(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me).

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Love and Marriage (2)


I went to university for the joy of learning, rather than as vocational training. I did a Bachelor of Arts course, i.e. humanities. There was never any doubt that I'd major in English Literature for the sheer love of it. But my other inclinations and attitudes proved to be different from what I'd thought and I ended up rearranging the course I initially mapped out, swapping a Psychology major for one in Philosophy, and two years of French for two of History (Ancient and American – I thought I'd had enough Australian at school).

I didn't know what I wanted to do after university; I was just clear I didn't want to be a schoolteacher. I'd had some notions of maybe being a psychologist, but a year of Psych 1 cured me of that. So, because I couldn't think of anything better, I settled for what my mother had always thought would be a lovely career for me: librarian. She was right.

In those days librarianship was not yet a university course in Australia (I don't know about other countries). I attended library school, which in Melbourne was at the State Library of Victoria. I can't remember why I enrolled when I was also, simultaneously, still finishing my university course; perhaps it was so as to be able to start work as soon as I finished, when my scholarship ran out. I stretched my BA course over four years instead of the usual three, which made it easier to add in the library studies to my schedule. 

By the accident of sitting next to each other, I met a lifelong best friend, Linda, at library school.

I got a scholarship to library school, too, but still had to be frugal. Sometimes I felt I was missing out on the fun that other girls my age who were not students were having. There wasn't money to splurge on clothes and outings, and anyway I was too busy studying for much of a social life. But I managed to have some. 

Young and Single

While I was living at Mrs Duncan's, my friend Diane whom I'd met at the hostel, suggested we go to some of the Town Hall dances on Saturday nights. I wasn't a good dancer, but I'd been to enough school socials to be able to fake it. I could get around the progressive barn dance, and do a fox trot. I never could get the hang of a waltz, but I could move my feet the wrong way and still end up where I was supposed to. Sort of. 

I hadn't yet discovered what a difference a good partner could make.

It was the era of rock'n'roll, so there was always some jive. I used to dance to my radio at home, all by myself, but was scared to try it on the dance floor. I thought I'd make a fool of myself. But, like all the girls, I wore full circle skirts and petticoats with rope hems to the dances; just right to jive in.

There was one wonderful night when two bodgies came to the Caulfield Town Hall dance. How can I explain bodgies? A bit like the British teddy boys, maybe, except they dressed like Elvis or the Fonze, with wonderful, duck-tail hairdos.

Much later, I recorded that night in verse. Not my best poem by a long shot, but I'm fond of it for the memories.

Generational Adolescence

I was just fifteen
when everything changed –
when freer children,
who were allowed to go
to movies like that,
leaped up and jived in the aisles
to Rock Around the Clock,
even – or especially –
in staid country towns
around regional Australia.

I was still fifteen
when Elvis arrived.
Handsome as the devil;
voice of an angel.
The mothers and fathers hated
his slim gyrating hips.
We loved the tilt of his lips,
the wicked light
in his laughing eyes,
and the singing, the songs, the beat.

At seventeen
I moved to Melbourne.
Every Saturday night
there was a Town Hall dance.
Hawthorn, Caulfield, Albert Park, Box Hill.
Diane Rosewall and I went to them all.
We wore circle skirts, wide belts,
flat ballerina slippers,
and white flouncy petticoats
hemmed with ropes.

We were good middle-class girls.
One night two real-live bodgies
claimed us for a dance.
Oh how those wild boys moved!
swinging us through their legs
and up on their hips.
Oh how we twirled and swirled.
But we must have seemed tame to them.
They thanked us very politely
and went hunting faster girls.

Tall lads they were,
in the extreme of fashion:
skinny black pants, long jackets
with shoulder pads and shiny lapels,
their hair slicked back
into lovely ducktails.
Oh how our careful parents
would have disapproved!
That makes anything
more exciting.

Or anyone.
I ended up choosing men
who worked with their bodies,
rode motorbikes,
knew how to use their fists;
men who swore.
Later I preferred
beards and flowing hair.
I wore long robes. We sat and smoked
in dark coffee lounges, listening to Folk.

But that was after the era ended;
the wild boys and girls and the rest
all sang "That'll Be the Day,"
and cried when Buddy died.
And it doesn't matter where I am,
every time the band
plays Rock Around the Clock,
I'm up and dancing
and shouting the words
till I drop. Till the broad daylight.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2007

One of my Carlton housemates (the 'kindred spirit' one I kept in touch with) and I used to go to all the 'new wave' French movies that were coming out then, and Ingmar Bergman's films too. We were amazed, thrilled and fascinated by The Seventh Seal; I don't know that I ever quite recovered. We fell in love with Alain Delon. We dreamed of embodying Jeanne Moreau. We wept over Bonjour Tristesse, the book and the film. And we went to student reviews at the university's Union Theatre. We irreverently called it the Onion. There we enjoyed the brilliant singing, dancing and comic talents of an unforgettable young Germaine Greer amongst others. (Many of those 'others' went on to acclaimed acting careers.)

I still saw a lot of my stepsister, Merrie. We didn't only go to sexy parties; we did daytime things like going shopping or meeting for coffee.

An old friend from Launceston High School, whom I'd continued to see when I went home on holidays, came to Melbourne, so I saw a bit of her too.

I went out with a few young men who didn't last. I never pretended to any of them that they were the only one. How could things be serious when we'd only just met? But apparently they expected it. If one phoned up asking to see me on a particular date and I said, 'Oh sorry, I'm going out with someone else that night,' that would be the last I'd hear of him. As I wasn't very smitten anyway, I didn't really care. I was still getting over John. I wasn't heartbroken exactly; I had been persuaded by then that marrying him wouldn't have been a very intelligent idea. But I still thought of him a lot.

First Husband

Then I met Don. My friend Diane tells me now that it was at Dandenong Town Hall and I'm sure she's right, but when I wrote of it many years after the event, I remembered it as Hawthorn:


Hawthorn Town Hall, Saturday night.
The best band, playing hot.
The tune was Mack the Knife.

He turned, a suave stranger.
"May I have this dance?"

That wicked smile!
I stepped into his arms
and we began.

… Oh, the shark has
pretty teeth, dear….

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2005

Don's recollection, much nearer the event, was that the music started, he turned around to look for a partner, saw me right behind him and thought, 'This'll do.' Evidently he kept on thinking it. Reader, I married him. 

But before that happened, he took me out to dances, dinner dates, parties, movies, picnics, to the beach.... It was a real courtship, though perhaps not initially with marriage in mind. 

He worked as a postman, and instead of a car he had a motor scooter. There was a spare helmet for me and we went a lot of places by scooter. Other times, we went out in a group with his mates and their girlfriends, in a couple of cars. If it was somewhere fancy, such as a ball, we took a taxi.

Don was a champion ballroom dancer with cups and medals to prove it. I loved dancing with him; he could make me look and feel good on the dance floor. It wasn't so enjoyable for him, so he sometimes excused himself to have a dance with someone more skilful, but not so often that I felt neglected. 

He could sing a bit too, and at parties with his mates they always wanted him to be MC, which he did with verve and flair, microphone in hand. Life was exciting around Don. He had lots of energy and seemed always in high spirits. This photo shows him and his friend Rupert in an enthusiastic rendition of My Old Man's a Dustman, Don singing and Rupert banging the dustbin lid.

I have often said that I married the first man who asked me because I thought no-one else ever would, and there's truth in that. But I enjoyed his company and conversation. He was an upbeat, charming escort. We loved the same music and some of the same movies. He was a reader too, even if we had very different tastes in books. And so we got engaged – to the consternation of my family and friends. 

Don's frail, elderly parents liked me, and were glad their youngest was finally settling down. He was 28, six years older than me, and had shown no signs of settling down before. 

Mum and Jack liked him, even though they didn't think we were well suited. Don and Jack were both convivial men who enjoyed partying. We had some good times together when Don and I visited Tasmania. Jack nicknamed him Charlie, from the song Champagne Charlie. He thought Don was just that kind of jaunty personality.

My Dad was less enthusiastic, though he was polite. My brother, by then a first-year university student, and some of my girlfriends were desperate to stop me marrying Don. They thought I was throwing myself away on this fellow who liked drinking, gambling and partying. They thought his values were materialist and his intellect sadly lacking. They approached my father (I found out a few years later) to beg him to try and stop the wedding. But Dad told them that he feared opposition would only bind Don and me closer together. He hoped that, if the match wasn't opposed, I might soon see for myself that it wasn't going to work.

No such luck. We got married in the Presbyterian church near Don's home. Though not a churchgoer, he was a member of the parish. I had a beautiful white gown, my stepsister was my only bridesmaid, and Don's best friend was best man. I was given away by an old family friend from Tasmania. My father said he would not attend the wedding if my mother was going to be there. Jack wouldn't do it because he felt it was my father's place, and couldn't believe Dad would really stick to his refusal. But I knew he would and so I asked the friend, who said he was honoured. 

We went to Sydney for our honeymoon – in our eyes the big, exciting city of glamour and sin. We had a wonderful time. And afterwards, at first we had quite a nice time playing house. 

I knew Don liked a flutter, but for several months that didn't appear to be a great problem. He owed his bookmaker money, so had a strict limit on his betting until he had paid it off. 

He finally did, and after that he started splurging large amounts. Our life was run by whether he won or lost. I might come home to a house full of new furniture (he loved rose mahogany) if he'd had a big win, or a house emptied of furniture if he'd lost a lot. Even worse than that, his moods changed accordingly. He could go into black depressions in which he lay on the couch and spoke of suicide. I didn't know how to deal with this. Sometimes he wouldn't speak at all for hours. I found the silent treatment very hard to take. Once, in frustration, having just come in from the laundry, I threw the peg bag at him. That roused him from his apathy for a while. We were both shocked that I'd done it.

I now realise that he was bi-polar, which wasn't even a word back then. It was called manic-depressive. It was never diagnosed, and as I was the only one who saw the black moods, I doubt if anyone ever guessed. 

He still loved to party, and now we hosted parties in our own home. Also he often took me to the races. I enjoyed the day out, dressed up all glamorous, looking at beautiful horses and drinking champagne. 

I realised then that Don's gambling was an addiction. I would sit next to him while a race was run that he had a bet on, and I observed that it wasn't really winning or losing that he cared about, although he made the appropriate responses in either case. It was the running of the race, the huge build-up of excitement, and then finally the explosive release of emotion either way as the race ended. It was positively sexual. 

Our actual sex life was nowhere near so exciting. Don was very uninhibited, at ease with his body, and taught me to be the same, which I've always been grateful for. ('You take off all your clothes!' said a later lover, in astounded delight.) But despite that, our lovemaking wasn't very satisfactory. Having at that stage no basis of comparison, I blamed myself and my inexperience. When we went out, he started flirting with other women. The only time I objected to this (in private, because I was raised as a nice girl who wouldn't make a scene) he told me so fiercely not to dare question his behaviour that I never did dare again.

Outwardly life went on as normal. We held down our respective jobs. (I was working in a library by the time we married. It was a good thing we kept our money separate! At least mine didn't get gambled away.) We ate and slept together. We kept house. We socialised. We even got a kitten. 

I started feeling lonely and lost, but not telling anyone. I had some bizarre hallucinatory experiences, like seeing another passenger on the late night tram home with a skull, instead of a head. No, I wasn't on any drugs except the birth control pill. (Thank heavens, Don didn't want children, and at that stage I didn't either. I thought I wanted to be a career woman.) 

I began having nightmares in which I was about to see something terrible but woke up before I did, then would lie awake scared that some looming horror would finally reveal itself.

My doctor suggested that I might consider seeing a psychiatrist. He could recommend somebody excellent. I declined politely. I wasn't MAD or anything.

Then, at one of our parties I got very drunk and suddenly found myself screaming that I hated my father and wanted to kill him! This came as a complete surprise to me as well as everyone else. I couldn't control myself. I sobbed and shook, and had to be put to bed and sedated.

The next day I looked at all the lies I'd been telling myself about my nice life and saw them crumble away, one by one. I went to my doctor and said, in a very small voice, 'I think I'd better see that psychiatrist.'


  1. i love reading these so much. i wonder if the pill had some effect as i know my mum got suicidal on it and so does her sister. you inspired me to write a poem...i was almost going to write it the other day but i didnt...here i go.

    Fast Girl

    Off to find fast girls she said
    I'm a fast girl I thought
    and it's not just how I look
    but I'm not easy

    and I'm not playing hard to get
    I am

    Cos I'm fast see
    I can't help it
    I fall in love at the drop of a hat
    Just like that

    Not easy!

    1. PS I very much doubt that the pill had anything to do with it. I think it was a childhood where I became very self-conscious trying to fit in with my mother's ideas of how a girl should be, followed by my parents' divorce and two years of the Wicked Stepmother, followed by losing my first love, followed by the stress of marriage to a bi-polar compulsive gambler, with an unsatisfactory sex life to boot. I couldn't hold myself together any longer; I just cracked.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, Rosemary, and love best knowing you still belt out Rock Around the Clock when it comes on. For me, it is John Lennon songs. Smiles.

  3. I have to wonder how many of us get married because we are scared that no one else will ask? And then remain in the marriage for all the wrong reasons. I'm glad you were strong enough to get the help you needed, when you could. The strength was already there in many of your choices, like the one to not have children, and the ability to see your husband's behavior for what it truly was. Thanks for sharing, Rosemary,



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