Did you listen to your mother’s tales when you were small? Your life still in single digits, did you snuggle beside her on a sofa or cuddle up talking together in bed? Those hallowed, heavenly days when nothing could harm you with her by your side.
My mother seemed so old to me then—wise and strong, there was nothing I’d need she couldn’t supply. I couldn’t imagine how she’d ever been young, or lonely, or vulnerable. I couldn’t imagine she’d ever been wrong. It seemed she knew everything.
This is one of her tales. I can’t be clear where or when she told me, but I imagine she was sitting behind me, her eyes staring into her past, brushing my hair with her loving hands.
In 1944 she was only nineteen and a first-year-out teacher. The NSW Department of Education, short of staff with men away at the Second World War, sent her to a one-teacher school in south-western NSW. A place more than 488 kilometres from Sydney. A place with no name. At least, no name I could find on Google Maps where I looked for it this morning.
The Department called the area ‘Plahgoman’. It was half-way between The Rock and Mangoplah, south of Wagga Wagga. Mum said she thought the Department made the name up by mixing ‘Mangoplah’ around.
Back then The Rock was a railway junction town along the Melbourne-Sydney line. Today the population’s about 860. Mangoplah’s 18 kilometres to the east, towards the Hume Highway. The 2016 census reports 1,926 residents.
They were hardly thriving metropolises for a girl who grew up in The Rocks, in the centre of Sydney. Who’d partied at the Trocadero during the middle years of the War, dancing with Australian and US servicemen on R & R, discovering a passion for Almond Roca, while she studied at Sydney Teachers College.
All of this, and Plahgoman too, sounded exciting to me when I was young.
But outside the tale she told there’s another story.
My mother was orphaned at four. She was the youngest in a large family—she had six older sisters and seven older brothers—and she was swapped back and forth from one older sister to another for years until she was declared a State Ward and sent to Bidura Children’s Home in Glebe, where she lived for two years. When she was eleven, the Sisters of Mercy in The Rocks took her in and she became the only child in a world of habits.
The Irish nuns taught her well. She topped the State in Religion in the Leaving Certificate, and she went to teachers college on a scholarship. She left the nuns and lived alone in a bed-sit across the road from Sydney University; Darlington wasn’t salubrious then.
Mum was a city girl with a tough past who imagined a perfect future. Her picture had not included Plahgoman, but she went there and took it in her stride.
In the bush she found a home with the Lambs—graziers and well named for it; their children attended Plahgoman School. And she found a sweetheart: Mr Angel, another grazier.
Without a car or a driver’s license either, Mum rode a pushbike on a gravel road three miles to and from school each day. There were twenty-odd students at the school, and they straddled the years from kindergarten to sixth class. She was the only teacher, and the school was a tiny weatherboard room, with a veranda and a single outside loo, and it sat in stony sheep country. There was no town, and there were no other buildings. No farms in sight. The school sweltered in the heat of summer and froze in the cold of winter.
The resources Mum called on were the ones she could carry from Sydney on the overnight mail train—steam engines back then, with box cars trailing behind—and her brilliant brain. Knowledge stuck to her mind like moths to a pantry trap.
But she had some gaps.
Plahgoman students learned that New York was the capital of the United States of America. Well, I guess back then the only US cities Aussies heard about were Hollywood, the movie capital, so New York must be the political one.
One day a child brought her a rose. He watched, no doubt in astonishment, while Mum planted it in the ground. She told me she thought it would grow into a bush. Her life till then had been lived in asphalt and concrete.
Mum told me all this when I was young. She told me she met the handsome grazier, Angel, at a country dance at The Rock, and fell in love with him. Sometimes, all the many years later, she wondered out loud, as she talked to me at night, whether she chose the right turn in the road when she left him to move on to another school, in Gundagai.
How strange it is when parents ponder past loves. When I was little I wondered what life, growing up in a place I could only imagine, with a different father, would have been like. Then one day it occurred to me I would never have existed if she’d married Mr Angel. That was an unnerving thought.
Many years later, when I was nineteen, Mum and I did a road trip to Melbourne to see a plastic surgeon about my foot. We went via the Olympic Way and took a left turn at The Rock, and we drove along the road to Mangoplah and found her little school. Neglected and overgrown with weeds, it was still standing. Mum’s face flushed with joy when we pulled up, and I watched cloud shadows of unspoken things pass across her features—memories she hadn’t shared, I guessed, stories for herself, alone.
I was then the same age she had been when she came to the school, and it was the first time I realised how young Mum was when she set off alone to the bush. Now I’m older than the age my mother reached. I have more compassion now than I did when she was alive, and I think how brave she was when she was nineteen.
It occurs to me that her orphaned childhood set her on a road to belonging, the end of which she never reached, travelling a lonely road without signposts; putting down from time to time in places with no name.
The stories my mother told of her travels flowed into me; I felt as if I joined with her in search of belonging in all the places of her past, out in the bush and in Sydney, where we were both born and raised. Perhaps I inherited her search for belonging and her yearning for a place with no name.