THIS ( DRESSMAKING) LIFE
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.
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