted to outplay each other. One noodling JS Bach and the other involved in a serious rendition that much loved 'Australian' standard, Yankee Doodle. At one time while out and about with the horse and buggy some quick thinking by Ena saved all three lives from an advancing bushfire front. Exposure to a variety of worlds and experiences proved a much rounding experience for the Collins' girls. Caroline and David’s little bit of land had fences but it was not a place of boundaries.

Perhaps my window keeps something. This grubby pane of glass is somehow soaked in the events of my past. The years of work, study, thought – even the idled time – collect here at this central focal point. This window has known my successes and eloquence; it has also known my failure and my lassitude. It has known heartaches and quiet pensive wonderings. It has listened to the sweet strains of love and the humble dirges of sadness. It is a mirror and touchstone to past times. And yet it is only a grubby pane of glass. Coming of age came early for the Collins’ girls. When it was time to move away it was into a neat and modern apartment near the University of Western Australia in Perth. Ena and Ruby studied music and mathematics respectively, while Cora pursued fine art and crafts. They were all successful. In these idyllic surrounds our young independent clean-air and country-bred women feasted on all around them. The young girl talk that had been so full of the earth now became the talk of young women and turned to men and dresses and parties; of friends and chamber music; of theatre, of love, but still of adventure. From the windows of this high apartment the comings and goings of the city’s busy folk was always in ebb and flow.

Ruby graduated from the University of WA in the late depression times of the 1930s. She took a degree in Mathematics and was one of the few women to do so. Ena graduated with a Music degree a few years earlier. In the stretch of years afterwards, life took many interesting and varied turns for the Collins’ women: marriage, England, children, World War II, New Guinea, early death and sadness, Tasmania, Victoria, and the world.

In the bric-a-brac of hand-me-down inheritances I didn’t get a teapot or a cigar box, a family bible or even a medal or brooch – although every gift, birthday and Christmas present was a book – but I have begun to realise that what I have inherited is much more important than these things. It has something to do with literacy in the widest sense of the word, and something to do with past lives that continue to somehow live in the present; the future also plays a role, as it looms large and demanding; and me right in the middle, here and now. So as I watch the slow circles of the tape player and review the recordings I have made of Lorraine and some of her past, I understand that in the grubby glass is a face that is many faces.

While I mostly accept that my physical body is the complex biological product of many generations past, I often wonder and imagine [!] the extent to which my mind and personal imaginings are the part-product of the memories and stories and narratives of those who I claim as my family. The ways in which we make sense of the world, or 'take' meaning from the things around us, from books, from speech, and from language, draws heavily from, and is influenced by our individual and collective recollections of our pasts. With language and these varied 'ways of taking' we shape the worlds we inhabit and understand. Our conceptions of where we have come from, and where we are going to help anchor the present in ways that are meaningful - or at least provide ways in which we can create meaning in our present actions and efforts.

The stories we tell and imagine about our pasts, futures and the here and now form 'life narratives', which connect us to them - or ancestors to those that are alive today – us. As I look to strengthen these links between the different strains of memory and self, I am aware that in many ways my conceptions of my history is linear. Oddly enough though, the manner in which I have been trying to access past personal, and collective, memory seems to me creative and imaginative, perhaps even spiralling. Understanding the ways in which my past, and also the pasts of others, enters into and effects my present actions, understandings, and future aspirations and desires is my inherited literacy legacy. It is something I have had to piece together myself from the traces of the past. Something which may only be of value to me and a few others in the future, but perhaps in 200 years, or even a little sooner, I will be handing down my own literacy legacy. I think this is the literacy that most concerns me.

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