Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses

CHAPTER TWELVE. A LITTLE OF MY FAMILY HISTORY

When you’re one of four sisters, and the one with the fat ankles, you have to work hard, take every chance; grasp every opportunity. As Patrick White said, in an ABC radio interview in 1994, “We are all products of our childhood.”

When you have older sisters who are beautiful and brilliant and a younger sister who is beautiful, brilliant, and in delicate health, you cannot help but feel plain. When you attend a school where you are constantly compared, publicly, to your sisters, you learn, eventually, and after quite a few false starts, to work your tail off because you crave some accolades for yourself. There is not a moment to be wasted. While this may lead to successful outcomes, perhaps it is not always the healthiest of behaviours.

In 1939, at the age of 19, my mother, Ruth, had married my much older father, Charles Terrence, known as Terry, who was 36. The first 20 years of my parents married life, living in a company house in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo, were charmed, although they had suffered the death of their first-born son, when my mother was just 20. My father was the company secretary for a British tea firm and they lived the glamorous life enjoyed by other middle ranking colonial families. The women would retreat to the cool hill station of Nuwara Elija during the hottest months, while the men, remaining behind in Colombo to work, would move into the Galle Face Hotel. One elderly retainer at this grand hotel told me, when I stayed there in the 1980’s that my father, who was known as C. T. Kerr, particularly loved taking part in the rickshaw races that took place during these ‘bachelor months’ - up and down the colonnaded veranda of the hotel!

But all that changed after Ceylon became independent and my parents moved to Australia - with my father out of a job and three children to support - in 1956. They had little choice. My father had been told by the new Bandaranaike government that he could stay on for several years, to train a Sri Lankan to do his job. He declined, and with no savings, no capital, little prospect of a new career at the age of almost 60, and with a young family, set up house in Southport, on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

My childhood was poor. My mother liked to promote the assumption that we were ‘genteel poor,’ but there was no denying that we hardly had two pennies to rub together. And that sense of oppressive poverty created, almost without my realising it, a sense of disempowerment. I was always on the outside. For a short time we lived in the downstairs half of our two-story house, while the top half was rented out. During regular Queensland summer storms the water would invade, and we would wade across flooded linoleum floors to get into bed.

There were other events that marked out my disempowerment. At my tenth birthday party several girls were ill, courtesy of a marshmallow rabbit that a neighbour had made. I vowed I would never again hold a party – a constraint I overcame pretty quickly! And around that time a woman at a bus stop asked me if I was a ballerina, as I had such strong ankles. Perhaps she meant it as a compliment, but it was another nail in the coffin of my self-confidence. Ah, it’s all about the legs!

And it seems that school lunches cause angst to many cultures: not just to the Italian child who is mocked because of his salami sandwiches. My mother thought it was a treat to give me hundreds and thousands in my sandwiches. I remember a school excursion to Brisbane’s botanic gardens, when I looked with horror at my sandwiches, colourful with their hundreds and thousands. Instead of sharing them on the picnic rug, as was the instruction, I crept past a nearby lake and fed them to the eels. When I had nothing to share with the class I incurred the wrath of the teacher. Funny the things children remember.

Why my parents settled on the Gold Coast, instead of in Sydney, where my mother had grown up, was a question about which I had often wondered. She used to say it was because the hinterland, and particularly Mount Tamborine, reminded them of the lush, cool mountains of Ceylon, but I later wondered if it was because she did not want former friends in Sydney to see her reduced circumstances. She sought to regain some empowerment in her life, some agency, by creating a lush tropical garden around our house. The spreading Poinciana (Delonix regia), with its lacy, filigree leaves held on wide, outstretched branches, that bloomed red in our back garden, was a favourite, much loved as it reminded her of her time in the tropics. At school we studied the Arthur Miller play, ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Reading it, I remember feeling pain and grief for my father, who was forced to sell insurance, door to door, after we came to Australia. And he did it with such dignity, with a strength that I didn’t appreciate fully until after his death.

My feeling that I did not belong, or, at least, anywhere that mattered, translated into an oppressive sense of isolation, of being out of, and away from, any action that was important. I was never at all clear about what that action was: I was just sure that something more exciting was happening somewhere else. I suppose it is a feeling familiar to many children in small country towns. That sense didn’t translate into a desire to succeed at anyone else’s expense, just to do as well as I could with whatever skills or capacity I could find in my very ordinary being. Maybe a cancer diagnosis has a similar effect on other sufferers: you stop reaching for great heights and come to a gentle understanding of what is important. And to the realisation that no-one lives forever. I had lived with such high level of stress for so many years that it felt good to come to terms with being less demanding of myself.

Some women are too beautiful for their own safety. Some attract the attention of powerful men, men who seek trophies; decorative appendages. It would take an extraordinary woman, more than simply extraordinarily beautiful, to protect herself against such men, to resist the attraction to, and the demands of, powerful men. Some women believe their beauty entitles them to a life of ease, and of riches. And some believe their beauty will never fade.

As a young girl my mother, Ruth, was far too beautiful for her own good. She had dark hair, rather fierce, black eyes - which I remember flashing when she became angry – milk-white skin decorated with little more than a slash of deep red lipstick, and a waist, as she later constantly reminded her four daughters, that was just 16 inches around. And her oft-repeated comment to her daughters was, “None of you girls will ever hold a candle to your mother.”

Ruth thought her beauty would last forever, and that it would protect her, and entitle her to a life of carefree indulgence. When it didn’t, and when, by the time she was 38 years old, with their forced departure from Ceylon, her life had changed in ways she couldn’t have imagined, she became angry and bitter. She felt duped. So her daughters learnt early that a girl must be independent. That Prince Charming may not come along, or, if he did, he may one day lose his good looks, fiscally speaking.

My mother told me that she was sent to Ceylon on what she called the fishing fleet. She called it that; the holiday ship that took her, with other girls in her circle of friends, to the Far East. She travelled on a cruise ship with her Aunt Madge, and met my father at a dance at the Galle Face. She told me, many years later, of course, that her mother had sent her there in the hope that she would find a suitable husband. And suitable meant British. Like my father.

Ruth was only 17 when she left Rose Bay, a privileged suburb in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, for Colombo. Her life, to the age of 14, had been typical for a young girl growing up in the affluent suburbs of this harbour city. Born in 1919, she found Sydney in 1933 carefree. The Harbour Bridge had just been opened to great drama and The Australian Women’s Weekly was launched, addressing, among other issues, the status of women in Australian society.

George V, a grandson of Queen Victoria, had been on the throne since 1910; replaced, briefly, upon his death in 1936, by Edward VIII, soon to give up his position for Mrs Simpson – and his younger brother.

Far from the royal scandal of divorce, in Sydney winter Saturdays were spent at rugby matches, most often on the ovals of the private schools of the eastern suburbs and the lower north shore, small enclaves of privilege and exclusivity. Ruth was often photographed for the Sydney papers, a smart sight in a pencil skirt to beneath the knees, a bow at the neck and a cropped, fitted jacket, often in tartan. With a neat hat on her fashionably waved hair, she and her friends were the epitome of youthful, carefree elegance.

In summer, there was sailing on the harbour. On Sunday afternoons Ruth played tennis on friends’ courts, in houses near her home. She attended Ascham, a local private girls’ school and, according to friends, was lovely, but often in trouble with teachers for pulling her uniform belt too tightly around her small waist.

When Ruth was 14 years old, however, and Australia was suffering the effects of The Depression, her father’s business was in financial trouble. Ruth’s brother Norman attended Scot’s college, in Bellevue Hill, but there was not enough money to fund two sets of private school fees. It was decided that Ruth, as a girl who would find a husband to support her, was less in need of a good education than her brother. She was forced to leave her school, a tragedy that would affect her decisions throughout her life. Later, she was determined that each of her four daughters would receive the best education possible.

My mother was always very grand. I thought of her as brave; others, particularly later in her life, called her behaviour eccentric. Uncle Norman, many years later when mother became ill and her behaviour became increasingly eccentric – the doctors called it ‘inappropriate’ - would respond, with dry humour, “Ruth has always been inappropriate.” His evidence for this was his recollection of a drinks party, where a grand dowager asked him to bring his sister over to meet her. “Let her come to me,” was 17-year-old Ruth’s response. And I remember telling her one day, when I was pregnant with my first child, that I was feeling unwell. “That’s alright, darling,” she responded. “As long as you don’t have more than three pink gins before dinner.”

She also had a feisty temper, however, and was self-centred; selfish, even, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until I was a mother myself. And I also realised then, that, through tragedy, she had, to a certain extent, lost her mind, or at the least had some sort of nervous breakdown. She lost her second son, Charles, born after I, in Australia, when he choked in a dreadful accident in his cot. He had been given a heavy wooden toy, which he liked to throw out of his cot. In a terrible misstep, my mother tied it, by a string, to a slat of his cot. Rolling around in his cot, the string became wrapped around the toddler’s neck. When he threw the toy out of the cot, he was strangled. She blamed herself, of course, and suffered awful guilt. It took my own tragedy to realise the grief she must have felt. My father felt it too, of course. I was sent away to stay with family friends while my parents argued over for whom the tragedy was greater: my father who now had no sons to carry on his name, or my mother. And in those days, there was no help: no counselling.

But back to mother’s childhood. It must have been dreadful for her after she left Ascham, her sheltered girls’ school. At school she was beautiful, the centre of attention of her group of adoring friends. Suddenly she was working long hours as a beautician, no doubt earning little, but attracting the attention of a prominent business man and the actor, Peter Finch. In what seems a somewhat distorted morality, or at least a confused sense of ‘class’, however, my grandmother was shocked at the idea of her daughter being dated by an actor. Mother was to be shipped up to Ceylon as soon as a holiday with an aunt could be arranged, hopefully to meet acceptable suitors.

My parents were married in Sydney in rather grand style in April 1939and embarked upon a six month honeymoon, from New Zealand to Fiji to Hawaii and the United States mainland. The pictures my father took of their travels –the snow covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the background as my mother stood on the terrace at the Banff Springs hotel, or sitting in deck chairs on the lawn at the Halekulani hotel in Hawaii – inspired in me a love of exploring, of discovering new places, and different cultures. And perhaps of capturing great landscapes on camera. (I am told my grandfather’s landscape photography is still displayed at Colombo’s city hall.)

 

During World War II, my mother, pregnant with my eldest sister, was evacuated from Ceylon to Sydney, in 1941, on the last ship to cross the Indian Ocean before the fall of Singapore.[1] The ship on which she travelled was dubbed ‘The Blackout Ship’ and the Captain, to keep passengers’ spirits up and perhaps to keep them calm, devised various amusements like a ‘blackout menu’ which included, among other ‘treats’ black pudding. Our father remained in Ceylon, serving in The Ceylon Defence Force, a citizens’ volunteer army: Dad told one of my sisters that his duties focussed on burying bottles of whiskey in the grounds of The Colombo Club to ensure the Japanese did not purloin them, should they invade the island. (Japanese bombers did attack strategically important Ceylon in April 1942.)

My eldest sister was born in Sydney in July 1942, our mother having blamed the British doctor in Colombo for the death of her first born. She returned to Ceylon in 1944, where my next sister was born, in 1945, delivered by Dr Theagarajah, the first Tamil obstetrician to be trained in Scotland. The family travelled to Sligo, with our father, in 1946, on the first ship carrying civilians after the war. Mother told me that the baby, in her pram, was tied to the railings of the ship during the day. And she spoke often of how much she disliked that city.

Decades later, when I became lost in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, I understood how she must have felt. Even then, at the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed a rather grim place. I could imagine how my beautiful, spoiled, petulant mother must have felt: how she must have irritated her hosts and how she must have felt so homesick for the protected, nurtured, gentle, colourful, fragrant life that she had become so used to in Ceylon.  

My mother proved herself to be a rather good business woman, in fact. In 1966 she opened a maternity shop in Southport, one of the first in Australia – called The Anticipation Shop – and did very well, until she closed it, in 1979, the year my father died. My father, however, had been mortified; deeply embarrassed. He was of the generation that dictated that a man should provide for his family. My mother had felt duped when her life in Ceylon ended; now my father felt humiliated.

                                                                   

Ruth2Ruth, second from left                                                        C. T. KerrMy father, C. T. Kerr


[1] Singapore fell in 2nd week February 1942, when, on 15th February, the British Commander gave the order to surrender. Japanese bombers attacked Darwin on 19th February 1942, as part of a strategy to then take Papua New Guinea.