1969 -- the year newlyweds John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent their honeymoon in a bed and preached peace to the media. At the same time, I was longing to fall into any bed, and there sleep the sleep of death. To wake naturally, maybe with my toenails painted, hair buffed, and in clothes that were less than two seasons old. And, wistfully, dreaming for somewhere I could be alone in which to sing, just to express how I was feeling. Not a lot to ask for looking back, but it was truly an impossibility then.
January 1, 1969 I had just spent 199 days and nights with my daughter who napped for five minutes then played for hours. She was less than six weeks from finding her feet and walking at eight months. She began to sleep through the night two years later, one month before my son was born. I savoured those 4 weeks, a precious gift that kept me sane for the duration of my son’s demands for my full attention.
Yes we lived with the in-laws in 1969; in fact, the house was in
our names. But we still lived with his parents. It was after all
their house. All we did was sign papers that, at the time, we never
fully understood. Both his parents were the age we are now, but were
considered too old then to get a mortgage. We were young and both
working when we signed and therefore we were responsible without
knowing what the agent had gotten us into. Until I had come to Australia
I had lived with family, full board about $6, with no responsibilities.
As new migrants we were together managing very well on both our wages
-- we even bought a car at $32 a month in payments, a whole week's
wage to the average male. We felt grown up and excited making it
on our own.
We had been married about 17 months, the first three months alone with both of us working full time, me doing the cooking, cleaning and wifey things (some things have never changed), when sectarian violence exploded in Northern Ireland. British troops were deployed and my first cousin Frank was sent for the first of his 5 missions with a Scots brigade to keep the peace. And my new in-law parents arrived from the UK and moved in with us in our rented property.
The strange thing is, I bonded right away with my in-laws. I had
made a commitment to their D.N.A. when I married their son. I called
them Mum and Dad from the get go, loved them, in fact I loved them
more than my own parents who I had almost killed off in my mind with
them being on the other side of the planet. Maybe I needed them as
But Helene was the mother of seven sons, my husband her darling baby. She had always been the female centre, the queen, the one who counted, who demanded and most skillfully got her way, though manipulation and a cutting tongue. I too stepped back and obeyed her demands.
Big mistake – I went through my pregnancy under her rule of
tongue. Perhaps that was what changed me from the happy-go-lucky
innocent, to one who forgot how to smile, to one who never answered
back. One who was controlled to the extent that I was not allowed
to talk to the women next door. And my husband, being at work all
day, only saw the sweet mother who adored him. The mother, who knew
all the best ways to raise his daughter, (who she also totally adored)
and if he did see something out of the way, he asked his wife to
apologise when his mum got upset (for peace sake).
The mortgage then was $52 a month. Just think! not even the cost
of a carton of cigarettes to them who smoke today. We paid her $20
a week. A huge amount that didn't cover the cost of our daughter’s
upkeep -- I had to purchase her food separately. But Mum had talked
another son into coming out to Australia, and in early 1969 he arrived
with his wife and their three children. All of us together in one
small three bedroom house.
So it was with the arrival of the reinforcements, the sectarian violence was deployed to another sector. In fact, my mother-in-law liked me, respected me in her own way, and despised me at the same time for making her like me. Meanwhile, number two daughter-in-law was an old foe and much more easily showed cracks in her armour. She tended to run crying to her husband, while he never believed it was quite the way she was saying. Mother loved conflict, thrived on it, something I never could understand. It was during this semi-cessation of our hostilities when son number 2 refused point blank to pay $20 a week for five of them to live under her roof -- the result being we got a huge discount of $2 a week.
When Mia asked me to write about 1969, my immediate thought was, boring, nothing happened of note to us that year. But 1969 was a pivotal year that might have made us, or broken us. With that small release in tensions, while his Mum took up arms against my sister-in-law, I was able to come back to life somewhat. And, with the $2 a week cut in rent, I was able to save up and get a place of our own. $10 for the first week's rent. I chased a tin and timber shack, almost pleaded for it, and got it. Later increases were announced in the standard wage, and our fuel bill was cut in half because we were no longer the family taxi service.
My new landlady was a wonderful woman who took me under her wing. She taught me how to do things, how to cook Italian food. She was the kind of woman all women are meant to be, instead of who I was -- this scared, indrawn, mentally battered, grey young woman who had lost the ability to sing. She taught me to always pay bills on time, use cash, never book up, never look for more than you need or deserve. This vibrant woman who was four foot nothing in height yet seemed the size of a giant. Strong willed, but not in the bullying way of my mother-in-law. She was Nona to my daughter, and in her own way she terrified me as much as his mother while she whirled around her huge kitchen with a butcher knife. She was running after the two men in her life, her husband and his devoted brother, who was called Uncle by all, me included.
The best thing was, she called me a friend, and her 40 years my senior. The last time she called me up was thirty years later to say goodbye. She was tired and it was time to die, she said. She wanted to say goodbye to all her friends one last time. I was glad for her, and felt joy at her passing. I owed her. She was a stranger who helped us buy a block of land with her skills and knowledge and connections. She was not blood kin but a stranger I spent an hour with every Sunday for three years, one who made the best Sunday scones I have ever tasted.
No, I had never looked back to 1969 before, but it was a very good year for us all in the end. My parents-in-law sold the house – Mum told me, “just in case we sold it and took all their money.” They journeyed back and forth between the UK and Australia. And I continued to look after them as they aged, once they managed to get settled. What else could I do? I loved them because they were my parents too in so many ways that were, and are still, undefinable.
Copyright © 2007 Joan McCormick