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Mother of Ten: the sequel

The sequel to Whisper My Secret is finally done! Writing Mother of Ten took me on a journey to a secret sanctuary in my mind where remembrances sheltered. As the pages of my memory album turned, I realised what a carefree and joyous childhood I had been blessed with.

While poverty restrained us in many ways, it also gave us freedom. Because we were poor, we lived in the bush but that in itself was a source of insouciant pleasure. Creeks, rivers, mountains and hectares of eucalyptus forests became our playground and, in some ways, our home.

One of the memories featured in Mother of Ten is a visit to my father’s workplace; the woodcutters’ camp.

There were men everywhere, some with axes and some with saws: strong men with the broad shoulders and calloused hands of hard-working bushmen. White Australians with faces tanned to mahogany brown from daily exposure to the sun were barely discernible from Aboriginal Australians. Some men worked with shirt sleeves rolled up, revealing their tanned forearms. Others wore blue or white singlets fully exposing their muscled arms. They all wore long pants and boots and most heads were covered by hats or berets.  (Italics indicate quotes from Mother of Ten.)

Bluey, the camp cook, used to make tea for us all at break time.

Bluey was a big man with thick red hair and freckles all over his face. His old hat was held together in places with large safety pins.

One day when we were sitting around the camp fire I learned that Bluey had once been tricked into thinking there was a ghost roaming in the bush. Late one night he had heard someone playing the mouth organ not far from their camp. There were no other camps nearby so the men thought it odd that someone would be walking through the trees in the dark playing the mouth organ. When Bluey and a couple of the men went to investigate, they were unable to locate the musician.

“Whenever I got close to the sound it’d stop. Then it’d start up again in another direction and further way. So off we’d go in the direction of the music and, blow me down, if it didn’t move to another spot again, still playin’ the same tune.”

Apparently, Bluey wanted to pack up camp and head back to town until they eventually worked out that the musician was not a ghost but a lyrebird. These ground dwelling brown birds can mimic any sound they hear. In fact, a lyrebird can mimic the sound of an axe so precisely that even the woodcutters cannot tell the difference.

Happy memories of fun and family should be the gift given to each and every child born on this Earth. Alas, this is not the case. It certainly was not the case for the three children my mother bore before she started her second family with my father. Although Mum’s eldest child, Bertie, did eventually grow up in a family environment, it was far from joyous. Bertie’s brother and sister were, like thousands of other children in Australia, robbed of family life and brought up in institutions. Another quest that Mother of Ten took me on was the mental pilgrimage through the lives of these children.

An Inquiry conducted by the Australian Senate in 2003 and 2004 received over 600 submissions from people who, as children, had been in institutions in Australia from the 1920s to the 1990s. The 2009 report of this Inquiry, known as Forgotten Australians, states:

‘…the overwhelming response as to treatment in care, even among those that made positive comments, was the lack of love, affection and nurturing that was never provided to young children at critical times during their emotional development.’

The two journeys that evolved for me through the writing of Mother of Ten epitomise the contrast between the childhood I took for granted and was privileged to enjoy, and the childhood forced on each of my half-siblings. But, although Mother of Ten explores their heartbreak, the book also celebrates their resilience, resourcefulness and determination, as well as their triumph.

What lies behind the title? The title was inspired by a reader of Whisper My Secret who was one of those that generously took the time to email me and share her thoughts after reading the book. When she mentioned she was a mother of ten, I thought, ‘Mother of ten, same as my mum.’ That was when I first considered calling the book Mother of Ten. I realised it neatly fulfilled my wish to have a title that was somehow inclusive of all of Myrtle’s children. It works on another level as well because that was Myrtle’s secret: the fact that she was a mother of ten. I also like the way the titles can be linked by two simple words to form a sentence: Whisper My Secret: I’m a Mother of Ten. I love playing with words so that aspect of the title kinda tickles my fancy.

Now Mother of Ten has started her own journey I am off on my next writer’s journey. This time it’s a whodunnit!

Until we meet again… JB:-)

Update June 2013: At the end of Mother of Ten I inserted an amendment about the death of Myrtle’s father as described in Whisper My Secret . However,we have now discovered a record of the inquest into his death which confirms that the original information indicating his death resulted from a self inflicted gunshot wound was accurate after all.

More about the writing of  Whisper My Secret.

Photos of Myrtle and family

Oh, by the way, talking about lyrebirds, here’s a link to a superb new picture book called: Lyrebird: a true story

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My father’s love letters

My father’s love letters to my mother show that, although Whisper My Secret is a heart wrenching story of loss and separation, it is also a story of romance and enduring love. When my mother, Myrtle Webb, was forced to give up her first three children, she walked into the arms of a man whose passion and love for her endured through time, through poverty, hardship and illness.

I’ll let my father speak for himself through two of his letters to my mother. I have quoted from both of these letters in Whisper My Secret and I thought you might like to see copies of the originals. (You might prefer to finish the book before reading the letters.)

The first one was written in 1945 when Dad was still in the army and desperate to get out to be with Myrtle and their first-born, Bobby.

The second one was written almost twenty years later in 1964, when Dad was in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne terminally with leukaemia while Mum and us kids were miles away in Orbost. It is clear that his anguish at being separated from Myrtle was just as strong as it ever was.

Click on the images to make them larger.

For those of you who find my father’s handwriting difficult to read, I have transcribed the letters below.

Transcription of army letter 1945:

VX.62956 A.G.Rowley, 140 A.C.T. Coy, Site 16, Seymour, Vic

Dearest “Myrtle”,

Hello, “darl”, how are you today? It’s the old man again. Gosh, that makes me feel old as hell, ah well I guess we are getting old aren’t we? Well, I don’t know what to write about, “love”.

Well, there’s blokes here getting out every day all around me. There’s two went yesterday and three more today and there’s two more next week I know of. All except me. I guess my turn will come eh, “love”?

Well, “darl’ is there anything you want or anything about the place you don’t like up there. If there is just let me know and I’ll try and fix things up for you, do my best anyway, “Myrtle”. Well “Myrtle” how is “Bobby” getting on now, “darl”? I hope he’s alright. Well, “darl”, I’ll soon know now whether I can get out on my wrist in another 6 or 8 days or so.

[The top of this page is covered in kisses and a message under the kisses reads: All my love to you “darl’.]

I hope so anyway. Boy, I hope they say out of it altogether. Well, “darling” there doesn’t seem to be much to tell you except that this silly “sergeant’ here is trying to make me work hard and I’m just not going to do what he wants. I mean I am not going to ruin my wrist just for him, hang him. He thinks I am just putting it on and reckons it isn’t really sore at all. Well, I’ll give him something to think about. I’ve just been and saw the medical “sergeant” and he’s going to fix it up for me.

Well, “darl” I hope to see you soon and all my “love” and kisses from your ever loving “Husband”, George. All my love, “darl” and young “Bobby” – give him my love will you, “Myrtle”.

[The rest of this page is filled with kisses.]

Whisper My Secret is available as an ebook here:

Transcription of letter from Alfred Hospital, 1964

17.9.64,A.G.H. Rowley,Ward 23,Alfred Hospital,Prahran Vic

Dear Myrtle,

I got your letter today written on 12/9/64. Well, Myrtle, I don’t know when I will be home. It seems like they are testing me still. I don’t know what they are up to. I suppose I will have to leave it to them. I had a blood transfusion a couple of days ago.

How are you managing, Myrtle? I hope everything is going alright for you. Yes, I miss you a lot too but what can I do? It’s in the doctors’ hands and they don’t tell you much. Tell Peter I hope it’s very soon, because I’m a bit sick of hospital.

What did Joiner and Cross come over for? Just a sticky beak I s’pose.

Now, look Myrtle you want to look after yourself and don’t sit up at night because I’m quite alright. As a matter of fact I feel pretty good but I still sweat at night and I get a temp [temperature] now and again. Now you get your sleep and don’t worry. They will probably get sick of me before long. I hope so anyway. I weigh 10.10 [10 stone 10 lbs/68 kg] That was last Sunday but I think I have put on some now because they are giving vitamin tablets and I am eating pretty well.

I better go now but keep writing, Myrtle. I look forward to your letters. Look after yourself. Love from George. [Row of kisses here]

Notes:

1: ‘Peter’ is my youngest brother who was still a toddler when my father became ill. He fretted for his father when Dad was in hospital.

2: My father has referred to two of the local men by their surnames (‘Joiner’ and ‘Cross’).

Whisper My Secret is available as an ebook here:

More about Whisper My Secret:

Until next time… JB 🙂

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