Wide Brown Land Part Two
Posted on April 20, 2013
The children did not reside with Digger and his new wife and children; they went to live with Francie’s mother, as Dick had always done. My mother, Ronda turned 15 the month after Francie died, and was sent to a Catholic boarding school in another border town by a river. The students there were tended by what my mother recalls as a callous group of nuns. Almost two years later, while still sixteen; she committed the same cardinal sin as her mother before her, and fell pregnant outside of marriage. She was effectively hidden at her Grandmother’s house until she began to truly show the state of her sin, and then was sent to another set of nun’s at a convent in Melbourne.
The convent was a Home for Un-wed Mothers. The girls were cloistered there and required to pay penance for their sins each day, on their knees scrubbing stone floors or reciting Hail Marys and praying for forgiveness. Keeping their babies after giving birth was not an option; the infants that they gave birth to were to be their ultimate penance. When my oldest brother was born in December 1965 Ronda was allowed to hold him for a day and bestow on him an ephemeral name, John, before he was taken to another life away from his birth mother.
Ronda and her younger brother had often spent school holidays at the home of their other widowed Grandmother in the Victorian country town of Rushworth. Rushworth was formed as a gold rush town when the elusive metal was discovered there in the mid nineteenth century. If Ronda’s mother had been born into a place of rivers, green banks and weeping willows, the place in which her father had grown was made up of different bones. At the climax of the rush the surrounding forest and town of Whroo housed an itinerant population of close to ten thousand people. The land was ravaged in every way in the search for gold, scarring it with tunnels and holes of modest origin and one vast open cut mine named Balaclava that was the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. The gold, along with the population had dwindled within fifty years of the first discovery, strangled by the scarcity of water more than anything else.
This was a terrain of gold and brown; parched yellow grass and bright wattle trees, the only green in the summers came from the quiet colours of the ironbark leaves. But the landscape of Rushworth, like the forests of Mulwala, was destined for drowning. In 1902 an enormous tract of swamp land over a natural depression was flooded to form an irrigation basin, eventually creating a body of water that covered fifty eight miles of surface area at full capacity. In this, first drowning, dwellings as well as forests were submerged. In 1909 a series of irrigation channels were forged from the Waranga Basin, as the newly formed mass of water became known. One of the channels snaked from Rushworth all the way to the parched Mallee town of Wycheproof, some two hundred kilometres away, carrying a precious burden of water across those brown lands.
It was in Rushworth that Ronda met her future husband Robert in 1966. To him she told of her public and her private losses, and they spoke of dreams to claim back baby John and raise him together as their own baby son. This was not to be but when they married in January of 1967 Ronda was carrying another son in her womb. My brother Grant was born on Bastille Day of that year and unbeknownst to him he bore a secret in his extra middle name; his second name was Robert, from his father, but after that was inserted the ephemeral name of a lost brother who came before.
Two years later Ronda and Robert had a daughter called Gaylene, and soon after that they began moving to other small towns, following what work could be found for Robert as a butcher. In 1973 they decided to have one more child but failed to take into account the genetics of twins in Ronda’s family, and so, instead of that one last child, in April of 1974, ten days past her due date, Ronda gave birth to a boy named Mathew and a tiny girl named Danielle. The labour almost took Ronda’s life, and without the desperation of her doctor who transfused substantial blood directly from his arm into hers, this was the day that Ronda’s story would have ended, with blood.
Four years of hardship passed, with Ronda working day shift and Robert working night shift at the local meatworks trying to support their family. They saved enough to purchase their own home and to establish a butcher shop in Wycheproof, where the channel carried the waters from a drowned landscape two hundred kilometres away. Wycheproof was a conservative wheat-growing town with a population of about a thousand people. The four children grew and went to school there. In the summers they swam in fresh water lakes with names like Waranook and Buloke and Kangaroo. Sometimes, they swam in the swiftly flowing, cold waters of the irrigation channel, fishing hairy black mussels from the mud with their feet and bringing them up to the bank.
After seven more years the family moved to the larger town of Bendigo, and opened another butchers shop there. The business failed some years later after they opened a second shop. My parents had to file for bankruptcy, and afterwards my father travelled by himself to the far north of the continent to hunt buffalo. Grant was liveg in Melbourne and had almost finished his degree in Graphic Design, and Gaylene was about to move there and work as a copywriter for a radio station. My twin brother and I, fifteen years old, were still in high school in Bendigo. We didn’t know whether our parents had separated or not and wondered how long our father would stay so far away. After some months it was announced to us that my mother, twin and I were to go and live in Darwin with our father.
Our father returned to Bendigo with a seventies vintage landrover to accompany us on the five thousand kilometre road trip. He travelled with Mathew, and my mother and I travelled in a little silver Charade. We drove for 5 days, covering a thousand kilometres a day, traversing through the centre of Australia with its scrub, plateaus and anthills, giving way finally to the mirage like tropics of the far North.
Darwin was like another country, so isolated from the rest of the continent. We lived there during the wet season, with lavish rain each night and one hundred percent humidity in the days. The land was wildly tropical and it was the first time that we lived by the sea. It was closer to Indonesia than to the south where Ronda’s other children were. That distance, and their absence proved too much for Ronda. After less than six months we travelled that vast journey again, my mother and I by car, my brother having left by bus some weeks earlier and my father digging his heels in to stay behind. We drove back, finally, not to any of the old towns but to a new beginning in Melbourne. My father changed his mind within a day of his family leaving and drove so quickly that he arrived unannounced mere hours after my mother and I, at Grant’s small house in Brunswick.