The tug of home can strike at odd times, even when you’re a world away, writes this prolific, well-travelled author.
Home at last
Iwas born in Wingham, a country town on the mid north coast of NSW. Dairy country. Cows, green hills and the mighty Manning River. A township peopled by Scots and Brits, built along the lines of an English town square, with a village green and cricket pitch faced by stately English-style stone and traditional Aussie buildings, as well as country pubs with Cobb & Co stables, which the local council continues to rip down, despite lauding Wingham as the Heritage Town.
My grandfather settled in Wingham in 1922, when he wed his English rose and childhood pal Louisa. He built a home near the picturesque railway station and named it Cricklewood, after their London home. My mother, Grace, was their first child and lived there until she married. After I was born, the war took its toll on the relationship and she returned to live with my grandparents, before taking a job some distance away and leaving me in their care. And so my first memories are of that cosy Federation house and the station’s magnificent mahogany goods shed, where my grandfather worked.
At odd times in strange countries I’ll recall making daisy chains on the front lawn surrounded by Nana’s beautiful roses, all named for royals. I’ll remember my swing on the old gum in the back garden, the stepping stones to the dunny and, beyond the enormous chook pen, past the mulberry and the jacaranda trees, Poppy’s old shed, a storehouse of rusting Arnott’s biscuit tins, tools and memorabilia. Family events were noted in paint on the heavy wooden plank walls.
The formal front verandah, where all our family photographs were taken, faced a dead-end dirt road where the milkman came at dawn, his horse knowing to stop outside each house, where a pail, bottle or billycan waited to be filled with warm, creamy milk. By our front door gleamed the plaque, Cricklewood, Brasso-ed to within an inch of its life each week. It’s still there, as is the house.
I was five when Mum moved us to Pittwater in Sydney. But every school holiday, and later when I worked as a cadet journalist, I took the train ‘home’ to Wingham for a visit. Poppy would be waiting for me at the station; linking arms, he’d walk me across the road to Cricklewood, where tea would be brewing under Nana’s knitted cosy.
Like everyone in our family, when I was old enough I took off overseas to see what was ‘on the other side of the mountain’, as my Boy Scout uncles sang. But I was a long time returning.
I lived in many countries as a journalist, then as a diplomat’s wife, where we moved country every two years. Within a week I could make any place ‘home’ with what I had always known and loved – books! Other cherished items also helped: a picture painted by my Uncle Ron, my mother’s needlepoint cushion, Nana’s tea cosy, a family photograph or two and Uncle Jim’s stack of blue airmail letters, filled with scrawled wisdom and humour, sent from his far-off posts as a foreign correspondent.
It’s a place where my mind relaxes, where I have warm memories of people and can feel, taste and smell the past.
My own life took its twists and turns until I made the decision to try what I’d always dreamed of doing when sat on Crick le wood’ sbackver and ah, thumping away on Poppy’ s Underwood #1 typewriter: write books.
My visits to exotic, wonderful and dangerous places provided a lot of material. And every decade or so, there would be what my dear friend Tom Ken eallyc all sa“humble origin tour”, with my family and visiting rellies taking the ritual detour through Wingham, being photographed outside Cricklewood and doing a quick spin of the town.
Then, 10 years ago, I was invited to return and make a speech. My partner, dear Boris, came along. At that point we’d spent 20 years living in Byron Bay. Boris followed me, dawdling at each stop on the visit. Finally, flinging open his arms to embrace the river, green hills and flood plains, seeing the tranquillity and nostalgia I’ d evoked, he demanded, “Why aren’t we living here?”
So here we are. I walk with friendly ghosts. I see my mother and aunt and uncles as schoolkids at Wingham Brush School. I see Nana in her gloves and hat, walking to town over the wooden bridge with its loose plank.
Sadly, the old goods shed was pulled down, then the quaint railway station transformed into an unmanned brick-dunny affair, all its magic erased. ‘Progress’ continues apace as wonderful heritage buildings – the old homes of lattice and wrought-iron lace, which are eminently renovatable – become ugly blocks of flats.
Yet here is where I stay. The feeling of being ‘at home’ can’t be bought; it’s not a matter of ‘things’. It’s a place where my mind relaxes, where I have warm memories of people and can feel, taste and smell the past.
I’ve seen the other side of the mountain, and I know that what remains of this quaint town, which holds my first memories, is the place I’ll always call home.
Di Morrissey is a journalist turned novelist who produced her first work of fiction in the early 1990s. She is now one of Australia’s biggest-selling fiction writers and one of the most prolific, with 24 bestselling novels and four children’s books published. She has just released her 25th book, The Red
Coast ($34.99, Pan Macmillan) set in Broome and the Kimberley coast. In 2017, Di was inducted into the Australian Book Industry Awards Hall of Fame with the Lloyd O’Neil Award.