My memories are first in Holland. We were living in Amstelveen and I was a little 2 year old when I received my first pair of glasses. I was very shortsighted. This was not picked up earlier. My mother claims to have noticed but the doctor said she was needlessly worrying. On a recent trip to the Netherlands, my Aunt (my mum’s sister) reckons she was the one who pointed it out to my mother, which I am sure Mum would disagree with. Whoever rang the alarm bells, I am grateful, as I am convinced my fuzzy visual world would’ve caused a calamitous accident somewhere later down the track.
As it happened I had an ‘accident’ with the newly minted glasses only a short three weeks later. My sister was in possession of something I wanted. Christine, who is four years older than me, and who could be alternately my hero or enemy, wouldn’t relent of course, and I threatened an immediate action.
“I’ll break my glasses if you don’t give it to me” or words to that effect. Chris must’ve paused only for a moment, and not to be seen as a panic merchant with this ultimatum coming from her pint sized sister, and in front of my older cousin, then said, (no doubt curious what I would do) “go ahead”.
After carrying this out, I remember distinctly picking them up off the ground and looking through a large crack in one lens and hearing my sister wailing “Muuuummm…” I was stunned. A cause and affect object lesson rammed home to me right there and it continued, following with a sound spanking in front of my Aunt and grandmother who were visiting. This was humiliating, and I returned to a fuzzy world thick with recriminations. I had to wait for another pair to be made which took more weeks. And more money. Poor mum. Poor me.
Another vivid and horrible memory was being in my cot and waking in the night and seeing two eyes, which were not human, looking at me. They were disembodied eyes, electric blue, like two cold, coiled circles and I screamed in fear. My older sister gathered me up and took me to my mother and I remember sobbing in her arms and her pacifying me with a little snack they were having. A small fried spring roll called a ‘lumpia’ in Indonesian. It was never clear to me if I was dreaming or not, though for most of my early life, up till my late childhood, I suffered from night terrors and sleepwalked.
More happy memories include my Dad taking me for a motor scooter ride. His scooter had a little red seat in front of him so I was nestled between his arms. We rode nearby and I remember a lake with ducks.
The last winter in Holland it snowed. There are a couple of photos of me stuffed into a little snug suit standing in thick snow, watching snow flakes softly swirling around me. It was to be our last Christmas there, and it was very memorable. We had a visit from Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) and zwart (black) Piet (who was the carrier of the sack of toys and presents) and it was so exciting. My Aunt had no doubt organized this treat to send us off to this foreign and very remote country called Australia. It must’ve been so sad for my parents to say goodbye to their families.
Before Saint Nick came, I remember Chris and I dancing around in the hall way near the front door, throwing tiny pepernoten (little spiced biscuits) in the air. This was so far the pinnacle event in my small life. I had no idea that in a few short weeks all our lives would radically change.
Going to the Great South Land
My memories of the boat journey are few. I was sick for the first part. It was a six weeks long trip in those days and it would’ve been longer if we hadn’t been able to go through the Suez Canal. I had measles just weeks prior to leaving and then a secondary infection occurred just as we were about to board the ship. I remember a nurse taking my temperature in the cabin. I recovered and was well enough to join the family for a short visit at Port Said in Aden (Yemen). It was so exotic and different. I remember asking my mother to take me to a toilet, where upon she said there were no public toilets and if I needed to go, I should do it in a nearby bush. I held on.
The last memory of that journey was a celebration on the top deck as we were sailing into Sydney Harbour. The crew organized some games for the children and prizes.There was a person describing to a little boy and I what we were to do. I had no idea what was required of me, (not sure if he spoke in a language I understood) but I surveyed the spilt coloured blocks and thought that it looked messy. Not sure what to do, my mother’s voice rang in my head about anything that looked messy.
“Opgeruimd ziet er netjes uit” Which translated means – “tidied up looks neat” So, thinking I should do the right thing, I put the blocks back in the box. The next I knew, I am hoisted up in the air and declared a winner and given a ‘medal’ and a toy. It was a black furry poodle that squeaked when you pressed its belly. Welcome to Australia!
Well, life took on a different tack after that. My first memory of the hostel, which was located at Scheyville, was the cafeteria. This was where meals were made and served to the hostel community. There was a different smell in the air as we lined up to receive the evening meal. It was the odour of boiled pumpkin. It looked uninspiring on the plate and I of course refused to eat it. There were also plates of dry white bread accompanying every hot meal, followed by tea, which I think came out of a tap on the wall. Dutch people, I was led to believe at the time, were mainly coffee drinkers and the tea that was available was very weak. Looking puzzled my mother declared that tea was only for convalescing people. She also looked worried. It seemed to herald the first challenge. At that time, I think it was quietly decided that to embrace the Aussie diet was going to take some time. Confusingly, they called dinner ‘tea’ as well. After that, I can’t remember too many more meals there as mum took it upon herself to cook for us on a hotplate in our hut. It was a hut. There is no other suitable word for it. These were old army huts that looked like someone bent a piece of corrugated steel into a curve and pinned the ends into the ground. It was cosy and to a four year old, nothing mattered except that we were together.
One day, after refusing yet again to go into the day care kindergarten, mum and I were in the laundry where the weird contraptions for washing were kept, what I now know, were a boiler and a wringer. As I was playing around her feet, I heard a plaintive little sound. Curious, I looked underneath the concrete tubs and there to my astonishment was a tiny kitten. Mum reached under the tubs and pulled out this bedraggled creature and we took it home. My sister Frances was enthralled and took to nurturing it. We have a photo of said kitten with her holding it outside our hut. I also ended up in the wrong kindergarten one day, coming back from my day speaking fluent German! Oops, wrong kinder. There were many nationalities there, and according to my oldest sister, the Russians were the liveliest.
Whilst walking around the city one day, looking for work, Dad stopped at a park bench and ate his sandwich which was made and carried in a brown paper bag from the hostel. The lunch was a sandwich and included an orange. Dad decided he was full enough and didn’t want to eat the fruit and he wasn’t keen on bringing it back on the train. After disposing of his sandwich wrappings, he walked around asking if any one would like to have his orange. He was amazed that no one wanted it and some looked at him queerly. Fascinated by that, he went home and wrote a short story about this little event. I think after his experiences in the P.O.W. camps he valued food highly. He also liked to study human behaviour and he reflected that people in the city were suspicious of a foreign sounding man who wanted to give something away.
Here is the story I have copied from Dad’s original typed out text.
The Orange – June 1960
Lunch is supplied by the Migrant’s hostel in a brown paper bag. Sandwiches and a fruit. This time, an orange. I had eaten the bread but the orange was too much, didn’t feel hungry enough. It was one of those navel oranges, big and juicy. Let’s give it to somebody, anybody, rather than throw it away. That girl there, “Miss?” – man, the look I got! A freezing the-nerve-you-have look. What about that elderly couple? He wears the obvious stamp of retired authority, Armed Forces probably. * “You wanna orange?” He stops dead in his tracks, biting his mustache. Tugging at his sleeve to hold him back, she says smilingly, “No thank you kindly, young man”, showing Henry once more that a friendly word is more effective than flying off your handle.
I try other people along George Street but “No thank you”, or “Wha’s the catch mate?” or just a glance of deep suspicion. The orange, growing bigger and bigger in my hand has by now turned into an object of challenge. I must find somebody in Sydney who does not find it too risky to accept an orange from a complete stranger. I even try a police officer who declines sternly. Going up Margaret Street I can still feel his eyes pin-pricking in my back.
At last, eureka! He’s a lift driver in Kembla House. There is no surprise on his face when I, in silence, offer it to him. Just a simple “thanks”. When I’m stepping out of the lift-car he says; “Mum always puts an orange in my lunch box. Must’ve taken it out and left it on the canteen table upstairs. Nice of ye to bring it back down. Thanks mate.”
*I am marvelling copying this story out, that dad used the slang way of an Aussie talking after only being here a few months, a sign to me that he embraced this new country and wanted to fit in.
We didn’t stay long in the hostel as it was only meant to be a short time so that new migrants were educated and informed about Australia and assisted to find employment. As my father’s qualifications weren’t formally recognised in Australia (meaning he had to start at the shipping docks from the bottom rung and work his way up) he decided to find work where he could. Which led to a rather short career as a shopkeeper. Which led us to live in a place called Blacktown. He bought the convenience store with borrowed money and failed to make it thrive largely because he had a line of credit for the strugglers who didn’t pay their bills and then the Bank foreclosed in the credit squeeze of 1961.
After the shop fiasco, Dad would take the train to the city most days, poring over the newspaper, looking for work. One day he was taking off for an interview for a clerical position in the Lottery Office. He was a very intelligent man with good mathematical skills, which not one of his four daughters inherited. As he tells the story to me years later, he was about to leave, when mum said ‘I will bake us a cake’. Dad and she knew that would use up the last of their pantry resources but her faith in him was solid. He marvelled at her optimism.
At the time we were living in a suburb called Blacktown. The street where we lived was not kerbed and guttered and on rainy days the earth quickly turned into mud. One day Chris decided it would be fun to trick a passer-by by digging a hole in the soft earth and covering it up with grass. We then hid behind something and waited. Along came a man and we watched him approaching the spot where he would tread in the hole. Suddenly, Chris burst out in front of him and warned him about his impending mishap. This wasn’t according to the plan but I think her guilt got the better of her.
Our backyard was part wilderness. I think there was a ubiquitous Australian Hills Hoist near the house where clothes flapped in the breeze. It also had a granny flat where an old man lived. The grass was mowed up to a point where there was a bit of a falling down wire fence with a gate. Beyond this waist high grass, was a willow tree, which had, enticingly, a swing tied underneath it. To get to it we had to brave the possibly snake infested grass. No problem for two ‘bored out of their brains’ kids.
We also had a horrible outside dunny. The now almost extinct pan toilet, which to a four year old, was huge and being short of stature, a threatening sight. This was the bane of our lives and certainly a hazardous place. One had to be vigilant for Redback and Funnel Web spiders. What was also interesting was that a man, once a week, came at night to empty it. What a job!
The shower/bath water was heated by gas and this had to be lit with a match, which made a small explosive sound when it ignited. Another reason not to brave the freezing cold bathroom, was that it had old wooden floor boards where the winter wind whistled up your legs at night. We also had a dog, another cocker spaniel named Sooty. I think my older sister Mary-emma rescued it possibly from the dog pound. This blighted dog crapped all over the house like the last one we had. My mother tolerated this impediment (her dedication to animals knew no bounds) but my father sometimes kicked that dog from one end of the house to the other especially as one time, arriving home one night, he had stepped into a pile of it by the front door.
Sometime later Sooty vanished along with my oldest sister who decided after much arguing with our parents, that it was time to venture out to the Big Smoke, Sydney. This was a brave and audacious move and Chris and I looked forward to her visits home. To our childish eyes, she wore exotic clothes and had worldly ‘know-how’. On one such visit she took the family to Bondi. Oh, did we fall in love with the sea! Well, not my parents so much, but they decided that it would be a better place to bring us kids up. No matter that it was a world famous beach with highly sought after rentals.
Frances was a year off matriculating with her leaving certificate (the equivalent of the School Certificate) and I was ready for Kindergarten, which I already had begun in Blacktown. Christine was still in Primary. So shortly thereafter, Dad saw in the newspaper a flat available for rent. I’m not sure how readily available rental housing was then, but as he may have missed out before, he arrived at the Real Estate office at 6.00am and was the first one there. After that a steady stream of people arrived and when he was ushered in, he said he would take it, sight unseen and paid a cash payment for the advance rent. His job in the Lottery Office would cover it of course but there wasn’t a lot left after paying the rent every week.
This flat as they used to call apartments back then, had two bedrooms, plus a sunny room and was on the middle floor of a dark reddish brown brick building with four levels. It had a spiraling staircase and two grand entrances with tiled hall ways . One entrance closest to us was in Edward St. near the bus stop. The other was below us by two flights and it came out in Francis St where we hung out with the neighbourhood kids, all of whom were migrants. There were Russians, French and Hungarians everywhere. My bedroom for part of that time was in the sunny room and it looked directly towards Bondi Beach. You could hear the surf at night and in summer hear all the squealing fun of people enjoying the water. The shark alarm was heard too. That view and the location was what made this flat so expensive. Plus we could walk to school along Campbell Parade. On the very top level was a laundry with concrete washing tubs and lines where we hung the washing. Sometimes neighbours would comment on our mother’s very white sheets. How did she get them so white? She replied “ I rinse them three times”. She was a standout in the housekeeping department.
Our years there were some of the happiest.