If I were to wind the clock back and start all over again, I would go back to that snowy winter night in July, so many years ago, when my mother first suggested to her husband that he should call the neighbours to come and look after the children while he rushed her to the hospital.
Three little girls and their big brother were tucked up in bed when Mrs. Smith came from next door to sit with them through the night. Outside, the icy air was filled with occasional snow showers as silver clouds blocked out the stars that heralded the impending arrival of a new baby. Somewhere in the heavens, forces were aligning to influence this baby’s destiny.
The heater in the car struggled to warm itself against the freezing night as my father hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and trying to follow the road through the frozen windscreen. Beside him my mother sat calmly, rugged up in a heavy overcoat and thick blanket. She had been through this a number of times before and the excitement was starting to become part of her routine. With her body aching from periodic contraction pains and the weight of the baby in her belly, my mother let her mind wander as she closed her eyes, while the car found its way down from the mountain pass.
She thought about her children still asleep in bed at home. They will be well looked after for a few days; it will be exciting for them to have the routine broken and Mum away for a change. There will soon be another little mouth to feed and extra loads of washing though; the older girls will have to help more around the house now. The baby’s cot has already been moved into the bedroom and small dresses and nappies unpacked, so there won’t be much to do at home at first. She opened her eyes and watched her reflection in the window, tinged with green from the dashboard lights, and sighed.
It all started at Lithgow, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, surrounded by coal mines, brick works, pottery and iron works; the railway line connected to the outside world, cutting through sandstone cliffs into crisp mountain air; through tall gum trees, clinging to frost covered slopes of heath, grevillea and waratahs; snow filled gullies that melt to feed fast flowing streams splashing through bushfire scarred scrub. It was there, on that snowy winter night, where I took my first look at the world and cried.
“You can push now, dear” urged the midwife, but I was in no hurry to leave my cosy world where I was part of my mother. Eventually, it seemed like an eternity for my mother at the time, I timidly poked my head out to take my first breath.
“It’s a girl!” the doctor announced and placed me in my mother’s arms.
“Molly” whispered my mother as she gazed for the first time into my blue eyes, her face still flushed and tired, while the nurses buzzed around the room, taking me away from her to be wrapped in a hospital blanket that was coarse against my soft pink skin. The hospital ward was white and scrubbed clean, cold and impersonal, but everything was shiny under the bright fluorescent lights. My mother was allowed to nurse me for a little while but I was soon taken away so that she could rest and I was put in a crib in the nursery with a whole lot of other small babies, all wrapped in pink and blue blankets. Some were sleeping soundly and others were like me, crying for the gentle touch of their mothers.
My mother had grown up on a dairy farm, spending each childhood day waking early in the morning, rising to bring the cows in for milking before breakfast, riding her bike down to the main road to catch the school bus and then repeating the whole process in the afternoon before dinner. Sunday was a day of rest after the morning milking, with the men playing games of tennis or cricket and the women occupied with sewing or knitting on the verandah. My mother played in the games with the men as a young girl, but as she grew into a teenager such an activity was considered to be unladylike. She left school at sixteen to work on the farm, looking after the young calves and piglets. Over the next couple of years she started going to the Saturday night dance where she eventually met the brash young man who became my father.
My father had a childhood typical of the Australian bush where more time was spent wandering around the scrub than going to school. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on a dairy farm then later in a butter factory, before eventually finding work on the railway. After dating my mother for nearly a year, my father proposed and it was the most natural thing in the world that they married the following year and began their new life together.
Their first child, a son, was born soon after and gradually the family increased at nicely spaced intervals as three daughters followed. By the time of my arrival the family had moved numerous times as my father was promoted on the railway until they were living in the Blue Mountains.
He was a man of his generation; strong and loud and frequently absent from the family home, but respected in that outer world. And what more could a man want? A sense of humour that was often hidden from his family behind those dark eyebrows, he was quick to throw out an opinion from his armchair in the lounge room in the evening; there was never any question of what was in his mind. Home was a place to find a meal waiting on the table, a sanctuary from the daily world to rest and rebuild his energy for the next day, and a place for sex.
My mother was a gentle country girl with soft freckled skin and red hair that was always cut short. Her life was a patchwork quilt of love, gradually adding panels of children, friends and family that were sewn together with delicate threads; a quilt that she could throw over them all to make them feel wanted and safe. She only ever questioned her life in her own mind when alone with her thoughts in the darkness late at night while trying to sleep next to this man that filled her bed. Their lives wound so closely together that they always existed in the same breath. Did she still love him after all this time? While watching his back, she sometimes wondered about those words that were so rarely spoken, conveyed instead by a look, or the soft touch of a hand. In the daylight she was usually too busy to think of such things, no time for flowers when there was so much caring and nurturing and sewing and cooking and cleaning to be done. Endless thoughts of babies and nappies and prams; were these the things that filled her childhood dreams?
There had been so many days, breathed into moments of memory; so many threads of cotton held in her fingers, sewing a patchwork quilt of life with castoff fabric, each panel telling a story woven together with time since she was that young girl on a dairy farm, leaning her bike against a fence, scuffling the dust on ant bed tennis courts. Afternoons were for laying in the grass after the milking was done, to read and dream of the world outside; closing her eyes to wake as a young lady, losing her chair at a dance to a handsome young man, later losing her heart and then her name, before smiling at her first baby son. Then she found herself on the road with a lifetime of traveller’s itch that was often scratched, but never vanquished, and still she moved on.
The town of Gloucester brought a little girl into her world of tents and railway life, before she followed the rails north again as her family grew by one, all the while sewing and patching, dreaming of more daughters amongst sandstone cliffs and blue gums, struggling sometimes against the cold, sometimes against the dark haze of bushfire smoke. Until, one snowy winter night, she held another daughter, tiny and fragile, delicate like the flakes of snow outside, and completed one side of the quilt that kept her family warm.
After a week in the hospital that was spent sleeping and learning to suck from my mother’s breast, I was taken slowly home in the car, cradled in my mother’s warm arms and oblivious of the spectacular glimpses of deep sandstone gorges and mist rising from gnarled gum trees. My father turned the car onto a dirt track at the back of the railway station, searching for the house that would be my first home. On a clear night, the lights of Sydney could be seen way over in the distance across the valley at the bottom of the backyard. The sky was grey with a cold breeze blowing against my tiny face.
The one teacher school next door to the house sat in an empty paddock, but inside the house was ringing with the laughter and squeals of an excited group of children eager to meet their new baby sister.
The house and children were now my mother’s whole world. Her days were filled with cooking and cleaning, making beds after the children have left for school, putting loads of washing on… Throughout the morning she has the radio turned up loud, dancing around the house as she works and singing quietly to herself and moving in time to the rhythm of the music. After a short break for lunch, the afternoons are spent sewing as she makes new clothes for the children or pretty dresses to sell at the local craft shop. She can lose herself sometimes when sewing; moments when there is no thought of time, only the world she sees of colours and shapes as her swift fingers stitch pieces of fabric together until they resemble little masterpieces. The extra bit of money the dresses bring in helps her make ends meet.
While she works, she thinks again about her life before children; working on the farm with its long hours and small rewards, moving into town when she got married and finding work as a domestic at the hospital, a job she lost when she fell pregnant for the first time. She thinks about those exciting days of her first pregnancy; how it seemed like a fairy tale to be married to her prince and have her dreams come true. But the fairy tale books never told the full story of how hard and worrisome life could be after the happy ever after. Not that she would trade her children for anything in the world, but oh to have some more time to herself for a cup of tea or a quiet soak in the bathtub. She used to play tennis with her friends once a week and they would sit around after the matches and talk and drink tea; but gradually each one drifted away from the group as children and housework demanded more and more of their time.
The afternoon sun shines through the window, casting a beam of light on her pretty face and making her hair glow in a reddish-golden halo. She stifles a yawn; It is getting late in the afternoon and the kids will be home from school soon, it’s nearly time to start getting dinner ready and then feed the baby. She looks across at where I am lying in my cot and smiles when she sees that I am watching her; she is my whole world.