Wide Brown Land Part One
Posted on April 13, 2013
Memory lies not in paper or molecule alone; it resides in hills and transformed valleys; in the bones and shadows of footsteps and the untold tales of limbs and turns among other things. Words and actions never recalled by muted photograph or scrawled handwriting remain imprinted on the land in very quiet remembrance.
When the dead are on their way to slow oblivion, with one door after another closing in the march of years before they become a word alone, place and landscape remain to bear silent witness.
My Grandmother’s name was Francie. She did not sleep alone in the womb; like me she was born with a brother. She lived by a river that was drowned by a lake, in a place that the original inhabitants, the Mulla Walla, called big black water, or Mulwala. The river town was a place of verdant green. On the banks the weeping willows trailed imploringly towards their own beginnings, the grass was dense and springy under foot.
In 1917 the building of a bridge commenced between far riverbanks separating two states. Victoria began from their side and New South Wales from their own. Three years before Francie was born in 1927 they met in the middle, but not without a fatal engineering flaw that resulted in a dip and a bend in the centre of the long bridge. The New South Welsh engineer ended his life with a leap from the bridge.
When Francie was twelve the second drowning took place, though she was unaware of the first. The valley adjacent to the river was flooded to create Lake Mulwala. Thousands of redgum trees, submerged or standing high above the water, lost their foliage and died, to stand as grey skeletons forever more; fossils of a land that came before water.
Many years later the man that Francie married (her future, my past), died, coughing and grey. It was 1989 and coinciding with his funeral was the draining of Lake Mulwala for maintenance. The valley below the water was transformed again, this time into a cavernous wasteland, reeking of mud and decay. A million or so large black mussels were exposed to the air along with the cemetery of trees.
Land, like people, does not come back well from the dead.
When she grew to be a woman, Francie married a young returned soldier named Colin, though since the war he was ever after known as Digger. It is a matter of conjecture as to which name Francie whispered into his ear in the early days of their love. They lived by the river lake in Mulwala and Francie gave birth to her first daughter, my mother Ronda. Ronda was named without the customary insertion of the letter “h” to honour the memory of Francie’s twin brother Ronnie, lost on his first day at Kokoda. Shrouded in some secrecy was her earlier illegitimate child Dick, who lived with his Grandmother in another house close by. Some years later another son called Colin was born to her.
Her husband worked at founding the huge RSL club on a grassy hill where the river and the lake met. He must have spent a lot of time away from his wife and children, perhaps preferring the company of other soldiers returned from the recent war, nursing glasses of beer, and cigarettes and their own visible and invisible wounds.
On the autumn night that Francie, 36 years old, died, Digger was not present, he was at the newly opened club. Francie died in her burning house by the river lake. My teenaged mother was rescued by a neighbour. Burning with terror herself, she was helpless to save her mother, whose cries she could hear from within.
Francie’s story ends there, with smoke.
Tragedy fades quickly into banality. There are arrangements and footsteps, days following each other, and the dead are too soon left behind; still standing, standing still. The living have their choices: My Grandfather moved on within a year to a divorced mother of five. He left the mother of his children unsheltered, without a word or a name.
When it became apparent that Francie’s grave would be left forlorn by their father, my mother and her two brothers, one almost a man and one still a little boy, had to take it upon themselves to provide their Mother’s final shelter. They worked at odd jobs to buy the materials and built the concrete grave themselves. Francie’s name and posterity were returned to her only by filial love.