They left the vine-wreathed cottage and the mansion on the hill,
The houses in the busy streets where life is never still,
The pleasures of the city, and the friends they cherished best:
For love they faced the wilderness -the Women of the West.
from The Women of the West by George Essex Evans
My family was small but I had two wonderful grandmothers. They were very different but their lives in some ways were remarkably similar.
My mother’s mother was named Myrtle but she hated that name and called herself Kay. The eldest of four children she was clever but had to miss school to care for her sickly brother. The girls in the family were expected to learn a trade and be self supporting, so Myrtle chose dressmaking while her sister favoured millinery. At the age of 18 she married a much older man largely to get away from the demands of her family. When she was 21 she gave birth to my mother but had serious complications and was unable to have any more children. Eight years later she left her husband and her neat little home in Williamstown, Victoria, taking my mother to Forest Lodge in Sydney, where she set up a dressmaking business from home.
This was 1925 where respectable married women did not run away from their husbands. I wasn’t told why she left but I do know she was very unhappy. Sewing for the well to do in Sydney was demanding but paid well enough until The Great Depression. I am guessing this was the reason Kay put my mother in boarding school and went to work on a cattle station as a housekeeper.
My other grandmother was experiencing a similar trajectory in life. Widowed and with a six year old son, she had no skills apart from domestic duties, so accepted the job of housekeeper with Mr Munro, an eccentric, unmarried landowner in the Moree area of northern NSW. Any suggestion of an improper relationship between them was strictly denied by Ella, who preferred to be known as Maud but was called Ma. I do suspect that it was with Mr Munro’s help that my father was sent to boarding school at Newington College in Sydney.
Ella and Mr Munro spent most of the war years until 1945 on Norfolk Island. Some of Mr Munro’s land had been requisitioned by the Australian Government for war use so he decided the safest place to be was on an island 1700 kilometres out to sea.
My first memories of Mi-Me (as she was known to me) are of a very old lady with white hair, walking with the aid of crutches. She had fallen over and broken her hip in the steep rocky backyard of Mr Munro’s home in Springwood. She would have been about 70 by then. I was five and followed her slow progress as she walked, listening to her stories and poems. She knew all the bush ballads and particularly loved to quote, “The Women of the West”.
I am fortunate that she was a keen writer and photographer because I have her articles and photos from The Australian Woman’s Mirror, The Grazier’s Review and other publications.
Meanwhile Kay had not found a benefactor like Mr Munro. She told me stories of cooking huge cakes and meals for the shearers and life on far flung rural properties and may even have found happiness for a short while when she married a boundary rider. He was never mentioned when I was a child so I imagine that the marriage did not end well.
When I first remember Kay, or Me-Ma as I called her, she owned a dress shop in Mortdale called Kay Muir Frocks. Behind the shop was a large room with long tables for cutting patterns and sewing machines to make dresses. Above the shop was the apartment where she and her third husband George, lived. To me it was a palace as it was brand new and had the most wonderful bathroom imaginable. The tiles were a mottled green and the bath, shower recess, flush toilet and pedestal basin all matched the tiles. The kitchen was red and white with a large laminex table in the centre, the lounge room had a dining table which was never used, a television set, a pianola, a very uncomfortable green vinyl lounge and a magical display cabinet full of fascinating objects. My grandmother had frequent disagreements with her husband and to cheer herself up would buy some ornament to place in her cabinet. To me it was far more interesting than her TV set.
My grandmothers had hard lives but I am so proud of what they achieved. One was reserved, somewhat haughty and demanding. The other was outgoing, the life of the party and yet a disaster when it came to choosing men. Yet I felt they both loved me, their only grandchild. They showed me how important a grandparent can be to the life of a child and influenced the way I interact with my own grandchildren.