Valda Burge, 2005

It's all about me!!

I was born in St. Arnaud, Victoria. My family lived in Redbank, where they had been for three generations. I was the youngest child of four, and had a sister who was 11, a brother aged 9 and another brother age 2. We had had another sister named Wilma Margaret who died of prematurity 3 days after her birth in 1949, and I believe my mother also miscarried a child after her. 

Early life for me was basically a tragedy. My mother became ill soon after my birth, entered hospital in St. Arnaud when I was six months old, was transferred to Prince Henry's Hospital in Melbourne and died there in 1958 when I was 18 months old. At the time, nobody knew why. The full story may be found on my parents page here. My big sister looked after me most of the time when mum was in hospital. She'd feed me on lumpy custard - which I still love, do her best to keep me clean, and her and my oldest brother would cart me around everywhere with them. Some of the time when they were at school I'd stay with our next door neighbor Mary Egan, and I know she nursed me once when I was very sick, she said I was sicker than any of her kids had ever been, but I'm not sure what was wrong. 

My earliest clear memories are of loss and fear. I remember being told 'no' to a piece of fruit cake; being left on the caravan shed roof by my cousins when we'd climbed up there on a ladder and they'd taken the ladder away; and going home and leaving my brother at his house up the road, and wanting to stay to play some more. I have very foggy memories before that of myself crying in a cot with a wet flanellette nappy on, and of snuggling on the lap of a lady with very large, soft breasts (probably Mary Egan). My next real memory is of standing in the car next to the woman I later came to call 'mum' while my dad went into my cousin's house to get my brother.... and we went 'home' to a new house I'd never seen before, but my big sister was there too. 

I had gone to my 'Auntie Doss' and 'Uncle Col' in Avoca for two years after the death of my mother. (Doss is actually my first cousin, but grown with children of her own at the time. Like many of dad's neices and nephews, she was only a little younger than him.) My youngest brother had gone up the road to my cousin Elvy, and my sister to Western Australia to my mother's sister Maisie. My oldest brother went to another cousin, Neil Gemmill, and I was not to see him again until I was 9 years old. 

When I was almost four my cousin Doss went to Melbourne for a short holiday, and had an argument with her mother before leaving, because my auntie wouldn't let her take me with her. She only found out the reason why on her return - and I was gone. Dad and Auntie Ella had cooked it up between them that he'd come get me while she was away, because she wanted to keep me. She had three other young children, one of whom was my age - perhaps they thought I was too much, perhaps dad just wanted me back, I don't know. But I believe I'd probably have had a happier life if I was just left where I was. I lost my second mother in two years, and she was heartbroken at losing me. 

Dad met Freda cooking in a pub in Maryborough, and she agreed to move in with us as a live-in housekeeper. She refused to have my oldest brother, as she didn't want troublesome teenagers... unfortunately for her, she took my sister because she thought she would look after us younger children, and I'm afraid my sister proved troublesome to her as well! Very little credence was given to the fact that we were very damaged kids, my sister had needed a lot of nurturing and love, which was not forthcoming from Freda, and she stood up to her until she left home at 16. Many people have said over the years that Freda was wonderful, to give up her life to look after us kids, but I saw too much of the seriously twisted woman who physically and emotionally abused us to give her any real thanks for this. All I can say is that she did well out of the deal. 

Freda stayed with us in the first house in Chewton, then to another house in Castlemaine where we stayed until I was seven, then to our next long-term home in Morwell West, on the other side of Melbourne, hundreds of kilometeres away. She stayed until I was eleven, and when she left I felt free. Dad moved around a lot in those early years, worked for the Main Roads Department when we were in Chewton, on to the Ordinance Factory in Bendigo while we were in Castlemaine, to Altona in Melbourne and Lake Eppalock where he worked on a pipeline, while Freda and us kids stayed in Castlemaine. He drank heavily for the early part of these years, then stopped when I was six. Soon after, he got a job in the Yallourn Power Station in the Latrobe Valley working for the State Electricity Commission, and we moved into an SEC house in the country at Morwell West. 

I have many memories of the years before moving to Morwell West that I can see now are rather unique. Although we were well into the second half of the 20th Century, I remember deliveries often being done by horse and cart. Always the Milko and the baker, but also the 'Rag and Bone' man who collected old clothes and items too good to throw on the tip, but not good enough for further use by the families he collected from. Then there was the 'Bottlo' who came around to take away the empty jars and beer bottles  - 1960's horse drawn versions of the op-shops and recycling teams of later years. Both had horses and carts and distinctive calls so you could hear them coming for streets before they got to our house. The Milko's horse fascinated us kids because he knew his way around, and didn't need to be pulled up at customers houses because he knew them as well as his human 'driver'. There was also the night-men, who came in the early hours of the morning, and sometimes woke me as they ran up the back of the house to get our can and empty it into their truck ... known to all kids as 'Stan, Stan the dunny-can man'! They lasted until the new porcelain toilet was connected to the town sewerage in about 1962. 

I remember the first television in the street. It belonged to our over-the-road neighbor, and they'd put it in the window, and have chairs set up in the front yard so everyone could see it. Soon after, we got our own TV, and had to hide it under a tablecloth from the man who came around to check licences - which we were supposed to have at the time... but dad conscientiously objected to! We'd go to the local footy on Saturday afternoons, where us kids would collect bottles that we could get the deposit back at the milk bar to put in our money boxes, then we'd go home and eat saveloys or tomato soup and crumpets, and watch The Flintstones on TV. On other nights dad used to watch the Mavis Brampston Show, which I couldn't watch because it was rude, and we'd all sit up for Bob and Dolly Dyer's Pick-a-Box. I remember seeing future government minister Barry Jones winning the lot!

I started school when I was six, because I'd been too small and backward to start at the usual five. I'd walk the mile to Winters Flat School with my brother. Sometimes we'd put stones on the railway track to 'derail the train' - which luckily never worked! We also terrorised the train drivers by throwing stones off the railway bridge at the train going underneath... I very clearly remember the day I took the 'short-cut' over the train bridge and the train came and I had to run as fast as my little legs would take me - terrified the train was going to run over me! (Karma for the stones maybe?) I also very clearly remember the short-cut I took through the 'paddock with long grass' that I was certain had snakes in that were going to bite me... God it's hard work being little! I'd pick rocks up with yellowy-brown stains in them and constantly carry them home to dad to have their gold-content checked. Unfortunately the gold content was always extremely low. (For 'low' read non-existant!) I remember sitting outside the pub waiting for dad to get through the 'six o'clock swill' and walking home with him when the pub closed  for the night. In those days all the pubs shut at six and didn't open on Sundays, or ever on Christmas or Easter. The banks and Post Office were both open on Saturday mornings, but closed at 12 on Saturday along with all the other shops, not to re-open until 9am on Monday morning. The mail was delivered once on Saturdays, and twice on weekdays.

In all those years I'd sleep curled up at the foot of my bed under the blankets in a foetal position, and have nightmares every night, usually wet the bed, and I was terrified to get out of bed because there were 'snakes and monsters' under it. I was terrified of the shadows the lace curtains made on the wall, but wasn't allowed to have the light on. I could hardly talk, was severely undersized, was unable to make eye-contact, and did not show affection for anyone. I usually played alone, and when I got to school finally, was unable to make friends. I taught myself to read aged four and escaped into books when I could get away with it, but wasn't allowed to read much because there were 'more important things to do'... like housework. My most constant game was wearing another of the same lace curtains over my head and 'make out' I was 'going up Mt Macedon to get married'. I could see the large white cross on the mountain from our house in Castlemaine and was fascinated by it.  I played that game every day. I was very obsessive, and got in trouble for swinging on the monkey bars at school until I got blisters, then going on them again with blisters until my hands were hurt so badly I couldn't hold a pencil. So I got banned from monkey bars... but I'd surreptitiously swing on them when I went to the toilet in class time anyway.

We moved to Morwell West on the 2nd June 1963. It was also Freda's mother's birthday. We drove in Freda's 1948 Morris 10 - a huge journey. We stayed with her friend in Melbourne for the night, then he drove us through Melbourne the next day, she wasn't game to drive in the city traffic. Dad went with the furniture truck. Our trip ended, after a full two days driving, going through the 'Haunted Hills' near Yallourn and us kids swore we could hear the ground moving, which made the haunted sounds... we actually did hear it many times afterwards, but I don't think we did that night! The road, the Princes Highway, which is now a six lane freeway, was then a skinny two lane dirt track with single lane bridges in that area - the main road from Melbourne to Sydney! We had our first glimpses of the 'dredgers' that dug coal out of the huge open-cut mines, lit up like Christmas trees in the distance, then down Toners Lane to Morwell West. 

Our new house was in Kaye Road, Morwell West. The house was leased from the SEC where dad had begun work a few months earlier. It was three miles from Morwell, in the middle of dairy farming land. Our house was in the middle of the one remaining spot of natural bush in the area - all the rest had been cleared for farming and the gravel quarry next door. We lived on about four acres, bordered by a distinctly horse-shoe shaped billabong on three sides that was dry for much of the year. We had an old apple orchard to one side, big blackberry bushes to the back of the house, a double garage and tankstands to the side. 

The house itself was a mixture of old and new. It was huge, and had been three separate residences at one stage, but we had it to ourselves. The older area had the bedrooms, and an old kitchen, bathroom and laundry/shower room. The newer side had the lounge room, kitchen, a big hallway, and newer bathroom and laundry to the rear. It also had something I was fascinated with as a little girl, a toilet out the back yard in a converted water tank! I was VERY impressed that we had three bathrooms... although two of them were never used as such... One of them had a big old claw-footed bath, that was covered with a board and only used to store apples and my grandmother's 'treadly' Singer sewing machine. The old kitchen was pink, and was probably my favourite room in the house. Pink lino, walls, curtains.. and the 'push and shove' cupboard, that had sliding doors that never stayed on their tracks, and gave it it's name because it was very hard to open! The back entry had a big verandah, with a wooden slat ramp leading up to it... underneath was one of the best play areas in the house. Another favourite play area was under the house itself, a space about four feet high - just the right height for kids, but hard for adults to get into. My brother and I would take cars under both places and make roads everywhere. We had whole townships and racing tracks built under there.

The very best play area, though, was the bush. Allowed to remain as natural bushland, it was an oasis for native birds and animals. We would spot blue wrens and robin red-breasts daily. There were wombat holes in three separate places... we'd see the poo, but not see the actual wombats, because they only came out at night when we were in bed. There were snakes. Copperheads are among the most deadly snakes in the world, but my brother and I came to take them a little for granted.... in a very wary fashion. We'd carry big sticks to kill them if we had to, but usually they'd hear us coming and hightail it away from us before we got close... or we'd see them and forget all brave thoughts and run. The area near 'the gully' as we called it had maiden hair fern growing wild, big old eucalypts, wattle trees, and was covered in bracken. We found 'bush-tucker' there before the world had heard of it... a type of wattle with edible gum and a little tree that we called the 'wild cherry' tree... some type of casuarina with tiny edible red fruit. There were quite a few patches of blackberries, and apples and pears in the orchard. A tiny 'secret' place in the gully had a soft sandy bottom, and a little trickling stream fed by a waterfall... truly a beautiful place. I don't know if the adults ever knew it was there. 

Over the other side of the gully was the 'gravel pit' - a huge quarry that was being mined the whole time we lived there. Trucks would go in and out through the weekdays, all the local kids would go in and out after school and at weekends. It had a brilliant billy cart track entry down a big hill, huge cliffs to climb, and was bordered by the Morwell River on the far side. Over the river was the 'open cut' coal mine... complete with dredgers. The river was THE swimming spot for the whole district.

The front of the house was accessed by 'the lane' - which went through the orchard on one side, and the 'Recreation Reserve' on the other. This was a big open space, with a small playground with swings and slides near the road. Neighbours at that time were old Mrs Fields at the top of the lane, Tuema's had the post office and shop, Crozier's farm was on the other side of the post office. Old Mr and Mrs Hussen lived a couple of blocks away near Lockie's dairy farm, whose daughter was my age and sometimes friend. MacKenzies lived across the paddocks near the school. There were other people but I can't remember the names... Dorothy's family down from Croziers, an old lady who had a Nissan Bluebird and ate a lot of garlic! The family who lived on the corner of Kaye Road who had a boy of similar age to me that went to school with me for a couple of years until they moved away. A little further afield were Godrich's; the Jenkins family with their six boys; Yeoman's who were my friends; and a lady with a very ethnic name whose son Nicky was also my good friend down near Toner's lane; an old lady whose niece (grand-daughter?) Susan came to visit in the school holidays... more I'm sure, but not many more. In all, the families in the area had enough children to have about a dozen kids in the one room school. 

The school was a large block away, about fifteen minutes walk for my little legs. The teacher's residence was next door. Mr Reilly when I first went there, who still to this day numbers among the most influential men in my life, Mr Beggs after him, who was young and very friendly. Between the two I had a very good grounding in education. They encouraged me to read, write, sing and have an active imagination! Under Mr Reilly's care, I learned that I could write beyond my years, that I could spell among the very best. He corrected my very messy handwriting by having me teach the 'bubs' their letters on the blackboard. By the time Mr Beggs came along, I was approved to skip Grade Five and move straight into my age group in Grade Six... largely I'm sure due to my compositions about fairies with 'clouds of fluffy hair and gossamer wings' :-) I was frightened of doing long division and convinced myself for the next 30 years that I couldn't do maths... I covered the entire floor on the left side of my desk with ink-blots from my habit of shaking my fountain pen to make it work... There was a row of pinetrees down the side of the school in which my friend Wayne and I would swing from branch to branch in the tree-tops until he fell and broke his arm. I thought it was quite unfair that I hadn't fallen and broken MY arm, but wasn't allowed to do it any more either... We had a maypole at the side of the school to which I transferred my earlier obsession with monkey bars, wearing out shoes at an alarming rate. Freda was very pleased when it was also deemed 'dangerous' and pulled down. 

Writing all this it sounds idyllic... and it should have been but wasn't. I was painfully shy, had no social skills, was always at a loss with the two girls of my own age at school and was bossed around my them. Freda kept my hair so short that people continued to ask me if I was a boy, and dressed me in clothes so old-fashioned that I was embarrassed by them constantly. 

I could go on a lot more about Freda, just attempting to set the record straight. Her version when talking to people was to tell them how selfless she was in looking after us kids, and a lot of people thought she did a wonderful job, because we were so well mannered. We were just plain bloody terrified. She was a seriously unstable woman mentally, with almost zero parenting techniques beyond 'children should be seen and not heard' and 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. Instead of the nurturing soul it would have taken to help my brother and I over our losses successfully, we had a woman who practiced child abuse unknowingly and unthinkingly. The most major damage I can think of was her telling the two of us over and over from when I was four that our father had killed our mother. I didn't find out this wasn't true until I was in my thirties because I was too frightened it might be true to ask anyone. She was emotionally, physically and spiritually abusive on a daily basis. My dad's role in all this was very simple... he believed child-raising was woman's work, and he either didn't notice or didn't know that it wasn't OK, and besides, where would he have been without her? He was distant from us always - the modern term for it is emotionally unavailable. When she went home to care for her parents when I was eleven, all I could feel was freedom. 

Her parents were wonderful people, and memories of them were among the best of my childhood. No history of my times could go by without mention of them. I called them Nana and Pop, and they were the only grandparents I knew as a child. See link below to them and their family - Bullock's in Australia.

More to come soon....

Next: Bullock family from Emu, Victoria

Back to Lindsay and Evelyn Burge

Back to Burge-McLean Main Index Page