My mother says that the world has changed so much that it frightens her. She says it casually, as a passing remark, but underneath she means it. The world is a foreign place now. It’s a science fiction story wrought real. Videophones and spy cameras; computers no bigger than a biscuit. Jet aircraft passing her apartment window on unseen highways in the air, one jet barely passing out of range before another appears. She counts them to pass the time.
“It’s like trainspotting,” I suggest.
“I suppose it is,” she replies.
She came to Canada by boat. Not plane. Not jet. A terrible war had ended less than a decade before. She was Australian, and the threat of invasion during the war had been real and imminent. Her home town, Townsville, was bombed by the Japanese. The official report on the incident sneeringly advised the populace that the incompetent and not-to-be-feared-at-all Japanese had succeeded only in killing a goat. Nothing to be afraid of here. Carry on, Australia!
Mum says she didn’t care much about the war. She was 16 years old, and very pretty, although “small” (which was, apparently, not a good thing in the boys’ eyes). There were many armed forces stationed near her home, and she and her girlfriends would go to dances with the soldiers. They never lacked for dances. I have seen a picture of her in a dress with a billowing skirt, her dark hair in rolled curls, sitting at a dance, smiling to someone off-camera. I get the feeling there are cherries on the dress, but I can’t say where I got that idea.
One Saturday the girls went to the dance hall, and there was no dance, and no soldiers. They’d all been shipped out. The girls were surprised and disappointed. No more dances! How could that be?
“I was a little fool,” says Mum.
Eventually the Japanese were beaten, by the soldiers who were shipped out perhaps, and Mum went on to quit high school (as was done by girls in those days, even terribly bright girls like Mum) and to work as an office clerk while awaiting marriage. She worked for several years, saving most of the money, more by accident than by design, for there wasn’t much to spend it on.
Then, in 1950, when Mum was 25, an office chum named Cecily announced that she was going to sail to England, and then tour through Europe. She’d be gone for years, on a great adventure, Cecily said. Mum thought it sounded wonderful. She told Cecily she’d like to come along, and Cecily agreed. So off the girls went, boarding the Mooltan with all the other people leaving Australia.
Mum waved down to her mother – my grandmother – from the upper deck. Only years later did Mum recall the grimace on her mother’s face, as she tried to smile through her heartbreak.
The Mooltan stopped in India, where Mum and Cecily explored Bombay. She recalls the beggar children swarming around the passengers, crying out in what English they knew. No mother, no father, please give me, please give me. Then off again, across the Indian Ocean and up through the Suez canal. The canal, to her surprise, was winding, threading through the desert like a lazy snake. She saw great ships apparently stranded in the sand, and wondered why they were there, so far from the sea. But then the canal twisted and she saw they were resting on water, the canal being lower than the dunes.
Then they were free of the desert, and crossing the Mediterranean to Marseilles. The harbor there was filled with wrecked warships. The Mooltan negotiated her way through the wreckage, and docked. The girls disembarked, and took a bus tour with a driver who tried to cheat Mum out of her change. In her Australian private-girls’-school French, Mum declared, “Vous me devez quarante francs!” But he had no idea what she was saying. She was more disappointed at the failure of her French than at the loss of the forty francs.
The Mooltan landed in England; out emerged my mother and Cecily. Mum worked in London for a year. She worked for a company called Industrial Specialties, as a clerk-typist, a job that no longer exists. She recalls being teased for dressing strangely – a cotton dress with a gold belt; a hat with a splash of ornamental fruit. But otherwise, people were kind, even to an Australian girl who dressed funny.
She roomed with an English family whose name she forgets, but she recalls the address. I show it to her on Google Earth.
“That’s the place all right,” she says. “My goodness.”
She and Cecily hitchhiked all through Europe, down into Italy and up to Scandinavia. Not once did they feel they were in any danger, and not once did any of the men who gave them lifts treat them at all improperly. There was one American soldier in a Jeep who commented on the brevity of Cecily’s Australian-style shorts, but that was as close as anyone came to being even mildly impolite. In Germany, the girls ran out of money, so they worked at one of the camps that engaged travellers as workers, for room and board. She has photographs and names of the people she worked with, building houses on the rubble of post-war Germany. She has looked up their names on the internet, and found many of them.
“But,” she says, “they’re all dead. Except me.”
I ask her about Cecily, a girl (a woman) about whom I’ve heard so much over the years. Cecily and I did this, Cecily and I did that, Cecily on the Mooltan, Cecily going back to Australia while Mum went on to Canada. Cecily, with whom she never stayed in touch. To my surprise, the internet has revealed that Cecily is still alive. Mum says she’s in New South Wales somewhere.
“Are you going to get in touch with her?” I ask.
“Heavens, no,” says Mum. “I never liked Cecily.”
My Mum is the only one of her family that emigrated from Australia. Her mother, who had stood weeping on the pier as the Mooltan pulled away, saw her daughter only three more times in her lifetime. Perhaps she’d had a premonition, that her “little Margo” was never coming home. And that’s what happened: Mum decided to see Canada on her way home to Australia, and visit a distant cousin of the English line of the family, who lived in Toronto. She hung about long enough to meet Dad, and marry him. My grandmother came over in 1954 to see Mum (and meet her new son-in-law), travelling by a long series of propeller planes. She landed in the Malton airport after a journey of nearly a week. When Mum took my sister and me to Australia in 1968, we too left from Malton – a few runways in a field surrounded by farms. Malton is now called Pearson International, and has three terminals, a hotel, and a monorail. It spews jets into the sky for my mother to count.
The last time my mother went home to Australia, her mother was 87, three years younger than she herself is now. But Grandma didn’t know her daughter at all. Mum read to her, showing her pictures in a book. She showed her a picture of a horse. “Ah,” said Grandma suddenly, after having said nothing before that at all. “A gee-gee.”
“What’s a gee-gee?” I ask Mum.
“A pet name for a horse. There were a lot of horses when I was a girl, and when Mum was a girl too of course. There was a paddock at my school for the horses. The children would come in from the farms and the stations, three and four on one horse.”
My mother went to a school that had a paddock for the horses. Now she lives in an apartment that has jet aircraft buzzing by outside. This in only one lifetime.
“It really is remarkable,” she says.
Mum did not really stay in close touch with her Australian family, beyond her Mum and her sister Pam. Pam is now in a home in Brisbane, “her mind quite gone,” as Mum puts it. She also stayed in touch with her cousin Val for many years. I knew Val as “Auntie Val,” and she was the daughter of my grandmother’s sister. She and Mum were quite close, and Val had come to Canada several times when I was young. Her husband – Uncle Wally – liked maple walnut ice cream, and called the family dog Snuffleguts. Mum and Val corresponded for years on blue tissue-paper air-mail forms. Eventually, they used email. But somewhere in their 80s, they stopped doing that.
Mum is now 90. Val is 91. And yesterday, their cousin Bill turned 90. Their daughters threw Bill a party. We “girls” set up a Skype call for the three of them – Bill, Val and Mum – to talk. After we struggled through the arithmetic of the time change (what time is it there? what day?), we managed to get the three of them seated and seeing one another, Bill resplendent with his medals and insignia (including his wings for flying a DeHavilland Mosquito in the war). We wave old photographs at the camera; Bill produces a large framed portrait of himself in uniform and holds it so Mum can see it, across the miles.
“Oh, I recognize that young man!” Mum says. “That’s Bill!”
Mum tells the story of how Bill, at age 18 and freshly inducted, arrived at Mum’s work one lunchtime, as a surprise. She was 18 herself, and working at Shell Oil as a clerk. All the girls were abuzz, because Margie had a visitor, a dashing airman in his uniform. They were all very deflated when it turned out the visiting young airman was only Marg’s cousin, and not her beau.
A little light goes on in Bill’s eyes. He smiles. “I seem to remember that,” he says. “Yes, I remember that.”
After we all log off, Mum seems quite unimpressed about the whole thing. Well, of course you can see people on the computer nowadays, she says. Of course you can talk to them, even if they’re in Australia. It’s computers.
“Do you remember, Mum,” I say, “when I was little, and you would make a telephone call to Grandma? And it was such a big deal, and so expensive? You’d call the operator, and the operator would call the overseas operator, and the overseas operator would call the one in Australia, and the operator there would call Grandma, and they’d hook it all up, and then they’d call us back, and we’d all be waiting in the kitchen for the phone to ring, and for it to be the operator calling back, saying, ‘Ready now with your call to Australia’?”
Mum shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I don’t remember that.”
The next morning, I get two excited emails from Mum. Now it is hitting her, that she had talked to Bill and Val. I tell her I made a little video of it, just a minute long, of the moment the three of them saw each other again. I tell her I’ll email it to her, or if it’s too big, I’ll upload it to Youtube or Dropbox and we can watch it at her place.
When she’s emotional, she gets confused and overwhelmed. “A video?” she says.
“Yes, mum, a little movie. Just a little one.”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “I know how that works.”
She tells me that the first movie she remembers seeing was The Wizard Of Oz. People lined up around the block and waited all night to get tickets. When Dorothy opened the door to her transported house, and entered a world full of colour, everyone in the cinema gasped out loud. They could not believe what they were seeing. It was miraculous.
Now I can show Mum that movie on her computer. But she’s not that interested anymore.
“Everything has changed,” she says. “It’s a little frightening.”
Yes. And a little miraculous, too.