WHAT IS IT ABOUT HOSPITALS?

 

We leant on the windowsill checking out the silver birches. Yesterday, the one on the left had some bright green leaves in the middle of the tree and the one on the right had no leaves at all. Today the left hand one was a haze of green and the other now also had patches of life. The leaves themselves were crisply defined in the morning sun.

But what was also interesting was the tree felling in the little park opposite. I’m used to seeing window cleaners abseiling down our building with buckets and sponge mops attached to their harnesses, but here the man attached to the tree had a chainsaw hanging from his belt. Gradually, he worked his way down the tree, lopping branches as he went, then sections of the trunk until the tree was a small stump and he was standing as he cut it down to ground level.

‘Well, shall we go for our walk?’ I asked Lyn.

“Yes. Let’s do it.’

We left the room for the first time since arriving, me in my hospital dressing gown and Jan in her own. She was small and the one-size-fits-all was far too long for her. I liked mine. It was a heavy pale blue striped cotton and fitted me well. We were each still in our surgical white stockings, me in my Birkies and Jan in her slippers.

‘Bye!’ we called to nurses behind the desk opposite our door.

So off we headed, exploring the labyrinth of our floor at the Cabrini. It turned out to be a long loop of a corridor with patients on the outside and admin rooms in the core of the building. We chatted away. She was an 82 year old retired nurse and good company. By the time we had solved the administrative and nursing problems of the hospital and done a quick run down of this that and the other, we were back at our room, ready to hop into bed for a little rest before lunch.

We had each had our surgeries done the previous afternoon and during the evening chatted to each other from our opposite beds and brewed up a plan that we were not ready to go home the next morning as expected. I didn’t feel that my pain management was sorted out enough and she didn’t feel ready to go home by herself. Besides, I felt that I wanted a rest. I wanted to be brought my meals, have a bit of a chat with Lyn who I liked, and have a read and just catch up with myself.

So that morning when the surgeon arrived, I explained that although I knew he thought I was ready to go home, I wanted to stay in another day. He was a bit surprised but was ok with that. I had heard Jan having the same conversation with her surgeon who had arrived even earlier than mine. We were set for the day.

I know that people usually like to get out of hospital as soon as they can but I have a strange attachment to them

I had been happy to get dropped off at Entrance B and go through Door H to DOSA  (Day of Surgical Admission) on the First Floor by myself. There was a check in desk right in front of the lift doors. A cheerful young man had all my details ready. I felt the relief you have at the airport when they find your name on their computers and start checking you in. I sat and waited for a few minutes before being taken to a cubicle with a pile of instructions about stripping, dressing gowns, clothes in bag, special underpants and socks, and everything to be put in a locker except for reading classes and to wait, ‘Over there’. OK.

And there I was, waiting with a few others, all stripped bare except for our regulation underpants and bright orange socks, the ubiquitous dressing gown and in my case holding my reading glasses in their turquoise case. I was very pleased with their locker system because sometimes all your stuff is just in a great big paper bag underneath your bed, which doesn’t feel very secure.

From then on, I was swept through the system: my specs put into a bigger clear plastic box that went with me under the bed, into the operating theatre, then recovery, until finally I was wheeled along the corridors to a four bedded room. I discovered later that my belongings had been moved to a locker in this room, waiting for me. I was about to be decanted into a bed back from the window but saw an empty bed next to the window.

‘Is there any chance that I could have that window bed, please? I’d love to be by the window.’

‘Why not,’ they decided and there I was, in a bed by the window, looking at the evening sky and a bare branched silver birch. Eventually some soup and sandwiches came, as did Jan in the place opposite.

I read a bit, listened to the ABC Classics on my phone and felt quite pleased with my room and companion.

What is it about hospitals?

Usually I have a feeling of relief at finally getting there so that my problem can be solved, whether it’s delivering a baby, or perhaps relieving the months of pain and restrictions by getting a new hip joint.

I trust doctors to do the right thing.

I don’t mind some pain as part of the process of getting my body working again.

I like being part of a huge system which is dedicated to me and which ever part of the body needs attention this time. I like the way that everyone works together with one goal in mind. It reminds me of what I liked about working in a school. That we were all there to make each child feel good and learn.

Mum tells me that Dad used to take me on his hospital rounds at the weekend when I was a baby. I could imagine how exciting it would have been for the patients to have a baby carried into the ward. Maybe I just want all that attention again!

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Old Mulberry Trees

Our mulberry tree at Eaglehawk reclined in the side garden outside the bathroom window and while Mum was plaiting my hair, I would look out and plan my climb. Its trunk made a ramp just right for small children to clamber up to where it forked. Here, we could perch like a koala or scramble out onto a branch. The tree had a child capacity of about five.

The best time of the year was when the nubbly hard green fruit had finally ripened into clusters of soft, black, gleaming berries. We would swarm into the tree, tuck into a snug spot, reach out and pick a little handful of fruit. The sweet juice oozed all over us: on our hands, down our chins, onto our shirts and legs. We loved our purple lips and teeth.

The leaves were large and a bit rough on our bare skin. We knew that silkworms ate mulberry tree leaves because Les, the big boy from the house at the back, had silk worms and Mum would give him leaves. Once I took in some leaves for him and we had an embarrassing conversation about what the black specks at the bottom of his silkworm box were. It turned out that they were silkworm poo but Les found it hard to say the ‘poo’ word to a small girl. This was the early 1950s.  As an adult, I’ve learnt that silkworms prefer the leaves of the white mulberry.  Nevertheless, Les managed to get silk thread from his worms and wound it around a little metal spool. I wonder what he did with it.

I remember Mum and Dad being worried about damage to the mulberry’s roots when we put in a septic tank and again, later, when a deep sewage trench was excavated right through the length of our garden. The trench was about two metres deep, straight down through the orange clay. Each time the tree survived.  My youngest sister, the last child at home, remembers sitting in the tree eating a sandwich on a plate which Mum brought to her.

A few years ago, in the gardens of Clivedon House, near Windsor in the UK, I came across a grove of mulberry trees lying down and taking it easy as if they were having a picnic.  Branches crowned in rounded clumps of dark green leaves rose from the horizontal trunks sprawling on the green English lawns. Inside the colony, it felt like being in a small forest or a tree cave and despite signs forbidding climbing, children did just that. The trees were irresistible.

Over the years our Eaglehawk tree sank lower and lower and leant harder and harder onto the neighbour’s fence. It was maturing within the luxuriant garden which surrounded the entire house.

When Mum finally sold the house to come to a retirement village in Melbourne, she had been with the mulberry tree and our house for fifty-nine years. By then, the tree would have been about one hundred years old.

When I was up in Bendigo about a year later, I went out to Eaglehawk to have a look at our old house.

We drove around the corner and there it was, isolated in a sea of asphalt and concrete.  The new owners had razed the entire garden: roses, mature deciduous trees, a jacaranda, shrubs, lawns and the fruit trees which had lined the back and side fences. With them went the mulberry tree.

Something in me died.

Ten years later, I returned. The house now had a small formal garden which was starting to soften the edges. I walked up the straight front path, stepped up onto the verandah and knocked on the front door. I heard the familiar sound of footsteps walking up the hall. I introduced myself.

‘Oh, Hello. How lovely to meet you. We often think about your family in here.’

And then: ‘Would you like to come in and have a look?’

I couldn’t believe it, of course I would.

These owners had bought from the original renovator and loved the house. They welcomed me as part of the history of the house and were interested in what the house and garden had been like when our family had grown up in it. The mulberry tree came into the conversation.

They are now going to plant a new mulberry tree in memory of the old garden and our family.

‘Eaglehawk Girl. A Freerange Child’ is launched.

‘Eaglehawk Girl’ is a memoir of my free range childhood in Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia in the 1950s.

Brolga Publishing and I launched it on Wednesday, October 24.

It’s available from Australian bookshops, Booktopia and will be available on US Amazon in a few weeks.

The content fits into Eaglehawk Childhood here on the blog.

Happy reading.

The book is googlable under the title.

For some reason the image of the cover is lying down. Sorry.

Liz Low

 

The White Cliffs of Dover: Edges, Distance and War.

The White Cliffs of Dover: Edges, Distance and War.

I wasn’t prepared for the sheer whiteness of the White Cliffs of Dover. The grassy clifftop walk threads its way like sheep trails, from Dover towards the South Foreland Lighthouse. You don’t actually see the cliffs until a bit of height lays out angled scoops of white dropping vertically from the green scalloped cliff edge. I’m grabbed by the beauty of the clean, open landscape.

I walk to the edge, checking for splits in the soil under the grass, and peer over. The soil is only about a foot deep and underneath, the chalk is brilliantly white and threaded in dotted layers of flints. Straight below, the cloudy water of the Channel washes up onto grey pebbles and the dark seaweedy rock platform.

Almost the day before, I had been walking along the beach at Port Melbourne. The sand sloped gently towards the water’s edges and I crunched broken shells underfoot. It was low tide and the sand was exposed in swooping curves. The water was clear and stretched across the Bay to the low hills of Mornington Peninsula.

From the Cliff top, I looked out to sea and realised that the long, dark grey line of land across the Channel was France. Except for the tall buildings of Calais, it looked just like the Mornington Peninsula. St Margaret’s Bay, nearby, is where the Channel swimmers come ashore or push off for the twenty-two mile swim.

I felt the small island’s physical vulnerability to invasion from the European continent. It gave some insight to the whole Brexit mess.

The cliffs offer a perpetual visual reminder of the proximity of Europe and the two World Wars. They are riddled with military tunnels and backed by rows of gun emplacements. Even the air space reinforces these memories when the raspy roar of a restored Spitfire fills the sky. The small brown plane with the RAF insignia on its tail flies parallel to the cliffs, low and close. It climbs, does flips and dominates the moment.

Back at Port Melbourne, the physical traces of war are relatively gentle: the statue of the waving sailor, memories of the troop ships leaving for Europe and Africa, the band rotunda donated by women to welcome home the wounded servicemen and the small war memorial. The Mornington Peninsula is just part of Victoria across the bay, and not a threatening land mass.

I think about edges and distance. The coast is a clear line between the solidity of what we know and the shifting formlessness of a mass of water. I enjoyed the physical contrast between the clean abruptness of Dover’s cliffs compared to our quiet merging of sand and sea. Here, the tea trees are in spring flower but there, the wind contorted hawthorns were thick with autumnal berries.  I think of how distance from Europe largely insulated us from the daily reality of war. I’m grateful for the emotional impact of the military archaeology and for the memories of the beauty and power of the White Cliffs of Dover.

Cows in the Garden

I was woken by the sound of heavy, snuffling breathing and trampling outside my bedroom window. Daytime was seeping around the closed venetian blinds but this didn’t sound like the milkie. I knelt up in bed and pulled down a slat of the blind. It was a cow!

‘It’s a cow!’ I yelled and raced in to mum and dad’s room. They were just getting up to look too. The trampling, breathing, munching and muffled mooing was coming in loudly through their window. My sister and brother ran in and we all piled up to see what was happening.

Our front garden was full of large brown cows steadily grazing on the buffalo grass of the lawn and occasionally leaning across to the flowers in front of the verandah.

‘The roses!’ Mum and Dad ran to the front door. ‘Get out of here!’

We all ended up on the verandah shouting and waving at the small herd of oblivious cows. I was a bit scared of these huge animals so close and hoped that they wouldn’t decide to walk up the couple of steps to join us on the verandah. Dad was braver and went down to shoo them out of the open driveway gate which is where they had entered our garden. By now, a fed up looking man had appeared to gather up his herd and take them back up to the paddock at the top of our street.

The garden and grass were chewed and churned. The paper boy had been and The Age (pre- plastic wrapping) was trampled and rather brown and green. The milk was safe in its bottles on the edge of the verandah.

‘At least we’ve got some manure,’ I said. That didn’t go down particularly well and I was sent off to get ready for school.

My story from the 1950s in Eaglehawk came to mind when thinking about development pressure on the market gardens on Melbourne’s urban fringes and seeing images of house fences butting up against a thriving market garden. If Melbourne had ever had anything resembling a green belt, as London does, that belt would be morphing into an elasticated waistband.

I began to think about boundaries, containment and separation.

Our street had ended at the top of the hill. The cemetery and scrub were to the left and paddocks to the right. The cows had wandered out from one of these paddocks for their early morning excursion. I had always liked the clear division between streets and houses and the emptiness of the bush and, except for going into Bendigo, there was always a clear point where the houses stopped and something else began. This something else offered a sort of freedom for both my body and imagination.

Our society needs to value what is different. We need to celebrate the astonishing fact that 40% of our fresh produce comes from Melbourne’s edges and encourage and develop that as part of our cultural life. We need to value our remaining pockets of natural landscape along our rivers and creeks. Children and adults need the refreshment of the transition from an urban landscape into a landscape of difference.

 

Midwinter Lagoon at Port Melbourne

Liz Low. The Age. 26.6.2018

The ABC weather maps have recently been beautiful and exciting. Blue, green and white bands of rain systems swirled and scythed across our brown continent and the surrounding seas and islands. They reflected the days of harsh cold Northerlies from the desert interior and then the shift to the Antarctic Southerly wind. Winter had finally arrived.

The Southerly pushed up waves in the bay towards the small dunes backing the Port Melbourne beach. The familiar, ephemeral pond filled in front of the Life Saving Club as the sea tried to reclaim its large lagoon from the flats, roads and oval we’ve built on it.

This time, the waves also broke through up near Middle Park and water slipped stealthily behind the dunes to create a long, shallow lagoon lying behind the basalt sea wall which protects Beaconsfield Parade. This wall is a very clear barrier between the built environment and the natural world.

Now, the marram grasses are partly submerged and ropes of pigface float, getting plump and juicy. The water lies across the access paths and laps at the concrete ramps.  A layer of scum is pushed into corners, reminding me of the scum that rises to the surface of a freshly boiling stockpot. However, this scum holds a neat square of bubble wrap but surprisingly little other rubbish.

A few days later, it’s stopped raining, the wind has dropped and the bay is flat and streaked in pearly blue. It allows container ships to slip quietly up the channel without tugs. Except for the trucks roaring along the road and the drilling from yet another building site, it’s quiet. The lagoon is still there, lying under the winter sun, and a salt bush reflects its silvery foliage in the brown water. The water level is dropping, leaving contour lines of sea-crushed grass on the ramps.

Lagoons behind sandbars vary hugely in scale and I enjoy the fact that this little urban lagoon, stretched out between the bay and the road, is similar to large permanent systems such as the Gippsland Lakes.

Nature still imposes itself on our carefully controlled environment. Storms and fogs close airports, floods create havoc, lava and mud flows engulf villages, sinkholes swallow houses, snow closes motorways and drought creates famine. These natural events remind me that we humans are just one part of a global natural system.

Here in southern Australia, it’s midwinter and soon, in increments of a second per day, the sun will start to rise earlier and set later.  It will continue to be cold, lagoons will subside and rise again, we’ll be battered by opposing wind systems but, for me, even thinking about the increasing daylight is something to embrace.

The Last Swim of Summer

Published in The Age. 29 APRIL. 2018

It was only a few days ago, that I was thinking about having my last swim of summer. The swimmable days had kept on coming, way past Easter. By now, my beach towel was stiff and heavy with salt and I was starting to wonder when I’d give it a wash.

As a kid in the 1950s, I never thought of a particular swim as being the last one of the season. Each time I went swimming, I’d race into the sandy bottomed, concrete walled Eaglehawk baths to play as usual and not think much about whether I was cold or not. By Easter, I was so distracted by the Bendigo Easter Fair and the dragons, processions and sideshows that I didn’t even think of swimming. Then, sometime during winter, I’d ride down to the Park and see that the pool had been drained and the sand lay dry and open to the sky.

Outdoor pools with fences and turnstiles are predictable. The Bendigo Pool would always close sometime during the week after Easter and that would be the end of my teenage swimming until November.

The unpredictability continued through my adult working parent life. We lived at Warrandyte for over 20 years and we swam in the Yarra. Each year, by March, we were all embedded back at work and school, and took fewer and fewer walks along the dusty track which threaded towards the swimming hole through the bush reserve between our back fences and the river.

My last swim would be a bit like this. Along the track, I heard the creaking of the ‘witch’s tree’ which used to scare our kids, noted the corner where our oldest daughter rode over a snake, crossed the firebreak separating the last house from the Koornong Reserve and reached the bank above the swimming hole.

The reeds and willows had started to dry off, the air felt quiet and the sun warmed my back. Down at the water’s edge, I felt coolness as the river exhaled. The end-of-summer water level was low and the upstream reef stretched almost across the river to the bank of Jumping Creek Reserve. The ‘sitting rocks’ on the downstream reef were high and dry. I breathed in the familiar smell of muddy river water and stepped into the gravel and mud bottomed river. The band of warmth on the surface of the water was very thin and the cold rose up my legs until I had to make myself push off and swim. It was freezing and I swam out to where the current grabbed me, floated down with it a bit and headed back to shore. All rather fast!

At home, I’d need a shower to warm up and wash off the river smell.

Since thinking about these last swims, a huge autumnal cold change banged in from the South West, bringing actual cold air and rain.  I’ve washed my beach towel.

As usual, my last swim has been retrospective!