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The Family Home


Only the parent’s bedroom is left; just the outside walls.  The rest is a tangle of blackened wood and scorched iron with just the two chimneys standing as monuments to the passage of a century and a half of family life.  His bedroom is gone, open to the elements now, timber that once held the roof and ceiling scattered at ground level or projecting crazily upwards.  The space where the lucerne trees were is filled with the detritus of fire, wheel marks in the paddock next door tell of fire trucks pouring water into the space which for ten years was his space, a space he mostly spent time in alone but sometimes shared with cousins; times of secret talks after dark and late-night listening to the radio.


It is apposite the parent’s room is all that remains.  When he lived there they were the adults who kept things together and before them the room had been the bedroom of his mother’s parents with the same responsibility.  These adults made the arrangements, brought in the wherewithal which allowed life to go on.  This was the operations room for policy decisions which would have their practical realizations elsewhere in the house.  The house always revolved around parents.  Now the ruin is held up by the four walls of the room which was their sanctuary, where they derived their private strength to superintend those for whom they were responsible.


The kitchen, the sitting room and grandmother’s bedroom are no more, so much so that you have to know where they once were to be able to see their marks in the destruction.  Outside, the woodshed has gone but the wash house is still there. He wonders if the daphne which grew alongside the kitchen chimney has survived, its sweet flowers perfuming the spring air.  This cool climate specimen had seen the passing of three generations, all the time subjected to the blazing heat of full sun.  It shouldn’t have survived but it did; perhaps a metaphor for the endurance of a hardy family. 


His grandparents brought up a large family in the house on one farm-labourer’s wage and this through the depression.  Just down the road was the farm; well not really a farm just a couple of acres but enough to grow vegetables, stable the old horse Tom and run a couple of cows which were milked in the old milking shed on Uncle Bill’s boundary.


There were cows in his day too.  His after-school job was to retrieve them from the roads, where they browsed all day, for milking by his father.  After milking, the cream and milk would be separated using the hand operated Alfa Laval separator in the scullery of the house.  This room also served as a bathroom which for three generations meant an enamel dish on a wooden bench with no running water.  Hot water came from the kettle on the stove.  All that is left there now is a pile of fine ash burying the blackened ends of bent, twisted corrugated iron pieces slanting down from charred beams in what had been the roof.


Despite the acute shortage of money and the number of mouths to be fed from the meager income his mother’s was a very happy family.  She told of a stern but loving father who would find the energy after a hard day to wrestle and play games with his children.  All the children spoke with great loyalty of their mother but always with the slightest reservation.  Her responsibility was to eke out somehow the desperately meagre funds and provide for the family.  It was she who allotted chores and supervised their completion.  The luxury of playing with the children was never an option for her.


The children divided into groups depending upon age, the eldest girl helped with the younger children.  Each age group had its own outside friends but much of the time the family socialized and played amongst itself.  Life was a healthy affair.  Home-grown food, plenty of exercise little contact with the nefarious and devious World meant the group grew up with strong family bonds and with a culture of loyalty and integrity. 


The old house was often the place where the family came together again as adults; now with their own children.  When his cousins came to stay two or more children would share his room.  This is how it must have been when his grandparents brought up their children in the house except the close quarters were a permanent arrangement.  Only his mother is left of that generation, the others gone to rest like the house.  Four of the cousins have gone too taking with them happy memories of time spent in communion with family in the family home. 

All that remains of the kitchen is the fireplace where each evening he stacked the ‘morning wood’ cut by him the night before so that his father, first up, could light the fire.  That stove had served two generations.  Its ‘one-fire’ warming the kitchen and heating the oven in which miracles of baking and meal making occurred.  On a cold mornings he would volunteer to make the toast at the open firebox with bread impaled on the end of a long wire fork. 


The kitchen had a large cedar table as its centerpiece.  Two generations and possibly three had sat at this board.  After ‘tea’ at six or ‘dinner’, at midday, the tin wash-up dish would be placed on this table and the washing up done with everyone helping out, hot water came from the kettle. 


No caller ever approached the front door.  Visitors came to the back door, so into the kitchen first.  Casual visitors were entertained there, gossip exchanged over washing the dishes, hands warmed against the fire and generous meals prepared.  The meals were Anglo-Saxon in origin for three generations.  Rice appeared occasionally in puddings and spaghetti was a pre-sauced concoction from a can.

The surviving washhouse was where the copper and stone wash troves were; the old wooden building still standing determined and straight at the back of the blackened remains of the house.  In his day water for washing, cooking and drinking came from two tanks which in turn collected from the roof.  Not just water was collected from the roof.  Often dead possums, rats and birds would fall into the tank too and stay there until the smell alerted his father it was time to climb up and see what had fallen into the water supply.  The bad water was never thrown out. Particularly in the summer as you never knew when it would rain again.


The tin bath was also in the wash house.  Saturday night was family bath night for fifty years.  Hot water came from the laundry copper, cold water was ladled in from the tank outside using a kerosene-tin bucket.  All the family bathed in the same water.  In his day he was always last being the most junior member in a hierarchical household.  After the last bath the water was carefully spread around the garden; nothing was wasted in the old house.


He always had plenty of company when he lived there.  With eight aunties and uncles there were plenty of cousins.  Cousins lived nearby, and cousins came to stay or to visit; all were friends.  Then the house would ring with the cheerful voices of children with plenty to do as it had in his mother’s day.  The aunties and uncles all got along too.  Being a family of nine had meant concordance in most things, little disputation, and few jealousies with sharing as the norm.  All those years later as married siblings they caused these high tones to rub off on to in-laws and the children.


Early Christmases in his life were shared with both grandparents in the house.  Grandpa was a special favourite since he had a sweet tooth and shared his sweets around.  The children would go to bed on Christmas Eve with pillow cases at the end of their beds for special gifts.  The early morning though would see all in the house, which usually meant at least two families of children, gathered around the Christmas tree in the sitting room where grandpa would distribute the presents including one to himself from his wife of tens of years and one from him to her.  It never occurred to the excited children so preoccupied with their own booty that the exchange of grandparental gifts signified a lasting love which had persisted through years of difficulty and privation, years of unselfish life and dedication to their family.  It was a relationship which all their children took as a lasting example of fidelity and loyalty to apply to their own lives, and an example which they, in turn, passed on unblemished to their own children. 


Only a few of the grandchildren were lucky enough to ride in the horse and gig or horse and cart drawn by old Tom the cart horse and driven by grandpa.  What excitement there was in the cornering of old Tom then the business of applying the complicated harness before backing the stolid animal into either the spring cart-so called because it had springs- or the handsome gig with its high mudguards and rubber-shod wheels.  Travelling in the cart meant sitting on a board slung between the upright sides of the cart.  Travelling in the gig meant fitting the passengers along the full-width of the commodious horse-hair seat.  The equipage would travel through the town grandparents exchanging salutations with those they passed.  “There goes Old Pop and Elsie”, townsfolk would say.  There were few cars then; indeed when he was much older there was still a stockman on horseback to be seen around the streets.


The destination on those horse drawn journeys was usually to see great aunt Mabel, always known as Aunty Mabe, who lived three miles away, a significant distance to be trotting along behind old Tom.  Mabe had a harmonium in her sitting room and visits would include a hymn or two from Great Aunt as she sat and played, singing the words in a thin reedy voice and pedalling the manually-blown instrument as she played.  Mabe always had treats for the children so visits were Red Letter Days for them.


The Second World War brought new things to the house.  The man’s mother joined the army; probably the only local woman to sign up.  She then married a man who had volunteered for the air force and both would occasionally come to the house with tales of distant postings and placements.  An auntie also married an air force volunteer who was soon sent abroad to fight.  His wife and two young children lived in the house with the parents during the war.  When the air force man came home on leave the town then had its own returning hero who regaled drinkers at the local pub with tales of active service.  


The passenger train ran daily then.  Every day across the paddock in front of the house the train would steam up the gentle hill towards the station.  The family of nine could all remember depression days when the driver would obligingly decrease speed so that those ‘jumping the rattler’ could alight onto the rail side before the station and thus avoid being asked for the ticket they didn’t have.  Grandmother would employ the depression swagmen who came to the door asking for work; handing out odd jobs not for money because there was none but repaying the work in food and treats from the family table. 


In his day the train ran twice weekly, still a steam locomotive but now only agricultural freight.  It would grind its way up the same hill and like the previous generation he and his friends would place pennies on the line to be flattened or would hide in the big drain with the creaky roof which ran under the line and wait for the train to thunder over the top.


Early in the man’s life his parents moved into the old house, leaving their new home in the city.  This was ostensibly to look after grandmother as grandfather had become ill and had been removed permanently to hospital.  So began ten years of idealic country living for the boy: years of catching rabbits, fishing, and climbing the local hills and trees with his cousins and visitors.  He attended the local school, making local friends; he went foxhunting and spotlighting with his hunter uncle and his children who lived up near the post office.   He walked over the same ground his mother’s family had years before, swimming in the same creek, cycling the same roads, socializing with the children of his mother’s generation.  History repeats itself.


 But this all came to an end when the grandmother died and the family moved away because the house was to be sold.  So 50 years ago it was sold out of the family and it stood for another 50 years in someone else’s name.  For however long it stood there though it would always be known to the older locals as Old Pop’s house; the house where his family had lived for years before he brought his new wife into it over a hundred years ago now.


Now there are only burnt remains: blackened beams and ruined iron are all that is left of a house which was home to generations of family.  All his mother’ siblings have now passed on; so too now has their family house.  Four of the cousins have died too.  They all took to their graves memories of childhood, of visits, of holidays, of Christmases, of time spent living there.


Gatherings at the house were always happy; the mother’s brothers and sisters and their progeny, the cousins, got along well.  The remaining cousins still get along; two generations later.  A pile of blackened rubble is not just the remains of a house it is also a relic of what happened there.  Memory and history are indissoluble.  The wreckage will fade; probably scooped away by a re-builder.  Family recollections will remain and folklore passed on: the old house has an enduring life.


As he stood there that day he could hear the happy cries of playing cousins, imagine the games of his mother’s generation, hear his father’s carpentry sounds coming from the shed, see his faithful little dog running down the driveway excited at the thought of a walk or hunting trip.  There is Mr Brown the baker going in through the gate to deliver bread, there is Mr Tait the grocer with groceries, Mr Sudweeks the draper, Mr Mitchel from the butcher bringing the meat and, in the early days, the ice man who was always good for a shard of ice to suck.  His mother has just pulled a straw from the straw broom to insert into a cake in the oven to see if it is cooked through.  There are bikes leaning against the chimney, a blue ute parked in the drive, hens cackle quietly up the back and the elm out the front spreads its friendly shade as it still does; like the still-standing wash house a silent tribute to those who have gone before. 


There is a gentle sadness in standing there.  Occasion for quiet reflection on good times with their indelible connected images of loved ones now gone.   We are all the sum of our parts and the old house made up part of the total for so many.  Now it is gone; so easy to say, ‘move on!”, so easy to talk of being part of the ‘new world’.   More rewarding, surely, to allow the past its time and be grateful for it and not be in too big a rush to re-enter the busy modern world.