Ancestors—white with sugar


Barb with a turn of the century potato harvest

My Jewish friend Carson explains to me the ‘whole megillah’ derives from the Purim festival where a story is read in the Synagogue and the villain is hissed and booed and the hero is cheered on. A guitar Mass was as groovy as it got in my Catholic girlhood of the 1970s. Carson always says, “different faiths, same guilt.” She’s speaking on the phone from Florida. Bocca Raton.
‘That’s an evocative name’, I say, thinking of Janis busted flat in Baton Rouge.
‘Rat’s Mouth is what it means’, she laughs.
Do Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day?
It’s an exercise in excess – going the whole megillah. Our family’s version is going the ‘whole hog’. Is that guzzling a hogshead of wine or gutsing down a whole pig? Then there’s going the ‘whole nine yards’, that crazy, dangerous dash for the line in football. Smashed.
I never had just one drink; I always went the whole hog. Crossed the line. Smashed. A villain hissed and booed.
It’s Valentine’s Day.
At one time Catholics couldn’t practice law in Ireland and couldn’t practice Mass in Sydney. In the 1700s Catholics in Ireland couldn’t buy land, couldn’t vote, couldn’t leave land to a single heir. Ancient farmers without farms who knew the loss of land, who knew what it was like to be second class, third class, untouchables. Then in the 1840s came the Potato Famine. One million starved to death while Britain sniggered behind her hand; another two million fled the Emerald Isle, their home for millennia. The old ones passed down stories about the poor sods who ate grass off the side of the road. Some of them even crawled into their own graves and waited to die
I think about this as I dig up Nicolas for lunch, armfuls of sweet smelling spuds with creamy, yellowy flesh.
The world in the 1800s was like a snow dome shaken by a giant hand as thousands of ships like white flecks criss-crossed the great oceans disengorging wave after wave of their ragged human cargo. No visas required. Migration. An act of hope in a time of despair.
Fearful of being “swamped” by economic refugees in the 1880s, the New Zealand government discouraged Irish immigrants. They wanted good Protestant stock from Great Britain and Scotland, not those niggers of Europe. A few of us prevailed.
It’s going to be a scorcher. I pick mesclun leaves, mint, parsley, chives, tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. The pink Valerian and orange Marigolds are a vivid contrast among the many hues of green.
My people were the “boat people” of their day. They were good people; pioneers upon whose backs New Zealand would prosper to the point that in the 1960s when I was a child, New Zealand enjoyed the second highest standard of living in the world. There’s not a single monument to the millions of women burnt as witches by the Catholic Church in a time men call The Renaissance and there’s not so much as a statue on the Auckland waterfront honouring the immigrants who in their thousands breathed life into colonial New Zealand. How many plaques are raised up to remember kings and queens, soldiers and sportsmen? Who decides when to build a monument and to whom? I’ve seen a lot of bronzed Queen Victorias in my time.
I pick lemons.
The Angophora in my backyard is magnificent; long smooth creamy limbs choreographed like Graeme Murphy’s dancers. This yellow flowering eucalypt is the reason I want to live right here – under its protection, near its perfection. This year drought has forced prolific blossoms. Hardship can do that.
After a bad drought the pasture can become toxic with the first rain and kikuya grass poisoning is not uncommon. I remembered the time when I’d finished cleaning the RSL bar and toilets and drove home expecting, as always, to be met by Jack, my seventeen-hand thoroughbred. Increasingly scared I scoured the paddocks and was almost beside myself when I heard a groaning sound I’ll never forget. The vet worked on Jack for twenty-four hours. Colic in a horse is a terrible thing, as the poor creature will roll over and over to try and relieve the gut wrenching pain. He’ll sometimes twist his bowel. I held his head still, comforting him, knowing in my heart of hearts he’d not live. Then the decision to put him down. Then the silence.

Valentine’s Day for me is not about the roses but about the pricks.
February 14, 1865, is the anniversary of our family’s arrival in New Zealand from Ireland on The Ganges, or ‘The Death Ship’ as she became known. She limped into the Port of Auckland after one hundred and one days at sea. The bodies of fifty-four children had been consigned to the deep, their tiny bones marking out the longest migration route in the world. The British had under-provisioned the ship—there was not enough food or medical supplies on board—she was over-crowded and poorly ventilated. But worse, an experimental shipment of canned meat had rotted under the bunks where the children lay dying in agony near the freight of fancy wares for the young colony. Soup was made from the putrid meat and fed to the children. While the drunken purser lurched through the ship, a black bottle sticking out of his pants, untroubled by the moans and pleas for help, his eye on the female quarters as the children died horribly of colic. The Captain was as scarce as the truth at the enquiry that followed.
I pull some garlic.

My ancestors went the whole hog to get out of Ireland after the famine. We lost two little ones, their bones floating in the waters beyond the Poor Knight Islands at the end of the world where the sun first rises.
But even the dead are free.
Nearly a hundred and fifty years later and I’m dinky-di, mate. I got out of the narrow island, crossed the Tasman, the sea they call ‘The Ditch’ and headed for the wide/brown land. The Lucky Country. Lucky for me. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the light in South Australia—it was my homecoming—my true baptism when at twenty-two I bathed in its purity and watched a big moon rise in the desert behind me and the sun come up in front of me. You can’t hide in that light. And I didn’t want to hide. I was a corpse dragged from a dark tomb, restored to life blinking in the sunshine. It was my resurrection. I’d swapped the narrow green of New Zealand for the wide orange of Australia. I’d left my tribe.
The last thing I remember seeing in Auckland in 1979 was a cop stick a baton up a gay man’s arse.
Sometimes I watch the big square ships leave Australia with their sorrowful cargo of sheep bound for the Middle East. Overcrowded, stressed, living in noxious fumes they die in their thousands and are put through the mincer and fed to the oceans – blood and bone from the pastures of Perth. But it’s a worse fate to make landfall in Egypt.
Was our dominion over animals a licence for wholesale slaughter, a green light from god to build concentration camps for sentient beings? We have factory farms without grass or sunshine; pigs in metal straight jackets that cannot nuzzle their young, or roll in mud but stand and chew at the bars maddening themselves until they are turned into jaunty Christmas hams. Is their any crueler feast than Turkey? Close your eyes, stop reading, pass the cranberry sauce. Every day a holocaust – one million animals slaughtered every hour in the land of the free and the home of the brave where they have grown obese on animal fat and sugar and corn syrup as the planet strains and groans under the weight of the livestock we fatten and sacrifice to feed our insatiable appetite for flesh.
From starvation to gluttony and still the coffin ships ply the oceans.
I collect the speckly brown, still warm eggs and toss the hens a freshly picked corn on the cob. They putter round my legs, gurgling like little dinosaurs, flapping their wings in the warm sunshine. The other twelve billion hens on earth live in cages smaller than an A4 piece of paper. They cannot flap their wings.


Barb with Brunhilde and Hildegard

Her hands are like Lake Eyre in the years when it doesn’t rain.
I had watched in silence as she boiled the water over the fire, threw a handful of tea into the billy. She camped in the bush every year at this time then disappeared with the boronia. I took her some spuds to go in the coals.
We sat with sprigs of eucalypt waving away the flies like windscreen wipers.
We waited.
She poured the tea into a chipped enamel mug.
Next the milk and sugars.
Her eyes were rheumy, the brows white and sparse, almost gone. She wore a coloured beanie that looked more like a tea cosy than a hat. She had no bottom teeth.
I watched her eyes grow dark with memory as she stared into the cup like a tealeaf reader.
She poured the milky brown brew onto the dirt where it pooled like a miniature river and ran towards the embers of the fire.
There was a sharp hiss as if the liquid itself embodied a serpent.
She spat. Her breasts hung like pendulums below her waist but all the children she had suckled were dead. ‘Boys gone ahead’, was all she said, her brown eyes wet.
The milk, the sugars, the tea— all foreigners—all sucking the land dry. Thirsty crops.
She told me the story of sugar cane in Queensland where she originally come from; how sugar took over from cotton; how the Kanakas came from the South Sea Islands, boat people, to harvest the crops. Our very own slave class.
She dug her nails into the earth, and scratched out little pockets of dirt: The hard hoofed animals like sheep, pigs, cows and camels not made for Australia, she said. Only soft-footed animals meant to live on this old fragile land. No dung beetle neither. Him come with the white fella. And flu and tobacco and grog, these were the poison flowers in the wreathes put on the graves of so many blacks.
She cackled and cracked a can of beer. There was a sharp hiss as if the liquid itself embodied a serpent.
‘You can make anything righteous’, she said. ‘But what good will it do yer?’
Why am I here, sitting in the dirt feeling righteous on Valentines Day? Feeling thirsty, remembering my ancestors—white, with sugar. The fire stings my eyes till I shut them and give in to the images curling up like smoke.
I imagine a line of humans stretching back 155,000 years to Africa from where Adam and Eve emerged, black as tea leaves.
It is not just indigenous peoples who are survivors – we are all survivors, all boat people. We need to look at each other with fresh eyes full of wonder and awe as we imagine the series of miracles that has led to any one of us being born.
Most people don’t know the names of their great grandparents –their identities are forged within a couple of generations, sepia photos marking out the shallow boundaries of our knowledge. But there is a greater sweep of time that hums in all our bones. We are as old as the hills in which we all once lived in caves. Drinking tea over fires is nothing new.
Race, culture, gender— all righteous.
“When we lose our sense of grievance, pain, even physical pain, becomes more bearable.” I recently read Germaine Greer’s ‘Power & Serenity’, the last chapter in her book ‘The Change’ and I marveled at the words above. I’ve thought about the meaning of grievance now for a few days – complaint is close in meaning but also the sense of injustice that second wave feminists like Germaine and I marinated in . . . a bitter brew. After half a century on planet earth I have learned the importance of losing my sense of grievance.
One of the delights of summer is to watch the pairs of plovers dotted round the village where I live on the south coast of New South Wales. The plover’s nests are just a scrape on a grass verge of the road, or on the sand or in a backyard regardless of myriad predators like humans, dogs, cats, cars, foxes, and eagles.
It was 32 degrees by 10.30am and the holidaymakers were already leaving the city in their big rigs and trickling down the coast. It’s unkind of me to think of them as toxic and most aren’t, but many are careless of the animals that share our lives.
One pair of plovers on the road into the village has a small chick and the family forages for food around the bush outside the ranger’s headquarters.
I found her struck down at 10.35am in a 50k zone. Rare to see an adult casualty. Stopped to pick her up, light as a piece of white bread, her bright yellow wattles gay in death, her eyes clear and glassy. Her long pink legs lay against my hand almost intimately. I placed her in the mulga by the side of the road. No sign of her mate or their chick.
You can make anything righteous. But what good will it do yer?
Later that day, sunset, I again drove to town and saw her mate standing vigil in the grass beside the bird’s body, a still, lonely figure fiery orange in the fading light. Her chick was gone. But in place of my sense of grievance was a sense of awe at being shown the love of one creature for another.
It’s bushfire season.
I hear the whine of trail bikes and set aside my preparations for a Valentine’s Day lunch of crab cakes with lime and coriander, avocado and mesclun salad with tiny crispy Parmesan and oregano potatoes – all from my garden. The crab’s from Bullfrog across the road. It’s stinking hot and the kid most likely to flick a match into the mulga is the one with his little dick vibrating on the teardrop tank as he wrestles with the handlebars like some reluctant girl. Vroom, vroom.
I stomp off to police the lout’s playground.
Obscured by the lacy curtains of the black wattle and the rampant kunzea that smells like honey is a jacked up Cherry red 4wd parked nose into the bushes.
The trail bike roars past me, throwing up dirt, skinny rider grinning at me, a skull in a helmet. Three more of them follow. They’ll be back. Round the corner I drag a heavy branch across their path, breathless and angry, wishing my heart was black enough to string piano wire head-high across the track where they crush the native Iris with their fat black tyres. I pick up the cans of Red Bull and the MacDonald’s wrappers and smell the dead cow fat.
Like a gash in the bush, the red Ute spins around and roars off spewing dust, the licence plate smeared with mud, two blond heads bobbing up and down in the front seat. I duck off the track and follow wheel ruts carved into the feathery understorey. Waxy orange candles on the banksias light my way. A stick breaks under my boot like a bone. No birdsong but I can hear the blowflies – a loud funereal buzz for the roo they had skinned; it’s head on a pole poked in the ground. This little circle of bush defiled. Silent except for the blowfly chorus. The animal had died in pain, her teeth were gritted. She is one of the roos I see in the little family groups dotted about the village – they have a distinctive white patch round their noses going back generations to the old bull ‘White-Nose Charlie’. Her white cheek pouch was pink with blood and spotted with flies. Her little leathery paws were cut off and left discarded like gloves.
I haven’t had a smoke in over a year and I can smell the sweet ganga rising up from Bullfrog’s place, calling like a pretty girl. Can I make it home?
I want to wipe out the sight and smell and sound of the butchered roo whose warm skin is riding round in a white boy’s Ute instead of her sunning herself by the big rocks near Crow Corner where her mob hangs out near the pink ti-tree. I want to suck back that smoke into my shrivelled lungs till it runs like water through the cracked dry riverbed of my chest and slows my ragged breath and changes my black thoughts to mellow yellow.
Bullfrog’s on his veranda, shirt off waving a big juicy head at me as I swing past his place. I can smell the resin like a pig can smell a truffle.
‘Wanna smoke?’ he calls, ‘or are ya still straight?’
I falter. If he wasn’t playing Iron Maiden I’d probably have succumbed and thrown away the clean time.
Bullfrog grows a big crop every year. For three months he becomes jumpy and snarly, fearing he’s going to get ripped off by mates, or busted. He doesn’t have a moment’s peace and money’s in short supply. He lives off the disability pension and the squid he jags and he soon loses his potbelly. He’s got a big stash to see him through but by January pickings are thin. When he harvests the dope he buys a few grams of ice to get through the work and he cranks up Iron Maiden as he strips and dries and saves the seed for the next go round. Then he’s packed and off on a big bender, up to Jupiter’s Casino in Queensland. Booze, cooze and blackjack for ten days. Home, then down to the local bowlo every day feeding the crop through the pokies, plenty of scotch and coke and take-aways for six months. He packs a cone every hour and people come to the door day and night like a trail of snail spit. He’s traded a peaceful normal life and always wonders if the cops’ll be along soon. He’s done time for smack and doesn’t wanna go back. Ever.
He’s being punished now without being caught.
He smiles, he smokes and sucks on his can of Jim Beam and coke. He’s all oral with his big slash of a mouth like a bullfrog.
‘Nah mate, thanks anyway.’
‘Well come up later and I’ll give you some fucken spring onions then, got heaps of ’em.’ He punches the air but the smile doesn’t reach his glassy eyes. He swivels his pelvis. ‘Happy fucken Valentine’s Day’.
‘Ok Bullfrog, thanks. I’ll see ya later.’

The big pot of salty water’s boiling.
On the sink, one of the crabs moves its leg.
I can hear the trail bikes in the distance and Iron Maiden and the pot lid jumping up and down dancing to the steam.
I tip the crabs into a garbage bag and take them down to the creek.
Even the dead are free.




One thought on “Ancestors—white with sugar

  1. Yes, we are all boat people and survivors. I know a Bullfrog, only he lives in another place, yet hes the same. And my grandmother used to say , only the dead are truely free.. love your little chookhouse..ive always had 2 as latest ones were Thelma and Louise, since they just arrived, unannounced…i feed them and am happy for them to stay, they give us eggs..
    Thanks again for the reminders xx

    Liked by 1 person

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