Thursday, February 16, 2012



Memory isn’t always an accurate filing system when it comes to recording family history.  My daughter, for instance, is constantly exasperated and not always amused when my version of childhood events differs from hers. 

It took a while for the penny to drop, a while before I realised her memories were shaped very differently to mine.  I imagine our respective ages at various points in time had a lot to do with it. 

A bend here, a twist there were either non events in her scheme of reckoning or grossly misrepresented and not given their full due by mine.  No doubt, the same problem existed with my mother and her mother and so on and so forth throughout our family’s long and detailed history.  I imagine the same could be said of any family. Yours for instance.

Fortunately, for me, there is no Rewa, nor Maggie, Geraldine, Isabel or Laura around to tell me I have it all wrong.  No ladies from the past ready with a red pencil, critical and furious enough to run a red slash through a line here or a thought there.

Just as well.  I am perfectly content with my version of events, though I do wish some of these long ago ladies had kept diaries, if only to give my brain box a bit of a rest.


If  I close my eyes tight,  race back through the misty tangle of seventy odd years I can almost  reach out and touch the past; be there again all bright eyed and eager, little me in the midst of an early childhood memory.  When this particular memory took place I would have been no more than three or four years old.

Thinking back, I imagine the short walk I took that day probably wasn’t a one off occasion. In fact I'd bet London to a brick on that when Grandfather sent me toddling down the road the short half block to the local SP bookie with a piece of paper and a black and white humbug to suck along the way it was a well traversed trail.  My memory fails to record the result of that particular transaction but knowing my family's luck at the racetrack I suspect the horse is still running.

When I think of home, my first home, I think immediately of Bondi.  In fact my bonding with Bondi Beach took place way back in 1938 when I was barely a few weeks old.  I have to wonder what on earth my mother Rewa was thinking,  I mean look at the photo at the start of this story, she herself is hardly dressed for a day at the beach, neither am I. 

Bondi Beach has been part of Sydney’s history since the mid 1800’s, back in the days when wearing a figure hugging swimming costume was illegal and that was just for the men.  The ladies weren’t allowed to swim at all.


Swimming and costumes improved drastically as the years went by.

But back then, when I was about 4 years old, it was wartime, World War 2, and my parents, Rewa and Guy and I were living in Bondi with my maternal grandparents and Uncle Bill, Aunty May and their three children, Leota, Gloria and Barry. Accommodation was hard to come by.

 Six adults, two teenage girls, tiny me and a ten year old male cousin all crammed together into a three bedroom upstairs flat (apartment or unit for you Americans) in Curlewis Street. 

Just the human element alone was crowded enough, but when you consider we shared the flat with all the old time paraphernalia of homemade beer, it became downright amazing.

I remember kerosene tins on the veranda in various stages of fermentation, panic as an occasional tall slender brown bottle blew its cap flooding the air with the sweet, potent smell of hops and molasses.

No doubt the tell tale aroma drifted far and wide.  Even now when I visit a brewery and breathe in the old familiar brew I'm transported back to a time when I was that little girl, the apple of my extended  family’s eye.

Grandfather was an American, a Yankee from Indiana USA.  A portly if not rotund man with shrewd, hooded blue eyes as treasured old photographs show. He invariably dressed in dark sombre three-piece suits, complete with fob watch, chain, and a rather distinguished looking homburg.

You will remember him as ChasBert my gentle little Maggie’s other half, the grandfather with the dual identity. Gran first met up with him in Fiji but that’s a story I’ve already related.  You can read their saga by Googling in either Fiji or Ancestors in the search engine above on the right.

As the war progressed and Pearl Harbour thrust the United States  into World War 2 and ultimately to the streets of Sydney,  he delighted in picking up stray American servicemen; bringing them back to the flat at Curlewis Street to meet the family.  They in turn brought with them nylons and cigarettes and tins of condensed milk and wonder of wonders, chocolates. With these highly prized luxuries together with the home brew, Dad, Uncle Bill and Grandpa set up a thriving black market.

My eldest cousin Leota was not to be confused with Aunt Leota who lived in Melbourne; nor Great Aunt Leota who lived in Peru, Indiana.  Cousin Leota and my mother were born only a few years apart and were more like sisters than aunt and niece.  A petite and stylish redhead Leota joined the WAAFs and learned to service cars and drive motor transports.

Better still she lived work days in the barracks and that helped free up some space at home.

        Cousin Gloria, a year or two younger than her sister Leota, was a tall and lovely good natured blonde, always smiling. Nothing ever fazed Glor, she just floated about in her own personal cocoon, just too young to join the armed services. 

On occasions Gloria must have tried Aunty May's patience to breaking point because I can still see her trying to brush the blond straighter than straight hair and hitting Glor over the head with the brush when she squirmed and yelped.

I will always remember too, the day Aunty May sent her down to the beach at Bondi with a message for Mother who was enjoying a sun bake on the sand while I paddled in the shallows.  Gloria arrived in a sun frock and sandals handed over the message then joined me at the water’s edge.  As the waves rolled back and forth, she kept edging in further and further until before long cousin Glor was fully immersed, wet clinging dress and all, happily bobbing up and down in the waves. It was quite a sight.

Leota and Gloria were a great hit as well with Grandfather’s hijacked yanks. Life in those days, 1942, circulated around war news, ration cards and coca-cola, and young men called Tony and Lyle and Herb in smart army, navy and air force uniforms that even I could tell were somehow different to those worn by my Uncles Bill and Bob.

On the radio, we listened to Glen Miller and his band playing ‘A String of Pearls’ while The Andrew Sisters sang on about ‘working for the Yankee dollar...’ or 'Drinking Rum and Coca Cola'. Everyone knew the syncopating rhythm for ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and the haunting World War 1 German hit ‘Lili Marlene’

I was too young to know it was an old song popular on both sides of this new war as it had been back in the first world war.

Bondi Beach lay shrouded under barbed wire and gun placements; rationing meant a lot of fiddling with coupons and the black market: but the closest we, meaning the family at home, came to actual battle was during the Cinesound news casts at the Kings Cinema, a block back from the beach.  About then I began to dimly understand what war was all about. 

The talk revolving around me was about our boys over there, wherever there was, and the fact that more were on the way.  The family gathered hushed around the radio, odd words filtering through tears and worried faces.  My uncle Bob was over there somewhere, in the desert in Egypt as I later found out.
Conflict and death might have been worlds away on a defining map, but for all the grownups around me the fear was very real. 

Going to the ‘pictures’ was the big event of the week.  Before the main movie we sat through cartoons, then the news casts when the screen filled with graphic news reports from abroad.  In the black and white footage of the day, we saw the muddy, steaming jungles of New Guinea, harrowing scenes of refugees in Europe, battle scenes from the African desert, Rommel and Monty and the Rats of Tobruk. 

By now, our boys were fighting on all these fronts and my shriek of recognition in the darkened theatre, That's Tony as a bloodied and torn airman was shown being dragged from a damaged plane on an island somewhere in the Pacific wasn’t surprising.  Tony was an American pilot my grandfather had brought home just a few weeks before, and suddenly for me the war was very real.

After all that newsreel drama it didn’t seem right to settle back and watch Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding into a peaceful sunset or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney clowning about in some frothy studio extravaganza.  Later, as the Hollywood propaganda machine really got going, we sampled movie versions of the war through tearjerker films like Mrs Miniver, and Foreign Correspondent, and even Casablanca.

Everyone said we were safe down here in Australia, the war would never reach us.  

But it did.



Robyn Mortimer ©2012