I was 10 when May Royes, my mum, died. My brother George was 8 going on 9, and our sister Marilyn was 3. Mum had been in hospital for some time before she died, and that was in Mareeba - an hour's drive from where we lived in Cairns in the days when we didn't have a car - so that she could be near her mother and sisters. But not near us! We children were "protected" from all this illness and impending death. We had moved from our home in North Cairns to Granddad and Grandma (Sam and Agnes Roy) and Aunty Peg's place at West Cairns by this time. I always wonder how it was for Marilyn (that's her in the photo with Mum) not to have many if any memories of her mother. I don't have many, but they are more than she has...
One "image" I cannot recover is, what sort of a person was she? What was her personality like? I guess those will be forever lost for me, for although others have told me what they knew of her, I cannot "own" their memories for myself. It is "our" relationship I cannot re-invent.
102 Cairns Street, Cairns North, was a typical Queenslander in that it was built on "stilts". Such houses are a real blessing, particularly for mothers, since the kids can play downstairs in wet or very hot weather, you can hang the washing under the house in wet weather, and otherwise sit around or entertain in the cool conditions. All you Queensland readers will know exactly what I mean!
The Fry's lived next door at 100 (to the right of the photo - which was taken about 1997 but unchanged in any major way from the 1940s). We used to play with Don Fry who was born 364 days before me, and we shared the honey from the beehives in their back yard. Don's father founded NQEA (North Queensland Engineers and Agents) which later built the patrol boats for the Royal Australian Navy. Don eventually took over the firm. On the other side, 104 was vacant until the Whitmee's (Basil? and ??) built there. In the wet season our back yards were often covered with 10 or 15 centimetres of rain. George and I had a canoe Dad had made out of a sheet of corrugated iron.
Nearly everyone in Cairns had corrugated iron roofs. The drumming of the tropical rain on these roofs could make conversation difficult, but lying in a warm dry bed and listening to the drumming on the roof was a very soothing experience. You could actually hear tropical showers coming across the roofs of Cairns. If you were out on your bicycle you usually had plenty of notice to find shelter under a shop awning.
The front steps of 102 (at the bottom end of the diagram) led from just inside the front gate straight up to the enclosed front landing. The front landing was my bedroom at one stage so when I say enclosed, it was completely weather proof. As you entered through the front door at the top of the steps, there was a door to the main bedroom on the left, though the main door into this bedroom was actually from the lounge. The entry to the lounge was diagonally opposite the front entrance through large doors off this front landing.
On the left of the lounge was a door to the main bedroom and to a second bedroom. The lounge and dining room were virtually one room. On the left of the dining room was the kitchen. As you entered the kitchen and turned to the right you came to the small back landing. Off the back landing to your right was the bathroom. Otherwise you went straight down the steps to the back yard. The laundry was under the bathroom and from memory was not enclosed. There was a copper for boiling the clothes and I can remember helping mum with a stick a bit thicker than a broom stick to hold a selection of clothes or sheets up out of the boiling water to drain a little before moving them to a laundry trolley, and then to the clothes lines strung across the back yard. There were lengths of timber with a v-notch in their tops for propping up the middle section of the clothes lines.
One memory I have of that back landing is looking over the side of the landing to our pedal car below. And sprawled across the bonnet was my sister Marilyn! She had eluded the child-proofing and fortunately fell over the bonnet of the car and not the steering wheel. I don't remember her crying but I guess she did! I have this image of her looking rather bewildered as if to say, What happened? There was much panic as she was checked out, but she was OK. I can only imagine that mum was probably feeling very guilty, believing like all mothers that she should have had eyes in the back of her head.
There was a "dunny" in the back yard. Dad put a urinal for us males behind it (think about that 10 or 15 centimetres of rain water I mentioned!) and eventually built a modesty wall around it.
At one stage cousins Bert and Ron MacFarlane stayed with us, and Dad built two bedrooms downstairs roughly below the two bedrooms upstairs.
The kitchen table at 102 Cairns Street sat opposite the back landing and near the dining room entry. Diagonally opposite was the stove recess built for a wood-fired stove. I don't remember a lot of wood having to be chopped so I guess it was an electric stove. (The copper was heated with wood so there must have been some.) I remember one day going out of the house to the back yard and just as I passed through the kitchen, my mother, who was at the stove, suddenly pulled her hand away and cried "Bugger!" To which I replied, wide-eyed with shock at such language coming from my mother, "Mum!!" Funny the things you remember!
But back to the kitchen table. I remember standing near the corner of the table and the surface of the table was about level with my eyes. How old was I? Four? maybe even three? On the corner of the table was a glass about a third filled with milk, and my mother was begging me to drink it. I wouldn't. In fact I wouldn't have any dairy products for years â€“ milk, butter, cheese. Even today, you will not get me to drink unflavoured milk, and if there is the slightest suggestion of milk being "off" I won't have it in coffee or on cereals.
If you had asked me a few years ago what Dad did in World War II, I could have told you he was with an armoured unit and that he was away for a short time â€“ maybe a year. I can remember coming home from school (I must have only just started school) and Dad was at the top of the steps waiting for me! It was really exciting. But to my surprise I have since found out that Dad was away for over three and a half years from 16 June 1942 (I was 18 months old) to 4 Feb 1946 (I was 5). He had been allowed home on leave for my brother George's birth in October 1942. The armoured unit bit was right â€“ 2/5 Australian Armoured Regiment - in Western Australia most of the time.
I had to ensure Dad was back on the scene for the next memory... I wouldn't have peanut paste on my bread. (You weren't allowed to call it "peanut butter" due to a strong dairy industry lobby, but it was the same thing.) However, the reason I would not have peanut paste had nothing to do with taste - I had never tasted it! It was my Dad's fault. One day when we were all seated around said kitchen table, mum offered Dad - sitting at the head of the table facing the back door - some peanut paste. (I don't know whether peanut paste was affected by the rationing during World War II, but it is possible that this was the first time it had appeared at our table.) Dad screwed up his face and said, "Yuk!" So - when my mother offered the peanut paste to me I screwed up my face and said "Yuk!" Boarding school in Charters Towers cured me of that in 1956, by which time I was 15. Well, you had to eat something and we were given peanut paste (and "bog" or Golden Syrup) as accompaniments to the evening meal. So in desperation I tried some - and wondered what was wrong with my Dad!
At one stage, George and I shared the second bedroom and a three-quarter bed. Dad had an evil looking Army belt which was displayed in order to achieve discipline in the second bedroom. I don't recall it ever being used. If you know the recording by Bill Cosby about him and his brother sharing a bed, and his father threatening with a strap ("To Russell, my brother, whom I slept with"), you've got it! Though Bill and Russell were much more imaginative in their defence!
I can remember a dream I had one night in that bed. I dreamt I was falling, falling - and I did. Perhaps that was why I ended up with my own bed in the front sleep-out.
The bed in the sleep-out was set along the front wall which had lots of windows - in fact, was all windows or glass so far as the top half of the two external walls were concerned. On one occasion I had a desperate need to have a leak in the middle of the night - possibly brought on by the sound of rain on the roof. It was a long way to the dunny down the back yard, especially at night and especially a rainy night. Besides it was a bit scary out there in the dark on your own. But I HAD to go, so I stood up in bed, pointed out the window and watered the front yard confident that the rain would dilute all evidence. It was dark and quiet â€“ the middle of the night as far as I could tell - but I hadn't counted on my parents, in the room next to me, hearing this. They should have been asleep! Nothing was said that night but it was suggested by Dad in the morning that in future I use the dunny.
One clear memory I have was being in bed with mum and Dad - mum was in the middle - and I was not well at all. Mum was comforting me, and I threw up. I can remember Dad muttering something and Mum reproaching him with something like, "For God's sake, Maurie, he's sick!" That's a good memory to have of mum â€“ not too sure about Dad, though!
On at least two occasions, mum organized outfits for the school's fancy dress parade. On the first occasion she had organized two chinaman outfits for George and me. But it is the second occasion that I remember with some chagrin. Mum had left it a bit late to organize the gear and all that was left was a Phantom suit and a Reckitt's Blue kit. For the younger readers, Reckitt's Blue was a whitener for use in laundering. The product was a small blue cylinder wrapped in a gauze cover tied at each end. (Think of the blue stuff you hang on the toilet to keep it nice and white and smelling nice!) Mum tried the Phantom suit on me first â€“ a wise, diplomatic move I have realized in retrospect â€“ but it didn't fit. George got to wear that! I had to go â€“ very reluctantly and full of embarrassment, outrage and envy - as Reckitt's Blue!
Mum died of a vary rare synovial tumour1 - or at least its end result - in her spine. I can remember Dad taking her to Townsville to a chiropractor (was his name Kjellburg?) for her back pain. It must have been a desperate gamble and the chiropractor said there was nothing he could do. Granddad used to assert that her back problem was because of a fall she had at the 5 Moody Street front steps, not long after Granddad, Grandma and Aunty Peg moved there.
We all went up to Mareeba to see her in hospital. In retrospect, I guess the doctor had suggested it. No one had told us kids what was going on, but I have a clear memory of quite a few family on the Royes side and Dad standing around the bed â€“ I think Grandma and Granddad (Ag and Sam) might have been there. My mother looked wasted and very tired. George and Marilyn were mucking around under the bed and I was offended. I didn't know what was going on but I must have picked up the "vibes" from the mood around the bed and decided that my brother and sister were being insensitive! Besides, Mum looked very ill. Considering that we kids had been "protected" from anything to do with my mother's final days, it is good to have this one clear memory, even if I did not at the time understand the full implications. In one sense I don't blame the adults for "protecting" us so much - nowadays I understand that they were almost certainly living a denial themselves.
I found out my mother had died (not knowing that she was dying) when at breakfast shortly after that visit, Grandma suddenly hugged me from behind as I was seated having my cereal, and cried and kept hugging me as she told me, then suddenly broke away and left the room for a moment. Grandad came to breakfast and said that he knew the precise moment that Mum died the previous evening. He claimed to have heard a sound like a rush of wind that seemed to come from the back door through the kitchen where he was seated. They must have been expecting the news because his immediate interpretation of that experience was to say, "May's gone".
I don't remember Dad saying anything except that some weeks later he took the three of us for a walk up Hoare Street. (I suspect at the urging of my grandmother!) He referred to the stars and told us that mum was now one of those bright, shining stars. I thought the notion somewhat absurd but I appreciated that he was trying to say something that would be of comfort for us, especially my little sister who would not have known what an absurd notion that was! Ah, the muted condescension of a 10 year old who had learnt so much about life by about Grade 5!
I have strong opinions now about telling children what is going on - and taking them to the funeral. The first funeral I ever attended was one I had to conduct! In my last church appointment at Turramurra, a young woman â€“ the same age as mum and with three children though all younger than George and me - had terminal cancer throughout her bones. The similarities were uncanny and even a bit unnerving. Fortunately there were two ministers and my colleague did most of the pastoral caring since he had known the family longer - not sure that I would have handled it well. But they involved the children in spite of what I would call a triumphalist theology that at times seemed to deny that she was dying. She died courageously two years later, from an initial prognosis of six months. I had urged the mother to make sure that she identified a special gift (photo preferably) for each child and write a message to each child on the back of it. Something tangible and special from Mum to that particular child!
I was 11 when I decided I wanted to be a minister. Think about it - that is just one year after mum died. Is there any significance in that? What, if any, is the connection? I don't know. I am certainly not aware of any but I know enough about our unconscious cauldrons not to dismiss the idea that there might be some relationship between the two events.
I have been told by people that Mum was a "lovely lady" and that the nurses found her to be a "nice and considerate person", "a pleasure to nurse". I have done enough funerals now to know how time colours memories - for good or ill - but I am happy to take these compliments as having some connection to the reality she was. I certainly have no memories that would contradict that, and rather the contrary. But I will treasure that incident when she cried out "Bugger!" because that makes her real. Let me explain. I conducted a funeral for an 80+ year old former Air Force chap. I usually invite the people attending to say their own word or two about the deceased after the eulogy has been delivered. And on this occasion, as you would expect, there were tributes of "a real gentleman", "a very considerate chap" etc etc. Until one of his Air Force mates up the back said, "He was a stubborn old bugger", and heads nodded in agreement all around the chapel, including that of his wife - with a smile. Suddenly the person I was burying was a REAL person.
- Bruce Roy, 2004