I need to tell you more about my mum. I was out tonight, volunteering in the kitchen at a community music night and I was fine, just fine…. until I was incredibly not fine. Not at all. I drove home with tears in my eyes, trying to work out what it was that was going on exactly… I realised that hearing my new-found aunts and uncles sharing their (very few) memories of my mum the other day opened a door in me that I have long kept closed. I have been ‘The Memory Keeper’ for 13 years now, exactly half my life… and I have just realised how intense that actually is. Roll up, roll up because this is not just about me building my muscles as a writer, this is about you, my dear audience doing me the most incredible favour. This is about me sharing my stories with you in a way I haven’t for 13 long years.
When my mum died, my little sister and I were moved abruptly from where we were living in Far North Queensland. I went to live with my grandmother and my little sister went to live with my uncle and aunty – both of us in South East Queensland. By the time mum died, I was quite used to her being away as she had gone away multiple times for retreats and treatments and other adventures… In her absence I sought security in where we lived, in the land, in our life there as a whole… When mum died, I lost that too. Within 6 weeks my whole life was gone – my mother, my little sister, my school, my friends, my house, my swimming holes and my long dirt roads. There was nothing left of the ‘old’ except me. Not a single damn thing. Here’s a life for you…. BAM…. That’s finished now. Here’s your next one. Too bad if you’re sad, NEXT ONE!
In this abrupt, tearing transition, I became the memory keeper. My sister was too young to remember anything but the vaguest of details and all of my mum’s friends we left behind in the ‘old life’. I realised as my sister turned 21 last month that there is no one to tell her birth story except me… there is no one to tell the hundreds and hundreds of stories of my mum, of our many adventures of the 3 of us, except me. It feels a heavy, heavy mantel to bear and I don’t want it all so much any more. No one in my life today ever met my mum, you will never know her as a person… But I’ve been told I have a gift for words, and I certainly have enough of them, so let’s see if I can share some of this with you shall I? May my memories come alive in your minds and my vision be cleared through the cathartic nature of sharing…
There are many stories of my mum’s life before me that I will never know… I do know that she was a wild child – she rode motorbikes, drove trucks and buses, got caught up in pub fights and had scars on her skull to prove it. She did a dozen, two dozen different things to earn a dollar, to have an adventure. She was a ‘black sheep’, a ‘free spirit’ and incapable of staying in one place for long. A little before me, she burnt the entire record of her personal life. The only remnants of her life before me are a few photos my grandmother has and the collective memories of people I don’t know or who won’t talk about it. I was born in Brisbane Women’s Hospital just before her 29th birthday.
Between my birth and the age of 5 and a half, we never stayed in any place longer than a few months. For the first few years of my life, I only have snippets of memories of random houses and interesting adventures. Memories of a house we house-sat for a little while, of a night-time visit to a boat down at the docks which, for some reason scared the bejeesus out of me. And another memory of a babysitter I went to when we moved to Cairns when I was a toddler who also terrified me. Happier memories of going canoeing with my mum with little me wearing an ice-cream bucket for a helmet and helping to bail the water out with another ice-cream bucket. Who knew ice-cream buckets were so versatile!? We lived in a hippy commune on the Walsh River for a little bit and slept in a hammock in a hut with dirt floors when I was 3 – I remember going mulberry picking in the communal garden and visiting an old lady who had hand-built her own stone house.
Then we moved to a run-down shack in the middle of the bush in a place called Silver Valley. Our shack had no hot water, no modern toilet, toads under the sink and a hornet’s nest in the corner of my chip-board bunk bed. My very mainstream grandmother HATED it! There were holes in the verandah to pee in, a long-drop toilet a little way away that probably would have killed little me if I had of fallen in and a camp shower for mum and a big bucket for me to have baths in. Our washing mashing was one of those ‘olden day’ ones that had a separate wringer and we had to feed the clothes through one by one… Great fun to do when you’re a kid… For about 5 minutes! Our only neighbours for miles where a family with 6 kids who lived a little trek now the bush. I remember walking through the bush to their house on my 4th birthday and thinking I was just so cool and so grown up now that I was FOUR! We had home-made ice-cream cake made out of evaporated milk with little paper butterflies buried in it that I had made out of cigarette papers like I’d seen them do on Play School once. I can still taste that ice-cream. I’ve never, ever found that taste again…
I have dozens and dozens of memories of our time there… Of the time when mum cut all her hair off while I was asleep and I woke up and freaked out because I thought she was a man. Memories of eating molasses and birdseed out of massive drums next door and getting my first introduction to swear words from the big kids! Fuck! Mum drove a kombi those days and gave massages very, very occasionally in the closest local tiny town of Ravenshoe. She was a qualified masseuse, amongst many other interesting pieces of paper – all of which I got rid of a couple of years ago, having dragged around a dead woman’s qualifications for long enough. We were pretty damn poor but I obviously didn’t register it at the time – I thought it was cool to drive around in the front seat of the kombi with no windscreen… Until a bird did a massive shit one day and it landed, SPLAT, bright yellowy green on the seat between us! Ha!
After the hovel/bush adventure shack, we stayed at a women’s refuge for a little bit… I don’t have any specific memories from that place… Just vague glimpses of women and darkness and a generally heavy, fearful energy. The government came to our rescue then and we got a little, 2 bedroom, asbestos-ridden housing commission home in a country town called Atherton. There was an old man next door called Les and I used to be allowed to go over every afternoon and watch Playschool with him and beg little bits of his Meals-On-Wheels dinner off him. Les always had lollies and, as you know from my previous post, we never had lollies at our place so I thought it the most exciting thing ever to go over there and watch Playschool (we didn’t have a T.V) and eat Milk Bottle lollies and bet on which shape window they were going to pick on Playschool that day. Poor Les, he had a little bar fridge and, one day, when I was bobbing down looking in it for lollies, he leant over me to look too and I jumped up and hit his chin and knocked his tooth out! Apparently I was very hard headed, even as a little tacker!
There are so, so many memories flooding my mind right now. So many. To write them all would take years… And I know I won’t write like this again… Not for a long while…. (Unless , of course, I do.) So I’m just writing a snippet, a bare, bare few that happen to beat the rest to my fingertips but oh what an ocean of memories there are in me.
While we were living in our little housing commission house (that actually had hot water and a real toilet!), my mum met my little sister’s dad at one of her random jobs cleaning houses. Then whaddya know, not that much later a small child was born. A small child who would have been called ‘Jeremiah’ had she been a boy… But she surprised everyone at her home breach-birth by being a girl and was given the sweet, girly name of ‘Crystal Rose’. Ah, little Crystal Rose with the very, very big head and the babyhood habit of eating in the nude with one hand holding her food and vaguely playing with herself with the other. Ah, Crystal, Crystal, Crystal… Am I allowed to write that? Our mum’s not here to tell terribly embarrassing stories about you so surely I’m allowed at least that one?
After Crystal’s dad came along, we had a little bit more money… some of the time. We traded cars from the Kombi to a blue Datsun Sunny that we named ‘Blue Bird’. We moved out of the fibro, housing-commission house into a random rental house with feral chickens. I started school and Crystal started walking. We moved again and I changed schools. We moved into a brick house in a one pub ‘town’ called Peeramon. When I say ‘one pub town’, I mean that literally – there was nothing there except a scattering of houses and a pub. The oldest pub in Queensland is the Peeramon hotel and our new house was just up the road from it. It cost $96,000 (Is the number that’s in my head) and, by some magic and a very generous government scheme at the time… And probably some help from my little sister’s dad, Mum managed to buy her first little house.
We loved that little house, with it’s two bedrooms and it’s full wrap-around brick verandahs and car-port. I would ride my bike up and down the long, open ended carport for hours on end. We would play ‘washerwomen’ and wash clothes in the drain pipe when it rained. We had a little neighbourhood ‘gang’ of friends, of which I was pretty much the boss, even though there were 3 kids who were older than me. We would go on morning long missions to find and pick wild guavas and then pelt them at each other in a mess of squelchy, squishy goodness. We had a trampoline- you know, one of those old school ones that you could quite easily seriously injure yourself on… and we did, quite often. But man was it fun to soap that thing up, balance it on its short end and try and climb to the top! We played tiggy on the roof and roamed and explored near and far. You know when old folk get all nostalgic and glazed eyed thinking about ‘back in the good old days’? Yeah, pretty much getting that now….
ARGH! I had written over 600 more words about our moving adventures and things… and then they magically, mysteriously disappeared. WordPress ate them! So, as much as I so want to tell you everything and I almost cried when those words disappeared, I’m just going to skip to the bit about my mum, as a person… Not just the stories of places we lived in and nostalgic reminiscing of my childhood.
My mum was an incredibly creative person. She was forever making things… and not just one of them- dozens of them, dozens of the same thing to sell at the markets or, for the very short time she owned it, ‘Anita’s Little Shoppe’. Her creative adventures included everything from shoulder bags in bright yellow calico printed with stamps cut from potatoes to tiny little pigskin booties in rainbow colours, to stained glass creations to Femo baked jewellery beads. During the ‘pig-skin’ bootie phase my bed was in the lounge room and I have this indelible memory of waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of my mum madly sewing at the sewing machine.
Mum seemed to have sucked at the money-making side of being an entrepreneur but she had the resilience and persistence and energy for it. I missed many days of school traipsing all over the place to go and have market stalls in a sweet tourist town nearby called Kuranda. I missed many, many days of school for a whole host of reasons – most of them initiated by my mum, as she could see I was easily bright enough to keep up even if I regularly missed decent chunks of ‘formal schooling’. My mother’s approach to raising me was very much along the lines of ‘Gabriella, I trust you to take responsibility for yourself- for doing your homework, for entertaining yourself and for making friends. If you want to do something, do everything in your power to do it and I will meet you half way.’ I have the strong sense that all of the things I managed to get and do, I earned- either with physical and emotional commitment or the pocket-money I earned from giving my little sister’s dad foot massages!
My mum was incredibly independent (Oh, I wonder where I got it from!) and guarded her alone time. From the age of 9 or so I remember she would go off on her solo walks while I looked after my little sister and I would go off on mine after her. We walked together too- there was a lot, a lot of walking to be had. I learnt an appreciation for the simple act of walking anywhere, everywhere in nature.
My mum played guitar and wrote simple little songs… She didn’t play with any technical brilliance and she always had a momentary pause changing to Bm but she loved to play and sing. We sung songs a lot. Loudly and passionately and crazily when we wanted to. My mother was not a woman to be feared, she was weird and kooky and eccentric but she was inherently a lot softer than I am. Yes, she would smack us occasionally but it was kind of the norm back then and my friend’s parents were way more terrifying!
My mum was the mum that all the kids kind of wanted to have… I usually embraced it, but sometimes it was just downright embarrassing. She would show off orange juggling tricks and run around the park with us sometimes, which I generally thought was pretty cool and not like the other lame parents. Then she would make my friends eat the weirdest things for dinner when they came over- which was decidedly not cool. One day, she rung me on the newly installed classroom phone in the middle of a school day and preceded to have a lovely little chat while I stood there, squirming, mortified that my mother would do this to me. Not cool mum, not cool.
I see parents around me who seem to have strangely lost themselves in the definition of ‘parent’ and struggle to define themselves as anything more or else… Although she may have sworn otherwise, from my gilded childhood eyes, Anita Jo-anne Salmon never let herself be totally consumed by parenthood. I was always, always distinctly aware of the fact that my mother was a human being with her own interests and artistic and personal commitments and adventures and growth to attend to. As far as I’m concerned, in this area, she set a shining example.
My mum wrote in journals extensively. These journals were burnt when she died and I never got to read them but I learnt the habit of writing from her. My mum was into all kinds of crazy, ‘hippy’ stuff and our house was strewn with crystals and colour therapy bottles and other paraphernalia… Including a full-sized medieval style silver sword that she kept in a box under her bed…
Every year our primary school had a fancy dress ball for the kids… Our last fancy dress ball together, my little sister went as a little Aladdin-esque princess, I went as a grunge-hippy type thing (Lame in retrospect. ) and my mum… my mum wanted to dress up too and she went as ‘Batman’s Pink Mumma’ in a skin tight pink dress, a pink curly wig and a bat mask… She was the only parent dressed up…
I didn’t go to my mother’s funeral, I never gave a eulogy and I never heard either of the two that were given for her at two different memorial services – one in the north and one in the south. So here it is I guess… full of holes and completely incomplete, but here it is. If you have even a glimpse of the vivid colour of the woman, Anita Jo-Anne Salmon. A woman who was an artist, an adventurer, a wanderer and a creator… And also happened to be my mother. If you managed at all to get a glimpse of the colour of this woman then my memory keeping is shared… My memory keeping is shared.