His name was Andrew. Born with the umbilical cord around his neck. Never took a breath, or so they said. He was the child of my grandmother’s father and her cousin. His niece-by-marriage. The tiny skeleton in their closet. The tiny boy with no surname.
There were other babies that died, too. Valda was nine weeks old. My grandmother’s sister, born 18 months before her into the same two-roomed mud hut behind the main miners’ cottage in Ironbark. She caught whooping cough. No doubt the bacteria seeped deep within those porous walls. Her mother said she was the most beautiful baby. Legend has it Valda took all the love to her tiny grave.
The nephew was two years and three months. My 15-year-old grandmother’s sister’s baby. Big, big eyes. Long, long lashes that curled at the end. Beautiful. She remembers those eyes in the tiny white coffin in her sister’s Wattle Street lounge room. The children had been sailing down the hill in a home-made billy cart when a rare car came around the corner and right over the top of the toddler. Broke every bone in his body.
The babies are linked to the women, aren’t they. They’re the women’s fortune and misfortune in one. No room, no money, no prospects of dragging themselves out of un-lined ticky tacky Bendigo cottages, with the rising damp and peeling hessian walls, and yet the babies kept coming. For better or worse.
The mines lured and kept them here. My grandmother’s father lived with the ‘miners’ complaint’ until he reached 69. In the Bendigo hospital, hooked up to an oxygen tank, he stood in the bed one night, lost his footing and fell. Killed when his head hit the breath-giving tank beside him.
My grandmother remembers regular trips to the hospital as a child, the whole family having their lungs checked for the same settling gold-less dust. Their mother had washed her husband’s filthy clothes with their own. You could catch it that way. Apparently. Never mind the mountains of lead-and-arsenic-laced grey dust they played in behind the house.
My own son is the sixth generation of my maternal grandmother’s family in Bendigo. It’s no dynasty. But they weren’t the only ones driven mad through depression and despair. So many like them, these ordinary people. When inner-city cottages started fetching a mint my grandmother couldn’t believe it. All these places, prized for their dado boards and practical symmetrical four original rooms. They were the pits in her day.
I have spent more than 15 years telling the stories of this place. Of fortunes and forebears, of boom town greats, of artists and achievers, of beautiful architecture, past and present. But I’ve never told these family tales before. The older I get the clearer it becomes; when we remember Bendigo people, we must remember the small ones, too.
The cluster of cottages in that Ironbark street still stands. The front one is low and mean in its makeup. Its veranda follows the steep angle of the roof line. A tall man would need to stoop. My great, great grandparents lived there. Not far to travel from mine to home. Next door, another, where a distant uncle lived. Behind them, the mud hut where my grandmother lived until she was eight. More cubby house than outhouse. Today there’s a sign on the fence advertising aromatherapy and ear candling. It’s the sort of place that could become a coveted studio in real estate terms. The sort of place where babies perished from poor ventilation.
I drive past the houses. Sometimes. I’m bound to this place by their stories.
My own mother is a great storyteller. (Not a writer. I’ve no idea where my compulsion comes from.) Really, she is the keeper of all the tales. She’s far enough away in years to spill beans. To bring forth black and white memories thought buried as long dead children.
Her life, and her mother’s life, are proof this family’s fortunes improved with years. The women got stronger, our houses got bigger, our broods shrunk. We worked, not just until children were born. We worked our way out of historic squalor. My grandparents still live in their immaculate 1950s weatherboard. My parents still live in the 1980s house my mother designed herself. Soaring ceilings, double brick. Unshakable.
I live in a lovely light-filled home in Eaglehawk. I sit at our kitchen table and let cups of tea go cold as I write the stories of this place and its people. My place. My people.
The Ironbark cottage and mud hut changed hands just a few years ago. High $200,000s. My grandmother couldn’t believe it.
This story was first published in the anthology, Celebrating Bendigo Women, edited by Brenda Stevens-Chambers.