The Cats Will Come, my grandmother and her diary

Mum Court with cats

Timing really is everything. Not just in what we read – the right book at the right time – but also when we discover or rediscover something. At the age of twelve or thirteen I inherited my grandmother’s beautiful carved chest. I can’t remember what was it in. Papers I think that my family removed but somehow I also inherited some books of hers, a teddy and what I thought was a very small gardening journal. I put the tiny notebook in the carved chest which now contains, photos, children’s schoolwork, music sheets, treasured newspaper clippings and at one stage my first completed manuscript.

Just recently my online friend Eva Lomski was enquiring about a WH Davies quote that I used in my first unpublished manuscript. I promised I would hunt it down expecting to find the two light purple manilla folders containing “A Strange Peace” in the chest. The folders weren’t there but I dislodged the tiny beige notebook and put it aside. I finally found the manuscript the other day and I’m glad that I now have stored it safely where I can find it.

Back to the notebook. I read through it last week and discovered that it is actually a diary not a gardening journal and that my grandmother was very clearly not well during much of 1968. What I wasn’t expecting was to find myself there – a young granddaughter Debby (spelt incorrectly) who frequently visited on a Sunday with her parents Nan and Jimmy.

I might have even seen my name there years ago when I first came across the notebook but probably didn’t think much of it. This time things were different. In the notebook I can imagine myself as I was, a little girl whose place as an only child was secure. Visits to her grandmother were seen in the light of her parents’ behaviour and reactions – her mother’s lack of interest in the garden; her father’s love of cats. But on Friday 27th December the diary entry reads: “Debby came home for 2 nights and day.”

I only remember staying with my grandmother once and I have never been able to remember if it was only for one night but here it is in my grandmother’s spidery writing. I was eleven years old and alone with her in the old house and garden. I remember waking up and she wasn’t there. She was out in the garden. She was old but she was up before me, digging and stooping over flowers.

I look back now and realise that it was up to me to decide what to think about my grandmother. It was my opinion of who she was and mine alone. Mad gardener and lover of cats. I was finally seeing her, really seeing her for the first time. Years later, not surprisingly, the poem came very quickly.

*THE CATS WILL COME

The cats come to her alone
except for grandmother
stooped, whispering their names
and when they come they form
an avalanche of fur
against the wire screen door
collapsing in a tangle of tails
a swish of slick coats
then slink to bowls of milk
lapping the evening away.

A lace curtain flutters
in the chequered sun
while grandmother cossets
roses, chrysanthemums
and hydrangeas heavy
with dew in the early light
orange in the old kitchen
that greets her grandchild
just roused from sleep
waking to a world slipping away.

*First published in Westerly Magazine

On Memory

an island boatrower's hands

One of the things that drives me as a writer, my passion I suppose you could call it, is to recreate the past incorporating memories of those that were there or there through their parents’ recollections. It is very important to me to uncover these personal details that can make the past come alive – because not everything is recorded in history books.

Nine years ago I began interviewing many elderly residents of Port Stephens to help me understand what Nelson Bay was like during WWII for my novel Tomaree. This time I am writing about WWI so I am relying heavily on first hand accounts of people that of course have since died. Luckily, I have though, two helpers who are very much alive: Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. Both have memories going back to the Thirties and Forties and as Mayfield didn’t change too much from 1920 until about 1935 or so, I am able to use a lot of those memories.

Vera Deacon is an island girl. She grew up on Dempsey and Mosquito islands – islands that no longer exist. (They have been covered in slag and turned into Kooragang Island). As a young woman she was always on the water rowing everywhere, along the channel, between the islands and to work at Mayfield. Her hands can be seen above – boatrower’s hands.

And Helen Marshall (who helped create the Mayfield walks) http://libguides.newcastle.edu.au/content.php?pid=251354&sid=2089250 has a prodigious memory going back to around 1933. Helen has been marvellous in helping  me map out three walks that my main characters Miss Summerville and Adrian Langley take in my novel The Grey Silk Purse. We have had some wonderful discussions about Waratah House and Argyle House, two properties that have been demolished years ago. We have also talked about the colour of Platts Channel, the way a gate faced surrounding Argyle House, also the Black Wharf off Ingall Street and Shelly Beach (both long gone). I only hope I can do her and Vera’s memories justice.