Before I go further into the beginning of the end, I guess I’d better start at the beginning of the beginning which, ironically, was only twelve kilometres (seven miles) up the road from chapter one.
I didn’t plan it that way; when I left home at the age of eighteen, I never wanted to return to the area but, after travelling the world and living in three different nations, the Universe seemed to conspire to have me back where it all began.
The Blue Mountains is at the western edge of Sydney. It is part of the Great Dividing Range, a mountainous ridge that stretches the eastern side of mainland Australia from the top of Queensland to the very bottom in Victoria. Where I grew up it is not so much mountains as a rock plateau which has been eroded over eons to become a series of ridges and gorges. Rugged, wild, beautiful, and very unique.
As a small girl I would look east from a vantage point near our house, towards Sydney. At night the lights of Sydney could be seen twinkling off in the distance at the edge of the horizon. With each year that passed, those lights would get closer and closer until Sydney’s expansion brought it right to the bottom of the mountains. Now my town is more like an extended suburb of the massive metropolis.
But back then it was far more country in nature. Our small fibro house backed onto the Blue Mountains National Park, thousands of square kilometres of wild country broken by creeks and sandstone cliffs and native bushland. Much of my childhood was spent wandering our valley, playing in such creatively named features as Five Entrance Cave, swimming in Log Pond and building cubby houses out of whatever I could find. There were fire trails, dirt tracks cut along ridges for the fire trucks to use in bushfires, that wandered for miles and I wandered with them.
Mum didn’t really worry about me out there by myself. We were raised to be aware of snakes and I rarely had any close calls with them. As long as I was home by tea-time (dinner in Australia) all was fine. And I loved roaming the bush, imagining I was on epic adventures to discover new locations or save lost hikers. I was free out in the bush and when things weren’t so good at home, which was often, that was where I would disappear to until things blew over.
Venomous snakes were an issue where I grew up though. Being so close to the bush, they regularly came into the yard and hung around the house. Our dog, a black Kelpie named (naturally) Blackie, had a special bark for snakes. He would stand there and bark until Mum came out with the long-handled shovel, manoeuvre her way into position, and then swing the shovel and WHOP, off came its head. Of course, that’s illegal now but she was just protecting her brood. One time, unbeknownst to me, she had killed a very large black snake. One of my brothers had taken the dead snake down and laid it across the entrance to my cubby house. I got home from school, hurriedly changed my clothes, and tore down to the bottom of the yard, eager to play in my ‘house’. Not seeing the snake until the very last second, I screeched to a halt, screaming, and ran white-faced back up to the house yelling ‘Snake! Snake!’ as I went. I wondered why my brother was laughing so hard he could barely stand. Smart a**! It was pretty funny though…later.
My family was definitely blue collar. Dad had been a mechanic in the Air Force, working on the Hercules and Caribou planes down at the base at the bottom of the mountains. When he finally left the Air Force he worked as the local mailman and then at the town petrol station before he truly retired.
He was a motorbike fanatic and, ever the tinkerer, he designed and made his own sidecar to attach to an old Goldwing bike he had. Practicality was always chosen over beauty though, and this sidecar was a black box with a lid that could be removed, and it was about the same size and shape as a coffin. Locals would remark, ‘Here comes Alex and his coffin,’ especially when he started using it to deliver the mail. Sometimes, on school holidays, I would sit in the coffin and help him deliver the mail. It was as rough as anything and incredibly uncomfortable to sit in, so my skinny butt was often bruised by the end of the route, but I rather enjoyed the feeling of being special when people looked and waved. Or maybe they were laughing at the coffin. Anyway, it was fun for a while.
Mum never worked at all until I, the last of the five of us, was well into school and even then, it was only part time, so she was always there when I got home from school. We weren’t very well-off, but we always had good shoes and clothing, even if much of it was made by Mum. Back then, buying clothes was far more expensive than making them. She would knit the most amazing jumpers for us all, including our school jumpers. Most of her knitting was done by memory, after she had gotten the hang of a pattern, and if she was watching a scary movie on the tv her needles would positively whir as she got caught up in the suspense.
Mum was also an incredible seamstress. She would often reuse old patterns and save up to buy material to make our clothes, including our school uniforms again. She even made my swimming costumes for many years. One of my sisters hated wearing homemade clothes. I don’t think I ever noticed any difference until I was much older, and I was much more a tomboy than a fashionista, not caring too much what people thought of my clothes. I adored in particular a red sundress that I wore until it was a rag, and also a gorgeous red faux velvet (because real velvet was way too expensive) winter dress that I wore to special events or Sunday School. Needless to say, my favourite colour is still red.
There were three good meals every day, conservative but healthy fare. Meat and three veg. But Mum made the best desserts! Rhubarb apple crumble. Lamingtons. ANZAC biscuits. And passionfruit ice-cream! Store-bought ice-cream wasn’t in our budget, so she had her own recipe made from condensed milk I think it was. There was a passionfruit vine all along the side of our house so in the summer she would add them and make passionfruit ice-cream. Oh my! Apparently, her custard was also to die for, but I have always hated custard. I still do. I think it’s the texture. Anyway, bought treats were rare but we definitely had a balanced and healthy diet and we had to eat it all, even if we had to sit there until we puked if it happened to be one of our hated vegetables or liver and onions or tripe, which Dad loved. Blah!!! In case you don’t know, tripe is the stomach of a sheep or a cow and it stinks! So does sheep’s brains, another of Dad’s favourites that we had to eat. I think Mum finally gave up making us eat it when she drew the line at it herself. Then she would fix spaghetti for us and tripe for Dad. Thank God!
Dad built our house himself and it wasn’t fancy, nor was it particularly warm in the winter with no central heating or insulation, but then most of the houses of that day only had a heater or two. After a while Mum bought us electric blankets which I loved to turn up to the highest setting before diving into bed at night and listening to the winter winds howling around the eaves and rattling the tin roof.
Mum was thirty-eight and Dad was in his forties when they had me (and I think I was an accident) so by the time I was older, they were pretty tired of having kids. While I hated having ‘old’ parents, it also meant that I got away with a lot more than my older siblings. If I thought my parents were strict with me, they were veritable prison-wardens to the older kids, at least that’s the way they tell it.
We definitely didn’t have money for traditional vacations, but we did get away at times. Dad had a Kombi van and we would all pile into it, sitting in the back on the engine with grandma in an armchair placed smack in the middle of the van, and drive many hours to Mum’s brother’s place. If he had to slam on the brakes Grandma and the chair would go sliding along the floor until they hit the front seats so we would have to scoot her back again. Thank heavens we never had any accidents, not that the Kombi got up to any great speed.
Anyway, at the time Uncle Wally was living on a dairy farm out in the country and we would stay there for a week or so in the Christmas holidays. This was nothing short of heaven for me! Horses, cows, farm dogs, ferrets that he used to catch rabbits for rabbit stew (yuk), farm cats, I was in my element. I watched the milking and would dip a clean jug into the big milk vat and take the fresh milk back up to the farmhouse for breakfast. Bed was a sleeping bag on the enclosed veranda where I could watch the stars through the window screens.
Sometimes we would go fossicking for gold and gemstones with Dad, camping by beautiful rivers. I was too young to be able to concentrate on the fossicking for long so I would go exploring. I never got lost and Mum and Dad didn’t seem to worry about me either. I’d read the sun and come back to camp when it was time. Later, when I was older, we would drive up to Dad’s sister’s place which was at the beach. Again, I was in heaven, especially when Mum and Dad would drop a friend and I off and go back home and we had the run of the beach…as long as we were home by tea-time.
As I said, I was the youngest of five, with two older brothers and two older sisters. We were rather spread out, so my oldest sister was much older than I was. Her boyfriend, now her husband of many decades, was like another brother to me because I don’t remember him ever not being in the family. One of my earliest memories of her was of Mum taking her away to teacher’s college after she graduated high school, so I have little recollection of her living with us. The next two brothers and a sister I remember more. I can’t say we were close because we weren’t that kind of family, but mostly we got along simply because fighting wasn’t allowed. The worst was a bit of teasing from my next brother up which, as a child I thought was tortuous, like when he put a cicada on the front of my dress, and it started to crawl up towards my neck. I thought he was murdering me, but it was mostly just what big brothers do to little sisters. My next sister up and I shared a room for a while and she would walk me to school sometimes, enduring endless questions and chatter. She was very patient.
My oldest brother was also too old for me to remember much of him being at home, but I do remember both brothers being in various car or motorbike accidents, as teenage boys do, and being in BIG trouble with Mum and Dad. I was just very glad that they hadn’t been badly hurt. But that was about as sentimental as we got, being products of our stoic Depression era parents.
So, that’s a brief overview of how I grew up. I do have some good memories of my childhood and I was incredibly blessed to be born to responsible parents and to have a degree of stability that other children never get. These are some of the better times but there was also a dark and sinister side to my upbringing which I will talk about later.
No matter what happened, though, there were two constants in my life from the very earliest times; horses and God. These two things were an integral part of me, as if programmed into my DNA. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t uppermost in my mind. Sometimes they would strengthen and then fade into the background, and often they wove in and out of each other like an exotic rug or an intricate melody. Horses and God, not two things people would automatically put together. But they do go together, at least for me. I mean, God rides a horse, doesn’t she?