Memoir writing can be fun for the writer but is often boring for the reader, usually involving page after page of facts about places and people that mean little or nothing to the reader. I’m yawning already.
I hope that my model of life stories will change that. By crafting a story around a particular incident and keeping it to about 500 words, I hope to create a patchwork of stories that will reflect my life fairly accurately.
The golden rule of memoir writing is ‘Never consult your relatives- this is your story’. Each person remembers incidents in a different way and of course there will be disagreements, especially between siblings.
These two stories are part of the patchwork. The others are confined to family reading at present, but I hope you enjoy these two.
This painting of the Gilmore Creek by John Allcott (1880-1973) must have been done while we lived at Gilmore because it is just as I remember it. Now there is a bigger bridge and a busier road. You can see that it was an idyllic spot and we spent all our summers there. It was quite deep under the bridge and the rapids were often fast flowing. My brother Chris taught me to swim here.
The Laundry Luckydip © Moira McAlister July 2020
The cupboard was tall, taller than me, its cream paintwork cracked and yellowing, its press button catches slightly rusted. It stood in the laundry and was filled with the bargain Dad had secured in Batlow. Tins cans, dozens of tin cans filled the cupboard. Batlow has always been famous for its fruit; apples, pears, cherries, peaches, apricots. When I was a kid the Mountain Maid Cannery processed this fruit and the delights of the summer harvest were available all year round. Vegetables were also processed; beetroot, sweet corn and peas, but it was mainly fruit.
Now in the depths of a freezing Gilmore winter I climbed on an unopened box of cans and gazed at the silver rows, two sizes, large and small, row upon row promising the taste of summer. It had become a family game ‘go and see if you can find a tin of peaches for dessert’ Mum would say and I would be mesmerised, awed by the responsibility of choosing, transfixed by the gamble, this one or that one. You see, the bargain was that there were no labels. No way of telling the contents. All the tins looked the same.
Finally I would decide on one, hoping it was peaches (my favourite) but maybe apricots (my second favourite) or even pears (my least favourite). I would carry it back to the kitchen and the tin would be passed around and examined by everyone, each saying what they thought. Dad used to tease us, pretending there was some sort of science to it, tapping it, listening to it, weighing it in his hands, turning it upside down and shaking his head seriously. We would all wait, the anticipation building while Mum used the can opener, craning our necks to be the first to see, to smell, and so many times to shout ‘Oh no, beetroot again!’, our disappointment tempered somehow by the fun and the pure chance of it all.
The rule was that we were allowed to open three tins, and if they all proved to be vegetables, then there would be no dessert that night. But when the choice was right, when the glorious smell and colour of peaches was revealed, there was nothing on earth that tasted so good on a cold winter’s night. Needless to say we ate a lot of corn on toast and beetroot sandwiches.
Sewing Machine Surprise © Moira McAlister July 2020
Gilmore was not a village or a centre. It was simply a dot on the map indicating the Post Office, which served the valley and surrounding region. The Post Office fronted the Snowy Mountains Highway and was a stopping place for local dairy farmers as they went to and from Tumut. Our house was attached and consequently we had no neighbours or shops nearby, but there was a regular procession of people during the day, stopping to pick up their mail, or to fill up with petrol.
Mum was the Post Mistress and had an old fashioned cane pram and she used this to carry the two mailbags that she picked up at the station each day. It wasn’t far, less than 1km, but the road was dirt and rocky and I remember when I was very small being allowed to ride in the pram on the way to the station but having to walk home as the mailbags were sometimes quite heavy.
One day there was a treadle sewing machine standing on the platform. It had been sent from Sydney to one of the farmer’s wives and Mum left it there and arranged for Dad to bring it to the Post Office on the back of the Mill ute. He did so and the machine was placed inside the Post Office, just behind the door until the owners could pick it up. These pictures show some different types of treadle machine. The one in this story was a combination of these two, having both a half front cabinet and drawers.
Treadle sewing machines were old fashioned and a bit unusual. My mother had an electric machine on which she made most of her own and our clothes. She loved sewing and so it was not surprising that she was interested in the treadle machine. She opened the lid and saw the machine itself lying snugly in its cradle ready to be raised into its sewing position. The drawers, three on each side were small and perfect for holding scissors, pins, needles buttons, lace and other bits and pieces.
Then she opened the front cabinet and saw the inside shelves which had upright spikes to hold the cotton reels and the belt which drove the machine In the second picture you can see the belt which connected the machine to the treadle which is the large foot peddle near the floor. It was just as she was closing the front cabinet that she saw a movement which sent a chill through her body. The belt moved. She looked again and saw that it was much bigger than a normal belt. It was a snake. A large red bellied black snake that had obviously found a perfect sleeping place while the machine was standing on the platform at the station.
Mum was a cool cucumber and she closed the cabinet and rounded up all the kids and made us put our shoes and long pants on. It was school holidays and our Sydney cousins were staying with us. Cathy and my cousins Margie and Joan were sent to the mill to tell Dad what had happened. Chris, aged about 15 was to stand at the door with the carving knife. Phillip and my cousin Michael, aged about 11 were just outside the door with sticks. Being only seven, I was forbidden to be anywhere near the action.
Dad arrived with an iron bar and when he opened the cabinet the snake had moved and entwined itself around the cotton reel holders. It was a tense few moments as they all waited for the snake to leave the cabinet, but finally it did and dad dispensed with it in a few quick strokes. It was a big relief when the snake was dead and Phillip and Michael took the carcass and hung it over the fence where everyone who passed by could see it.
I think Mum was quite pleased when the owners picked up the sewing machine. The story was told again and again during my growing up, and I’m sure our Sydney cousins told it often.