Saturday, October 29, 2005

McCullys Gap

McCully’s Gap

I was listening to some Irish Celtic music and found myself inside of its yearning sounds. Memories broke open in my mind of times and places, and a time in particular which I haven’t really ever spoken about. That that music yearns and becomes an inside thing in my heart makes sense to me. Its familiar harmonies take my mind to places where sometimes it may be best not to go – okay if there is no glass of wine at hand, but apt to make me emotional, in memories of big wide skies and mountains and most of all people and the eye shine and devilment they held inside them.

People who’s faces’ flit across the sight of my inner eye and so maybe I may not always see windows and chairs at first, but first remember their eye shine, smell their smells and wonder at them and where they are now.

I guess I like to know where the people are that I love. I like to think that they are happy, warm and loved, wherever they are now. I hope more for them than for myself because I know that for me, and as far as I am concerned I will always be okay, no matter what…well I hope so anyway.

But if at times life and its happenings reduces me to a blob of tears, then its okay to have a sea of tears come from these eyes, because what harm have tears ever done me, and how much better do I feel after shedding a few in the right places?

Sometimes this type of music reminds me of times I spent with Mum’s Mother’s brother and sister, Uncle Pat and Aunty Annie. I see wonderful old Uncle Pat (Patrick Francis Flanagan) aged seventy five, tall and lanky with feet the size of tables, twirling gracefully around a country hall, dancing, dancing, laughing, laughing, after a full day’s work on the farm. In my mind’s eye, he still reaches down from his horse and opens a stock gate for me…no problems. Two years later he is an old man physically after a stroke devastates his body. This memory remains, and while I am still alive…he is still alive, and I smell still his pipe tobacco, even when it was empty and he just chewed on it…even when he was reduced to roll your owns…his pipe tobacco smell remains.

He never married the woman he loved…she was sent away to New Zealand by her family, and their letters were intercepted by each family till time passed and each moved on. I think that they are together somewhere now. He did marry, but it ended in disaster and one day he came home to an empty house, no furniture and a swag of unpaid debts. Aunty Annie always said she hated “Coronation Street” because they all spoke like Uncle Pat’s wife…and she had no love for the English anyway being Timothy Flanagan’s daughter.

Mum told me all of that, and that’s all I know except that when Aunty Annie finally died at eighty six in 1972, on Christmas Eve, she told Mum that the only regret she had was that she obeyed her parent’s wishes, and intercepted all the letters written to Uncle Pat by his love in New Zealand. She was young and just did what she was told, but she knew that it was this destruction of the most decent thing in Uncle Pat’s life as a young man, which flavoured so much, which followed. Poor Aunty Annie to carry that for so long. I wonder did she ever tell him.

Uncle Pat was wonderful. So much like Mum, enjoying the ridiculous and seemingly always happy and we children just loved him, and never stood on ceremony with him as we did with other adults.

I still see him, sliding around, dancing with everyone game enough to risk those feet and his swagger, which was theatrical, not threatening. He told stories, such stories. I wish I remembered them, although Mum did remember some, but I don’t. But I do remember their telling and his facial expressions and how he could draw me in in the telling till all I saw were his eyes and hear his big “Haw! Haw!” laugh. Oh! Uncle Pat so much time has passed that I almost forgot. How good is this memory. Nothing was sacred to him but life and we children were more sacred than anything. He was wonderful.

Life itself was always sacred to these people and I think that that sacredness of life was not just my birthright, but the best gift I could have ever been given from my family, if that makes sense.

Somewhere he still dances, somewhere he still tells stories, somewhere inside my heart he still opens the gate for me and always he will in my heart.

I had a velvet harlequin doll. It’s long gone now. Dad and Mum gave it to me when I turned six. But I remember Dad actually giving it to me because Mum was in hospital. It was blue and pink and smiled at me. It was beautiful. I hugged that little doll to my chest and I can still remember Dad telling my elder sister June and I that we had a new baby sister and that she’d been born on my birthday.

I wonder sometimes about old toys, and things; old places and people. It seems like they are there in closed up cells – like bee honeycombs in my brain; sealed and dormant and then for no apparent reason, maybe the smell of the night air, or wood smoke, or the laughter of children playing the memories out grow their cell and pour into my consciousness like honey. Usually sweet and precious and they can make me cry, but that’s okay.

It was high summer, hot and dry. June and I had been sent to stay for a couple of months at Mum’s Mother’s brother and sister’s place at McCully’s Gap, east of Muswellbrook. It was like a faery tale place to me as it had no electricity and no running water and it was all such a novelty to those of us who were too small to notice the hard work involved. We’re here June and I, because Mum has been sick, and in the late stages of pregnancy. But being a kid all I know is that I’m pretty happy although I miss her softness and infinite patience. No one in my life will ever be a patient and funny as she is, except maybe Uncle Pat. But at six I don’t think all that much about these things, I just feel them.

At nights Aunty Annie would pull the lamp, which hung over the kitchen table and she’d light it. I loved watching this and can still remember the mellow light it cast on what was, in daytime hours a plain but interesting kitchen. When the lamp was lit the moths and other insects would swirl around the light and it got so we didn’t notice but got used to scooping them out of the pool of butter in the butter dish.

Aunty Annie and Uncle Pat’s kitchen rocked some evenings with people they knew. I remember names like Cassie Flanagan and Reg Tripp. I liked Cassie but can’t think where she came in the family make up, except that like Aunty and Uncle she was a Flanagan or married to one. I think she may have been Reg Tripp’s sister. Reg Trip was the son of Aunty and Uncle’s mother’s sister. They were Butlers or Tripp’s or …who knows I still can’t figure it out. Old Reg Tripp was a noisy man, and when he was around everyone seemed to revert to the family way of loving a good gossip and they would all become quite garrulous. The big teapot was ready for pouring and huge quantities of tea were drunk. Aunty drank it black and hot, and it was the blackest tea I had ever seen. She would just throw more and more tea leaves in and keep topping up the water, so that by the end of the day it might have been possible to stand a teaspoon up in it, that’s if it wasn’t made of aluminium…her tea would have eaten through anything.

Uncle Pat could always be counted on to outrage all the ladies present by pouring out his tea into his saucer and blowing on it before noisily slurping it down. With a wicked look around to make sure we were all watching. Aunty would say “Oh! Pat!” over and over, in mock disgust at his eccentricities, eccentricities that we all loved and took great delight in, but not as much delight as he took in them I am sure.

Reg Trip was about eighty at this time, although I am not sure on this either but it doesn’t really matter to a six year old. Old is just old at six. I remember he tried to tell me one night that men always could sing much better than women, which I knew was ridiculous and demonstrated in front of them all that I could sing so much better that Reg Tripp, and therefore all women were better singers than any man on earth. Sure I had won that argument, I no doubt went off to bed without realising that a debate between an eighty year old and a six year old, especially one graced by my singing must have been great entertainment, and fodder for amusement in that small, quiet little house in the Australian bush, so long ago. I had forgotten all of this till just now writing it down.

I am darn sure that Reg Tripp and Uncle Pat had a stash of a little alcoholic something very well hidden from Aunty Annie, because they always seem to get louder as the nights would go on, but I can say I never saw anyone drunk, nor cause any trouble. I think that all of them and us would have been too scared of Aunty Annie’s reaction had anyone transgressed her hatred of alcohol. She hated it with a passion.

Dad was part of the male conspiracy of hidden forbiddens like smokes and whatever they had hidden. After Uncle Pat had a stroke, not too long after all of this happened, he was told not to smoke or drink, a rule he had little chance of breaking due to Auntie’s vigilance. Dad would roll up a week or fortnight’s supply of roll your owns for Uncle Pat and I know that these got hidden in a tin box somewhere inaccessible to Aunty. I can remember her spotting them out sitting beyond a tree and seeing the smoke coming out from behind that tree. I think that many a tree stump might have hidden in its time, many a stash, as Uncle Pat would have had more than one source. Of that there would be little doubt.

They had a lovely old piano, which belonged to our Grandmother who died young, when Mum was only three or four. It had two candlestick holders fixed to each side of the piano, for light. It also had a curling type of lattice and net work right across the front panel, and I thought it was the loveliest things to see. I could stare for ages at its whorls and the whorls in the woodwork, and it seemed faces appeared and re appeared as I watched. In the room where the piano was, there were a few books and easy chairs and even in the heat it always seemed a little dark and cool. This room was not for playing in, just for sitting quietly.

Aunty was as brave as she could be. As the house was flat to the ground it was not uncommon for the odd snake to find its way inside. In those days and with the real danger of dying from snakebite, all snakes were dispatched quickly and in a matter of fact manner. Times have changed, but then most of us are closer to hospitals, which can actually treat snakebite when you arrive. There was a very real terror of snakebite, especially with small children around, and rightly so. Needs must. A sharp-ended shovel was always ready.

(Left – Aunty Annie – taken about 1970 – ten years after this story, but she hadn’t changed much, just a little older)

I remember running across the paddock one day in that summer with June. She suddenly yelled out for me to “Stop… don’t put your foot down!” which I didn’t, possibly being more shocked by June’s yelling (which she never did…unlike me). There just in front was a large brown snake. We turned and fled back to the house, forgetting all the wise words of not running away from snakes because they can run faster, no matter how fast you run. But it didn’t and we made it back to the house. Out strode Auntie, grabbing that shovel she headed straight for where we last saw the snake, prepared to do battle without any thought of grabbing some man to do it, or even hesitating hoping it would just go away. Not her she tackled it head on. I was so impressed…but it was gone and there was no battle that we saw.

(Right – June and I a year or two before this time)

Its here at this place that June does about the only wrong thing I can ever really remember her doing. Its early Sunday morning and we are all dressed up for Sunday Mass and for no reason apparent to anyone June who is eighteen months older than me, upends a whole bowl of porridge over her darn pretty curly curls of hers and the muck drops down in clods all over her dress. From my suddenly elevated position of “the good girl” I might be thinking that she doesn’t look quite so pretty now” but I can’t recall. I am basic enough to have revelled in this event so it is quite likely I thought this. But then again knowing how funny things always seemed to me, when I wasn’t all fired over something, I was usually finding something much more funny than it was expected I might. This caused a lot of troubles for me in my childhood

I know we made it to Mass which was a long drive into town at no more than the thirty miles per hour that Aunty always drove her black Morris Major at, no matter where she was. For Aunty Annie missing morning Mass was truly a mortal sin and no upended bowl of porridge was going to get her and her loved ones on that road to hell if she could help it.

I am so very happy here. Endless days of playing. Running about in the sun. Sitting in the tree near the back gate and thinking that the adults couldn’t see me as they passed through that gate.

One memory is so clear to me. June and I slept in Aunty Annie’s bed while at their place. Aunty would move out to the verandah room. One day June and I decided to use Auntie’s big bed as a spring board out through the verandah window onto her little bed on the verandah. June when through first. No problems. Then I went through. Suddenly, disastrously and predictably for me that bloody bed of Auntie’s on the verandah totally collapsed. True to form…I just took off. No questions asked, I n=knew after a year or two of the Aberdeen St Joseph nuns that punishment was sure to follow such a transgressions this. So off I went. But a kid has to come home. When I did I was sent to our bedroom for the afternoon, which seemed dreadful punishment to me at that time. I heard later that Aunty was amused when she went to let me out later on at Tea Time and I was fast asleep all tuckered out from my “activities”. So it wasn’t really much of a punishment.

I can think of no nicer memory right now today than to recall those warm, black velvet nights, when the stars were so large and clear and pulsated in so many colours. All along the verandah they would be sitting out talking and if it was hot enough, we would sometimes even sleep out there. Yes sure, later on in the night the mosquitos might drive us crazy, but it was just lovely to lie there and listen to the murmur of adult voices and drift off to sleep, only to wake at dawn to a sky rich in pastels of pinks and blues. No matter what happened in the days, whatever trouble I might have caused or gotten into, it was these moments of peace which I held onto in my little heart and which I am aware of carrying about inside me all my life – no matter whatever else I may have forgotten.

Then it was over. They moved into town after Uncle Pat had the first of a series of strokes. I began to grow up, and within a ten-year space, first Uncle Pat died, then later Dad was killed and then Aunty Annie too died, alone in hospital from throat cancer…maybe from all that strong black tea. I went back in about 1990, just after Mum sold her house in Scone to move over near us in Port Macquarie. I drove her, Joan and Jackie out to Auntie’s old house, or where it used to be, on the day of the sale. No house, nor any sign of a house, but I found the tree which used to stand near the back gate, so I had my bearings. Just the hill left, and the tree, and also the sky, the big wide wonderful sky, and those mountains, with the face in the rock, which caused me so much concern as a child. So much laughter, and richness. But not to worry that’s how it is. Things go…houses… pianos… lamps. People don’t. People live in our memory and for me those memories get sweeter and more precious and good.

It was a time, my time to be the child… to be childish… to be curious without reservation. And for me to be so lucky that the people I was born amongst had the patience and humour to let me grow as I was meant to grow.

How easy it could have been that I could have been born amongst cruelty and ridicule in my family?

Aunty Annie and Uncle Pat, being my Mother’s Mother’s people held the magic and mystery of being that lost Grandmother’s brother and sister. I like to imagine that she had a little of each of them in her, and a lot of Mum, and then the mystery of her own self I can not know. They were all good people, even if at times a bit intolerant. I remember some of their sayings…if someone was being cruel especially at school Mum would always say,
     “You’ve got to understand, they’re just ignorant…just ignorant and they don’t know any better.” Or this beauty from Grandfather McGoldrick (Mum’s father), which was reserved for any woman of the family who breached certain standards,
     “She’s turning into a real town woman.” That was really bad. And a few of them used this term for those types of people and families who used the word “bum” instead of “bottom”,
     They are just so common.” To be called common was the worst insult and to hand with kids or families who talked like this and who were therefore common was not on. Common had nothing at all to do with money or education. Common had to do with class, which came from decency and inside.

Aunty Annie Flanagan and Uncle Pat Flanagan, brother and sister had no children of their own, although he was once married. But they looked after so many children in their lives and gave and gave without expectation of receiving…dying quietly with little worldly goods to show – but that was just how they were.

When we came home from Aunty and Uncle’s there was a most beautiful baby ensconced in all frilly white lace and a bassinette in Mum and Dad’s bedroom in Aberdeen. I was struck with wonder at how beautiful she was, so much white and softness in this harsh hot Australian country town. I hated coming home and dreamt that Mum and Dad might be able to live out of town. Town seemed petty and small to me after the wonderful time and happenings at Auntie and Uncle’s place out at McCully’s Gap.

Therese Mackay   July 2004

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