How much of who we are, is where we come from?
I grew up in small town. A seaside town, on the picture perfect New South Wales south coast. A town that had a population of two and half thousand people in winter, and swelled in size to five thousand, bloated with tourists and holiday makers during the summer.
So much of me, comes from there.
The town I grew up in, sometimes I feel it is responsible for my naivety and my innocence. And I say that in the nicest possible way.
In the way that small towns usually are, everyone knew everyone in the place where I grew up. I can see those of you also grew up in tiny, familiar localities smiling ruefully at the bitter sweetness of this. Because there is comfort, is there not, in the suffocation of familiarity? Your children are safe, and you know where they are playing, what they are doing- if not from them, then from the townspeople. If someone is in need, no one hesitates to respond- the community pulls together over tragedies and hardships, car accidents and illnesses.
And then there is the reverse of that comfort- the churning, foaming sea of discontent that comes with gossip, small mindfulness and a lack of entertainment bar other people’s soap operatics. Rumors, truths and untruths, opinions and stories spread through small towns like bushfire through scrub. It’s easy enough, to talk about others, to perpetuate the grapevine, when the cast of the drama is small enough to intertwine old details with new ones, to repeat the same story to ten different people, all of whom can recognise the central characters.
Stranger danger was foreign, to the children of my seaside home. We knew of it, as a concept, but it had no bearing on our lives, where everyone was someone, and if you didn’t know a person directly, you know their mum or their dad or which shop on the main street they worked in.
My family owned a small business, in this tiny, seaside town, a disjointed Frankenstein of three even smaller businesses- a TAB agency in one half of the shop, where patrons could bet on horses, dogs, annd anything else that ran and ate money; and a combined fishing tackle and video store in the other half. The business faltered and spluttered through winter, but sang through summer when the tourists were in town. Family men who fancied themselves amateur fisherman purchased hand spools, rods, bait and burley in the fine weather, and bored mothers with restless children bought paperback novels and hired videos on rainy days. The gambling addicts,hard core rock fisherman, and locals in search of light entertainment kept the business afloat during winter. Just barely.
Managing our piecemeal business, in the very center of the main street, the epi-centre of the town, everyone knew my father. My mother was a teacher at the local primary school. As a kindergarten student at that school, with a backpack almost as big as myself and socks pulled up to my skinny knees, there was a total of 92 other students spread across 7 grades. I vividly remember, one day when I was five or six years old, the school principal taking the entire student body out to play a game of Dead Lions. The object of this game is simply to lay very, very still, not making a sound, for as long as possible. I can only imagine how much teachers must love it.
We played in the middle of the road, at the front of the school.
I’m not even joking.
There was a teacher at each end of the field of sleeping students, and if a car came along, they would stop and wait while we all got up and moved. I think that only happened once. And the driver of the car was more than happy to sit and wave to his grandchildren as they filed off the road with other students, then drive on through.
The beauty of small towns.
The things I remember best from my small town childhood are these- the wooden shed of a cinema, that showed Jurassic Park for two years running and opened only in school holidays.
Kangaroos lazing in the heat, dominant over the shabby greens of a nine hole golf course.
The weathered wood of a jetty beneath my feet.
A magnificent 50 foot sand hill, steep and smooth with a lip at the bottom that flung you into the sparkling blue water, known to local children as the Big S.
Twilight barbecues at at a family members caravan park with my cousins, running and fighting and playing and laughing.
Beating through scratchy, eucalyptus scented scrub, aware but unafraid of snakes and spiders and strangers.
And the one thing I remember, with crystal clarity, a tableaux washed on my mind in the hues of a water color sunset?
The beach. Not the surf, so much, not the sand, but the beach as whole, right on dusk.
Viewing a whale through my fathers binoculars, her calf tucked close beside her, as they made a regal journey to colder waters. Sitting on sand dunes, snuggled into my mother’s lap, watching Hailey’s Comet streak the sky, the sight unimpeded by city lights, with other families in quiet mounds of warm clothes and laughter, dotted along the beach, looking to the sky. Running, with my brother, chasing seagulls, with cold water biting at our ankles as the waves slapped in.Walking, with my mother, in the cold early morning light, and making important inquiries of her as to whether the Easter Bunny was real (and I knew, didn’t I, even before she told me truth, yet it was still a shock, and I remember the dull throb as the last star of childhood hope waned within my soul).
The grittiness of cold sand. The salty, wet smell of ocean spray. The dry grass of the dunes, the calls of seagulls. The silhouettes of fisherman, rods bending into the ebbing waves.
The intrepid, cosseting warmth and vicious gossip of my interlinked, interwoven town, where you are not a local till you have lived there 20 years, and one mistake can be the undoing of your reputation. A small town, where people look out for each, and if they know your family, they know you.
There in only one road in to the town where I lived. This road is 10 kilometers long, sparse houses and thick Australian bushland on either side. Every 10 years or so, a bushfire roars through here. The natural cleanser and re-birther of the Australian scrub, the bringer of green shoots and rejuvenation. Life as it is intended, destruction for those silly enough to build in it’s path. When the long road in to my home town is cut off by bushfire, the only way out is by boat.
I love this un-curbed stretch of bitumen. For it’s beauty, the muted browns and reds and the thousand different shades of green that make up the bush. I love it for the fact that as my husband drives, with me s
itting shotgun, looking out the window and soaking in the scenery that I know so well, but have not seen for so long; I feel myself relax, lighten, the years slip away.
My small seaside tourist town. So much of who I am, I take from there.
Returning there, looking out the window at the bush scrub as I did as child….
It feels like coming home.