Thanks For The Memories, My 'Make-Do' Mother

08/05/2016 6:17 AM AEST | Updated 09/05/2016 8:56 AM AEST
Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Cathy and Harriet Finlayson look for sheep as the sun sets behind them on their drought-ridden property, where little rain has fallen in the past two years, near the township of Brewarrina, located over 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney. The second-generation farmer's once green paddocks have been transformed into sun-cracked wasteland, thousands of sheep have been sold or are dying and his last store of water runs out in six week. Even in outback Australia where conditions are harsh at the best of times, farmers in remote New South Wales say this is the worst drought in living memory. Picture taken September 26, 2002. REUTERS/David Gray TO ACCOMPANY FEATURE STORY WEATHER-AUSTRALIA-DROUGHT DG/WS

We owe much to our mothers. Too many of us rarely tell them and by the time we understand what they did, it's too late. So it is with me.

My mother was of the make-do-and-mend generation, a woman skilled at making the old new, and money stretch. In rural Victoria, we were working-class poor. Not that we were unusual. Everyone we knew was a battler. Life was a constant struggle to make the ends meet. It was just the way things were.

Working-class poor meant houses with interior hessian walls covered by layers of ageing wallpaper over the top of decade-old newspapers. There was no corner shop. You improvised, made do with what you had. Mum didn't drive and there weren't many visitors. Mail and bread were delivered a couple of times a week. You still see them throughout regional Australia, lonely mail boxes on the edge of lonely side roads.

There were outside toilets; water tanks; boiling a copper on Sunday for the weekly bath; a 32-volt generator for electricity, and when that failed, kerosene lamps; and swapping mended clothes and schoolbooks with other families because recycling was a product of economic necessity. It was a way of life. Screws were kept in old jars and tins; nails sorted, straightened, reused; timber examined and stacked; corrugated iron reused; clothes were dried using solar and wind power; brown paper and string were squirrelled away.

There was a lot of Henry Lawson out there in rural Victoria, in these make-do places, where mum worked relentlessly, isolated by geography and domestic violence. She didn't have nice gardens or the softness of green grass. In summer it was baked flat as the winds sucked up the moisture and the sun burnt the grass silver-grey. In winter it was wet, cold and muddy.

Christmas was important to her. The scars from the Great Depression ran deep for the make-do generation who had watched their parents and neighbours battle through tough times. She once said they rarely got presents as children.

" We had no toys to speak of, or games or dolls. All we had was a tennis ball. One Christmas, about 1935, all Santa left me was a red stocking and a bag of cherries. My sister and I went backtracking up the yard thinking Santa might have dropped our presents along the way. But, of course, he hadn't."

Mum ran the local telephone exchange at a time when telephone calls were important. You rang the exchange and were connected to the subscriber. The exchange was where messages were taken, fire brigades activated, and doctors notified; where deaths and births were shared. It was how you got the district together. It was critical during summer, when farmers would look at the baking sun and decide not to go too far from home "just in case"; when people spent most of their time looking for a smudge of black somewhere in the hot, cloudless, blue sky.

They were remarkable women, these mums who lived in the bush. They still are. Travelling through the small towns of outback-western Queensland, you still meet them: tough, resilient, and skilled at "making do".

Later I wondered what she thought, what she dreamed for, how she coped with the isolation. She was tough, strong, with a view of life that said: "It is what it is" so deal with it and get on with life. It was a strength that served her well later in life when her health was failing and cancer ravaged her. She died before I told her. So Mum, wherever you are, thanks for the memories and Happy Mother's Day.

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