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The girls are exaggerating

  • 22 May 2020
Content warning: Depictions of family and domestic violence, including choking and forced home abortion.  I spent the first six or seven years of my life spellbound by my mum’s stories of her childhood in Far North Queensland. Herstory came from warm, outback and subtropical places. She and her sisters wrote on slates at school, played in custard apple trees, kept their own bees.

The milk-man delivered milk in glass bottles to your door, and my nan bought them new clothes with ‘bottle money’ — returning the bottles for money. They ate bread and dripping, like I’d read about in novels set in World War II. Scenes from a novel was pretty much how I thought of these parts of Mum’s story. It seemed worlds away and further back in time than it really was. And like a novel, the story took dark turns. A little sister myself, I was thrilled and appalled to hear of Gale* playing the mischievous big sister, sitting the younger Margaret* on a half-wild calf they’d caught, telling her You better cling on, Margaret! He’ll buck! And buck he did. She always got up though, mum says, and still laughs with each retelling.

Yes, she got up. My aunt Margaret, like my mother Gale, and my Nan, kept getting up.

How well do we know our parents? They’ve had a whole life we literally weren’t a part of — we hear it in stories, see snapshots in photo albums. And then there’s the way we choose to remember them. Mum’s stories were so colourful in my mind. I’m not sure when I overheard or was told about the violence and abuse they suffered; I only remember that violence was part of it; black and red to techni-colour tales of country life. On the last day Peter beat his wife, Margaret and Gale scrambled out a window to fetch police, who stopped him. The girls are exaggerating, he'd said to them. They escorted her and her four children to the local railway station and onto a train — away from him. He died five years later.

These were stories of being tough. Being fast enough to get away, a child being brave enough to raise her fists to an abusive adult in the vain hope she could protect her mother — being slapped aside, helpless. I heard these stories, or at least thought of them so often, it sometimes feels like they are my memories.