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PIETRO (PETER) SALA TENNA
The Family of
Last updated 2012
Pietro (Peter) Sala Tenna
Peter Sala Tenna immigrated to Australia in 1923 to start a new life away from the oppression of the aftermath of the war. He had been a military policeman during the war and wanted to begin a new life with his family.
He travelled to Australia alone to join his brother Stephen in the mines at Kalgoorlie. As with many Italian Immigrants, his intention was to earn enough to return to Italy and buy land for a better life for his family.
His wife Savina and their two children, Rose and Vincent (Vin) remained in Italy. Young Vincent contracted polio when he was 10 months old and was advised by the specialist that the only hope for her son was to move to a warmer climate. Savina was a strong-minded woman who had seen families seperated for years and she was determined that her family would not remain apart.
Savina immediately arranged her passage to Australia and joined Peter in Kalgoorlie where they spent their first years.
They moved to Barton's Mill in 1926 and lived in a tent at the cutting camp for a short time before moving to a bark hut in Barton's Mill where Peter worked for the Railway and later the timber mill. They soon bought a Soldier Settlement block on the Barton's Mill Road, now known as Sala Road.
OPPOSITE: Passport photo of Savina with her two
This was land that had not been taken up after the war. They then bought a cow and some chickens and cleared the land for fruit growing and vegetables. Savina was an industious woman who provided vegetables, milk and eggs for her own family and for mill families. She was also a good dressmaker capable of using remnant cuts of fabric to make clothes.
Rose recalls that Archie Anderson took her to school at Pickering Brook on her first day. Later, on the advice of Mike Flannigan, the Time Keeper at the Barton's Mill, the children were moved to Barton's Mill school because there was a teacher there who could give them their Christian Education. Miss Cullity was the teacher at the school and during the holidays the children went to Mary's Mount for "Bushie School" to further their Christian Education and to have "fun".
Peter and Savina had six children.
Left to Right: Vincent on crutches, Josie, Rose and Peter
Joan and Ralph. The two youngest of Peter and Savina's children
Rose married Alex Giumelli
Vincent married Millicent Hawking from Kalamunda and eventually took over the original property, which still remains in the family to this day
Josie married Anselmo Trinca
Peter was accidently drowned
Joan married Charlie Della Franca, Settled in Pickering Brook and developed Highvale Orchard
Ralph married Sylvia Mattaboni and settled on the orchard in Carmel. Sylvia passed away from breast cancer. Ralph remarried Joyce Bennet and continues to live on the property in Carmel. The block still remains in the Sala Tenna family to this day
Vincent became Councillor for the East Ward of the Kalamunda Shire and was a well known "Character" in the district.
Peter worked the land and eventually went into the poultry business, which he worked until his death in 1966. Vincent took over the original property and Savina lived until her 87th year. They were a well-liked and respected family of the district.
Pietro (Peter) Sala Tenna
Savina Sala Tenna (nee Armanasco)
Sadly Vincent (Vin) Sala Tenna passed away in 2011
Copyright : Pickering Brook Heritage Group 2008 - 2019
EARLY DAYS AT THE BROOK
By Rose Giumelli on her Ninetieth Birthday
A TRIBUTE TO MY PARENTS: PIETRO (Pierro) & SAVINA SALA TENNA
My father came to Australia after helping to quell the Fascists in Rome after the First World War. What he saw there disenchanted him with Italian post war politics, so he left the military police and went home to his mountain town where he got a job in the local power station. But the war had unsettled him, and his home town with its narrow outlook stifled him. So when his brother wrote of the money which could be made digging for gold he decided to migrate to Western Australia. When he sailed from Genoa he left behind my mother two months pregnant with my brother, and myself. Their dream was that if Dad could make the money his brother was reputedly making she would soon join him.
However, when he arrived in Kalgoorlie he discovered that the picture Uncle Stefan had painted was not a realistic one. True, big money could be made working underground at the mines, but the price was exorbitant. Dad was shocked at the sight of his brother who was virtually dying on his feet of silicosis of the lungs, or miner’s complaint, as it was commonly called. Most of the young men he met were at various stages of the illness and the sight of them made him vow he would never work in a mine. So he took the only job available to migrants who did not know the language; he went to cut wood at Kurrawang for the pumping station sending water to Kalgoorlie.
SAVINA SALA TENNA AND ROSE
This put an ends to my mother’s dream of soon joining her husband. Dad advised patience, since Kurrawang was no place for a family; there was no housing or amenities of any kind. But my mother chafed at the separation. Her great fear was that she would end up as a grass widow like so many other women in those mountain towns where the men left to seek out their fortune in foreign countries. She knew women who had been waiting all their life for their men to return and had lost heart, and there were others who were still hoping but had forgotten what for, and for whom. She was determined that was not going to be her lot in life.
Still my father pleaded for patience. In one of his letters written at the time he tried to make her understand why.
"My dear wife I beg you to wait a while before you do anything. This is not the kind of country the men here write home about. What it is that makes them paint such a glowing picture I do not know. Perhaps they want to impress the people at home, but it is not the truth. This is no place for a family as there are only wild looking men living here, living in tents on a desert of red sand. Every afternoon the wind swirls the red dust into clouds which almost obliterate the sun. You would never recognise me now as the dapper Carrabinierre you fell in love with, for I too, am one of the wild looking men unshaved, and often unwashed. We cross the desert night and morning much like some of the Afghans of these parts, but without a camel. Each morning I bandage my hands with rags to stop them from bleeding as I am still what they call a new chum on the job, and not hardened to the work. But do not think I regret coming out, not one bit. There is a freedom of thought in this country which stirs me no end. And one day, please God, we will be reunited. Until that day have courage and never lose hope”.
My brother was born in August of the same year and was named Vincenzo after his paternal grandfather whom, supposedly he resembled. Being their first grandson they made a great fuss of him, which irritated my mother no end since she was a firm believer in the equality of the sexes. But when he was ten months old and already running round he contracted polio, or infantile paralysis, as it was called then, and was paralysed from the waist down. When my mother took him to the local doctor she was told she might as well dump him in the Adda River as he would never walk again. Years later as she told us the story she could still become enraged at the memory.
"Cretin and villain, what did he think I was? An animal”.
She took my brother to a specialist in Sondrio, the capital of the province, who told her that there might be some hope for her child if she took him to a warmer climate.
Two months later she had made all her preparations and we were in Rome ready to face our medical. My brother was wrapped in a shawl, only his pink face showing.
“Such a healthy mountain child requires no examination”, the medical officer said waving us on.
We boarded the ship at Genoa, and mother immediately began to massage Enzo’s legs as the specialist had told her to do. By the time we had crossed the Suez Canal Enzo was moving his toes and my mother was ecstatic.
Dad, and Uncle Stefan, met us at Fremantle. According to my mother they were exactly as Dad had depicted they were in his letters. Uncle Stefan a wasted shadow of his former self, and my father a wild man of the bush. They stayed at a lodging house in Perth for one night where Mum never slept a wink because of the bed bugs crawling over the sheets. The evening of the next day they caught the train for Kalgoorlie leaving Uncle Stefan behind in Perth to see doctors about his condition. When mum woke the following morning they were somewhere near Coolgardie and as she looked out of the window she was shocked to see an Afghan and his camel team walking across the desert.
"Surely we’re not in Arabia”, she said to Dad.
"No, Mamma, but more often than not you could swear you were”.
My mother always used to say that her husband never brought her to Australia under false pretences. Kurrawang was just as he had described it to her, but it did not frighten her. She saw it only as a stepping stone to something else, and always regretting listening to him and not bringing her own precious things.
Since there were no women on that wood line she soon had a little business going washing and mending men’s clothes. That left my brother and me very much to ourselves. We played in the shade of the bough shed Dad had built, and as Enzo tried to keep up with me he forced himself to craw. This struggle on the hot sands of Kurrawang did exactly what the specialists in Sondrio had said massage and a warm climate would do for him.
Within six months of his being there he was walking, and though he was left with a leg which would not do everything he wanted it to do he has crammed more into his life than most men.
When my parents had saved a little money they contacted Uncle Stefan who was living at Bartons Mill to find out if there was work in the area. He got them a job falling timber for the mill, but as there was no housing we had to live at the cutting camp under a tent for three months. My mother always said that they were the worse three months of her life as it rained almost every day and we had colds all that winter. Then, the August my brother turned two, a bark hut became available and we moved to Bartons Mill.
SAVINA SALA TENNA WTH CHILDREN, ROSE & VINCENT
Life at the mill was good to my mother in that she now lived among people in a reasonable civilised manner, although even by standards of the time, the bark hut was primitive in the extreme. It had no glass at the windows, only canvas on tilted frames, a mud floor and no doors. Mum hung a blanket over the doorway for privacy but each morning a stray horse which had been used to calling for sugar poked its head round the blanket and whinnied. Still it was an improvement on the tent at the timber camp where the rain ran down its sides and made rivulets of water under their hammocks. And for the first time since arriving in Australia she had a place where people could call.
Next to her, also in a bark hut was another Italian family with four kids. The woman had come out from Italy to marry, Bassi, a man she had known as a girl, and had four babies one after another. Loneliness and the strange life of the bush had been too much for her and she had gone out of her mind. By the time Mum had got to know her she was like a wraith wandering around the bush and talking to the trees. During the day the children were either at our place or hanging round whoever would put up with them until their father came home from work. In the evening Bassi cooked spaghetti in a kerosene tin over an open fire and fed his brood, but when they were in bed he would go over to my mother and tell her his troubles.
Uncle Stefan was also always at our place. He lived in a single mens’ camp and supplemented his pension by making hop beer and selling it to the mill workers when they knocked off in the evening. His health was bad and he suffered with terrible bouts of coughing which worried my mother who knew nothing of silicosis of the lungs and feared it was TB However, soon after our arrival at the mill he became too ill to work and left for Italy where he died soon after.
During our stay at the mill Dad made many friends, the chief of which was Zola, the blacksmith, a fellow built like an ox with the drinking capacity of a camel. Some of the fellows he drank with abused his hospitality by making fun of him after drinking his wine, and as he was the sort of character who loved nothing better than a practical joke, instead of getting mad he paid them back in kind. He invited them to a meal which consisted of mainly soup, and wines. Towards the end of the evening he said he was going to serve the chook and, amid much laughter on his part, pulled an unplucked fowl out of the pot.
They spewed their guts out that night, he told my father, the lard on his face creasing into many layers of laughter. Dad thought it was a splendid way to teach bludgers a lesson, but Mum found the man’s attitude revolting.
In fact she only suffered Zola because he was my father’s buddy, and because my brother thought the sun shone out of the fellow. Enzo loved nothing better than to go and watch Zola at work at the forge, and on two occasions he made his way there on his own, which terrified my mother.
Then just as Mum began to draw breath and wonder how best she could employ her energies she fell pregnant. Dad was offered a job as a ganger on the railway and took it just when Uncle Stefan left for Italy. In his new job my father came in contact with Vic Neave, a settler from Pickering Brook, who spoke to him of the joy of having your own land and being your own boss. Dad’s spirits resonated with this. Had he not left Italy for the sake of freedom! The idea fermented in his brain and grew. He spoke of it to my mother whose heart leaped at the thought of having her own home. Like many migrants she had lost her identity going to a new country. She often said she felt like a gypsy in those days being without a house, or home, or country.
As they worked on the railway Vic and my father often went past the block of land Dad eventually bought. It lay below the railway, a heavily timbered piece of land with the larger trees pulled down for the Soldier Settlement Scheme. But it had never been taken up, and could be bought by anyone. Vic pointed out the many benefits of its situation; it was near Johnny’s Tree Siding which meant Dad could cut firewood if he so wished and load it onto the railway trucks at the Siding, and it was just over the hill from Vic’s own place. Dad felt he could not do better so one day he and Vic went to Perth and bought the land for twenty five pounds, payable over twenty years.
My mother did not get to see the block before Dad bought it because she was in hospital with her third child, but she trusted in her husband’s and Vic Neave’s good judgement.
She arrived home from hospital with her new baby in a weakened condition after suffering from hypoglycaemia in hospital. She could no longer feed the baby and she had my brother and me to look after as well. She had relied on Father’s judgement and Vic’s knowledge of the land to make a good choice. But whenever she spoke of her first sight of the block Dad had bought she always said
"My God we never knew what we had let ourselves in for. It was a chaos of uprooted trees one on top of another”.
During the months of the following summer, Dad, with the help; of this friend Zola, built two rooms of weather board on the block. They were face cuts from the mill which could be had for nothing and selected the ones without knots and holes. However, a few knots fell out as the board dried during the summer, and I can remember the wind whistling through the holes in the winter, until Mum stuffed them with clay painted with shellac.
The floor board also shrank leaving a gap p between each board. The dividing wall was not complete and there was no ceiling to the rooms. However, in spite of this, the autumn when I turned five we moved.
Moving would not have been a problem had Dad listened to Mother, but he allowed sentiment to get in his way. Mrs. Bassi’s condition worsened, she had been certified insane and sent back to Italy where she eventually died in a hospital for the mentally ill.
The welfare system took charge of the children, and Bassi said he felt like “a dog without a kennel”. He spent much of his free time following Dad around and when he learned we were moving he wanted to help.
"No”, Mum said, standing tall,” you know what he’s like. That man trails trouble like a horse trails shit”.
But Dad did not have the heart to tell him to stay away.
On the day appointed for moving, Bassi arrived early rubbing his hands and getting in Mother’s way.
"We’ll soon have that lot moved” he said to mum surveying the meagre pile of goods before him.
The remark did not endear him to her. She was already painfully aware of the paucity of her goods. In those years, she used to say later, we were like gypsies, travelling with a camp oven and a stretcher.
Dad was moving us on his newly purchased horse and dray. Now as a land owner he was going to make it on his own, cutting firewood for wood yards in Perth four or five days a week and clearing the block the rest of the time. It was his first experience with a horse, and in spite of the loud noises he used to make when around horses I had the feeling that he was not too secure with them. Mother used to say that she never knew who was the boss.
Our goods were loaded on the dray, a couple of beds, a plank table and two benches Dad had made. There was a camp oven, a legacy from their gold field days, and my mother’s wooden trunk which she had brought from Italy and which contained all her prized possessions. The larger part of the dray was taken up be Mother’s fowls in beer crates. As Dad busied himself with the fowls he asked Bassi to go and fetch the pig which was tied up in a sack. The pig was Mother’s pride and joy. She had watched it grow from a tiny piglet that a cousin of Dad’s had given her months before.
Whatever happened no one knows because Bassi’s explanations were garbled. The first we knew that the pig was out was when Vin shouted:
"The pigs run into Mrs. Donovan’s yard”.
My mother died a thousand deaths as Bassi, Dad and a few other fellows standing round on a Sunday morning tried to catch a loose pig. Around the mill houses it went with men and kids chasing after it until an enterprising fellow threw a fish net over the animal when it was cornered in yard. My father returned puffing and somewhat shamefaced.
“Bloomin ting”, he kept muttering.
But Bassi thought it was a great joke, and in a sense it was. No one had come out to say goodbye to us, perhaps fearing they were interfering, but when the incident of the pig happened several women came out and wished Mum well. But she was so embarrassed to really appreciate their good wishes.
It was exciting for my brother and me to travel on Dad’s dray for the first time. He had newly bought it, and the big Clydesdale, Charlie, from one of the Browns whose family had been involved in hauling for years. Charlie had been dragging logs all his long life and, knew all the tricks of the trade. The first few times Dad tried to get him harnessed, he could never get his belly strap done up. When he had recourse to the previous owner the fellow said:
"Ay, he’s a sly one that one. Just kick him in the guts. That’ll do the trick”.
Dad was loathe to try such an underhand method but he was forced to use it. He was amazed at how well the method worked; the animal immediately released the air from its stomach. It became a routine part of harnessing.
Moving into their own home had great significance for my parents. No longer did they see themselves as vagrant migrants without house, home or country; gypsies in Mother’s words. They were now people with dignity and pride. Perhaps that was why my parents made so many sacrifices to hold onto their land.
I remember the first few days very vividly. I suppose, because it was such a contrast to what I had known. I had no way of verbalising what I felt. The incredible silence played on me until it seemed to me that the ghost gums around the place were like sad people crying in the night. The first winter it rained incessantly so we were confined to the house which had no ceiling and a floor where the wind whistled up through the cracks. Every time the door was opened the gulley wind rushed up into the room and made the chimney smoke. I don’t think that worried me so much as Mother’s continual battle with the elements. She was forever drying nappies at the fireplace, rushing out to scrub dirty washing in a tin tub under a tree, putting dishes out to catch the condensation from the roof or tying to get smoke out of the kitchen. I don’t think either of them had foreseen the problems that would face them that first winter.
Then miraculously it seemed, the rain stopped, the sun shone, birds sang and the wind stopped wanting to blow the house away. It was spring! Up on the rocky hill slope towards Johnny’s Tree Siding a miracle took place almost over night. I woke one morning to a hillside of pink and white ever lastings reflecting the glory of the sun. Perhaps they had been there the day before but I hadn’t noticed them.
Suddenly the world was a wonderful place again. Vin and I sat among everlastings for a long time and then walked all over the valley part of the block without setting foot to the ground, so many were the trees which had been uprooted.
With the coming of spring Dad became so enthusiastic about clearing the land that he used to get up in the middle of the night to stack logs together for burning. Mum was roped into helping also. It was her job to drive Charlie as Dad put the chains round logs and stumps. No amount of shouting on Dad’s part could get that horse to do what was wanted, but with Mum leading him he pulled with all his strength. But as Christmas approached she became weary and irritable, and talked about Dad’s dream making slaves of them all. We were still living in two rooms with no amenities. For water we still had to walk to a spring on the edge of the swamp and bring it back in bucketfuls. The spring was also our cooler where Mum kept meat, butter, cheese and milk cold by immersing the containers in the water of the spring. One day Vic Neave saw Mum carrying two buckets of water from the spring.
"You’ll kill yourself if you do that”, he said to her. “I’ll get you some galvanised piping and Peter can fit them under the water running out of the hillside”.
Dad did that and, lo, we had running water just outside the door.
With water laid on near the house a whole new life opened up for my mother. The first thing she did was plant an apple see, which, she said; if it grew would be an indication of how their life on the land would go.
In Italy, according to her, the apple trees grew as tall as jarrahs. The one she planted never did, it struggled for years even before it got hold, which I suppose was a true enough indication of how things turned out to be for them. With water she was able to have a vegetable garden. As well as the luxury of a flower garden. In those days no one had enough money to buy flowers; everyone shared what they had with their neighbours. Vic’s mother gave her geraniums and carnation cuttings, and two rose bushes, one white and one red, which she loved.
Before Dad had got very far with his clearing it was December, with Christmas just around the corner. With the coming of Christmas a whole round of activities began in the district. One day two women involved in running the annual Christmas Tree called round for a donation towards buying presents for the children, and an invitation to join in the evening’s celebrations. The contact with these women did something to my mother. She became acutely aware of her living conditions, especially when some of them asked her to their places for afternoon tea. I remember one occasion in particular because she was embarrassed to the extent of tears.
She had been asked to afternoon tea to the place of people whom Dad had done some work. Afternoon tea was a formal occasion in those days with starched tablecloth and the best home cooking. Dad drove us there on the dray because we had no other means of transport, and then went down to the paddock to finish the job he had begun. The lady of the house served us afternoon tea in style with a silver service, cucumber sandwiches, scones and tea cake.
Josie was a very active fifteen months old who took up all of Mum’s attention. Vin was so excited at going out that he ate all the scones before Mum was aware of what was happening. When she reprimanded him he simply said:
"I just love butter. We never have butter”.
When she was telling Dad the story she was weeping out of shame and embarrassment.
"Ai, Mamma it’s a little thing. The child meant bought butter. You know we never have bought butter”.
But to her it was not a small thing. Once again she was just an immigrant who did not know how to mix with the people of the country. From then on she railed my father about living like slum dwellers without a decent place in which to welcome a guest. When my mother got an idea into her head she never left it alone. It was this persistence which got her through many battles; she harried Dad until he gave in.
"Right, we’ll build a veranda, but you keep on saying you need a wash house with a copper so you can take a bath like a civilized person”.
"It’s not too much to ask”, she said frowning.
"If we build all these thing, what about the chaff house we’ll need before the winter”.
She felt blocked and unable to express her needs so she withdrew into silence. Mother’s silences were heavy things which took the joy out of life. It was the one thing Dad could not stand. After a day or two of gloom, one evening he said as if the idea had just occurred to him.
"I think we ought to get the house fixed up. It’s no good living the way we are. With Christmas coming and Zola will be on holiday, and we ought to be able to get it done without costing much”.
"What a brilliant idea”, Mother said innocently as if Dad was a genius who had just stumbled on something important.
Having Zola around for Christmas was not her idea of a festive season but she knew nothing would be done without someone helping her husband.
"One man can’t do everything”, she reasoned.
"But let’s get the Christmas Tree over before you start”, she said allowing herself time to get used to the idea of having Zola about for three weeks.
I suppose that first Christmas Tree stayed in my mind because I was almost sick with excitement before it. For twelve months we had seen very few people and had not gone anywhere, and I remember longing for something to happen to relieve the boredom of the same old thing. From what I’d heard of Father Christmas he sounded exciting and magical, and besides he was going to bring us presents. We had never heard of Father Christmas before and the thought of it made my head spin.
The Italian tradition does not include Santa Claus or the giving of presents on the birth of Christ. As a child our parents gave us good, necessary things like clothing, shoes, or a new outfit, on the feast of the Epiphany when the wise men brought gifts to the Lord. This was to be different. Something solely for the children. I don't know what I imagined it would be but I know I expected it to be magical.
With what expectations Vin and I got into the dray no one will ever know, Vin’s eyes were glistening like stars. Mum, I noticed had made herself a new dress, and I thought she looked beautiful with her hair piled on top of her head. Before we were half way there we could hear the music and my stomach tied itself in knots at the sound.
Once at the hall I was dazed at the number of people and hid behind my mother. There seemed to be kids sliding in every direction on the floor, and the din was tremendous. In a corner stood a Christmas Tree in all its splendour with kids gazing at it in wonder. I was too scared to go close to it and have a look even though my mother told me to. But Vin went and stood with the others gazing at the spangled tree. When he came back he said:
"I know what I want”.
"What?” I asked.
"A train like the one that goes past our place and goes Toot! Toot! every morning. What do you want?”
I tried to think of what I wanted but for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything. There was an excitement in the air that took up all my attention. Suddenly all the children rushed to the door and stood in silent awe, expecting. Then there was a sigh, the group parted and in came the person of their dreams. They followed him to the Tree and stood in a circle around him looking up at him as if he was someone from another planet. But neither Vin nor I had the courage to go up.
The din increased as names were called and gifts distributed. Dad was chatting to some men, but Mum sat alone with us. The few women she knew were busy in the kitchen with the supper. Slowly the children dispersed, and I began to think that we had been forgotten, when my name was called. I went up and received a parcel and a tap on the cheek from a bewiskered person with very blue eyes. It turned out to be a fire engine. When Vin opened his present it was a celluloid doll whose eyes blinked at every movement. One of the boys he had made friends with said with the bald of children:
"It looks like you”.
As we were riding home I thought it had been the most wonderful night of my life even if what I had received left me unmoved. Vin was asleep so Dad carried him to bed. We never saw the celluloid doll again. When we asked him where he had put it, he looked at us blankly. Not until the grain bin was emptied some months later did we find out what had happened to it. There, at the bottom of the bin was the celluloid doll flattened and fragmented with a hammer.
Father loved eating and drinking in company, sharing what he had with those who had less, especially at Christmas. Mum was more introverted and liked nothing better than to celebrate special occasions on our own. But on the occasions when no one was present Dad fell asleep after Christmas dinner, and she spent the afternoon in tears. The festive season reminded her of her youth, her family and friends she’d left behind.
It seemed to me that without the pressure, my mother gave way to melancholy. It was a good thing for us that Dad knew how to get round her.
“But Mamma”, he said, when the subject of having Bassi and Zola share Christmas with us came up, “not even a dog should eat his bread alone on Christmas day. Where would I be now if good people had not shared what they had with me during the war? It’s the least we can do”.
As a child I sometimes wondered what need Zola had since he was better off than us. But now I thank God for my father’s large heart. The characters who came to our house during those years lent colour, variety and excitement to what otherwise would have been a drab existence.
On Christmas morning while Dad was making tagliatelle and Mum was cooking the two roosters she had been fattening, Vin and I played in the bough shed outside the kitchen door. Suddenly we would hear the sound of Zola’s buggy wheels. We ran into the yard to see him turning in at the gate on one wheel. He was standing in the buggy and twirling the whip over his head, while Bassi cowering on the seat. Zola was a showman who lived for two things: his demijohn of wine, and the fun he got out of playing outlandish practical jokes. We loved him, because he always surprised us with gifts, and gifts were rare in the bush.
He jumped off the buggy, a short barrel of a man with a face like a porker. He chortled as he lifted off his demijohn.
"My missus”, he said, winking at us as he passed us to the bough shed. He wet a Hessian bag in a nearby tub of water and dropped it over the demijohn.
"Got to keep the Missus cool or she’ll get hot”, he said laughing.
By this time Bassi had lowered himself to the ground, a disjointed individual who seemed to be going in three different directions at once. Unlike Zola who loved kids he never noticed us and went inside. We had strict instructions from Mother not to ask if Zola had brought anything for us. We knew he had and we knew that in his teasing way he would not give it to us until later in the day. But the tension waiting was torture. Vin could not keep up the pretence and clinging to the man’s hand said
"I won’t tell” It was what Zola was waiting for. He chortled again, his eyes two slits of laughter.
"Nothing” Zola laughed again and took out of his pocket a very small parcel.
"Oh, I brought you a present. Only a little one for you this time”.
He handed the parcel to Vin who hurriedly pulled off the paper uncovering two marbles. The look on his face revealed his disgust and Zola roared with delight. I was uncertain as to whether this was another of his jokes or the real thing, and my disappointment must have shown because he laughed again. Josie who was too young to understand was the only one who behaved in a natural manner.
Imagine trying to cook a meal in a wood stove in the middle of summer with the doors closed to keep out the flies. Mum sent the men outside under the bough shed so she could get on with the job.
Bassi who tended to stay behind to talk to Mum were called out by Dad. Fortunately it was quite pleasant outdoors that year. We sat in the shade, the men with a glass of plonk each and we drank lemonade Zola had brought.
When Mum called us we went in to the table she had transformed with an embroidered cloth brought from Italy, and the food she had cooked that morning.
Throughout the meal Bassi meandered on about some project he had in mind about making a fortune. Every time we saw him he had a different plan in sight which never came to anything. This particular one impressed me because he spoke of a mine where the gold was wheeled in barrows that made me prick up my ears. Ever since I could remember my parent’s great concern was meeting the bills which were forever mounting up, and I sometimes feared we would become gypsies again. Why wasn’t my mother getting excited about so much gold, I thought. She seemed more interested in Zola who was standing with glass in hand intoning something in a language foreign to us. He did this almost every Christmas. When I grew older my mother told me it was the Latin Mass, which he knew off by heart. Now, when I understand how much the Mass meant to my parents, I admired them for the restraint they exercised in dealing with the man so that we were never shocked.
When Zola had finished he asked Mum for some milk since his stomach felt like a forge in full blast, he said. He drank about a gallon of it and then fell asleep under a tree for the rest of the afternoon. Dad and Bassi fell asleep under trees. Mum did the dishes then we lay on the big double bed with her and confided our disappointment at not having received any gifts.
"Sssh, I’m sure he’s got something for you. Just let him sleep now. When he wakes up he’ll give them to you”.
Instead of weeping this day she read her prayer book and fell asleep also.
Vin and I left the lot of them sleeping and wandered off to a water hole in the swamp and caught gilgies. When we returned Zola was eating a huge salad, “to cool off his insides”, as he put it. Josie was playing with a musical toy.
He grinned at us and said.
"In there”, indicating the kitchen with his head.
On the table was the first real doll of my life, and for Vin a train which went by itself. I can’t remember thanking him, we just stood and gawped, our eyes alight with wonder. I guess that was sufficient thanks for him because every year we went through the same ritual, and he never failed to surprise and delight us.
Soon after moving to The Block mum started harping on the fact that children had to have fresh milk to be healthy. There was no milk delivery in the bush in those days, no one we knew had cows and she distrusted tinned milk.
"We have to get a cow”, she kept saying, and in her usual way, never let up until one day Dad said.
“Right we’ll get a cow, but where from?”
"In the paper they have cows for sale every week”. She said simply as if she was in the habit of reading the paper instead of her husband. Actually she had got the information from Vic Neave.
Not to be outdone Dad looked up the paper the following day and sure enough there were cows for sale and cheaply too.
"I want a jersey. Vic said they are the only ones worth having”, she repeated.
"For the love of God, woman, how are we going to get to this place”? The place being Maida Vale.
"Take up your friend Zola’s offer and borrow his horse and buggy”.
"That animal is not to be trusted”, Dad countered.
"I’d drive it anywhere. It’s the driver who’s crazy not the horse”.
Not to be outdone by a woman Dad borrowed the horse and buggy and the following Sunday we set off to buy a cow.
In those days, Pickering Brook was not like it is now. The road which ran the full length of the district was only a dirt track rutted and full of pot holes. Twisted and turned through dense forest, the half dozen places which had a house on them were like pocket handkerchiefs of clearing surrounded by tall trees which dwarfed the wooden buildings. You could not call them farms or orchards; the few straggly fruit trees on them looked as if they were fighting a losing battle with the bush. As we drove along Mother said they reminded her of the charcoal burners dwellings in the Alpine forests, desolate and forlorn, and ready to cry any minute. Dad was not saying anything, he was concentrating on driving.
Driving Lightning, Zola’s spirited horse, required a skill in horsemanship which my father did not have. He tried to make up for it with loud threats which did nothing but unsettle the animal. Before we had gone very far, it was obvious even to my father that we were not going to reach Maida Vale sound of body and mind at that rate.
"Ai Mamma”, he said, as the horse slowed towards the hill to the school, “I think you ought to get your hand in at driving in case I have to walk the cow home”.
One thing I have always admired about my parents was that they never rubbished each other about their little foibles and escape mechanisms.
Without saying a word she handed the baby over and took the reins. There was no doubt about it she had a way with animals and the horse soon realised that here was someone who meant business and behaved accordingly.
Even at that early age I knew that Dad was embarrassed because he began to bounce Josie on his knee and sing “Quell mazzoling di fiori” in a flat monotone which always amused my mother.
"Ai Piero take care you don’t bounce that child out of the cart”.
She was clearly enjoying herself and in good humour. Dad seeing that he was considered no less a man for holding the baby, let his wife drive, and began to tell us stories of the old country.
Kalamunda was considered a town by the standards of the bush but in fact it was only a place with houses, an occasional shop, a pub and railway station. When it came to going down the Kalamunda Hills, Mum was afraid that the buggy would run away with the horse, but Dad pointed out that it was not like the dray, it actually had brakes, and being able to make this small observation seemed to revive his spirits.
Dad came into his own when we reached Maida Vale, his English and easy manner making finding the dairy a pleasant task. The dairyman was one of the most downcast individuals we had ever met, his tale of woe was sufficient to put anyone off staying on the land. He told my parents that he was selling off his herd because times were so bad he could no longer carry on.
"Haven’t you heard there’s a depression on? People up your way are going off their heads. What are you doing farming up there in these times?” he asked.
Mum who was becoming annoyed by his attitude said simply.
"We can pay for the cow”.
"What are you?” he said, “Italian”.
My mother flushed. She was well aware of the implication of the remark. It was common acceptance that Italians could live off the smell of an oil rag.
She was about to retort when Dad said gently.
"I want a jersey cow”, she said proudly, “that one over there” indicating to a graceful animal with doe like eyes.
"That’s the one I want”.
"My best animal”, the dairyman wailed.
"I will pay”.
"Ai Mamma, you do go on”.”
"That is the one I want” she continued, ignoring Dad. And the calf too. It is a girl. I will grow her up to be a cow”.
The man was honest, and did not overcharge her because she had chosen his best animal. Dad paid five pounds and asked if she would lead.
"She will follow you to the end of the world if you put the calf in the buggy”.
Dad tied the calf’s legs and put her on a bag in the back of the buggy where she bleated all the way home. Just for safety he put a rope around the cow’s horns and tied it to the buggy, but he need not have bothered because the poor creature was so desperate to be near her calf she would have gone anywhere.
We made our way home at a walking pace, Dad driving the now spent horse, and Mum alternatively admiring her new possession and fuming at the remarks of the dairyman.
"Ai, Mamma, you do go on. What does it matter?” Since time began people have misunderstood each other. Our land is our country, and when our children go out into the wider world they will be Australians”
But despite Dad’s reasoning the hurt stayed with her until we got home and the plight of the cow, footsore and heavy with milk, took all her attention. By that time we were all so weary we just flopped into bed.
Having a cow gave new impetus to my mother’s creative energy. We now had an abundance of milk and cream, and spare milk for two piglets. Home grown potatoes did not cost anything and pollard was cheap, so that the pigs soon grew into porkers which were turned into sausages. Dad was happy about that, he loved his sausages.
Grain products were cheap, so she turned her attention to raising poultry for meat and eggs. Wheat was so cheap that sometimes Dad felt they were living off other peoples’ pain, but Mother was more pragmatic.
"We all live off one another in various ways. We can’t afford to be sentimental”.
However, she soon learned that raising chickens in the bush was not simply a matter of putting eggs under a clucky hen as she had done in Italy. There were many types of predators with an eye on an easy meal. That was when she brought us into action. While still quite young Vin and I were given a job we both hated, pasturing the hens in the late afternoon. It was Mum’s belief that our presence would deter crows, kookaburras and chicken hawks from swooping on her poor helpless chickens, but it didn’t work out that way. Creatures which have to depend on their wits for a meal soon learned that we were not much of a threat and I have seen a chicken hawk swoop and pick up a chicken only a few yards from me. I’m sure I was the more frightened of the two.
"Get your gun and take a shot at them”, Vic Neave advised her.
"That’ll give them a scare”, but she was afraid of guns, and the chickens continued to disappear.
One day she was in tears after having lost half of a newly hatched brood when Godfrey Neave, Vic’s brother, called to see my father. He was a man who pondered his words before uttering them and this habit of his intimidated her. But this day she was too upset to think of anything except her chickens and poured out her sorrows to him. Even in her old age she remembered his kindness as something that illuminated her life. He went home and brought her a roll of chicken wire he had lying about, plus a dozen fertile eggs, and said to her.
"Get Peter to make a yard. You’ll find that will solve the problem”. Then with his slow smile he continued.
"Here are some eggs. In three weeks you’ll have another lot”.
Deeply touched she loaded him up with milk and cream, and that small incident was the beginning of a new relationship between us and the Neaves.
From then on, for as long as I can remember, we supplied Godfrey Neave’s family and the family of his mother and brothers with milk. Each evening Vin would take one can, and I another, and deliver the milk, and the younger ones did likewise as they grew. The selling of the milk gave us far more than a little extra spending money for Mother. It brought us in touch with people of a very different culture and background, but greatly enriched us.
When my mother got an idea into her head it had to be implemented immediately otherwise she could not find rest. With the wire netting in the yard, staring uselessly at the sky, to use her words, she was in a perspiration of agitation to get something done with it. But Dad was away on one of his sojourns cutting timber for the mill to keep the wolf away from the door. He would not be back until Saturday night and this was Monday. She thought about pulling wire netting around the trees surrounding the fowl shed but she knew the reaction she would get. She fretted and fumed, thought about taking the gun to the crows, decided against it, and then, as if in answer to her yearning, luck came her way.
At that time the Great Depression was at its worse, and men were wandering round the countryside happy to do a day’s work for a feed. We rarely employed them because Dad refused to use what he called, was slave labour. He usually gave them a Feed and sent them on their way. But on the Wednesday after Godfrey Neave had left the wire, a sorry looking individual called at the house asking for bread. Mum asked him in Italian if he came from Italy and his face transformed. But it turned out that he came from another region and could only speak the dialect so their communication was a hit and miss thing. However, after a meal which seemed to empty out our larder he understood enough to know what she wanted done.
Before the sun was up the following morning he was already chopping down saplings, and he worked all day as if his life depended on getting the job done by nightfall. He didn’t finish it in one day, but before he left Mother had a sturdy chook yard covered over with wire netting. She was so delighted with what he had done that she gave him five shillings, all the milk money she had saved.
He looked at her as if he had won the lottery, and blessed her in the name of ten different saints. We never saw him again, but when Mum was old she sometimes wondered what had become of the cod liver oil man. “Why cod liver oil?” I asked. “He reeked of it. I felt I was going to be sick whenever he was near,” she replied.
When Dad returned he was not as enthusiastic as she was about her accomplishment.
"A woman alone! He could have been anybody”. She looked at him in disbelief.
"I’m always alone, every day of the week”.
However, soon after, her new enthusiasm received a jolt one morning when she went to feed her fowls. Half of her birds were dead and the rest in various degrees of mutilation. Some had lumps of flesh hanging from the body and others looked as it they had been slashed about the head.
There was one thing about my mother which has always amazed me. She was cool and logical and knew what to do. Only later when her imagination took over did she go to pieces. Her first thought was to prevent us from seeing the carnage, so she sent us to go and call Uncle Vic, as we now called Vic Neave. There was an arrangement between him and my father that he would keep an eye on us in case anything went wrong.
"Take Josie with you. Tell him a fox has got into the chook yard”.
When I tell my grandchildren this story they look at me with blank faces, as if I am making something out of nothing, then I remember that they, are a supermarket generation, and have no idea of the implications of being left without meat or eggs during a depression. Vic left immediately, but told us to stay with his mother until he returned. She entertained us with coconut creams and pictures of their family home on the Isle of Jersey.
When he took us home the fowls were buried, and Uncle Vic was very gentle with Mother who looked as if she had been crying. He was explaining to her that it was not a fox which had killed her fowls but a native cat.
"They’re impossible to catch with a trap”, he said on parting.
"They’re too cunning. The only thing you can do is wait for it and shoot it”. When he left we wanted to know what he had said.
"That’s the end of having chooks”, Dad said when he heard the story at the weekend, but by that time Mum had got her second wind, had learnt to use the gun, and was determined that no cat, native or otherwise, was going to get the better of her. Dad winked at us and said.
"I feel sorry for the Cat”.
For weeks nothing happened. At the slightest sound Mum would rush out to the fowl house, but all she saw were nervous birds squawking in their sleep. What worried her most was that none of them would go clucky and this she saw as a bad omen for the future of the land and, ultimately for the family. Being a man, my father could not understand her obsession with her wanting to hatch chickens.
"Stop worrying, woman, we have enough to live on without fowls”.
He could not see that the chooks were more to her than a source of food. With Dad away she was so much alone that the fowls were a source of interest, a hobby to occupy her mind, living creatures she could watch and grow and take pride in. The loss of her fowls preyed on her mind and she began to feel that the environment was against her and that they would be forced to walk off their land as so many others were doing.
Then one Sunday afternoon, when she was so miserable she could not motivate herself to prepare the food for Dad’s return to the bush, a diversion took place.
She was sitting at the sewing machine, and singing nostalgic Italian songs in an attempt to ward off the blues, when Dad came in and said something to her.
"You’ll have to take her Piero”.
"I’m going back to the bush tonight. I can’t be in two places at once”. He said.
"But you must. She’ll calve too late in the year for us to be able to make cheese if you don’t. You’ll just have to miss one day”.
"We’ll have to go soon, then”.
"We’ll go now”, she said briskly.
She turned towards us.
"Hurry and wash, we are going into Kalamunda”. We didn’t have to be told twice to wash if we were going somewhere.
When I tell my grandchildren the story of how we drove to Kalamunda on a dray to take our cow to a bull to be mated, they laugh uproariously. But I sometimes point out that it is no different from taking a bitch to a dog to be serviced. However, it took longer because someone had to walk behind the cow to urge her on.
Mums spirits seem to have revived, and she insisted at one stage Dad have a break from walking. We thought the outing was fun, just as we thought the bull at the rails frothing at the mouth was fun. Mum took us round the dairy pasture, and let us watches the cows being milked and kept us from asking questions.
When we returned the sun was going down, our cow was hitched to the dray and Dad was walking beside her. It was dark when we returned home. Dad milked the cow by the light of a kerosene lantern that night and let us drinks the warm frothy milk out of the bucket. I thought it the most wonderful thing in the world to be allowed to do that.
We never heard the racket that took place in the fowl shed that night, but Mum did. She woke Dad who raced out into the moonlight with his gun and shot the cat intent on its killing spree. It was as simple as that. In the morning the animal was lying on a stump beside the house, its beautiful marks splotched with blood. It was the first, and only time, I have seen a quoll.
Mother’s spirits revived after the death of the native cat. When Harry Brooks, our immediate neighbour heard of her experiences, he gave her two bantam hens and a pair of ducks which unleashed her creative energy once more. Soon she was badgering Dad to build a yard for the ducklings. For some unknown reason she was never bothered by predators with them even though we children sometimes wished she was since it was our tedious job to pull our the pin feathers from the plucked ducks.
I must have been no more than five or six when I first understood that my brother was very different from myself. Dad had not long built the barn and on one wall, high up, he had put a shelf where he stored dangerous things like poisons and gelignite. The fact that the shelf was there, and that he could not see what was on it tormented Vin. He had powerfully strong arms for his size and he tried his best to pull himself up to the shelf, without success. Then one day he almost made it.
To use my Mother’s words, “how the little monkey scratched his way up the wall I’ll never know”, but in trying to look over the shelf his nostril got caught on a nail, and the pain made him let go.
That was his undoing. Father heard his screams and found him on the floor writhing and bleeding from the nose, but otherwise sound.
"He’s just like you!” Dad said to my Mother.
Another time, when I was older, we had a plague of rats, so severe that they even ate half of our old horse’s face as he slept. Dad decided that the only way to deal with them would be to take up the sleepers and bludgeon them to death. I remember the great ugly rats sculling away as he took up the sleepers. My Dad killed a few but then retreated to where I was standing, his face plainly showing the disgust he felt. Not so my mother and Vin. They were both like the terrier intent on breaking the rat’s necks.
As I stood on the outskirts of the melee with my father, I remember thinking, how different Mum and Vin were to Dad and me. I was pondering this when Dad returned with the gun, and almost had to force my mother and Vin out of the way because Vin was only a kid. I doubt if Vin had killed any rats, but the excitement of the moment was something he talked about for a long time.
Probably that was why Vin killed all the poultry for the household from an early age. Whenever we had fresh meat, if was something we had grown, and which would have to be killed, Vin was on the job. Dad was away for long stretches at a time and the task of killing fell to our mother. Although she could kill rats, and even kittens when the need arose, when it came to killing chooks she dallied around, either waited for Dad to return or conned us into doing it. Dad had a clean quick way of killing a fowl. With a twist of the wrist he broke their necks, but we never mastered the art.
However, when he was still quite young, Vin learned how to chop off a fowl’s head with a small axe Dad had bought for the purpose. He thereby became the butcher for the household and I was delighted to be relieved of an unpleasant task. But on one occasion my lack of responsibility had its repercussions.
Our life in the bush was a very lonely one as far as playmates went. We weren’t unhappy because we had each other and the bush was always a source of wonder. But we had to use our own resources to make our days interesting. One of the ways was by making pets of the farm creatures and vying with each other to get the most intelligent and best trained pet.
At one time we went through a stage of making pets of the chooks, as fowls made very good pets as they loved being spoilt, and having freedom and followed a person everywhere. For a long times Vin’s bird was undoubtedly the best, as she never seemed to have any interest other than to follow him about. But one day she went queer and started sitting on the onions in the shed, and no matter how often Mum threw her out into the yard, or dampened her down with cold water, she still returned to sitting on onions. Then one day Mum put her under a box with the remark:
"Tomorrow you’ll be in the pot”.
I never thought anything of it, but when I woke the next morning, I saw that Vin had killed my chook to save his, and had her hanging by the legs ready for plucking before Mum realized what was going on.
I can still remember the outrage of having been outdone in such a manner.
At one time he had surgery on his bad hip to try to rectify the damage done by polio. For the first six months he was in a full cast. The heat of the summer months was hard on him. The plaster edges rubbed his flesh raw, and the perspiration from the heat was like putting salt on a raw wound. The Neaves used to visit him regularly and bring him comics, and one day Uncle Vic told Mum that a goody remedy for hardening the skin to prevent chaffing was to pat it with methylated spirits. Whatever, Uncle Vin told her Mum took as gospel truth and did what he told her to do.
I never knew how much he suffered until a few years ago when he told us he still had nightmares from that treatment.
At about six months Vin’s cast was removed and a shorter one put on him in its place. This allowed him to use crutches and wander around the bush on his own.
He loved to climb trees looking for bird’s nests, using discarded steel railway pegs making a ladder. Zola had made him a small hammer to drive the pegs into the trees, and Mum made him a bag to hang around his neck to carry them in. So equipped he spent hours in the bush on his own.
When our parents were busy rooting out trees from new land so as to get a crop in, they left us pretty much to ourselves. They never realised that Vin was missing until it was almost dark. Mum’s first reaction was to tell me off for not letting her know earlier. Then she began to panic.
"Hush woman, I bet he’s stuck up a tree” Dad said.
This made her imagination run riot and without stopping to think she ran through the bush calling:
"Vincenzo, Vincenzo, Oh God don’t let my Vin get hurt”.
But Dad was much calmer.
"We’ll go Johnny Tree way, that’s where he usually goes”, he said.
Sure enough he was up one of his favourite trees, his cast caught on a steel peg. Dad freed him and carried him home on his back.
"Ai, Mamma, you should know that this son of yours has nine lives”, Dad said to her, but she was so upset that she went to bed and he had to make zabaglione to cheer her up. Then he milked the cow, and to cheer us up he squirted us with milk, as we sat round looking at him with long faces. Mum was still too upset to do anything, so we ate bread and milk sitting on the veranda steps.
I admired my brother because he was everything I was not. When Dad bought me a bike so I could ride to school it took me weeks to learn how to use it, but Vin rode it in days even though it was a full size man’s bike. He was like a flea on it. If he fell off he got on it again. Once he fell off at the bridge near Brook’s place and broke his nose, and six months later he insisted that the rust on one of the bolts on the bridge was his blood.
During the Abyssinian war when some kids from the Mill school we went to, reflecting the propaganda of the day, called us “dagos”, and told us to go back where we came from. I cried, but Vin stood up to them and told them he had as much right to the country as they had.
Sometimes even our parents found Vin’s insatiable curiosity difficult to understand. When dad had the greengrocer’s round at Bartons Mill, one of their best money spinners was a patch of strawberries. We hated picking strawberries, but it had to be done and we just did it. I never questioned things as Vin did. I was happy with the ducks which kept us company following us along the rows, wagging their tails and quacking happily when they found insects or beetles. But Vin could not understand why the ducks were so dumb.
Didn’t they know that strawberries were good eating?
One day, to prove a point, he spent most of his time pushing strawberries between ducks beaks. It was an exercise that cost my parents dearly because once the ducks tasted strawberries they never left them alone and to save their crop they had to fence the ducks in.
The year I turned seven my parents decided I had better to go school. For the previous twelve months every now and then they would say:
"She really ought to go to school but it’s so far and she’s not ready for a bike yet”.
I’d known for a whole year that I should go to school one day but it didn’t bother me because it was in the future. But when the time came I was in a panic. I knew a little English and, unlike my brother who jabbered on regardless, I was afraid to speak in case I made a mistake. My one experience of school had been during the year before I left Bartons Mill when a big boy, Archie Anderson, had taken me for a day before school broke up for the Christmas holidays. It had been an unnerving experience where I was as if paralysed. It seemed to me that all the kids were laughing at me, but I’m sure it was all due to my fear.
The summer before I started school Dad bought a bike and proceeded to teach me how to ride it. He was very patient but I was a slow learner, partly because of my fears and partly because I found a full size man’s bike difficult to handle. I envied my brother who learned to ride in about a week without any assistance from Dad. Eventually, however, I learned to ride, and, although I was happy at finally mastering the art I was very sad at not having Dad’s undivided attention any more.
Dad took me and left me with the teacher of whom I was terrified. He seemed big and square and forbidding. Once again it seemed to me that all the kids were looking at me and grinning.
The school at Pickering Brook was a tiny building of wood set among trees with about twelve pupils. I remember a big girl putting me in a file when I arrived because I did not understand what the teacher had said. I followed the others in and was put at the end of a desk and left to my own devices, probably because there was not much a teacher could do with a kid who could not understand what was said to her. After about an hour of staring at the blackboard I got up and went outside, and looked around until I found the dunny. It was the same as the one we had at home, a wooden seat over a sanitary pan. So I used it according to what my mother had taught me.
I think the sanitary system in her home town must have been the same as the old toilets of the East where you crouched over a hole in the ground. When the big girls found me I was perched on the seat like a chook laying an egg.
To my embarrassment I was a source of merriment to the kids for days. In fact my embarrassment was so acute that I decided, there and then, never to allow myself to think about it. “If I don’t think of it I won’t feel it” I thought.
Once during my school days at Pickering Brook, Vin and I were taken on a picnic to Como Beach. Mrs. Thorley, one of the school organisers took Vin and myself under her wing and introduced us to the water. She hired bathers for us from an attendant at the changing rooms and encouraged us to go out above our waists. I could not remember the ocean when we came to Australia. The Swan River was an immense span of water and I was fascinated by the prawn sellers and the taste of prawns. On our return trip, on the back of a truck, we all sang songs, and the sense of fellowship that I felt was so wonderful that I have never forgotten it.
When I was about eleven, Dad started a milk round at the mill and we sere transferred to the Bartons Mill School. I can honestly say they were the happiest days of my life. In the beginning we went with Dad in the mornings and walked home, but as we grew older and able to drive the horse and cart we took over delivering the milk. Each day we delivered the milk before school, unharnessed the horse and put it in a yard Dad had made for it and in the afternoon harnessed it and drove it home.
I loved the sound of the mill and the sense of the people around, and I made many friends there. Sometimes during the Abyssinian War some of the kids called us names and that hurt me because I was so thin skinned. But, there were people whose kindness to us was extraordinary.
I remember, particularly Johnny Mack. Johnny lived near the school with his mother. He had a withered arm and a cleft palate and his speech was difficult to understand, but he was a great favourite to the kids. He played cricket and rounders with the kids, settled their quarrels and joined in their activities. He had a soft spot for us and once during the Abyssinian War he heard a bunch of kids calling us names just as we were about to drive home. He turned on them and told them off and for a long time after that he rode with us as far as the bridge, about a mile beyond the mill, and then walked back. Nothing was said between us but we understood he was supporting us and to this day I remember his kindness with gratitude.
Zola was the mill blacksmith and since we knew him he told us to go and see him at lunch time, which we did. This eventually became a daily ritual as he gave us two shillings every time we went, and in the manner of kids we thought this was a good thing. We spent it at the local tuck shop, and since two shillings was a lot of money for kids to be spending in those days, someone must have thought that there was something funny going on. Once I was interviewed by an Officer of Child Welfare, as I didn’t know what he was talking about the matter was dropped.
Later in life when I understood the implication, I was very angry at the slur cast on a man who always behaved like a gentleman towards us.
Most of the teachers in country schools in those days taught by the old rote method, and the curriculum was centred around England and the British Empire. We never learned any Australian history except that we were a penal colony. England was our mother country and we were supposed to get excited about what the British had done in India and Canada, and how the sun never set on the glorious Empire.
Probably because I always took the part of the under dog, I would sit and seethe at the way the British treated the Scots and the Irish. However, when I was about twelve a teacher came who inspired me to learn about the world and nature and to take an interest in literature.
Unfortunately he only stayed the twelve months and then we had a fellow who was more interested in farming than in teaching. We were left on our own for long periods while he read the agricultural journals. I spent my time reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the boy next to me in sketching the children in the classroom. But, one thing the farmer teacher did which was beneficial to us in a round about way was to encourage us to go into the bush, look at the birds and name them, search for centipedes and scorpions and preserve them, and hunt for orchids and other wild flowers and paint them. Such was our schooling. No wonder that kids not interested in learning left school barely able to read or write.
However, they were wonderful years of freedom and a simply enjoyment of the bush and its creatures. When we set off in the morning with the milk we had to get the horse going briskly to get the milk delivered before school started. But in the afternoon it was a different matter. Our drive home was leisurely, and since the three of us were great readers we would tie the reins to the cart and let the horse plod along at its own pace. Many times when a car came towards us he pulled off the road on his own and we only noticed it as it passed us. We knew we were home when he started to trot at the sight of home.
Those were the years of the Great Depression when many kids grew up on bread and dripping and jam. On our way to school we passed the tent camp where unemployed men eked out a living on two days work a week.
Looking back, I realize how fortunate we were that we had parents who knew how to make the most of the land. We lived like lords on home grown meat and vegetables and plenty of milk, cream, cheese and butter.
Moreover, our mother was a gifted dressmaker who could make us beautiful things at very little cost. When she had a little money saved she would take herself and us off to Perth and go round the shops looking for bargains. Those were the days when you could get good material for a few pence by sorting through pieces on the bargain counters. She had a good eye for colour and could visualize how the material would look made up.
I remember the year Mum took us to Perth on the charabanc, a vehicle like a small open bus. It was a service between Bartons Mill and Perth, started by one of the Andersons, and which was supposed to open up the hills to the world. Unfortunately, the idea was ahead of its time, and was not well patronized and soon went out of business. But we did get one ride on it, and I remember feeling like the Queen in her open chariot as I rode along waving to the trees.
Once in Perth we headed for Boans, which was the shop country people patronised, and had out treat for the day, an ice-cream sitting on a stool like grown ups. Then it was business, traipsing after Mum as she went from counter to counter looking at things and trying to work out how far her small savings would go. It was not easy for her since the language was a barrier. We were supposed to help her as she tried to barter, but I was hopeless because of my self consciousness. I was more interested in watching the way the sales people deftly wrapped up parcels in brown paper and deftly tied them with string. Vin, on the other hand was not afraid to speak up and barter is Mum felt she should.
But my best memories to and from Perth are associated with the Zig Zag train. Simply to sink into the seat of that old train after a long day in the city, and wait for the unravelling of paper bags full of good things to eat was an unforgettable pleasure in itself. We would munch our way through warm pies and sticky buns until Midland, then suck lolly balls as the train shunted back and forth up the zigzag, to lie replete on the seat as the wheels sang “going home, going home” on the last stretch of the journey.
It was no easy thing to take a piece of wild bush land where jarrahs and gums had been growing for hundreds of years and try to tame it in a lifetime. But that is what the early pioneers of the bush did. People marvel at the soldiers sacrificed themselves for the sake of their country during the war, exposed to danger and going without sleep and normal pleasures for the sake of the nation, but, they forget that this country owes as much to people just as dedicated. When I think of how my parents lived struggled, day after day chipping away with hoe or mattock to get the roots of the Jarrahs out of the ground and then levering them out with a crow bar, I think, the pioneers deserve a gold medal as much as any soldier.
My father always used to say that it was no wonder ex-servicemen gave up and went off the land. They had enough of sacrifices during the was. For once the trees were down and burned the real work of digging was just the beginning. Then the roots and rocks had to be dug out, and jarrah trees are notorious for their root system. My parents spent weeks going over the same land with a horse and plough getting out every root and rock. And that was only the beginning because without the trees the soil turned sour and nothing would grow.
It needed to be drained and sweetened by cultivation, and drains in those days had to be dug by hand and was an arduous job. The drains they dug crossed all the land so as to be effective to carry away the heavy winter rains. The drains had to be boxed in with slabs of wood, cut by hand and then covered over with soil. I have seen my parents spend days on end covering drains with spade and hoe.
Then once the land was drained and the winter rains drained away, they had to prepare for the summer. It had to be irrigated in the summer months for anything to grow. And that was just the beginning, since Australian soils are deficient in so many trace elements that without a proper balance of nutrients the crops were stunted and useless. All this had to be learned by trial and error, the exchange of knowledge between growers and advice from the Department of Agriculture.
Nor were the returns commensurate with the labour employed. Quite often produce which was sent to market could not be sold because of over supply. No wonder that Mum used to say that only donkeys, and migrants who had nowhere else to go, clung to the land.
This was my parents’ life until the Second World War when the government contracts for fruit and vegetables made horticulture a worthwhile occupation. By then their experience and the land were ready for the opportunity that presented itself and all the hard work paid off.
Mother’s lot should have been easier then. Money was no longer a problem, they had a vehicle for transport, and by that time there were many more Italians in the district for her to socialise with. But she was no longer the young woman from Italy longing for the companionship of her own people. She could not more stop working nor change the attitudes developed during a lifetime in the bush than she could turn back the clock. She was the organiser and manager behind my father and this had made her resourceful with an independent turn of mind that was impatient with the attitudes of the new breed of people coming into the district.
He land was everything to her, no matter what happened it was the one thing that would always be there, and she spent the rest of her days working it as if little else mattered by comparison.
Nor was my father the same gregarious, easy going fellow who had horsed around with Zola. Making good made him concentrate on more success and the inevitable price of his success was a loss of spontaneity and fun.
For the first few years after going to the Block, Dad cut wood for a living. It was a good thing that there was a railway siding at Johnny’s Tree Siding near our place, and that he could come to an arrangement with Millars Timber Co. to have his truck of wood taken to Pickering Brook Station by mill loco, from where they were sent to Perth. For Dad, that was the easiest part. Going to collect the money from yards where the owners had a habit of disappearing was what he disliked doing. Eventually Mum took over that job, and even with her paucity of English she was much better at it than my father. However, there was one character, who managed, by one ruse or another, to evade coming up with the cash.
One year when funds were low and Christmas was coming up she said to Dad.
"Tomorrow, I’m going to get that money from the criminal, even if I’ve got to go to his house to get it”.
“Ai, Mamma, you go. If you get it you can buy yourself a new hat”.
The next morning Dad took us to the station and us kids sets off gaily thinking we were going for an outing, but when we reached Perth instead of going to Boans for our usual treat we climbed the steps to the Horseshoe Bridge. From there we walked to Aberdeen Street, turned left and set off to find the wood yard.
It was a hot day and we were soon tired and thirsty. Looking back, I marvel at my mother’s endurance carrying Josie who was about two and a half, for all that distance. We found the wood yard but the owner wasn’t in we were told. I was supposed to be the interpreter, but I looked too scared to speak up so Vin took over. He wasn’t afraid of anyone.
"Tell him, I want to know where the owner lives”, mum demanded, and Vin relayed the message.
The fellow behind the desk gave Mum what she wanted and we set off to find the house in Charles Street.
By this time it was hot and Charles Street seemed to be miles away. Josie began to cry so Mum picked her up again and carried her, looking at the street numbers as we went, and wondering out loud how much longer we had to go. Charles Street was not then as built up as it is now, and it was more like a country road which seemed to stretch for miles with few houses on it. We seemed to be walking for hours without Mum worrying much about us. I guess that if you are bought up to climb the mountains of Valtelina every spring with a herd of cows, walking a few miles along a flat road doesn’t seem like an ordeal. But it was to us, particularly to Vin who seemed to drag his bad leg when he was tired, but he never complained. In the end we found the place, a neat little house not at all like the abode of the villain Mum had been talking about.
She marched up to the door and knocked on it expecting, by the look on her face, to be faced with a monster, and was somewhat taken aback when a very ordinary woman greeted her. With the aid of Vin she stated her case; the woman acknowledged that it was the right house, but that her husband was not at home.
Tiredness and disappointment must have made Mother lose the dominating sense she had of being a lady at all costs, and she burst into a tirade of Italian. Holding up to the woman the receipts for the truck loads of wood and holding Josie out before her, she said without any help from us:
"Your husband is a naughty boy. He not pay for wood. He take bread from my baby mouth”
The woman hesitated a moment then without a word went inside and left Mum standing staring at the door. My mother’s back was now up.
"I’ll sit on these steps until they pay me”. She said to us, her eyes flashing.
I had a moment panic imagining us spending the rest of the afternoon sitting on the doorstep. However, after what seemed an age but was possibly only a matter of minutes the woman returned with money in hand apologising for the mistake. Mother made sure she got the right amount counting out carefully, then in her anger left forgetting about the two of us until she was at the bottom of the steps.
"Come on”, she said sharply to me, “You’re always dreaming”.
We walked the long road back to Boans in the hot sun. I don’t think it even occurred to my mother to take the tram. But we did get an extra special treat on the way home on the train, and instead of the new hat Dad promised her she bought us all a pair of new shoes.
After a couple of years hauling wood for Dad, old Charlie died as quietly as he lived. One day he was trudging along the road dragging the dray, the next day he was flat on his side, from where he never got up. The problem it posed for Dad was not only that of getting another horse, but also of getting rid of the carcass of the previous one. It is amazing how much timber is needed to burn a dead horse.
With the passing of Charlie, Dad fancied a horse with a little more spunk so he told my mother that he had found just the animal he wanted, she believed him. But when he arrived home with a big black brute with flashing eyes she gasped:
"But Pierro, look, he shows the white of his eyes. That horse means trouble”.
"Just like a woman to condemn a poor creature before she knows it”, Dad grumbled.
Spirit is what Dad had wanted from a horse and that is what he got.
Unfortunately for Dad the horse he chose had more spirit than was needed for a cart horse and if he felt disinclined to work, it literally stood up on its hind legs and pawed the air sending my father out through the coral rails in a very undignified manner.
"He’s dangerous Pierro. Get rid of him before he does you harm”.
Mum warned him again and again. But to get rid of a horse just because it stood on its two hind legs and showed contempt at him was, for Dad, an admission of defeat which he was loath to admit. So he called his friend Vic Neave and asked for advice. Vic had broken in horses in his younger days and was considered something of an expert on them. After trying to bridle it unsuccessfully several times when it was in one of its unco-operative moods he said.
"Get rid of it Peter. It’s a lot cheaper to buy another horse than try and train that one”.
But Dad persisted in his belief that the horse was not that bad and that it would come good if properly handled. I think he secretly believed he was a good judge of horseflesh and he wanted to substantiate the image he had of himself. So Zola, with a flush of drink on him, told him, that no horse had ever got the better of him. He believed the man. Zola was asked out the following Sunday to see what he could do with it.
"God forbid”, Mother cried raising her eyes. “Two idiots together. One of them will get hurt and I know that will be you”.
However, she was wrong. The black horse behaved as if his life depended on doing the right thing and moved to whatever command given it. Zola on his part became so enamoured of his horsemanship that he took the dray out with Dad and brought in two loads of wood before settling down to quench his thirst with his demijohn. That night was a late one for my mother. Dad and Zola settled down to a session of drinking and mutual self congratulation.
"So boring”, Mother said next morning.
"After him helping you like that”.
"Why Not?’ He didn’t need and audience”.
For the next ten or twelve days the black horse behaved as if that contact with Zola had made it turn over a new leaf. When it was in an amiable mood it could do the work of ten horses, according to my father.
"It’s a pleasure to drive the animal”, Dad boasted ten times a day.
"The story is not finished yet”, my mother said morosely.
"Poor beast, No wonder it’s temperamental with people having no belief in him”.
But Mother was right, the story was not finished. For reasons known only to itself, one day the horse refused to co-operate and neither Dad’s threats nor Zola’s cajoling could shift its stance. As soon as anyone entered the coral with a bridle it got on its hind legs neighing shrilly and threatening them with its hooves. Zola thought that the animal was not serious until he persisted once too often. The enraged animal leapt so high it hit its head on the tin roof, scaring itself with impact and with a wild leap it Flew over the rail of the coral as Zola scrambled through them. Across the paddocks it went leaping fences and logs as if was in a cross country race. The last we saw of it was leaping the wire fence towards Johnny’s Tree Siding and heading for the bush. Zola picked himself up sheepishly and brushed the straw from his trousers.
"Ah, well, Pedro, you’ll be some time catching up with him”
"I hope he never will”, my mother said fervently.
After the episode with the black horse my parents had to make some serious decisions. Either Dad bought another draft horse and continued cutting wood, or he accepted an offer from the mill to cut timber for them, in which case he would not need a draft horse. Mum hated having Dad away all week but she understood that green timber was much easier for him to cut and refused to sway him in any way.
"It’s up to you”, she kept saying, but in the end, after a lot of soul searching she helped him decide.
"Why don’t you give it a go….for a while at least. Now that the kids are bigger I can manage alone. We could save more..and you could come home for good-sooner-perhaps”?.
My mother always said that Dad was relieved by the decision. Cutting firewood was an arduous way of making as living.
Once the decision was made they sold the dray and bought a spring cart for Mum to take Dad to and from the mill, and a farm horse which could double as a cart horse. Mum went with Dad to a horse dealer where they selected a quite dim witted grey which had nothing outstanding about it except that it did its job with a minimum of fuss. And like all quiet workers it was taken for granted and received no thanks. That was what a horse was for, to work.
It was only during a rat plague, when a rat ate half of its face away one night and the poor creature had to be put down, that my parents understood the value of the animal.
The years when Dad was cutting timber was a time of relative freedom and independence for my mother even though she was alone all week. When the grey horse was put down my parents bought a sulky, and a lovely spirited mare that Mum drove each weekend to take Dad to and from the mill.
Whether it was the regular income, or their enjoyment of one another in the short space of time they had together, they seemed to go out a lot more during those years.
One such outing I remember very well. Once again it was to buy a cow after the heifer we had raised died through getting out and eating poison bush which grew in the gullies towards Mundaring. Dad had heard of an Italian who had a dairy at the foot of the hills, Kenwick way, and fancied getting a cow from him.
Because of the distance, and the fact that we might have to walk a cow, we left very early one Sunday morning. Mum drove, Dad acknowledged that she was more practised with the mare.
"Females understand one another”, he said winking at us.
Mum clearly enjoyed driving. This day she was very smart in a new blazer and skirt, pleased with her little brood done up like kids in picture books. The rough bush track which was Pickering Brook Road posed no threat to her since she was used to handling the mare on worse roads. They chatted about the various places they passed, comparing the development of their land with that of others, and feeling quite pleased with what they had achieved in a short space of time. Then they spoke of what lay at the heart of all their struggles, the hopes that one day they would be able to make a living from their own land, independent of any one else. It was a dream they sacrificed so much for, especially enjoyment of the present moment for the sake of a future dream.
When my mother was an old woman she understood how treacherous dreams of the future can be.
"If I had my life all over again”, she used to say, “I would live it differently. I would enjoy every moment as it came”.
She said it but she wouldn’t have done it because essentially still the same person the same drive for independence would have spurred her on.
We went by way of the pipe track which she negotiated skilfully, and found the dairy Dad had in mind quite easily. When the owner, a red cheeked bucolic individual with a hearty laugh, understood they came from a nearby valley in the Italian Alps he almost embraced them on the spot.
"Come in, come in”, he roared. “I haven’t heard the dialect of my ancestors, since the day I left my home town, a hundred years, or more years ago in terms of loneliness”.
My mother who knew about loneliness from personal experience empathised with him, and in so doing she became a model of perfect womanhood to him.
In those days many Italians spent twenty years or more in Australian before being reunited with their families. There were many reasons for such a state of affairs, distance, lack of money and fear on the part of the woman that they might never see their loved ones again. My mother often said that when people left Italy for Australia in those days, there were mourned as if they had died. Often men could not raise funds to bring their families out immediately, and as time passed memories dimmed and they were sustained in their isolation by an almost chivalric notion of women which had little to do with reality. For others, it was the wife who feared to face the insecurity of something she did not know. In every instance of a long separation there was something romantic yet unreal about the way the men spoke of their families.
No wonder my mother would have no part of a long separation, and braved primitive conditions so that her family could be together.
The dairyman we visited that day belonged to the chivalric type of immigrant. His wife refused to leave her parents and join him, and as the years passed he had forgotten the real person and turned his wife into a romantic person. Such a one he could worship from afar, and as he spoke to my mother about the love he had for his wife his face glowed with almost religious fervour.
"God preserve me from a saintly love”, she said to my father on the way home.
At one time I thought it a strange remark, but now I no longer do.
The afternoon was reminiscent of Christmas when celebrated with Zola and Bassi, except that Gino did not drink anywhere near as much. But the wine was there and so were the mountains of food, salami, coppa, sausages, several varieties of cheese, and bowls of cream polenta which he insisted on cooking and French and Italian bread. He talked non stop, about the war, the Po valley, the woman he married in a whirlpool courtship during the war, her refusal to join him in Australia and the children he never saw grow up. It all poured out like a torrent of water too long dammed up.
He shared with my parents his early struggles to get the dairy going, working half the night as well as the day, his isolation from his own people and the loneliness he felt.
He kept repeating.
"This is a blessing. Someone sent you. I was getting to the end of my strength”.
He plied us with whatever he thought would interest kids, lemonade, strawberries, cream, and salami and lamented again and again that he did not have enough to entice us to eat.
In their turn my parents told him how they came to be in Australia, and their own struggles to make a living from the land. My mother was not as expansive as my father, but, I think she was somewhat concerned about the journey home, and feared that Dad would not get away in time. However, she need not have worried because milking had to begin at three, and then there would be no time for conversation.
We left with another jersey cow, without a calf this time which meant one of my parents would have to walk behind her to keep her moving. Gino looked very forlorn as he waved us good-bye after loading the buggy with cheeses and salami. He extracted a promise from Dad that he would bring his family again.
"Soon, very soon”, he kept saying.
"You know how a dairy man is tied down to his cows. We have to milk night and morning. There aren’t many holidays for us. We are crucified to the daily round. Come again very soon. Very soon”.
The journey home was long and tedious for us. Just imagine what it must have been like for my parents, but somehow there was a softness and tenderness between them which made their conversation an intimate one, even though there was the disadvantage of distance.
Perhaps the plight of Gino brought home to them how fortunate they were to have each other. Gino went on to become the only buddy of my father’s that my mother was genuinely glad to see.
Eventually the three of us fell asleep when we got home we went straight to bed. But when I woke during the night my parents were still talking about the tragedy of people separated by circumstances over which they had no control.
When my parents took up land in Pickering Brook there were only about half a dozen orchards from which the owners made a living, and even on those it was a struggle to do so. The others were spots of clearing in a landscape of forest with a few fruit trees struggling to survive. Then during the thirties there was an influx of Italian migrants who seriously set to work to live off the land regardless of the cost to themselves. They were people with an agricultural background, and they knew from experience that the land is a hard task master.
Moreover, as immigrants in Australia during the Great Depression they had nowhere else to go. They set to work clearing the land and growing vegetables in a professional manner, surviving by dint of hard work until their opportunity came during the Second World War when government contracts for supplying vegetables to the armed forces gave them a chance to stabilise themselves.
Of the land taken up in the early days, as of this time of writing, only two places are still held in the name of the original owners, my parents and the Gordon’s place.
It was these newcomers, Italians from Wanneroo and other places, originally from diverse parts of Italy, who inspired my parents to stay on the land, when they were distraught by their financial situation and seriously considering going back to their homeland.
From the accounts they received from relatives the depression was nowhere near as bad in Italy and as Dad sustained an injury while falling timber he could think of nothing else to do. For a while he did some clearing for the newcomers, and while doing so he saw how much more professional they were than he, at growing vegetables and once again dared to dream that maybe he, too, could live off the land. But my mother was far more practical than my father.
"It sounds wonderful, but what are we going to live on in the meantime”?
It was a chance remark that Zola made one Sunday afternoon when he said his gut was burning like the chimney of hell that gave my mother an idea.
"Give me some of that milk you have in the cellar” Zola said. “It’s only the only thing that soothes my innards”.
He drank about a gallon of it.
"Nothing is a good as fresh milk”, he said wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“It’s a pity there’s not fresh milk around at the mill. Someone could make a fortune there”.
My parents did not make a fortune, but the milk and fruit and vegetable round sustained us during the years they were clearing land, and learning the art of growing vegetables commercially. Moreover, as Father’s round grew he had to go to many growers he normally would never come in contact with for supplies of goods we did not grow ourselves. There were growers in Pickering Brook and beyond, and the contact was invaluable to him.
He started to talk about trace elements and irrigation systems, and for a week spoke of nothing else except Marchetti’s overhead irrigation system which was the first in the district. It sounded very exciting, and it inspired Dad to dream of doing likewise. But for the time being they had to put money aside, and it was my mother who bore the brunt of the work while Dad was on the round.
During this time my mother was lonely, isolated as she was with hard work without the companionship of her husband. Growing produce of any kind was time consuming in itself but she also had the cows and the poultry to care for, as well as the house and us kids. There was no time for socialising and the only people she saw, occasionally were the old timers like the Neaves and the Brooks next door.
A frequent visitor was another lonely Italian who had an orange orchard about five kilometres along the railway line towards Kalamunda. He missed company and liked nothing better than to come and talk to my mother. Every third Sunday afternoon we watched him come along the railway line bent under a sack of oranges even a donkey would buck at carrying. My mother had once said to him she loved oranges and that was his way of saying thank you for her meals and listening ear.
How my mother put up with the strange characters Dad brought to the house I’ll never know, especially as Dad left them with her when it was his bedtime. But she did.
My strongest memories of my mother, are of her sitting at the table in the kitchen, either patching or mending, listening to some fellow’s life story retold a hundred times over. Whether she listened or not I’ll never know. She never said much and if she made some remark, Dad’s answer always was:
"Just do as I do, go to bed” he said.
They’ll get the message if you start packing up”.
"They’re not bad blokes.
And that was the reality of the bush.