Mother's Story

Mother's Story

How our Marriage Broke Down

Some people fade from memory as time passes, some remain, popping up at Christmas when cards are exchanged and the phone runs hot. Others, like parents, remain forever a part of us floating in and out of every day; approving, disapproving, supporting, sobbing; their influence colouring each day.

I arrived at my mother's house in Queensland after travelling by coach from Perth, the place farthest away from parents. If the Indian Ocean had not been there I would have gone further. Middle-aged mother of three on a mission, I expected, or more realistically, hoped to find answers to difficult questions. The house and garden with fresh paint and colourful flowers presented a bright facade to the neighbours. My mother's second husband, Geoff (ex RAF) believed in keeping up appearances. Mother believed in receiving unlimited amounts of tender loving care.

After hugs, kisses, hellos, and afternoon tea, Geoff returned to his tasks and Mother asked what it was that I had come all this way to analyse. I explained that my father had agreed to tell his version of the last months of their marriage and I would appreciate having her portrayal too. Of course she wept, that was expected, and said "why dig up the past?" before admitting she would feel cleansed. She had not returned to the church and telling the story would be like going to confession, a practice that gave great relief to an oppressed conscience. She was familiar with tape recordings after countless visits to psychologists and other professional advisors. This is her account:

"I still believe it's natural to have ambitions, to want the best for loved ones, so when Frank's long service was due we decided to follow those urges, buy a business and provide a better life for our family. I believe you understand long service leave was managed in a different way back then. Some of your father's football friends had already moved into the hotel business and were making a good living, so he decided that he could do the same. They advised him and introduced him to people in the industry who shared their knowledge and expertise, happy to help a footy colleague. Some family members, his and mine, begged us to go into a business that did not revolve around alcohol, but your father insisted it was safe because he had so many people who believed in him and were willing to help if necessary. True to my understanding of marriage vows I agreed with my husband's choice.

Our eldest daughter elected to stay in Brisbane intending to graduate in her Industrial Chemistry course, which she did achieve. We found accommodation for her in a convent close to the college and urged you, our second daughter to stay with her but you both voted against that. Moving was difficult for the other children. The younger three adapted to the new school and soon settled in and made friends but the older two resisted and missed a lot of school. This is where I find it hard to continue.

I have to admit that I became so busy cooking, cleaning and taking care of residents that I had little time for giving attention to the five children. They lost both of their parents really. It is with shame I admit neglecting to love and care for them. I've cried buckets of tears of remorse and shame and am amazed when they continue to visit me with their little ones. It's strange to recall my neglect of parenting obligations. I failed to see why we could not all adapt to the change overnight. Coming from a large family background and having my own brood, I expected to control the boarders, commercial travellers, children and transients with ease.
What a joke. Chaos did not creep in, it streaked in the way lightning fills a room. The commercial stove needed wood for fuel as did the laundry, showers and kitchen. All depended on a large heating system located in a building known as "the stables" at the back of the hotel. A yardman, a former lawyer, was paid to maintain the stables; he also slept in an attached bed-sitting room. Occasionally, he would go on a drinking spree, forgetting all about the hot water and that led to chaos. The boarders and guests shivered and complained saying polar bears would freeze in our bathrooms. That was our first obstacle, others arose almost every day.

However, our initial enthusiasm powered us to forge ahead facing one challenge at a time, believing that everything would settle as we acquired experience. Your father did well in the bar/lounge. He was well known and amiable thanks to his good education and football background. He was not afraid of hard work and began scrubbing and polishing from 5.00am until opening at 10.00am. Hotels used kegs at that time, 5 and 10 gallon kegs. It was good exercise rolling them from the cool room to the bar and lifting them up to a chest-high fridge before serving drinks. I enjoyed meeting new people, local dairy farmers and miners, forestry workers, and business people. I was invited to join women's' groups but could not spare the time, so they would visit me. It could have been a good life.

So what went wrong?

Frank repaid the loan in record time. For a few weeks after it was finalised he remained sober and reliable, then started having a small beer with the customers. I begged him to stay away from drinking but he thought one small one would not do any harm. He was right. One would not do any harm, but then it was two, three and non-stop.

Within a short time he was getting drunk and having to call me into the bar. I was forced to neglect my house and dining room duties and the children. I hired a local woman to prepare breakfast and clean the kitchen, but our children were becoming more and more neglected and deprived.

Life lost its sense of adventure. The two older children, that is you and your brother, were forced to help behind the bar when you could barely see above it. When I see news stories about devastating hurricanes in America, I see a picture of our inevitable destruction. Hurricanes begin with a small twister and build up to a relentless force, just like Frank's drinking. One small beer became an almighty catastrophic bender.

Customers enjoyed it for a while. They heard thrilling stories about his career and journeys overseas on huge ships that took weeks to sail between Australia and England. He told about camaraderie, banquets, night clubs, The Follies in France, the can-can and French footballers who tried to bite his ear in the scrum. I wanted to tell my version, about leaving me with a small child and another on the way, and how my family was not impressed with his football career. They believed he should be caring for us, and when he was chosen a second time they protested. He never forgave them. Sports people did not receive extravagant salaries then as they do today. If I had my time to live over again, I would agree with the sporting side. That was his true vocation and I knew that when I married him. Would that change the outcome of our business venture? I don't know but I believe he should have been encouraged to live his dream. Sorry, I have wandered away from the story. It gets worse.

I had sleeping pills prescribed by the doctor and I began slipping them into his drinks, hoping he would become sleepy and go to bed. He became sleepy but would not leave the bar, I think it was his idea of heaven. He continued drinking until he fell off the stool. What he thought was heaven was my idea of hell. Several times I thought I had killed him but he bounced back after a few hours' sleep. We half carried, half dragged him to an empty bedroom near the kitchen, crying all the way. This was very hard work and soul destroying for us, especially for our elder son who hero worshipped him. When it became too difficult, we made up a bed in the keg room next to the bar and dragged him in there, locking the door behind us. We were so immersed in our desperation that we did not consider what customers thought of us. You may think it strange that no one intervened, we did too. I now assume they thought they should not interfere in another's concerns. Sometimes he would wake in the night and realising his predicament, roll kegs around on the wooden floor and against the wooden walls. The sound reverberated throughout the building, frightening some, annoying others. Oh Yes! We lost all of the boarders, guests and travellers who could find other accommodation. It was simple for travellers - they could go to the next town, but exasperating for the bank and Post Office people, who just had to suffer, not always in silence.

Upstairs, past the bedrooms was a veranda, a pleasant place to sit and relax. It overlooked the main road coming from Brisbane and going to Kingaroy. We could look left to the green hills and properties of dairy farmers, and right to the road leading out of town and straight ahead to the town's business district. The street was bituminised until it passed the Anzac Memorial, then narrowed to a gravel road leading out to a Bauxite mine on one side and the edge of the re-afforestation land where European refugees from World War 2 worked and lived. We could have had a good life there. People were welcoming and hospitable. We were invited to the mine, the forest and farms, the CWA and Rotary.

One day I left the hotel and went for a walk down the main street. I needed to have a doctor's prescription prepared. Someone called from a shop, "Come here quickly!” I waved, shook my head and pointed to the chemist shop. A few steps further on, someone else called "come in here” from the newsagency. I stopped puzzled. Other people were peering out of windows and pointing back toward the hotel. I turned to see what caused this unusual behaviour, and there he was; Frank was on the veranda balcony watching me. He had a rifle and was trying to load it. When he saw me turn round he raised the rifle to his shoulder. I turned and kept walking toward the chemist, not caring any more, almost hoping he would shoot me. He was not able to hold the gun steady. Drinking had shattered his nerves and, once amazing reflexes, leaving him without the ability or power to fulfil any purpose. I laughed when a thought flashed through my misery. We were living a scene that could be taken from a Hollywood movie. All we needed were horses and old fashioned clothes. That night I took my first overdose of sleeping pills, I did not want to wake up again knowing that our dream was now dust. A refrain replayed through my thoughts as I tried to relax. "After all I've done.” It would not go away no matter how many pills I swallowed. It remained between reality and me .Children, marriage vows, customers, boarders, religion were forfeited in my despair. I woke in a hospital bed in a town thirty miles away from ours, puzzled at first, furious when I realised I had failed at suicide too. Someone brought Frank to the hospital. Don't ask who was running the hotel or caring for the children. Frank cried and said "sorry" over and over until I consented to give him one last chance although trust had long ago disappeared. A priest came to ask whether I wanted him to hear my confession, considering I had committed a mortal sin. He said confession is good for sick souls. I turned my back on him, hating him for blaming me. Why did he not see that I was the victim of another's mortal sins? There is no word to describe my disillusionment, disappointment, guilt and anger. Why couldn't they let me die? Why did they think it is better to live?

You, my daughter, scolded me and accused me of being selfish. "How could you do this to your own children? They are bewildered, confused with no parent to care for them. They asked, “Are we orphans now? We don't want to live in an orphanage.” I had no answer. Beaten, disillusioned, with a drugged brain and desperate, the hospital discharged me after Frank swore in front of the staff and the chaplain that things would change. He went back to the hotel, promising he would make it up to the children and greet me sober when I returned.

It was not a shock when the ambulance drove into town and we saw him swaying on the front step, but it was a death blow to trust in him, God and marriage vows.

The children cringed behind him not knowing whether to run and greet me or run from my despair. I pretended to proceed as though life was back to normal but beneath the surface I began planning an escape, saving as much money as possible and waiting for an opportunity. I no longer asked God for help but I saw a possibility when two race course enthusiasts came for a day's break from following an annual circuit that included every racetrack between Brisbane and surrounding country towns. I proposed a plan and they, having nothing on their return schedule, agreed.

We were standing on the back lawn with a few guests when Frank staggered towards us. I have often marvelled at his instinctive understanding that a plot was forming. He went straight to the two men and demanded they leave the hotel. They, of course were surprised and told him to back off and have a few more drinks. Within minutes punches were thrown, and a full-scale brawl erupted. Men were thumping and punching, women were screaming; one woman with sharp pointed shoes used the shoes as weapons, kicking like a terrified horse.

I looked up and saw my white-faced children crowded at their bedroom window watching their father take a horrible beating. Their father who had held their hands when they went to their first day at school, who taught them to swim in the local creek, who cooked bacon and eggs on Saturday mornings, who sang songs with them in bed on weekends and kept them company when they were sick.

I don't know who it was but someone stepped in and helped Frank back to the kitchen and I fainted. You put the children back to bed and locked the bedroom door, while you went to investigate the outcome. I heard later that you were at the top of the inner staircase peering over the bannister when you saw your father climbing the stairs carrying a poker and a large carving knife, blood dripping from his face and left eye swelling as you watched. With your heart thudding, trying to thump its way out of your chest you said “Come here Dad, that's enough for now," took the weapons from him and guided him to an empty bedroom where you wept, washed his face, and spoke softly to him. He could not speak but seemed grateful for water dripped into his mouth from shaking fingers. One of the permanent boarders joined you and remained until morning. He stayed with your father while you checked on the younger ones. They were lying stiff in the bed, eyes wide and faces white, but relaxed a little when you told them he was hurt but quiet. The next day he moved into the tiny room behind the kitchen known as 'the maid's room' and stayed there until his strength returned, allowing only your young sister in the room with food or drink while we stood outside ready to help if needed. This same child was the only one he rang many years later when he won the lottery, it was called The Casket at that time. It is difficult to describe my feelings then. I was mentally planning my escape from this real-life horror story existence and at the same time weeping for the destruction of a man's hopeless dream. Now, years later, I look back and realise what damage that night inflicted on all of you. At the time I was incapable of understanding the
violation to your minds and hearts. It was revealed as time unfolded. I thought of the Ten Commandments, one in particular, “Honour your father and your mother". The venture into business and a better life for our family had self-destructed in an awful, bloody, dishonourable way.

After a few days passed and it was clear that Frank was on the mend, I took the younger three children and fled during the night, leaving you and your brother. The car could only hold five and you two said you could manage. I still can't believe that I would leave you to do what I could not. We left at night, creeping out like criminals.

Years later he showed me a letter you wrote when you also fled, without your brother who still worshipped him. The letter expressed the harm he did to your loyalty when you took him on a tour of the hotel pointing out the spotless, orderly appearance you had restored with hard work and little help. It was your gift to him, a sign to show that you cared. He only said, "It's a pity you didn't do this before." Those few words shattered the father/daughter relationship and eased the way for you to flee.