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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Making a formal approach

My current introspective retro phase would not be complete without sufficient attention being paid to formals. School formals. Grade 12 formals. Or Year 12 as they say in the new currency.

As a mum, I witnessed my daughter Jade’s Year 12 formal. She was an All Hallows girl, so those of you from Brisbane will know exactly what I’m talking about – a school on a large tract of land, smack bang on the river, good elevation, naturally freehold title to the Catholic faith.

Mind you, I was a Lourdes Hill girl – again, a large tract of land, smack bang on the River, good elevation, naturally freehold title to the Catholic faith. I was merely continuing the generation

That Pope of ours is quite asset-wealthy, I figure.

I’ll get onto Jade’s formal eventually, in a separate post. You need to hear about mine first. This story is too good to gloss over.

To start with, I did not have a date. I’d just broken up with a Villanova boy called David (for my out-of-town readers, Villanova being a boys Catholic school built on a hill in Brisbane; David being either something once in Royal City or so the Christmas carol leads us to believe; or my first true love – if anyone reading knows him, please ask him to drop me a Facebook friend request.)

Now, back in 1982, gays weren’t fashionable nor recognised, so I couldn’t use that card. We didn’t have boys as “friends”. We didn’t even consider boys as equals. Your brother was a close as you could get to “a mate”. Or a formal date

So in lieu of taking my brother, I pleaded with a girlfriend to cough up a mate of her boyfriend’s. Pathetic. I know. I was desperate.

His name was Louis and his car of choice to drive me to my formal was an open-topped Suzuki 4WD. Imagine what that did to my carefully coiffured hair. And my self-esteem.

Considering my self-esteem had already taken a battering. And here’s why. With my part-time income from Woolworths, I’d bought this hideous dress which I thought was the epitome of elegance. However, my darling mother and all her 1950s neurotic upbringing alerted me to the fact that only prostitutes wore black underwear. Therefore I was forced to wear a beige bra under this black chiffon creation. You can imagine the result. Or see it for yourself in the pic I’ve included

On top of that, I got it in my head that I would look elegant and sophisticated if I had my hair up. Back then, my hair was long and naturally blonde but I wanted it styled in a manner that made me resemble Princess Anne on a good hair/bad horse day.

I’ve never looked uglier.

The only concession out of this is that I continually win when we have “bring in your ugly childhood photo” day at work. The prize is that I get to eat the last Tim-Tam.

My school issued a set of rules for our formal, a 1982 code of conduct, if you will. One of the rules: “girls are encouraged not to smoke at the formal”. As opposed to the 2010 version: “girls will be instantly expelled if caught within four metres of someone who used to smoke 10 years ago”. Look at this pic – yes, he’s smoking!

There were nuns a-plenty at my school, meaning there were nuns a-plenty at the formal. If you were sitting on a boy’s lap, or having a bit of a canoodle (what a gorgeous word) they would barge right up and melodically say “telephone book, telephone book” which was code for “get off that boy, you are one second away from getting pregnant, I don’t care that he goes to St Laurance’s” (insert Melbourne Grammar, Scots College, Eton etc, whatever your geographical equivalent).

Even back in 1982, we still had “post formals”. My daughter would like to believe that her generation invented this concept. Like they believe they invented sex, getting drunk and lying to your parents. It was with great glee that I told her she was about 25 years in arrears.

My mum and dad, bless them, had prepared chicken, cheese and champagne as our after-formal supper. Again, the height of 80s sophistication – a BBQ chook chopped up, some cubed Coon and a bottle of the frightful Asti Riccadonna.

Except in the 30-minute period they spent standing at the front fence waiting for their young charges to arrive, our dog, a loyal but hungry cattle dog, happily jumped up on the table and devoured the chicken and cheese, bones included. I think he was almost waiting for my Dad to fill his water bowl up with Riccadonna. Not a bad move. Less for me.

And you have to remember, this was the Brisbane days of no pizza delivery, everything worthwhile shut at 8pm, no 7-11 or Night Owl.

Mum, ever the stalwart, found us some pickled onions. We didn’t care. We were already pickled.

Louis and I had a “pleasant” evening. He and his pale grey suit truly wanted to get out of the disaster zone and away from my freakish hair as quickly as possible.

To this day, I still wished I’d got a “disco pash” at my formal. Even if the dog was watching.

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The pained veil

Last week, it was technically my 24th wedding anniversary. I say technically because I am no longer married. To him or anyone at this point.

I never knew what real happiness was until I got married. And by then it was too late. Granted we had a number of good years. Our attraction to each other was a matter of chemistry, which is why we ended up treating each other like toxic waste.

The definition of my husband? The man who did his best to stand by me through all the troubles I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed single.

Each year on this anniversary, I have this ritual. First, I try on my wedding dress – not to get all wistful about the day; I use it as a barometer to see if I’ve put any weight on since I was a slip of a girl at 20. I haven’t been able to do the zip up for five years.

I once tried to palm my dress off to Lifeline but even they didn’t want it. Because it was from the 80s. Puffed sleeves, seed pearls, kilometres of tule, huge bow at the back, lace lace lace. Enough said.

The second part of this ritual is I watch the video of my wedding day. Yes, video. As I said, it was the 80s.

I settled onto my couch with a fresh cup of tea and hit play.

My first thought is how fabulously thin everybody was back then. Not just me – my parents, my husband, my friends. If only we’d known. Ah, but those who indulge, bulge.

I could see where the problem started as I watched my celluloid self tucking tinto a mammother helping of Bomba Alaska. Remember when that was all the rage? But it was the 80s. I should have asked for for meringue. To match my dress.

I only had two bridesmaids, which fell far short of the de rigueur 80s number which could often climb as high as eleven. One of them is still speaking to me, which is surprising if you consider the nauseating dress with matching covered shoes that I made them wear. At least I didn’t make them perm their hair, as I had done to mine.

My husband and I were toasted with champagne, served in those wide, flat little glasses favoured in The Sound of Music and Audrey Hepburn movies. No wonder it was hard to get pissed back then; you can only fit a thimbleful in one of them.

In the height of my 20-year-old sophistication I had insisted to the Beverage Manager, my Dad, that the champagne be Asti Riccadonna. Surprisingly you can still buy it now. Goodness knows why; it is the sickliest, sweetest, aerated concoction. The people who run the Queensland licensing regulations need this product brought to their attention immediately in order to have it removed from bottle shop shelves.

 

Are you ready for this? While we were cutting our wedding cake, we forced all our guests to listen to Karen Carpenter warbling on about how we’ve only just begun … to liiiiiiiiivvvvve. Then some rot about white lace and promises and a kiss for luck.

The bridal waltz heralded Anne Murray, perhaps fresh from the Nashville Country Music Festival, asking if we could have this dance for the rest of our lives. In my defence, it’s done in perfect 4-4 time and highly suitable to luddite newly-weds who can’t waltz.

 

I really need to ask Mum to dig out the guest list so I can hand-write apologies to everyone who was there. Or at least the ones who are still living, because I am sure there are some who went out the back and killed themselves when they heard the music and tasted the champagne.

 

Anyway, the day ended and eventually so too did the marriage. He asked me one day if love was the answer and I asked him if he could rephrase the question.

 

 

I fully appreciate why people elope, and why that Little White Chapel in Las Vegas does so well. Nobody is filming what goes on inside.


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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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