It could happen to you

When I was a child and thought about World war two, the war my parents had endured, and the way the Jewish people had suddenly lost everything overnight it occurred to me nothing is permanent. You can work hard all your life to build something up, to create the illusion of security and then in a heartbeat it’s taken from you. Everything gone.


Vandals destroyed the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that stood tall within a grotto built of stone in the garden at my old school Vaucluse. The vandals left intact the statue of Bernadette, a smaller figure in white, her hands clasped as she gazes up at Mary asking for help. 

I walked past this grotto almost every day of the six years I attended my school and enjoyed the fact we had our own grotto. Our own slice of the history of Catholicism. 

Every May we held a May Day Mass in honour of Mary, to emulate celebrations in Europe and springtime. For us the autumn.

Suddenly I want only to sleep, it’s cold in Melbourne were into our autumn on our way to winter and there we are celebrating the ascension into Heaven of Mary the mother of god. Flowers and ribbons and songs run through my head. 

Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today 

Queen of the angels and queen of the May…

Songs like ear worms on my heard. 

Oh Queen of the holy rosary

Oh bless us as we pray 

And offer you our roses in garlands day by day. 

I sang these songs by rote and paid scant attention to the meaning of the words. The music and rhythm, the sound that came from my mouth, the sound that came into my ears from the voices of other girls, all of us lined up in twos with a candle in hand and unlit on our way to the grotto to join Bernadette on her knees to sing a song of devotion to a woman I thought of as beautiful and slightly impossible. 

The idea of the immaculate conception troubled me. As a child I could not understand how she could have a baby inside without someone putting oi there. And that God put it there simply because he wanted or that an angel or some other dignitary from on high popped down from Heaven and put it there seemed dangerous like it could happen to any of us girls.

The things he did to me…

In one of his recent letters, Gerald Murnane tells me about the furore created within the University of Melbourne when the historian Geoffrey Blainey questioned what Gerald Murnane calls ‘multiracialism’.

Elsewhere, Gerald wrote that Blainey also suggested during ‘the great age of religion’ parents in the 1940s post-war Australia sent their children to Sunday school in order to have their time free so they might ‘be alone together’.

I read this euphemistically as time free for the purposes of having sex. 

And I read into it the implication that it was the foreign folks from Europe who brought their odd over sexed ways with them.

The thought of sex on weekends during the day still makes my stomach curdle, not the adult me but the child in me, who remembers my father calling out to my mother on a Saturday afternoon after he had invited all his daughters in turn to join him in bed. 

A time when we children sat in the loungeroom after our mother had gone to him to pacify our father in some unspoken way, which in these days I recognise as having sex. 

But what sort of sex? 

‘The things he did to me…’ my mother once told me when she was in her nineties. She was reluctant to speak further and the child in me did not want to know. 

The things he did to me… 

So, Geoffrey Blainey’s idea that people stayed home on Sunday mornings to be alone together while their children were learning about Jesus, sends the same distaste into me.

Besides, I wonder is this a patriarchal perspective. 

If there were countless children, as I imagine was the case in many households, not only the Catholic ones post-war, given the baby boom, how many mothers would have wanted to spend their child-free time pleasing their husbands and risking the possibility of still more children?

The contraceptive pill did not arrive on our shores till 1952, so they’d have had to go to some trouble to find ways of protecting themselves from still more children. And those mothers, most of them at home every day to look after the children already there, unable to work because women were required to stop work at least within the public sector the minute they married, were already overwhelmed. Such a world. 

It makes my stomach churn almost as much as the memory of my father calling out to my mother or my sister or me to join him in the bedroom where he was drunk and disorganised on a Saturday afternoon. 

By Sunday morning in the days of the six o’clock closing when hotels were shut from Saturday evening through to Monday morning, it was usually a safe time to go instead to Mass – not Sunday school, a protestant invention – with our mother.

She did not need to stay home then to pacify her husband, because by Sunday morning when he had run out of alcohol and had no way of getting more, we enjoyed what children called ‘our day of peace’ while our father sat all day in his chair in the loungeroom feeling sorry for himself and apologising to our mother for whatever he had done the day before. Not that he could remember, and I don’t know that she ever told him, other than to complain that he behaved badly.

My father in his younger days pre-war, before he became the man of my memory.

Such was the degree to which my mother protected our father, and herself from the dangers of living in our household during the 1950s post war, post migration. Menzies Australia, a place of freeze-dried conservatism and narrow horizons. 

They still exist but many of us now try to see beyond them.