From my childhood on, my Dad’s nickname for me was Mary Rose. My favourite uncle, Tommy, adopted it too when he came to stay with us when I was little, and used it the rest of his life. I loved it from both of them: a special name from my two favourite men, exclusively.
My Dad was jealous and bitter towards Jack, and didn’t want my brother and me to like him. But we did, and soon loved him too, as he did us. If we had the worst stepmother in the world, we had the best stepfather. I remember Stepmother saying one time, about my brother – who had supposedly spoken to her cheekily, which in fact he would have been much too cowed to do – ‘Maybe old Abbott [my stepfather’s surname] can lam some sense into him.’ Charming, huh? I didn’t bother telling her it was the last thing our stepfather would do. He was a very masculine man – and for him that included being protective towards women and children, not brutal.
He never used my father’s name for me in conversation, but when he built a new and better runabout, he called it the Mary Rose. I loved that too.
He taught us how to steer the boat, and how to fish – including gutting and filleting our catches. It was play fishing for him. He was a keen angler (fly-fisherman) and loved to fish the Tasmanian Great Lakes for rainbow trout with his mates – standing in the water wearing long waders and a macintosh – or the famous Shannon Rise, where at a particular time of year a prolific swarm of caddis moths would hatch and the water would boil with hungry fish. (The Shannon Rise was a popular spectator sport too; I’ve watched it from land a few times.) Dropping a line over the side of a boat and hauling in flathead, or trawling for perch, was no great challenge for him, but it was fun for us and he enjoyed our enjoyment.
Mum told my Aunty Katy years later, when she asked what Jack was like, ‘He showed us a different way of life.’ It was an adventurous way, a way full of gusto and joie de vivre.
I also kept in touch with my old school friends in Launceston, and as I got older went to teenage picnics and parties with them. To some of the local boys, I was the glamorous visitor from the Mainland! (Particularly after I started living in Melbourne.) There were a few dates, a few kisses, a few fumbles, but I had to return to the Mainland before long, so these were not lasting relationships. As I recall, all parties were shy and stilted anyway, trying to make a good impression instead of relaxing and being ourselves.
A student from Singapore, whom I met in the Evangelical Union, got a crush on me. He was definitely not the sowing-wild-oats kind of Asian student, but a very lovely young man who surprised me with the gift of a book, a treatise by a Christian author. He wrote sweet but chaste protestations of friendship on the flyleaf. I was always convinced I was not very attractive and it didn't dawn on me until later how he really felt. (Dumb or what?)
He even went to Launceston during one long vacation and got a job in the local bookshop. Perhaps it was impulsive; he didn't tell me beforehand of such a plan. He told me in a letter afterwards, explaining that he had looked up all the Robinsons in the phone book (my surname) but couldn't find me.
Of course I was staying with my mother and stepfather, who had a different surname. Obviously, the romance was mostly in his head as he had not even talked to me enough to know such basic facts about my life. Still, I felt sorry I hadn’t known he was there. My family would have made him welcome. Fate! I often visited that bookshop when I was home, but not that time. Ah well, he was a devout Christian and we wouldn’t have suited. I wrote a reply explaining, but after that we both let things fizzle out.
The best times were when my cousin Anne came to stay, when we were both in our late teens. She was one of ‘my cousins from Burma’ as I always referred to them collectively. My Grandpa brought them out to Tasmania from Burma on an assisted passage scheme, when I was seven. They were related to Nana, who was dead by then. The lady I knew as ‘Aunty Irene’ was my Mum’s first cousin. That made her my second-cousin and her children my third-cousins. They were Anglo-Indian like my Mum, but ‘Uncle Leo’, a tall, handsome, intellectual man, had been employed by the Burmese government for his brilliance as an engineer.
Aunty Irene was by no means his intellectual equal, but he loved her for other qualities. She was the oldest of a tribe of siblings who had been orphaned when she was only in her teens. She became a mother to her younger brothers and sisters, and apparently did a wonderful job of looking after them all until they could make their own way. He admired her selflessness. It surely didn't hurt that she was a good Catholic girl, and Uncle Leo was a devout Catholic. We all came to love her for those other qualities too – her huge, warm heart; her playfulness; her fund of fascinating stories, both family stories and folk tales. We loved Uncle Leo for his wisdom and gentleness, and for never talking to us like children.
It was very exciting when they all arrived, fresh off the boat. The whole extended family was there at Grandpa’s home to meet them. It was after dark when the taxi finally turned into the long driveway. They had the exotic dark looks of our Anglo-Indian heritage, which I longed for and didn't get. I fell in love with them collectively, but particularly with my cousin Leo, the second son – ‘Little Leo’ as he was known, being both younger and shorter than his father. He must have been about 14 then, a very handsome boy with a lovely nature, and brainy like his dad. He was nice to us younger kids, not dismissive as many older children would have been. I sat on his knee and told everyone, including him, that I was going to marry him when I grew up. I hung on to that intention for at least a couple of years.
They were excited to meet us, too, and eager to get to know their new environment. I remember us all piling into a couple of cars one night to go to nearby Devonport to see the musical Meet Me In St Louis with Judy Garland. John, the older son (probably 16 then) was particularly thrilled to be able to see it and was the leading instigator of the expedition. I remember him trying to explain to me on the way there why it was such a great opportunity, but I didn't get it. I understand now that Judy was the pop sensation of her day. The big deal for me was being allowed to go to a movie at all with my older cousins who seemed to me so grown up and sophisticated. I did enjoy the outing, and still get a small, sentimental thrill if I ever hear the title song.
We saw a lot of them, both at Grandpa’s and when they visited us in Launceston. My Dad considered all religion superstitious nonsense, but had great respect for Uncle Leo in other ways and they became friends. It was Anne, the youngest, who became my particular friend, being only18 months older than me. We had a lot in common, not least our love of reading, and became close confidantes.
But they found Tasmania too cold for them, and eventually moved to Ingham in North Queensland. I suppose that Uncle Leo must have sourced work there. They left behind their eldest, Joan, a beautiful, joyous, sweet-natured young woman who was courted by a Launceston man. He had a dreadful reputation; no-one wanted her to marry him, but he knew how to seduce a girl. Even so, he wasn’t going to get this girl without marriage, but why wouldn't he have wanted to marry our Joanie? He turned Catholic to do so, and I remember the interminable wedding mass which was very tedious for a child like me.
They went on to have three children quite quickly, while he broke her heart slowly and she eventually left him. But that took some years. Meanwhile Aunty Irene and Anne both came from Ingham to visit her from time to time. Her husband didn’t make them very welcome. It became easier for Anne, whose visits were more frequent, to stay with Mum and Jack, who loved having her. She made some extended visits and found secretarial work while she was there. When I was there for my holidays, she would take holidays too. That was the icing on my cake. Mum and Jack began referring to us as ‘the girls’ and arranging for us to be there at the same time. We all looked forward to that.
One year she wasn't there, but her brother John was. I think he must have stayed with Joan, but we saw a lot of him. He was in the Air Force by then, taking some leave. By then I was 18 and he was 27. His brother Leo was in Melbourne visiting Aunty Irene’s brother Noel, who had migrated to Australia separately, married a lovely girl called Norma, and become a father. After visiting Joan, John was going to Melbourne to see Leo and the rest of the family there, crossing Bass Strait on the Taroona (known to locals as the Tub). Mum and Jack thought it would be nice for me to travel back with him. Perhaps they thought he would look after me like a big brother. But I had very different ideas.
We began quite a serious flirtation on the boat. Luckily neither of us was prone to sea-sickness, even crossing the notorious Bass Strait on the equally notorious Taroona. I’m not quite sure who started it first, but I’m sure I made it clear he wouldn't be rebuffed. I mean, I was a virginal 18 and here was this drop-dead-handsome older man in uniform. AND we were already acquainted – family, but not so close as to be taboo. We were both sharing same-sex cabins, and we couldn’t get up to too much on deck, but we certainly wanted more.
I was still living at Aunty Ev’s. I’d been home maybe a day when I got a phone call inviting me to a barbecue at Noel and Norma’s. John and Leo both arrived in Leo’s car to pick me up. Leo was just as much a darling as ever, and just as good-looking. He lived in Melbourne for some time after that, and we saw a bit of each other, but only as affectionate cousins. He was the one who adopted a big-brotherly role towards me, and kindly included me in his own social life. (Possibly John asked him to keep an eye on me, but he never made it seem a chore.) He had a girlfriend for a while, who didn't seem to mind me tagging along, and I became friends with her too.
I no longer wanted to marry my cousin Leo; I’d fallen passionately in love with his big brother. It was entirely reciprocated and we made no secret of the fact. Our family members were surprised, but could see how we felt. The more romantic ones hoped for wedding bells; others were cautious. I remained virginal – but only just. In fact he was a wonderful lover for an inexperienced girl, gradually and considerately teaching me to know my own passion. By which I do not mean to suggest that he was lacking in passion himself! Far from it. I’ll be forever grateful he was my first lover, even if not quite ‘all the way’.
John had to return to duty of course, which was in North Queensland. We wrote loving letters for many months. Finally he came to Melbourne again. By that time I was boarding at Mrs Duncan’s house in Caulfield, a leafy suburb. That was my next home after letting go the shared house in Carlton.
My cousin Anne was in Launceston then, at Mum and Jack’s, for the usual wonderful Christmas vacation. She’d got work in Melbourne and would be returning at the same time as me. We’d both be looking for a place to live; what could be better than finding one together? She was the one who found Mrs Duncan, a widow with a daughter our age, who took in other young women as boarders – full board with meals, washing and cleaning all taken care of, at a reasonable price.
We thought to stay there temporarily, giving ourselves time to look around and find a flat. We moved in on that basis, sharing a big bedroom. There were two other boarders besides us, as well as Mrs Duncan and her daughter. We all clicked and it was like being in a family. Mrs Duncan was just motherly enough, in a kind and practical way, making sure we had healthy food and didn’t stay up TOO late. It was early days of TV in Australia, and we had great fun clustering in the living room to watch shows like Bonanza and Maverick.
Anne and I liked being there so much, we decided to ask if we could stay on. When we did, Mrs Duncan yelped with delight, saying, ‘I was just saying to [her daughter] that I wish those nice girls didn't have to leave.’
Anne did leave though, eventually, for a better job in Sydney. I think it was a promotion within the firm she was already working for. But before that we enjoyed our time together in Melbourne. For some months, on top of our daytime occupations, we got temporary work as programme sellers at one of the picture theatres in town. It was showing a Royal ballet film: Fonteyn and Nureyev. We had to dress up glamorous, and afterwards would sometimes go to dances in the city with the usherettes. They knew all the good places that were still open late.
I stayed on at Mrs Duncan’s after Anne left, but when John paid an extended visit to Melbourne again during one of my vacations, I spent a lot of time at Noel and Norma’s house where he was staying. He did take me out on dates too, as in the photo below (complete with photo bomb from random child):
He usually came to fetch me from the Caulfield house, and met Mrs Duncan and the girls. We started tentatively exploring the notion of marrying each other. His Catholicism was a stumbling-block for me. I was firmly agnostic by then. The Virgin Birth seemed particularly preposterous, and I couldn’t come at the idea of praying to Mary, as I knew Catholics did, asking her to ‘intercede’ for them. My landlady, Mrs Duncan, who was Catholic, tried to help.
‘Mary,’ she said emphatically, ‘is as real to me as my own mother!’ This didn't strike me as a very convincing argument against my intellectual doubts. However I was willing to entertain the possibility of converting, if I could reconcile myself to the beliefs. I was studying Philosophy at the time, including Logic, and the two systems of thought were not very compatible. But I knew I could 'take instruction' from a priest, and hoped to meet one who would be a man of ideas. I wanted to be convinced.
Then Aunty Irene and Uncle Leo came to Melbourne to visit Noel and Norma – who had an old house with several bedrooms and ’sleep-outs’ (semi-enclosed verandas) which could accommodate a number of visitors, and were generous with hospitality.
I look back and wonder if they also came to observe first-hand the romance between John and me. As John had already pointed out to me, for Catholics there is no divorce; we had to be very sure. I of course, 20 by then, thought, despite my intellectual stumbling-blocks, that love must conquer all.
I guess my own parents must have had misgivings, though they were tactful. I do recall Jack making dreadful jokes about a future in which I’d be tied down with lots of kids, slaving over a hot stove and living on potatoes. But I couldn't take that seriously.
Aunty Irene loved the idea of having me for a daughter-in-law. I think she was also desperate for her older son to settle down. They were already a little worried about his liking for alcohol. I look back now and realise that about 4 in the afternoon, every afternoon, he’d get a little edgy until he had a beer. Then he’d have some more during the evening, but he never seemed particularly drunk. Later he became a full-blown alcoholic for many years, until at last he kicked it with the help of AA. Late in life, finally sober, he married for the only time, a woman with whom he was 'happy ever after', and I’m glad he found that happiness.
I never had any rancour towards John, but for a time I had plenty towards Uncle Leo. He was always sweet and kind to me, and we had some lovely conversations during that time. It was only after he and Aunty Irene went back home that John told me his father had advised him not to marry me, on the grounds that our thinking was too different – I was an intellectual, and would eventually want more than John could give me. It wouldn't be fair to me, Uncle Leo argued. He convinced John to break it off with me. John was sad but resolved. Uncle Leo must have been very persuasive. (And he was, when you came right down to it, the patriarch of his family – the wise elder whose word, if not law, was still taken very seriously.)
He was right of course. John was like his mother and his sister Joan – very sweet-natured and by no means stupid, but no, not intellectual, not bookish, not given to deep reflection. Anne and Little Leo were more like their father: good people too, and with keen intellects. It was Little Leo and Anne I could have long, confidential talks with. John and I were always much too busy otherwise for deep conversation!
I didn’t see it that way at the time and was furious with Uncle Leo, but I lived to be very grateful. How sad it would have been to spoil that first girlish passion by a disastrously mismatched union. How dreadful if we had come to hate each other instead of remembering each other kindly for the rest of our lives, and always with a little bit of lingering ‘first love’. (I believe I was his too, though by no means his first lover.) Oh, and imagine our families caught up in it all! No doubt there would have been children involved as well. What a mess it would have been.
I never saw him again. His beloved wife died when they were both in their sixties. (I sent him a sympathy card via my cousin Anne, who gave me the news when I lunched with her in Sydney in 1994 to introduce her to my newish third husband, Andrew.) I expect he has died too by now. I lost touch with that branch of the family after my Mum died. I spoke to my cousin Anne on the phone to break that news, and she said loving things. Soon afterwards she retired and moved to the Blue Mountains to be near her sister Joan. Anne was a successful career woman who had some long relationships but never married. She fell in love young with someone unavailable and could never quite get over him enough to ‘settle for second-best’ as she put it.
Little Leo became an engineer like his dad, worked for a while in Coober Pedy – or was it Mt Isa, or both? – married the young schoolteacher there, moved back to Queensland, had six children, a successful career and a long and happy marriage, saw his children grow up and do well, and died of illness some years ago.
Noel and Norma moved to a better suburb, and ended up with three children, all of whom went on to live successful, happy lives. As a very young man in Burma during the Second World War, Noel escaped the Japanese invasion by trekking through the jungle, nearly starving, with some other men including Americans. He rather fell in love with the idea of America, and was delighted when one of his sons ended up living and working there, especially when he and Norma made the big trip to visit. Apparently it lived up to his dreams.
As for me, I went on to marry someone who was a bigger disaster for me than John would ever have been, in a very different way – but it was a lot easier to get out of.