A flood of memories

Not so long ago, Brisbane (and large parts of Queensland) was conserving water by showering every third day with a thimbleful of water, urinating outdoors and filling the dog’s bowl with beer.

We were in the throes of a massive drought. Our dams were dry. Our tanks were dry. And so were the clouds.

I think there was even that moment when former Premier Pete saw fit to scutter off to Singapore and beg them to allow us some of their bottles of recycled water so the state could clean its teeth. In true form, of course, the state revolted, not dissimilar to what we do when New South Wales wins at Origin or when too many Victorians crowd our beaches in summer. We were just fine with our teeth the way they were.

Then, just as it was reaching critical mass, when we were considering syphoning water from the Brisbane River to make our coffee, it began to rain. And rain and rain.

And rain.

To the point where, today, Wivenhoe Dam, the water supply king for south-east Queensland, is opening its spill gates because, quite frankly, it’s got too much water.

With so much rain in SEQ in the past month or so, talk has turned to the Great Flood of 1974. Over a five day period between 24th and 29th January 1974, around 900mm of rain fell and the Brisbane River reached a height of 6.7 metres, four metres above normal levels.

And my mum was pregnant. We were holidaying on the Gold Coast, along the Nerang River. We woke to find the garage and ground floor units awash, the swimming pool and garden disappeared under water, and dad was wondering how he was going to get his paper.

The road to Brisbane was cut, the rain wasn’t stopping, and as it was a Saturday. Meaning our holiday had ended and we were required to vacate.

My mother has a 6th sense and a storeroom of nifty ideas. When flooding threatened, she had popped down to the car and covered the exhaust with cling film (such a housewife). This simple act apparently saved something or other in the engine, because when the water subsided, dad was able to effortlessly start the car. Still not too sure what happened there, but I was only eight and had too many wines since then to fully remember every detail.

Mum had an appointment with her obstetrician on the Tuesday which she wasn’t keen on missing. Dad wasn’t keen on her missing it either. But we couldn’t get back to Brisbane, so the four of us (I have an older brother) descended on some distant relatives buried in the Currumbin Valley who had a spare room.

Oh my, weren’t they thrilled to have four extra people and no fresh food deliveries for miles around. I remember eating a lot of porridge and watching the adults drink a lot of red wine. Even mum had a few. But that was back in the days when cigarette advertising was on television and a Datsun 120Y was a car of choice.

Tuesday rolled around (by now, the date is 29 January 1974) and we made the arduous trek north on a very dodgy road known even then as the Pacific Highway. It was basically a cattle track.

We drove straight to Wickham Terrace, the location of choice of uptight supercilious obstetricians and ENT specialists. Still is, I guess. Except I believe there’s a smattering of plastic surgeons as well.

While mum waited for her appointment, dad took my brother and me for a wander around Brisbane CBD to view the damage.

I clearly remember standing at the high point of Albert Street, where it crosses with Queen. My Brisbane readers, or anyone who has read books by John Birmingham or Nick Earls, will know what I mean. There’s a dirty ugly mall there now, but back then, it was just a street. And not a very good one either, because it was flooded.

Looking down towards the Botanical Gardens, I could see the sign for Festival Hall forlornly yet proudly keeping itself aloft. Kids were swimming around in the flood waters and using the roof of Festival Hall as a diving platform.

I did ask, but dad wouldn’t let me go and join them.

The other thing I clearly remember was the mortification of being in the city wearing nothing but a Sea World t-shirt, terry-towelling shorts and rubber thongs. Circa 1974, a trip to town meant wearing my communion dress and black patent Mary Janes.

My baby brother was born the next day. One month early. I remember we were at home when mum’s waters broke as she was standing in the kitchen peeling potatoes for dinner.

“As if there isn’t enough bloody water around us already,” was her only comment.

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My teeny problem

** this is a story I wrote about three years ago, when my daughter was 16. It is based on fact. At the time, I didn’t publish it because I didn’t want to incur my daughter’s wrath. Now she’s an adult, she can cope, can’t you darling? It’s too good not to share. So if you’re a parent of a teenager, or know a teenager, read on! x

The phone call came about 10.45pm on Friday night. My girlfriend and I were slothing it on the lounge, just like we did when we were in high school. Except now that we’re in our 40s we have better accessories to sloth with. No Fanta bottles or large bags of Samboy chips. Nor for that matter black and white television and The Young Doctors.

We had Colin Firth and Love Actually on the wide-screen plasma, a Pamela’s Pantry tray of nibbles, Belgian chocolate, a NZ Sauvignon Blanc and Chanel nail polish.

Even our bottled water came from France. But then again, it is cheaper these days to buy water from France than from the Brisbane City Council.

We had dropped our 16 year old daughters off at a party at Kenmore after we had watched them apply an unhealthy amount of black eyeliner and cheap bling. Kinda like Joan Jett meets Liberace. Or Frank-N-Furter meets, well, Frank-N-Furter.

We knew there would be boys at this party. We knew there would be alcohol at this party. But we’d checked in with the host parents and established that they were responsible and watchful and keen to have it all over red rover by midnight. So we scuttled back to switch on Colin and start painting our toes.

We had got through Bridget Jones’s Diary 1 and 2, replayed the fight in the fountain scene four times, eaten all of Pamela’s offerings and had started on Love Actually when the phone rang.

Dammit. Colin was just moving to Portugal to write his book.

“Mum, can you come pick us up? Nicola doesn’t feel very well.”

Helen and I looked at each other. Helen being the mother of Nicola. I mean, it’s not like we weren’t 16 once. It’s not like we didn’t go to a party and decide we didn’t feel very well halfway through it. It’s not like our parents ever refused to come get us.

We collected the girls and we’re on Kenmore Road, sort of about that spot where you turn off to Lone Pine, when Nicole goes, “Stop the car, I’m going to be sick.”

Helen and I looked at each other. Helen being the mother of Nicola. I mean, it’s not like we weren’t 16 once. It’s not like we didn’t sneak copious amount of alcohol when we should have stuck to the Fanta. It’s not like we didn’t throw up every now and then. Hell, we still do it now sometimes.

While Nicola was, I am sure, garnering the interest of the animals five kilometres away at Lone Pine with her squawking and heaving, I turned to my daughter.

“Darling, what were you girls drinking at the party?”

“Oh, like, you know, just some Midori,” she says.

My stomach heaved. It took me back to my days of Peach Cooler and West Coasts. I thought these drinks were fabulous until one day I turned 24, discovered wine and really, my liver and I haven’t looked back since.
 
“What were you mixing it with?” I continued.

She looked at me perplexed. “What? You’re supposed to mix it?”

I will never wear green again. Not even eye shadow. Even if Jennifer Hawkins says to.

Semi-formals are another story where teenage daughters rival Britney in terms of attention stakes. Yes, I said SEMI-formals. We haven’t even reached the real thing yet. This is just the dress rehearsal, the warm-up, the barrier trial. Sort of like your first marriage really.

By the time she had the spray tan, the upstyle “do”, the acrylic nails, the facial with extractions, the eye brow wax, the Elizabeth Arden make-up, the gel toes, the car hire and the massage because of the stress of it all, her bank account was depleted and I was hiding my Visa.

It’s a tough spot for me to be in though – she’s my only child; a daughter at that, and I’m young enough to remember how wonderful yet how shitty it can be when you’re 16. My gorgeous yet practical mother had purchased me a very serviceable dress for my semi-formal and did my hair herself. I’m still in therapy. I didn’t want that for Jade.

So we’re on our way to the semi. Ever driven in a car with four hyper-excited teenagers? Ever driven in a car with four hyenas in full make-up and heels? That’s why nothing frightens me anymore. I have a teenager.

They said “oh my God” so many times, I started to think that our good Lord was in their midst. I blessed myself just to be on the safe side.

Listening to their chatter whilst desperately trying not to comment was about as challenging as having a cleared credit card and not buying the Nine West boots that were on sale.

They go to an exclusive all girls school for the chronically Catholic. The teaching staff still boasts a handful of nuns (hey sista) and the past students boast more than a handful of OP1s. Which is why I’m amazed at their perceived wisdom and interpretation of the important matters in our world.

Such as …

“Oh my God, like, that lip gloss you’re wearing, like, it’s just totally the most fabulous thing. That, like, colour, man it’s fully amazing. You really, like, know how to pick the best quality make up. Is it from Groove? They so have the best stuff.”

And …

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!!! Turn it up, turn the radio up! This is like the best song eva. Like eva. I love this song. I love this song. This is so my favourite song. I am so downloading this from iTunes when I get paid.”

Then …

“You know Angelique, right, well, you know that guy from Terrace that she likes from the train, right, well, oh my God, but she like so went to second with him.”

Teenagers can be very nice; but they recover quickly.

If you’ve got one, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you’ve had one, please accept my sympathy and commiserations. If you’re grooming one, be prepared. Like, oh my God, be just totally prepared, k!

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A mother’s dictionary

Arms distance: The distance required between the supermarket aisles so that children in shopping trolleys can’t reach anything.

Bottle feeding: An opportunity for Daddy to get up at 2am too.

Defense: What you’d better have around de yard if you’re going to let de children play outside.

Drooling: How teething babies wash their chins.

Dumbwaiter: One who asks if the kids would care to order dessert.

Family planning: The art of spacing your children the proper distance apart to keep you on the edge of financial disaster.

Feedback: The inevitable result when the baby doesn’t appreciate the strained carrots.

Full name: What you call your child when you’re mad at him.

Grandparents: The people who think your children are wonderful even though they’re sure you’re not raising them right.

Hearsay: What toddlers do when anyone mutters a dirty word.

Impregnable: A woman whose memory of labor is still vivid.

Independent: How we want our children to be as long as they do everything we say.

Look out: What it’s too late for your child to do by the time you scream it.

Prenatal: When your life was still somewhat your own.

Prepared childbirth: A contradiction in terms.

Puddle: A small body of water that draws other small bodies wearing dry shoes into it.

Show off: A child who is more talented than yours.

Sterilize: What you do to your first baby’s pacifier by boiling it and to your last baby’s pacifier by blowing on it.

Temper tantrums: What you should keep to a minimum so as to not upset the children.

Top bunk: Where you should never put a child wearing Superman pjs.

Two-minute warning: When the baby’s face turns red and she begins to make those familiar grunting noises.

Verbal: Able to whine in words

Whodunit: None of the kids who live in your house.

Whoops: An exclamation that translates roughly into “get a sponge.”

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When breast is not always best

In a woman’s life there are a few word couplings guaranteed to strike fear into her heart and mind; that cause her to rethink priorities and spend several long hours consumed with disbelief, fear, regret and anger. Let me try a few on for size for you.

Credit card (“surely I didn’t spend so much?!”) Root canal (“It’s really going to hurt, isn’t it”) Hang over (“why did I drink all that champagne?”) It’s over (“I can’t believe that creep broke up with me when I did so much for him!”)

Or this one. Breast cancer.

Cancer is not particular about how it selects its victims. There’s no protocol sheet or democratic voting system. It doesn’t base its assessment on looks, age, wealth or how well you did in your Year 12 English exam. It pops on a blindfold, spins itself around and whoever it next touches it shrieks “you’re it” and that’s it. You’re it.

A few years ago, I had this persistent ache under my left arm, near the side of my breast. Not so bad that I needed analgesics, but bad enough that it caused concern. Of course I ignored it. Of course I said nary a word to anyone. And of course I worried and allowed my over active imagination to run riot.

I performed breast examinations almost hourly and each time drew the same conclusion – what exactly is a breast supposed to feel like? I mean, I’ve never felt another woman’s breast, only my own, so I’ve nothing to compare it to. I had no idea how my breasts were meant to feel on a good day let alone a bad one.

Dear God, please forward breast manual at your earliest convenience.

I asked a few males what breasts feel like and felt like an idiot when they replied “they feel great”. Doh.

It was nothing more than my fervent wish to avoid leaving my daughter motherless that led me to my doctor. She informed me that the pain under my arm was no more than muscular.

Then she went on to say that she was more concerned, however, about a small lump that was no where near the offending ache, and that it should be “checked out”.

Hello Wesley Breast Clinic. Attire – unflattering wrap-around gown which conveniently comes in four sizes; large, larger, huge and tent. As much tea as you can drink and more magazines than bad outfits at the Oscars.

A mammogram is not an inspirational experience. Why not just lie down on the freeway and let cars drive over my breasts. Surely that would be more comfortable. I would not have thought it was physically possible to squash a breast to the thickness of a slice of bread. How wrong I can be.

It wasn’t so much this constant squashing, and getting my boobs handled by a stranger and flopping them on to cold x-ray trays. It was more the insensitive design element of the machine. There’s literally nowhere to put the rest of your body while your breast is being contorted. This machine puts your boob in a vice-like grip and it’s up to you to put your body in some form of a holding pattern while the x-ray is taken. My face was jammed up against hard perspex casing, my arms were draped on sharp corners of the machine, I’m naked from the waist up and the door to the room is open.

Hello, I’m in hell.

Did a man design this? Who’s designing the machine that checks testicles for cancer? I want to be part of that creative team.

I also had to have a biopsy. “Oh it’s a very simple procedure,” the medical attendant assured me. I’m still trying to figure out how inserting a six inch needle directly into my breast is simple, but clearly that’s how it’s viewed. And I got to pay for the privilege. They even accepted Visa.

Fortunately the upshot was a cancer-free result. Just some sort of fatty tissue mass sort of thing. Whatever that is. All I knew was that there was no cancer.

The thing is, fabulous women like Kylie Minogue and Olivia NJ can fall prey to the lecherous destroying tentacles of cancer. So what are the odds for average women like you and me who day to day go about doing our jobs, raising our kids, loving our men and paying back our credit cards?

Statistics say one in eight women will get breast cancer. If you have seven girlfriends who are cancer-free, go to the doctor now.

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Natural childbirth – the ultimate oxymoron?

Once upon a time, I used to live next door to this gorgeous young mum. Late 20s, pretty as a picture. With hair that does this amazing flowing billowing thing, very infrequently experienced by my own locks.

This young mum used cloth nappies, grew her own vegetables, never touched alcohol and recycled the bath water. She walked to the corner shop, hung her washing on a clothes line and I never saw a Dominos delivery car in her drive way.

Mind you, if I wasn’t joining the daily derby to find my way unarmed and unharmed into the city each week day to masquerade about, I’d grow vegetables. Probably even in the dirt.

(Me, August 1991, about 30 minutes before giving birth, great hair)

This gorgeous mum had just had her third baby. A little girl, called Katherine. Well, it’s pronounced Katherine, that’s how they introduced me. But I’ve noticed that it starts with a “Z” and ends with a “C” and there’s no “TH” in the midst. Perhaps it’s a name from some remote Slovakian village? Or they found it inscribed on the upper reach of a minor pyramid in Egypt? Or maybe Mum and Dad failed Year 10 English?

The baby is gorgeous too. All eight pound two of her (I’ve no idea what that is in Fahrenheit). And she was delivered naturally. As you would assume a child of such an earth mother would be, I was proudly told by the lovely mum.

But what constitutes natural childbirth?

I know she bravely squeezed her eight pound princess from her half ounce aperture, but she’d had her baby manually turned from the breach position two weeks prior. She’d received pain killers throughout labour and was the recipient of some vaginal cross-stitch post birth thanks to a generous episiotomy. Is this natural?

(Me, one minute after I’d given birth, via c-section)





Natural to me is the stories of the Chinese ladies on the rice fields who work under the beating sun whilst nine months pregnant and then excuse themselves from their work mates in the same manner I would apply if I was racing to the bar to get another double scotch before happy hour finished. Courteous but hurried.

From all accounts they turn their back, squat a bit (miraculously without the aid of Pilates classes) and effortlessly bring a new life into the world. They pop bub on their shoulder and go back to picking rice without so much as a Huggie in sight. Let alone a pastel shaded Babygro. Edged in some fabulous white piping. With matching jacket.

I’m a mum. I did the birth thing. Once. So maybe that doesn’t make me the oracle of childbirth. Then again, most opinions on birth that I hear are from childless women in their 30s and elder men. So really, I hold superior qualifications.

My daughter was a caesarean birth and whilst not a planned caesarean, I was certainly not unhappy about it. I guess I worked off the naïve principle that I was pregnant to have a baby, not a birth. I never felt less complete, I never felt that I hadn’t honoured my child’s world entry, I never felt that I failed. But plenty of other people felt I had. Comments ranged from, “Oh darling, what a disappointment.” (This from my then mother-in-law as she stood holding her first grandchild. Clearly her diplomacy ran in the family hence the “then mother-in-law” reference.)

(Me, 3 hours after giving birth, content but looking for a drink)



“Do you feel like a proper woman?” (This from a cousin who had no children and resolutely no short to medium term intentions of having any either.) Well sweetie, I murmured, if they’d let me give birth in a pair of high heels, perhaps I would?

“Do you think you’ll still be able to bond with your daughter?” Well, if I gave birth and then moved to the northern end of Greenland for the best part of 10 years, I might have a problem bonding.

To me, these were just dumb, insensitive ramblings. That aside, I couldn’t understand why I was being held up for comment. But if I’d had a vaginal birth with major medical intervention, I would be regarded as a modern-day Wonder Woman.

A girlfriend of mine laboured dreadfully for 18 hours and steadfastly ignored the advice of her doctor to have a caesarean delivery. It took 34 hours, epidurals, forceps, episiotomies, the suction cap and enough pain killers to keep Amy Winehouse happy to bring her child into the world.

Yet her birth is still classified as natural…

I’ve started a new vocabulary for childbirth. You have a vaginal birth or you have a vaginal by-pass. Sometimes I call it the sun-roof option.

To me, it’s about mum and bub. She’s the one who has been incubating the little blighter since dad got the whole thing started and she can be the one to choose what feels right for her body and her mind.

And if choice goes out the window and she has to follow doctor’s orders, that makes her smart for wanting the best for her child.









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What my mother taught me

My mother taught me about religion. “You better pray that will come out of the carpet.”

My mother taught me about logic. “If you fall off that swing and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.”

My mother taught me about contortionism. “Look at the dirt on the back of your neck!”

My mother taught me about stamina. “You’ll sit there until all your vegetables are eaten.”

My mother taught me about the circle of life. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”

My mother taught me about anticipation. “Just wait until we get home.”

My mother taught me about behaviour modification. “Stop acting like your father!”

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Growth factor

The other day, my daughter rings me. “Oh mum, I’ve had a really big day, can we meet up for a drink tonight?”

Not at McDonald’s for a primary school post-mix Fanta. Not even at Starbucks for a teenage-favourite fat-free frappuccino. Venue of choice was Groove Train, drink of choice was Sauvignon Blanc. Made by Australia’s extended family across the way in New Zealand.

That’s because she’s 19. She’s not a child anymore.

It seemed that one day I’m heating her bottle of milk in the microwave, and the next I’m chilling her bottle of wine in the fridge.

One day she’s asking me questions that the Einstein would struggle to answer. The next she’s telling me “I just don’t understand anything”.

As a teenger plotting my life, becoming a mother wasn’t high on my list of things to do. I mean it wasn’t so low that it ranked alongside becoming a nun or working for Kevin Rudd. But it wasn’t so high as it ranked alongside writing a best-seller and becoming Princess Diana’s confidante.

It was something I just never gave much thought to. And you would have thought I would, considering I was a bride at the age of 20.

Yet somehow, from somewhere, this gorgeous little girl appeared in my life. I didn’t know I had it in me. Pardon the pun.

Babies are such a nice way to start people. “Is it a boy or a girl?” people would ask. “Of course it’s a boy or a girl,” I’d reply. “What else would it be?”

Over the years, she and I became very au fait; comfortable, supportive, companionable. I rarely had to chuck a hissy fit at her; rarely had to lecture, reprimand, punish or God forbid, ground.

It is interesting that I never went back for round two. Perhaps I’d heard too many stories of how you sterilise the dummy for the first child, try to include it in the washing up with the second, and ask the dog to fetch it for the third. Not sure. Although a mother of four once said to me “never have more children than you have car windows”.

Maybe because I was a single mother for most of her childhood, the result of a hideous little thing called divorce.

What I do know, however, is that I literally blinked, and 19 years had skidded by and suddenly my little girl was wearing heels, registering to vote, going to university, driving a car and booking her own dental appointments. And moving out of home.

Where did it go? When you’re up to your Brow Bar eyebrows in making lunches, driving to school, folding uniforms and installing Net Nanny, you forget to live in the minute. Then suddenly it’s the next minute, time’s up, and it is all over.

As we were enjoying our drink, I was attacked by a wave of melancholy. I looked at my daughter and said, “did we do all right darling?”

“Mum,” she says, with that look of wisdom that only 19 year olds have when they are looking upon their worn out mothers like she’s got one foot in the dementia ward. “Yes we did ok, you were a great mum.”

Then she said this:

“Do you remember in winter, you had to drag me out of bed to go to school, and while I was in the shower, you’d put my uniform over the heater so it was warm for me to put on? I will always remember that.”

Abraham Lincoln said, “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.” And my daughter is doing her own growing, charting her own course, setting her own targets.

And I’ve just bought her a heater so her clothes can still be warm when winter comes.

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