First Impressions Of School

‘Come out from behind your mother’s dress and let me see you.’ This was the encouraging but scary voice of Sister Xavier.

I retreated further, but edged one eye around the folds of Mum’s skirt just long enough to see the ‘penguin outfit’; a full-length black dress with long sleeves and a cape, and a veil held in place by a stiff white detached yoke-like collar sitting over Sister’s shoulders and extending up her neck… and further… to cover everything other than her face from the eyes down. Nothing else was visible except her hands.

Blood thumped through my veins. I had never been so close to a nun and this image made me want to cancel school altogether. My excitement at the promise of this adventure was already dampened because there were so many people and so much noise… all a little overwhelming for a shy 5yr old.

Sister tried again. ‘A pretty girl like you should be out playing with the other children.’

My bottom lip quivered.

Sister Xavier circumnavigated my mother, her long rosary beads swinging from her waistband in the flurry. She patted me on the head, then left with, ‘You won’t cry when Mummy goes will you?

I stared at her and my gut lurched with the full force of realising I was about to be alone among all those people. This would be the first time I was separated from my whole family at once.

Terrified the tears would spill, I tried desperately to control my… by then… over-active lip. My mother took my shaking hand and led me through the sea of legs and excited children. She deposited me about ten feet from the closed building, kissed me on the forehead and, in her experienced-parent and past-teacher wisdom, made a quick exit.

Silent and still amid the chaotic uproar of giggling kids, crying kids, and chattering mothers lingering too long, I contemplated the myth that going to school was fun.

My fear was halved when I was held in the gaze of a boy sitting alone on the top step. He looked as though he couldn’t wait to rush inside away from everyone else, and I felt much the same. Our moment of connection was interrupted when water began to trickle from where he sat, over one step, then another… and yet another, to form a puddle on the path below. As a matching flow rolled down his cheeks and splashed onto his shirt, he looked past the gathering crowd to the safety of my compassion.

The bell startled me back to the school yard. Sister Xavier seemed to appear from nowhere. Heavy black cloth bounced inches from my eyes and the sound of clapping filled my ears.

‘Over here, children. Come along, it’s time for Mum to leave now. Boys here’, she said pointing to my right. ‘Girls behind Kathryn here’, she continued, patting me on the head for the second time that morning.

My face burned with embarrassment. My ears throbbed with increased heartbeat and sudden crowding from other young bodies. I glanced sideways to see if anyone had noticed and found the warmth of a knowing look from the boy who had sat on the steps and now stood in uncomfortable wet shorts as though nothing had happened.

I didn’t yet know his name, but I knew we would be friends.

*****

Sister Xavier led the way up five cement steps, across the end of the enclosed verandah and into the largest room I had ever seen; except of course, the church.

I gazed in awe at the high ceilings and was hurried along to the first table in the front row. That my feet reached the floor when I sat back in the chair was equally astonishing to me. The small furniture contrasted with the enormous space which seemed almost undisturbed by the shuffling of around two hundred feet and Sister’s rushing from window to window as she released blinds. Strips of morning sunlight filled the room through long hung windows. Sister stretched her lanky body to reach the latches with the hook on the end of what looked like a broom handle, and pulled the top windows down about six inches. I was fascinated.

A lady in a floral dress appeared in the doorway and Sister Xavier hurried her inside. ‘Come along’, she motioned. ‘Come and meet the girls and boys… this is Missy, girls and boys… she’s going to help me teach you… say “Good morning, Missy” now.’

‘Good morning, Missy’, we all mouthed with varying degrees of energy. Hardly any sound passed my lips.

Missy smiled, but Sister Xavier cut off any response she may have had.

‘Now, I’m Sister Xavier and I’ll be teaching you this year.’

Sisters of Mercy at my school four years after my first day of kindergarten.
Sister Xavier is the tall one in the middle of the back row.
(Photograph from: The Catholic Church in Casino 1887-1987, p32)

Then came the rules, delivered to the beat of black shoes on wood and the rattle of beads, as she paced the floor:

  • ‘Line up as soon as the bell rings
  • Stand straight in line, and in body
  • No talking while lined up, or in school
  • No playing on the verandah… unless instructed to do so on wet days
  • At lunchtime, eat your lunch before playing
  • No crossing the lane between this building and the other classes
  • Keep away from the church
  • Say “Good morning, Sister” and “Good morning, Missy” at the beginning of classes, and “Good afternoon, Sister” and “Good afternoon, Missy” before we go home after classes…’

I looked around at intent faces.

‘…and always watch the front’, sister continued with emphasis.

I swung back towards the front and found her glaring at me, and instantly felt fire in my cheeks as I had earlier at line-up.

‘Girls’ ports and boys’ bags will be kept out there’, she went on pointing in the direction of a door which led to the back end of the enclosed verandah. ‘…and that will do for now… oh, except… if you’re good and do everything you should, you might get an early mark. Now we’ll listen to Kindergarten Of The Air… please Missy.’ She motioned towards a radio on a small table against the side wall.

Missy checked the station and I wondered what an early mark was: it must be something we would like if we got it for being good. I decided there and then to sit up straight, never talk, and never turn my head… so that I could find out.

Not talking in class was easy. Judy, the girl who shared my table, hung her head to one side and kept her mouth closed even when Sister told us to sing along if we knew any of the nursery rhymes. I pretended to sing even though I didn’t know the songs, for fear attention might again be drawn to me.

Not turning my head was more difficult. I was bursting to see where my friend from line-up was sitting, and had missed him in my momentary look earlier. Nevertheless, I resisted the temptation and was dutiful all day. So, it seems, was everyone else. In the afternoon, when we had folded our arms and rested our heads in them on the desk, Sister Xavier declared, ‘You have been such good children, you can all have an early mark! Good afternoon, girls and boys.’ She cradled her right ear with her hand in anticipation.

‘Good afternoon, Sister. Good afternoon, Missy’, the class chirped, and still my voice had next to no sound and Judy’s lips remained sealed.

‘Get your bags quietly now children, and we’ll see you for the bell at nine-thirty in the morning.’

Judy and I were last to collect our bags and stroll to the front of the building. We sat on the long bench seat under a tree of full shade and watched each other in silence. I wondered why there was nobody there to meet me and tried to work out what the ‘early mark’ was that Sister Xavier had promised. She didn’t seem to give us anything, certainly nothing that could be called a mark!

c. Kathryn Coughran ~ 26th February 2021

 

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An Egg Is An Egg ~ Or Is It?

‘How come we have an Easter Bunny and not an Easter Chicken?’ I asked in innocence when I was four (1955).

‘The bunny’s the boss and brings the chicken along with him to lay the eggs. It’s a special chicken that can lay a lot of eggs in one day… not just one like our chickens’, my mother replied.

I believed her, as I believed everything she told me. She didn’t tell lies, my mother.

 

*****

 

Easter Egg Preferences

 I

Easter 1976

Winter pyjamas hang on bodies

tossled hair falls about shoulders.

My children flash white teeth

send stars forth from their eyes

as they stand beside the boxed

Humpty Dumpty eggs

and a basket of smaller

chocolate offerings.

 

 

II

No photograph to remind me

of Easters past:

painting hard-boiled eggs with water colours

helping siblings design one for each of us

or competing with them        to see

who could draw the happiest face

to smile from the egg-cup        and

not wanting to chop off

the top of an egg’s head        and tears

when first told I must.

 

With dexterity came permission

to drive pin holes

in each end of fresh eggs

and blow the contents away

leaving shells to be painted

for long-lasting decorations.

 

III

Our 1950s Easter Bunny

brought two-toned sugar eggs

in pastels and white

joined in the middle

with rock-hard icing        wrinkled

into a pattern around the edge

and a dab to hold a gold paper bunny

flat on top.

 

Small pieces of broken eggs rattled inside

or     if we were lucky

conversation lollies with messages

were found when we ate the icing

and the egg fell in two        or

when this was too hard for young teeth

and we resorted to smashing the egg

into manageable pieces.

 

If we were very lucky

one of these sugar scrolls        marked

Forget Me Not        Smile For Me    

or        Love Me Tender

would be heart-shaped.

 

We savoured these once-a-year treats

making them last all day

sometimes several days

to shorten the 365

between bunny visits.

 

IV

Chocolate eggs first graced our table

as I stumbled into adolescence.

Confusion reigned each following year:

My parents preferred sugar eggs

said they were the ‘real’ eggs

available only once a year ~

the inference that chocolate

was constantly in abundance

didn’t ring true        in a home

with no money for sweets

on ordinary days.

 

Sugar eggs remained most years

until I could buy my own

then drifted from the market

and my mind    

replaced by a selection

of chocolate Easter treats.

 

V

Mid-1980s        my children

showed me the ‘new’ sugar eggs

and asked for them

‘instead of boring chocolate’.

 

I didn’t bother explaining

that chocolate eggs

were the real treat ~

 

I knew they wouldn’t understand.

 

*****

 

Easter 2020 is a low-key affair at my place, as it has been for many years. Sugar eggs have come and gone from the market, but chocolate eggs have remained constant. Chocolate Easter Bunnies have even hopped onto the shelves and settled amongst the eggs to tempt little children with big imaginations. These days eggs come in numerous sizes with various fillings, and are available for months prior to Easter instead of just the last week before the bunny drops in, as was the tradition in my childhood.

With age, my desire for Easter eggs has waned and I am happy to share a bowl of tiny – even if, solid – chocolate eggs with my husband.

Easter Treats 2020

 

  

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Good Samaritan

There was a post on Facebook yesterday, about inadvertently leaving items on the roof of the car when you drive off. People commented about losing expensive sunglasses, wallets and coffee cups. Others drove long distances without realising their error, only to find a biscuit tin or a china mug intact when they arrived at their destinations.

Inevitably, there were joking little jibes about mindfulness… and lack of it, of ageing and memory variants. These were balanced by acknowledgement of how being busy (in this case, focussing on community and the environment) weakens our attention to routine activities.

We’ve all been there… and have done something we wouldn’t have done had we not been over-loaded, stressed and/or distracted. We can all identify with items left on car rooves, even if mindlessness has led us down a different embarrassing track.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of many and varied actions born out of distraction over the years. I make no excuses or apologies for these, and neither should anyone else. We can minimise such events, of course, but we are all human, and thus subject to the pressures of everyday life.

Some years ago, I arrived home from a day of appointments and shopping, put some things on the roof of the car while I locked it, then gathered them up and went inside. Several days later, there was a note under my door saying my (very expensive) x-rays had been found and could be collected at such-and-such an address.

I hadn’t even realised the scans were missing, but soon worked out what must have happened. When I summoned the courage, I shame-facedly knocked on the door at the address I’d been given and explained who I was.

‘I found these a few days ago’, the man said. ‘They were scattered right across the road and the envelope was further down the street.’

‘I think I left them on the roof of the car’, I said sheepishly. ‘But that would have been close to a week ago…’

‘They must have been on your roof for a few days at that rate, then skidded off when you turned that corner on the rise over there’, he suggested, nodding his head towards where he’d found the precious films.

From the remainder of the conversation, I learned the man was on holidays, had no vehicle and, wanting to recuperate after heavy stress at work, was keen to keep to himself.  

After he rescued my x-rays, he took several long walks in a bid to find where I lived. He eventually found my address, but my flat number didn’t appear on the envelope, so he knocked on every door of the eighteen units trying to find me.

Unbeknown to him, most of the flats in the block were permanently empty, and the tenants of the other four – including me – were not at home. He returned several times before someone answered his knock and gave him my flat number.

With my knock on his door, his detective work and tenacity had paid off, and my necessary medical records had been delivered back to me… albeit in a round-a-bout way. The man had even cleaned them up after their adventure in the street.

I was so grateful I could have kissed him. I didn’t, of course… but I did thank him profusely, then left him in peace. I wrote a Thank You message and slipped it under the door of his holiday home at my first opportunity.

Life has since taken me to another part of the state, but I still visit that area occasionally. When I pass the house where he stayed, I think of his kindness and wonder if he left the house before my note was delivered.

A lack of in-the-moment awareness on my part led to the mishap with my x-rays, but this man’s mindfulness shone in every sense of the word ~

  • He was cognisant of the importance of my medical records.
  • He concentrated on rescuing them, cleaning them up, and getting them back to me.
  • He went to painstaking lengths to restore them to me.
  • He was selfless in his consideration and kindness.

And this was all while he was recuperating from his own stressful work situation…

This man was indeed a mindful Good Samaritan of the highest order!

A Day Of Writing Fun

This is an extract from an article called Words Of The Wise, which I wrote for the Central Coast Seniors Newspaper – Over 50s Lifestyle – back when I was Kathryn Andersen.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of facilitating Writing For Fun workshops for school students during the holidays, on behalf of Gosford Fellowship Of Australian Writers. What follows is my account of how the day unfolded…

Anticipation was high. Thirty-one children between the ages of seven and eleven piled into the Spike Milligan Room at Woy Woy Library.

Four senior women were there to greet them. They had already arranged furniture and organised treats for their young guests. They had also spent weeks organising the event.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but it is worth it,” one of them said.

It was difficult to tell who was the most excited, and in some cases, anxious.

Names were marked off, parents took their leave, and young bodies settled at tables with unfamiliar companions.

One of the women welcomed the newcomers and introduced me as the tutor for Writing For Fun, a free workshop organised by the Gosford branch of the Fellowship Of Australian Writers (FAW).

“We want to encourage young people who enjoy writing,” Bridget Sharp said.

Bridget and fellow-FAW members, Sheila Drakeley, Helen Luidens and Joan-Marion Ben, handed out writing paper and colourful pencils to the children, distributed cordial and biscuits, and were on hand to assist me and the children on their writing journey.

The women mingled amongst the aspiring writers, giving them guidance and support. Some of them even worked side by side with the children, to complete the writing exercises themselves.

Children who thought they had no ideas found they had several and were soon putting them on paper. Others, who had thought they could get ideas but not put them to use, were soon developing poems and stories.

The morning passed in a flurry of word associations, Ezra Pound Couplets, Dylan Thomas Portraits, character profiles and the antics of clowns.

Then, as quickly as they came, the children were gone; bearing packets of chips, their pencils, the fruits of their labour, and colourful certificates.

This was round one for the FAW women. Fresh mugs and more biscuits laid out and the room again readied, they grabbed a quick bite before the arrival of eighteen more writing enthusiasts aged between eleven and fourteen years.

This time, writing pens were issued with the paper, ideas became more ideas and then titles to be drawn from a box and written about. First lines were explored, much work shared, and questions about getting published were answered and discussed.

The FAW representatives distributed information about suitable competitions. “Enter your work in competitions and try to get your writing published,” the children were told.

Both groups of students were asked to share previous writing successes. There were many, among them a proud Astrid Worboys told of winning a prize in the ‘Spike Fest’, run by the Bouddi Society last October, with the limerick she had written at the previous FAW children’s workshop. Her prize was a parcel of poetry books and the opportunity to recite the winning limerick at the cavalcade of prize-winners towards the end of the festival. Nine-year-old Astrid’s limerick was included in a book of winning entries published by Gosford Council, and she also read it on Central Coast Community Radio.

“I’d say that was another successful day,” Bridget Sharp commented as five Over 50s (tutor included!) watched the last of the happy participants scurry from the room.

Fair comment indeed, as it was Bridget who taught the limerick session at the children’s workshops the previous year!

Generous Tradition

This is no ordinary Christmas cake. It is a cake baked with love by one beautiful woman (my sister Jen) in honour of another wonderful woman (our mother) and given to a very grateful woman (me). But this is just a fraction of the story…

My mother cooked a special cake every year – and in earlier days, Christmas puddings with silver threepences and sixpences sprinkled throughout for good luck. The tradition of coins in the puddings ended with the advent of decimal currency in 1966, when cupronickel replaced silver alloy and the coins turned green if cooked, but Mum’s delicious Christmas cakes continued until her death in 1991.

Then Jen set herself the challenge of baking Mum’s cake for each of her siblings every year. With four surviving siblings besides Jen, scattered far and wide down the east coast of Australia, this undertaking also involved packaging for safe posting among Christmas mail.

Twenty-six years later, my 2017 gift from Jen arrived last week, solidly steady in the centre of a post box tightly packed in foil and surrounded by bubble wrap… as it has been each year.

Jen gradually added others to her list of recipients of this generous offering. Last Christmas, she made twenty Christmas cakes – for her siblings, her partner’s siblings, adopted siblings, friends, and a couple of extra cakes to keep on hand for visitors and herself.

That’s a lot of Christmas cakes in just over a quarter of a century!

Jen still uses Mum’s unique recipe and has also adapted it for those in the family who must be totally gluten free. Regardless of which version of the recipe Jen uses, the cakes are delicious… superb… and loved by all.

My gratitude goes to Jen for her thoughtfulness and generosity, and above all for establishing and continuing this tradition in honour of our mother.

 

Subtle But Strong Inspiration

There is a level of inspiration more subtle and yet more powerful than the boosts we receive in our everyday quests for creative stimulation. This is the degree of connectedness reached by some who think of themselves as ordinary people, but are in fact remarkable in some way. When you encounter such a person, their beacon shines, your heart sings and you feel like you can also achieve anything you set your mind to accomplish.

Dot Strong springs to mind. In 1970, Dot walked away from a drought-ridden property in western New South Wales and headed to Sydney with just an old station wagon and a few clothes. She found work as a cleaner at one of the Australian Broadcast Commission buildings, and slept in her vehicle in the backstreets of Darlinghurst for months to give herself a chance to recover financially. An executive eventually helped her into a small flat after he caught her showering in his suite early one morning, when she thought no one else was in the building.

With time, Dot took up the position of tea-lady. In this role, she served many entertainment industry personnel and other celebrities. She sang the praises of most and was smitten with Kamahl, who she said was a perfect gentleman. I agreed, having crossed paths with Kamahl myself briefly in Tasmania in 1972.

When I met her, Dot was about to retire and the ABC was moving to a new building in Ultimo, where the mezzanine cafeteria was to be named in honour of her as their last and longest-serving official tea-lady.

Dot told many interesting tales of her time at ABC, and chuckled proudly as she relayed how she gained the attention of a high-ranking politician who was intent on not communicating with her. He was scribbling away, head bowed low when she tapped on the open door and offered, ‘Tea or coffee, Sir?’ He ignored her. She waited a moment and asked again. There was still no reply, so she cleared her throat and said slowly with emphasis, ‘Tea..? or… Coffee..? Sir’. He grunted. She repeated the slow questions twice, with only a grunt in return the first time and a gruff ‘Yes’ the next. Dot quickly fetched his brew and delivered it with a smile, which he missed because he still didn’t look up.

While she was serving her next, more convivial recipient, she heard spluttering and then demands of, ‘Come here, Woman!’ from the politician’s room.

‘Yes, Sir’, she said, approaching him professionally.

‘What is in this?’ he snapped, pointing at the cup on his desk.

‘Tea and coffee, Sir’, she said with a dead-pan face. ‘I asked if you wanted tea or coffee and you said yes, so I gave you both, Sir…’

Dot was especially proud to have been one of the inspirations behind the television character Aunty Jack, created and played by Grahame Bond in the early seventies. Aunty Jack’s favourite line, ‘I’ll rip yer bloody arms off!’ was a direct reflection of Dot’s regular threat when someone was about to put a wet spoon into the sugar bowl. When cups weren’t returned, she warned the offenders they were risking broken arms. The celebration cake at Dot’s farewell party was in the shape of an arm torn from the shoulder and covered with ‘blood’ – strawberry jam, I believe.

Dot was a character in more ways than one. Her stories whisper through the memories of those who knew her. The plaque on the wall in the cafeteria on the Dot Strong Terrace reminds those who relax and dine there of the many times Dot’s trolley rattled down the corridors of the old building, and the good-nature with which she served over two-million cuppas across more than two decades.

These two claims to fame were quite an achievement for the unassuming, hard-working woman off the land who’d taken drastic measures to survive.

Dot never lost her sense of humour no matter what the world threw at her. She just ‘got on’ with her lot and lived a routine kind of life, serving her fellow-workers day-in and day-out. Yet she brought out the best in most people she met and found ways to influence others.

I like to think of her as an extraordinary ordinary person, but she didn’t like praise. ‘I’m just a simple country girl, itching to get back to Dubbo to open a little café’, she told me, when I complimented her on her achievements.

I walked away from interviewing Dot energized and ready to take on the world. I wasn’t sure how, but it seemed nothing was impossible.

 

Watch this space for more stories of inspiring people and other musings…