The Laughter of Kookaburras

The world is a wonderful place and the news of a global economic depression starting to spread around the world won’t change the laughter of kookaburras or the perfume of orchids.

Small white envelopes with floral stamps and neatly typed addresses lay scattered on my lap. When I received these letters decades ago, there was joy in my heart.

There is joy still.

But there is also so much more.

I run my finger along the uneven openings. How hastily I would rip into them when I found one in my mailbox.

Like selecting a tarot card from a pack, I allow my palms to feel the energy of them as I choose a letter to read. I reach into the jagged open edge of the envelope and reveal a perfectly folded set of paper. Ironing out the creases, my skin ripples over the typewriter ink that now sits deep into the page. After a breath, I read the first words.

Dear Lizzie,

Only family use that nickname these days. And only Granny could instil it with meaning. Her mother was called Lizzie, too. Heritage branching from Bavaria and the Isle of Wight, Lizzie had been a mix of two worlds as was her daughter, my granny, Olga.

Born in Nulkaba, Traditional Custodian country of the Wonnarua Nation, in the aftermath of World War One, Olga grew up on a farm in Pokolbin, the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The middle child of three girls, she embraced life learning and growing on the land.

When Olga was eight, however, her life took a tragic turn. Olga and her sister Coral were in primary school. Their little sister Audrey was learning to walk. The world seemed full of promise. But this world had other plans.

Our mother had caught influenza and I was very worried to see her lying in bed.

When Dad came home from work, he found me crying and he spoke harshly to me, asking what I had done.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Mummy’s sick. Is she going to die?’

‘Of course not,’ he assured me. But after going to the bedroom, he came out and went to get the doctor.

After the doctor had seen our mother, the ambulance came and took our lovely mummy to hospital. Two days later, Dad took Coral and me in his arms and said, ‘Mummy died this morning.’

The Great Depression followed, and although they were lucky enough to live on a farm with an abundance of food; money for shoes and clothes and school was scarce.

Looking after a farm and three girls overwhelmed Olga’s father, thus he soon remarried for support. This new wife demanded to be called ‘Ma’ and while the girls were too young to refuse, Ma’s actions – dunking their head in a bucket of water whenever they did something wrong – were the complete opposite of what the sisters remember from their loving mother Lizzie.

The girls would run and hide from their stepmother.

When all was clear, I went out the back door and joined Dad painting the fowl houses. He noticed I was unhappy and asked what was the matter.

‘Nothing.’ But when he insisted I just said, ‘Ma is angry with me.’ I didn’t really know how to explain the reason why. But I think Dad already knew.

Suddenly he said, ‘ I made a mistake marrying her.’ We painted silently for a while until Dad said, ‘I think a patch of paint has dropped off there, Olga.’

I smiled and repainted the patch to which he referred.

My most joyous memories with Granny were our art days on Saturdays when we would go to a pottery class together. Granny would drive us out to a massive warehouse in the middle of nowhere where we would spin clay on wheels and both nurture our creative souls. Afterwards, on our way home, we would stop at a local bakery to buy a pie for lunch. We would sit at her dining table, our plates resting on her handmade quilted cloth, talk about our worldly plans and allow our imaginations to run wild. The pie was always tastier, my connection with Granny always deeper, after a morning of creativity. I guess that’s why I followed a path into the arts.

I look down at the greeting on this letter. Only family use that nickname these days. That name Lizzie is now folded, sealed and stamped onto my heart where no one can take the meaning away.

When I graduated from primary school, I started university. The university of life. I never accepted Dad’s explanation of why I would not attend high school. I’m not sure of his reason but after struggling to make money during the depression years, perhaps he thought he was wasting money educating girls.

Before Olga hit her teen years, she began work as her father’s farm hand, collecting eggs from over one thousand hens. Even as the years flew by, she always knew that she wouldn’t be stuck as a farm girl forever, she was determined to find a way out.

The first chance she got, Olga moved to the big smoke of Mulubinba, Newcastle, where she became a live-in housekeeper for the Gardiner family. Looking after one thousand hens to managing a household was not overly easy. But Olga was always a sunny side up kind of girl and soon made her mark in that home.

When World War Two was declared, her circumstances changed again. The Gardiner children went away to board with cousins, and Olga was offered a job at The Great Northern Hotel. She had fond memories of working there, being a drink waitress in the dining room and lounge. She may have never had the opportunity to leave our Australian shores, but she travelled the world over in that hotel. At that time there was a mix of customers; from government, judges, military, air force, naval personnel, church leaders and even theatre groups from across the globe. She received more than a few marriage proposals on her shifts. By this time, however, Olga had bigger plans for herself than just marriage.

All the time a sort of energy was building up. There were so many things I wanted to do. I had always felt trapped on Dad’s beloved farm. I suppose it was the end of the rainbow for Dad, but not my rainbow. Now there were so many rainbows I wanted to chase.

And by Olga chasing her rainbows, I was able to chase mine.

As soon as I finished high school, I jumped at the chance to move to Naarm, Melbourne, to study at the Victorian College of the Arts. Miles away from my family and the comforts of home – studying, working two jobs and living in a student studio apartment – a loneliness began to creep into my being. Knowing exactly what I was going through, Granny would write letters to me using her trusty typewriter. I wrote back with paper and pen, then in later years, replying on my own vintage typewriter.

Reading Granny’s letters felt like a little piece of her was with me. Receiving her love in the mail, collecting the stories of her life, encouraged me to stay strong.

One Sunday night we drink waitresses had finished work early and settled in our rooms for the night. After switching the light off, I opened the window. As I lay in bed I saw a huge star shell which seemed to shoot out of the harbour and it hung over the dockyard and steelworks. It lit up the whole district as bright as day. Immediately, shells started to whistle and I realised that this was not an exercise by our own forces. Those shells were coming our way.

The following Sunday night, the Japanese repeated the attack. That same night Newcastle was shelled, Sydney was too. The war was no longer ‘over there’. It was here.

As I sit up in bed, looking out my window onto the heart of Melbourne, I try to imagine what it would feel like seeing an explosion on this city I now call home. A kookaburra cackles over the sun-soaked land that is already stained with the blood of tens of thousands of our First Nations people.

The ‘war’ was never ‘over there’.

And these days it’s across our screens 24/7. There’s people dying from a global pandemic, smoke contamination, bullet wounds in shootings, drowning at sea from fleeing their country, mass murders, race wars, cyber-attacks, bomb explosions, being stoned to death because it’s their country’s custom, incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit. Animals are dying because forests are being logged, water is warming, ice is melting, people are destroying the planet with their plastic, their consumerism, their lack of care for the world we live on. War is happening all around us and we have numbed ourself to it. Why? Are we afraid to let go of the old world? Are we afraid to make way for the new?

I look down at Granny’s letter. Five words reach out to me.

I’m so proud of you.

I hug the letter close to my chest, inhaling the past and exhaling the present. I don’t know if it’s my imagination or that her scent really does linger on the page. The grieving process began long before she passed and the waves of grief continue to break. But when I let go of the pain of losing her, I am able to mould the clay of her world into mine. Are you proud, Granny? Are you really proud of me?

Growing up between two wars, a depression, loss of a mother, a childhood, an education, did not stop Olga from chasing her rainbows. She went on to become a nurse and a published writer, a wonderful mother and an incredible grandmother. Her hard times made space for my good times. She let go of her old world and made way for the new. Her letters leave behind a wealth of knowledge to learn and grow from. She made it possible for me to be whoever I want to be. For that, I will always have Granny’s world intertwined in mine. I walk between these two worlds, the old and the new, not to live in the past, but for the past to live in me. The laughter of kookaburras or the perfume of orchids won’t change, but I can. I can be a part of the creation of a better world.

—–

Excerpts in italics are from personal letters and Olga’s autobiography ‘The Path I Travelled’.

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