School days were spent at the Sacred Heart Convent in Mosman and we lived in a big old rambling house in Rose Crescent, Mosman Bay, memories which still remain nostalgic today. Our sandstone and brick house was set high above the water, not far from the wharf, where as children we romped through natural bush gardens and undergrowth that eagerly raced to meet the harbour’s edge, where water lazily lapped across moss filled rocks with a continuous and leisurely rhythm, and our baby Kangaroo Joey happily joined in the games as he romped about in play. Joey was eager to be included in our childhood frivolity as we quizzically watched crickets, frogs and bird life chirping merrily from early morning and into the mysterious darkness of night.
Mosman Bay was nature’s dining room, where all tiny creatures came out to play. The emerald colour of the harbour told me silent stories of another mysterious life still unknown and of depths yet unexplored under the sea. As young children we weren’t strong swimmers so hands held hands as we tentatively prodded sticks to test what lay beneath the murky darkness at the edge of the steep water bank.
Monday was cleaning and washing day, and we looked forward to coming home from school to delicious smells filling the air, licking our lips we’d race into the kitchen, where Mum always had a delicious cake waiting for us. I was in Heaven if it was her butter cake with passion fruit icing, with a glass of milk we’d down a large slice and then we’d hare around the back garden paying hide and seek until it was dinner time.
As an inquisitive six year old I was sitting on the rocks pondering the wonder of life’s mystery while fishing and suddenly excitement filled the air when I pulled up my net to find it was accompanied by clusters of dark seaweed and a tiny pretty sea horse dancing in the middle of the reed. Quickly I scooped the dainty little seahorse into a large bowl of water and watched with delight as it danced as if performing on stage wearing a specially made dramatic costume. Believing that I had something very sacred in my bowl, I eagerly raced up to the house to tell my exciting news, but in quick time Nan marched me straight back to the water’s edge to gently let my sea horse swim away. Sacred it was indeed.
Early every Sunday morning Mum handed my big sister two shillings and sent us on the bus to Mass at Mosman Junction. For some weird reason Mum said it was my sister’s job to look after me, but my sister always said I had to do what she told me; it was my job to put the money in the plate, and she gave me strict instructions to take out just enough change for ice-creams and bus fare home – it was our Sunday ritual. After Mass and without a care in the world off to the milk bar we’d gaily trot.
Christmas has always been my very favorite time of the year, and for good reason the night before Christmas was always most splendid at Mosman Bay. My high double bed was on the second floor balcony of the house where I could look up to the magic of the stars that twinkled like diamonds over the delicate ripples of water that spanned the bay. One Christmas Eve my mother threatened if I didn’t go to sleep immediately Santa would fly over the house and forget to visit. I was mortified and tried my best to shut my eyes tight, but they kept popping open as I cast my gaze to the sky in hopeful anticipation, when suddenly Santa and his reindeer magically appeared, the sled flew through the sky casting shadows over the softly rippling waters of the bay. Santa looked down and waved, then he winked and whistled and at that very same time I heard the doorbell ring in the distance and the sound of sleigh bells rang loud in my ears.
Popping with excitement and unable to bare the suspense any longer, I jumped out of bed and ran to the door. My heart was racing and my eyes were agog… there at the door was Santa dressed up in his garb with presents spilling out of his bright red sack and onto the floor. Nan chuckled as she firmly guided a sleepy child back to her room saying, “Quick, Relle, hop back into bed, Santa’s come for a beer and if you’re naughty he’ll leave you a bowl of vegetables instead”.
Eyes ablaze with excitement I was led from this cheery scene suddenly too sleepy to disobey I climbed back into bed, but when I woke early the next morning there snuggling beside me on the pillow was a small rubber doll, she was dressed in a little red pants suit and Santa’s red cap, with white fluffy cuffs edging her sleeves and the hem of her pants and I still remember that she distinctively smelled of baby’s breath. I called her, Tootsie Toes and she was my very best friend for many years.
I suffered with asthma, and if a week had gone by and I’d been very good taking my medicine without a fuss we’d walk down the steps to Mosman Wharf and buy a paddle pop at the little shop by the turn styles. Chocolate and banana syrup slurped across our faces and slopped down into our toes, our tongues couldn’t work fast enough to lap up melting delights too impatient to remain stuck to the stick on warm summer days.
On very special days we’d dress in our Sunday best and ride on the ferry to Circular Quay. Now, that was a treat for the senses! We’d impatiently wait at the edge of the wharf as the old mistress ferry gracefully glided toward us to give a deep throated groan as she came to rest – clatter clomp clang went the ramp, and with arms and legs flying we’d speed over that ramp, and zip up the stairs at the speed of light to the outside deck at the stern of the boat. The ferry was ours, and we explored every inch of it with all the inquisitiveness of a wayward scientist. With a leisurely rhythm the ferry sloshed through the water, rolling over deep swells to slap the softest chameleon pearls of froth onto the bow, a gentle breeze blew and the deep spicy scents of the ocean filled our nostrils as fine mists floated through the air and onto our faces. Safely at Circular Quay, we’d walk up the hill to visit Aunty Doreen who worked at the Lipton Tea Shop in the Strand Arcade. Auntie Doreen had the brightest of smiles, her eyes always lit up as soon as she saw my mother, she’d tuck us into the best table booth serving Mum a pot of Lipton’s Tea, and we children chocolate milkshakes with freshly made sandwiches and scones with jam and cream.
In their twilight years Nan and Pop traveled on a P&O cruise each year. By that time Pop had retired from the farm and he had learned to dance to the tune of our Nan who by this stage was bound for adventures in exotic lands. Nan’s favorite countries were China and Japan, she particularly loved the oriental culture and people and she couldn’t wait for the ship to dock so that she could go ashore, and she always made certain she had plenty of memories for Pop to carry home for their treasure chest of reminders.
As children we loved going to the pier and exploring the big ships with our cousins, excitement filled the air and a bustle of people swirled around us when the romantic and haunting sound of the horn called visitors back to shore. Safely back on the pier we jumped up and down waving Australian flags and shooting multi colored streamers onto the deck of the ship as we watched all the passengers waving good bye before the boat sailed into the harbor, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and off to exotic destinations that were unknown to us then.
Our grandparents shared a joy for life and family that took pride of place in their ready humor and warmhearted smiles. Pop often scooped Nan into an embrace and swung her around the kitchen in a waltz as she was trying to check the Sunday roast and as a grand finale he’d tip her backwards until her head almost touched the ground and much to the giggles of we children, he’d plant a big kiss on her lips. Nan pretended to be impatient to get back to cooking the meal, but the twinkle in her eyes lit up her face and with a laugh she’d sprout, “Stop it Harry, you silly old fool!”
All of a sudden life became hectic at seven years old when it was time to go to school in earnest, but holidays seemed to come quickly enough. At the end of each term we caught the old steam train home to Wagga Wagga, and a romantic ride was in store as we were lulled off to sleep by the gentle rhythm and sounds of the steam train, we chugged on mile after mile sleepily peering through the big window under a canopy of stars that surrounded the moonlight to cast a soft glow over the pastures as the train whizzed through the countryside. We were all bursting with excited anticipation knowing that Nan would be waiting for us with bacon and egg crackling on the stove and her specialty, crispy fried bread to top off a tasty treat.
Holidays were spent in a whirl of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all visiting each other, everyone talking at once, kisses and cuddles and then all too quickly it was time to return to Mosman for a new school term. School excursions were spent at Balmoral Beach, and climbing rocks at Dead Man’s Cave. We scared each other silly telling ghost stories, and we raced down long windy paths through the bush, we fed the chooks and we laughed and we played. Seven was a very special year for me – I learned to read.
They were the carefree heady days of childhood.
Narelle Marie McDonald.