We’re sitting at a big table in the garden out back of an old antique shop/cafe in Heathcote. Three generations of women, my grandmother, and her daughter, my aunt, and her daughter, my cousin. The four of us had set out to explore the area my grandma grew up, Axedale, Victoria, toward Bendigo, about an hour and half north of Melbourne. When Grandma travelled from Axedale to Melbourne when she was young it took about three hours. This was in the 1930s during the depression.
She talked about traveling to Melbourne, one trip stood out in her mind. She was in Moonee Ponds, saw a man with a hat, begging for money to feed his family. Speaking with a wavering voice describing what it was like to see this man in tears, his desperation was still palpable for her. It even choked me up, transported so many years after, to the pain he must have felt.
After lunch in Heathcote we drove further north toward Axedale, taking Grandma on a trip down memory lane and learning about her life. To the east is the old railway line, can see the raised land, but the tracks are gone. Alot had changed since she spent time here. She told us of dancing waltzes, to piano and drums, and sometimes accordion. The whole community used to come out, for any reason to celebrate. It’s where her parents met, at a community dance in Strathfieldsaye Hall. Bill and Mabel formed a strong courtship and my grandmother came from this union, she loves to dance… My cousin says its a bit like her life now, going to dances, her dance style preference is swing blues. Sally shared about a weekend dance workshop with dance teachers from the US and a blues piano player from NYC. Perhaps dance is a thread that weaves through each of our lives.
As we arrived in Axedale, Grandma could see that the place she used to live when she was 5 no longer exists, but it’s now a reserve next to the Campapse River where she used to swim. The river once flooded as high as the bridge rails near Ingham’s Hill. Her great uncle died in a flash flood in one of the many local tributaries to the Camaspe River, he defiantly went after a ball he’d thrown and was swept away as his sisters watched in horror. The formidable force of mother nature was not lost on them, living on the land, born and raised in a house built by their father from materials found on the family property. This primitive lifestyle is hard for me to imagine. Growing up at a time when technology has made our lives so much easier than they had it, and perhaps far more complex.
Just off the main highway, from the dirt road we could see the land described in the story of old John’s life, he had come over from Ireland after the Great Potato Famine. He was in Melbourne for a couple of years before heading inland to the region being opened up for pioneer settlement. He wanted some of that land to build a life and family. He met his bride to be in the first year and was married in Melbourne before heading to Axedale.
The story, written by my great uncle 20 years ago, had no mention of aboriginals and scarce mention of the women as much beyond wife and mother.
I have mixed feelings about John’s dream being realised by having land to work. He cleared the land on his own with an axe, took him years. It is what enabled him to create the family that lead to my existence but it also contributed to the deforestation and ecological disturbance that is synonymous with pioneer agriculture. It breaks my heart thinking what the land might have been like if farming practices we’re less devastating for existing ecosystems, not to mention the traditional custodians of the land.
Juxtaposed with this heartbreak is a kind of pride and curiosity. It was a hard life for the pioneers. I can only imagine what strength and endurance they had or developed to live that way not to mention the sense of adventure to leave their homeland. For them, it was revolutionary and they danced with it. Is this where my strength of conviction and adventurous spirit come from? Are these traits passed on through a blend of nature and nurture? My journey was a bit the opposite, leaving Canada where I grew up, spent 25 years of my life to come back to my homeland.
We sat in the Axedale Tavern, working out where the washing lines would have been. Grandma’s first job was here. After nearly 7 years of school she went to work at age 13. Doing the hotel laundry and helping serve meals when the pub was full of hungry workers. At this point she lived across the road in a blue-stone cottage. She described boiling the clothes and linens in a copper pot and ‘bluing’ them. I asked, “what’s that?” She said to keep the clothes white they “blued” them with a pellet containing a chemical whitener. I’d always wondered how country living and white clothes coexisted. Seemed completely incongruent with my experiences working the land, it was never clean work. Mystery solved!
The publican at the time was Felix Drake, he was twice my grandmothers age. Today there are photos of him in front of the pub with some servicemen in the 1940s during the war. And another picture from the 1950s where Felix is surrounded by his wife and 9 children, mostly daughters. When my grandma was working for him he took quite a liking to her and said that if she was older, he’d marry her.
Sitting back to reflect on how life was for my grandma, Avice Street (b 1920), growing up in the early part of the 20th century, my great great grandfather John O’Donoghue, living his life in the last half of the 19th century (1831-1919), it feels remarkable. So much change has happened since then. As I sit in the 21st century with my iPad, writing my blog reflecting on the past, I begin to wonder what the future holds. Are we in the precipice of economic and ecological disaster? Will we see mass migration to escape devastation, like John O’Donoghue escaped Ireland’s Great Potato Famine but on an grander scale?
Humans are exceptional at adapting when the options are few. I wonder if we’ll be smart about it this time, seeing the writing on the wall, the unsustainable nature of most aspects of modern life, and make the changes while we still have lots of options. I have faith that it’s possible but like my great great grandfather John and my grandma Avice, I can’t imagine what the future holds. All I know is what I can do and who I can be, carrying the conviction for a better life and a sense of adventure along the way as my ancestors did, dancing the revolution.
Sent from my iPad