THIS ( DRESS­MAK­ING) LIFE

BAR­BARA BREWER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

IT’S beau­ti­ful be­yond be­lief, the Daintree Rain­for­est north of Cairns, es­pe­cially the walk to Moss­man Gorge. Through time, the river’s rush­ing tor­rent has carved a path through the gran­ite moun­tain ranges, leav­ing be­hind rocks as smooth as mar­ble sculp­tures.

In the sur­round­ing for­est, the tree canopy is dense, the sun­light fil­ter­ing through to form span­gles on the dark green of the shrubs and vines be­neath. It’s so over­whelm­ing that peo­ple you pass on the walk­ing track feel im­pelled to of­fer smil­ing com­ments: ‘‘ Lovely, isn’t it?’’ ‘‘ Gor­geous . . . makes you feel good to be alive.’’ Even shy Ja­panese tourists join in.

When we see yet an­other cou­ple com­ing to­wards us in this trop­i­cal par­adise, my hus­band and I get our smiles ready for the cus­tom­ary ex­change of pleas­antries. The woman is Asian, the man a tall, well- built Westerner. They stop in front of us and the woman ex­claims, ‘‘ Oh, I love your skirt.’’ Her hus­band laughs, a deep belly laugh that in­vites you to join in. ‘‘ Trust my wife. In the mid­dle of all this nat­u­ral beauty, she only has eyes for your skirt.’’

‘‘ Well,’’ I say, ‘‘ I’m glad you men­tioned it, be­cause this skirt has a his­tory. It’s at least 45 years old.’’ I tell them the skirt was made by a friend’s mother who died many years ago. The fab­ric is Ja­panese and many peo­ple ad­mire it.

We fall to talk­ing. The cou­ple is vis­it­ing Aus­tralia from Kansas, where they have lived since their mar­riage. Be­fore she mar­ried, the woman had trained as a tai­lor in Malaysia. I tell her that when young, I’d learned all about fab­ric and the in­tri­ca­cies of cut­ting and sewing from my friend’s mother who was a won­der­ful dress­maker. It gave me much plea­sure to wear the skirt she’d made be­cause I’d been very fond of her.

I tell the tourist ( we never get around to ex­chang­ing names) that I some­times have to stop my­self fin­ger­ing lovely ma­te­rial worn by peo­ple in the street. ‘‘ I’m the same,’’ she says. ‘‘ Ad­dicted to fab­ric.’’ We laugh and say our good­byes. I don’t tell her the rest of the story. The fab­u­lous dress­maker, the mother of my friend, was Nell Mer­rett. Dur­ing the war, her hus­band Ron was a pris­oner of the Ja­panese in Changi. He sur­vived the hor­rors of camp life and, af­ter lib­er­a­tion, even­tu­ally re­turned to health.

Some time af­ter the war, the Mer­retts di­vided their land and built a new and smaller house on the back of their block. Their old fam­ily home in the front was rented to a young Ja­panese cou­ple. Toby So­tomi worked for a fab­ric com­pany and had come to Aus­tralia to foster trade here. He and his wife Aiko had two small chil­dren; Aiko was iso­lated and lonely.

Nell moth­ered the young woman, showed her how to use a wash­ing ma­chine, where to shop, and all the other sur­vival skills nec­es­sary for daily life in a strange coun­try.

In re­turn, Nell re­ceived gifts of fab­ric from Aiko’s grate­ful hus­band, in­clud­ing the length of ma­te­rial for my skirt.

On An­zac Day, Ron would al­ways re­sume his for­mer role as Ma­jor Mer­rett. With great pride, he would lead the sur­vivors of the 2/ 20 Bat­tal­ion of the Eighth Divi­sion in the big march through the streets of Syd­ney. How­ever, af­ter the Mer­retts be­came fond of the young Ja­panese cou­ple, Ron didn’t want to em­bar­rass them when An­zac Day came around. So he would wait un­til he was away from the house to don the medals of which he was so proud.

It was per­haps a small ges­ture but one that set me think­ing af­ter my en­counter in the rain­for­est. In th­ese trou­bled times, when we seem ready to split into yet an­other ver­sion of us and them, maybe th­ese kindly ges­tures count for more than we can imag­ine.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.