At Least the Wattle Keeps on Blooming
As I gaze at the vase of wattle sitting on my kitchen table memories of growing up on the farm with my sisters come thick and fast...
There’s a big old wattle tree growing in the corner of the garden that we love to climb and play in.
We’re sitting in its branches, hiding from the rest of the world, concealed by a wall of fuzzy yellow blossom. The sun filters through the fluorescent pom-poms making it feel like a house made of golden fairy floss. The heavy sweet honey scent swirls around us seducing humming hordes of bees.
We saddle the horses and tell Dad we’re going on a “really long ride”.
We ride out through the gate near the chook house, past the haystack, through the graveyard where farm machinery goes to die, and into the bush that covers the hills above our farm. We ride along the track, mostly used by escaped sheep, a few meters in from the fence line. We canter and giggle and grab fistfuls of wattle blossom and throw it at each other like confetti, until we reach The Top Gate – which leads from the tree line down through a couple of paddocks to Dot’s House. (Dot is our grandma.)
Dot's house is a Victorian era beauty with a rusting bullnose verandah that stretches around the north and east sides of the house. It’s embraced by an English-style garden full of roses, geraniums and seasonal blooms including crocus, hellebores, lily of the valley and hydrangeas. And there's also a sizeable orchard, the source of homemade marmalade, lemonade and bottled peaches.
We deliberate briefly… Should we keep riding over the hills on the long ride we had declared to Dad, or should we visit Dot?
“Let’s just call in for a quick drink,” we almost always decide. (Dot always has sarsaparilla and fun projects on the go.)
We head down to the cattle yards. Because we intend to stay only for a quick drink, we don’t unsaddle the horses. We just loosen the girths and loop the reins through the cheek straps of the bridles.
There’s no surprising Dot. She has a sixth sense when it comes to visitors. As we approach the garden gate she’s already outside to greet us with a happy “Hello girls”. She gives us all wonderful Dot hugs, cups our cheeks in her smooth wise hands and says, “Ooh you’ve got cold little faces.”
Dot always seems to be in the middle of something very interesting – like baking biscuits or jam tarts, or whipping egg whites and sugar for macaroons – which she lets us scoop our fingers through and eat raw. Or she’s got her sewing machine out on the kitchen table making or mending something.
Whatever she’s got going on, she’ll create fun little side projects that make us feel included and special.
Some days she’s out in the garden and we become absorbed with collecting fruit in the orchard, picking bunches of violets, roses and geraniums or potting seedlings and cuttings to somehow take home.
Whatever the activity, we forget time and after half the day has passed in blissful crafty grandma time we remember – “Shit the horses!” We give Dot quick cuddles and race up to the cattle yards to check on them. Often we find that they’ve rolled and their saddles are hanging down under their bellies. (Shhhh don’t tell Dad.)
We put the saddles back in place, jump on and ride home via one of two routes: either directly across the paddock or around the road and up the driveway. Both ways involve galloping. Dad tells us we shouldn’t gallop the horses home as it teaches them bad habits.
So we keep it hush hush.
We reach the bottom of the driveway and line up. The horses get fidgety, they know what's coming. We like to think we’re in a scene from The Man From Snowy River. We look at each other. “Ready?”
We lean forward, grab fistfuls of mane then yell in unison - “Go!”
The horses leap into an instant gallop and we race up the driveway giggling and crying with happiness, dust billowing behind us.
As we near our house we pull the horses back to a walk, then cruise up as though we’ve been walking the entire time. We kid ourselves that Dad won’t notice the puffing and sweating… Or the dust for that matter which for most of the year is abundant.
He asks us how our ride was and we look sheepish as we tell him we went to Dot’s house. He rolls his eyes with mock exasperation and says, “All roads lead to Dot’s house!”
As the bloom of spring stretches into summer, the wattle flowers fade and become seedpods that look vaguely like hard grey snow peas.
It’s fun to peel them open and pick out their black seeds. I collect them in a glass jar. Mum helps me put soil in little black pots and I stick my finger into the middle of each and drop a seed in, cover it over and water it.
We spend the days of summer running through tall yellow grass in our gumboots (which we wear all year round), going for bush walks with picnics that Mum packs for us, playing in the sun and the dust in our undies with no hat or sunscreen like brown little bush babies, hosing each other as we jump on the trampoline or begging Mum and Dad to take us to the river.
In the afternoons Dad feeds out hay to the stock – horses, sheep and a few cattle. We love running over the haystack, jumping from bale to bale, and we especially enjoy investigating the critters that emerge as Dad stacks the trailer for feeding. Often there are nests of pink, nude baby mice. Mum and Dad tell us not to bring them into the house because they’re dirty and carry fleas.
Once I stuffed a baby mouse down my top and snuck it into my bedroom. I made a little bed for it in a tissue-lined matchbox. I fed it milk with a dolls bottle and took it to school, as I knew baby things needed regular feeding. By morning break it was cold and stiff.
The wattle seedlings, which were supposed to be my responsibility and project have been long forgotten in the midst of the heat and fun of summer.
Luckily Mum has my back (as she always does) and they have emerged under her consistent care.
As the heat and dust of summer mellows into the amber of autumn, the seedlings are ready for planting. There are areas of erosion in some of the paddocks that Dad calls washaways and we call unexplored canyons; the seedlings are intended for these eroded banks.
We help Dad with the planting. He digs and we’re alert for anything interesting that may be dug up like Witchetty Grubs. We’re supposed to be the planters and water bearers but those canyons are much too interesting to be left unexplored for too long. Our favourite part of the day is when Mum brings over tea and biscuits.
This is also lambing time and there are new white babies dotting the paddocks and pet orphan lambs accumulating in a shed near the house that we initially turn ourselves inside-out with excitement over, and then gradually tire of feeding. Once again Mum is there to feed the babies when we’re distracted by so many other things.
Dad has a sheep carcass hanging upside-down from the beams in the shearing shed. The three of us girls sit on a long wooden bench and watch Dad open it up. It’s insides come tumbling out and Dad shows us all the organs - the lungs, the liver, the kidneys and heart. He also manages to prize one of its eyes out and sits it on a ledge staring at us. We think it’s hilarious. It is fascinating seeing inside the body of a sheep.
We don’t connect this curious marvel with the live sheep and lambs in the paddocks or our pets that follow us around the garden. And so without this link we also don't think about the transition point from alive to dead.
All we know is adventure, discovery and time with Dad.
Winter comes and it rains and it rains and it rains.
The paddocks become thick with capeweed which frustrates Dad but provides us with endless supplies for daisy chains. On some mornings Jack Frost has been up earlier than us and painted everything in white icicles. We crack the tops of frozen puddles and pretend to smoke like Mum and Dad as our exhaled breath curls through the chilly air.
Sundays are hair wash night. With our clean wet hair we race from the bathroom into the lounge and sit in front of the fire and watch The Wonderful World of Disney.
Often we share space with baby animals. Sometimes a lamb, sometimes puppies and once a twin foal who was a complete fire hog!
The wattle tree in the corner of the garden is a grey-green at this time of year with no sign of the bright yellow fairy-floss or music from the bees. We sit in its branches and make mud pies.
Mum sits the three of us down at the kitchen table and asks us if we’ve noticed that she and Dad have been arguing a lot.
I’m eight, the oldest and the most outspoken. I ask as a joke if they’re going to get divorced. It seems like such a whacky possibility. Something that happens on TV, not in our house. When Mum says "yes", I feel like I’ve touched an electric fence - a risky dare that I have to follow through with. I look down at the black and white linoleum floor. I'm studiously attempting to hold back the tears. I don't want anyone to see me crying. I'm the strong one. I notice a long forgotten, dried up sprig of wattle in the corner which quickly blurs in my dissolving vision.
And here I am again, gazing into that bright bunch of wattle, feeling out of step with time, as thought I've just emerged from the darkness of a cinema.
I have a feeling of disappointment. A wish that this could have had a happy ending. That the wattle could have flowered all year round. That the baby mouse hadn't died. That we hadn't eaten that sheep. That my grandma hadn't died. That my parents hadn't divorced. That I hadn't blamed them for failing to follow the fairytale scrip I saw on Disney every Sunday night... Which I also didn't manage to live up to.
But I'm happy that year after year the wattle keeps on flowering and that life is a sublime arthouse adventure and not a plastic Hollywood crowd pleaser. I'm grateful for the pinnacles of delight, the depths of sadness, the stabbings of tragedy and the quiet still moments of contentment.
I give it five stars.
Leonie Orton is a writer, editor and marcomms consultant. She'll create communication mediums in the shape of words, graphics and webs for your business, connecting you with the people who need you. When she's not head down with this, she's being a mother, teaching yoga, playing with flowers and growing vegetables. Get in touch by email, facebook or subscribe to her blog.