A couple of months ago I took myself off to an embroidery workshop run by Mae Findlayson at Milkbar. It was such a gentle and relaxing way to spend an afternoon, sipping tea and learning some basic embroidery stitches. It was an eye opener; a door opener really which prised apart a long held belief that there was something tricky about this. Mae encouraged us to approach it almost like colouring in and I was at once lost in it. And in that place I remembered. I had once been taught, long ago to embroider. Young fingers aged about 8. Squares of hessian and needles threaded with brightly coloured wool. Lazy daisies, chain stitch, running stitch, back stitch. I remember filling my hessian canvas with those woollen flowers, one after the other, each becoming more uniform and dainty than the last. My Aunt taught me those stitches. My mother's only sibling. Every other year she would visit us and stay, usually alone. Some years we would make the trip to country South Australia. Her skills in sewing, both machine and hand were beautiful. Each Christmas she would make my sisters and I a Christmas Dress. Usually the same style but different fabrics and we would wear them and pose in front of the decorated tree or out in the garden, blinking in the bright West Australian sunshine. One year, after completing a short course, she made us the most exquisite petticoats with matching knickers. For me I just grew up thinking not much of these skills, taking for granted they were just there, easily accessible and run of the mill. My mother and Aunt just could.
I think differently now. As I stumble through those stitches I am remembering. I am remembering my Aunt. My Aunt who in the late 1950s was the first person (let alone woman!) in her whole extended family (and her community) to go onto tertiary study. From waterside workers and butchers and tanners and barmaids came my Aunt who not only went on to Year 12 but then on to teacher's college. There are proud photos of the all the Aunts and Uncles and cousins, smiling faces, surrounding her in her achievements. As a young teacher she took herself off to the incredibly remote Aboriginal community of Warburton at a time when nomadic families were walking in from the desert during a time of extreme drought and seeing white fellas for the first time. Her sense of adventure then took her even further from her home town of Fremantle ... on a boat to Canada to work and marriage and a child ... before she came back to Australia. My Aunt was always the accomplished figure to me. She was a deputy principal and she always had games and work sheets and a way of speaking to us that was always a little instructive. I guess, looking back, I was a little in awe of this woman so similar and yet so different from my own mother ... but when we were all together there was always adventures and laughter and a togetherness that we took for granted. In my twenties .. after a stint of living in Victoria, I collected my Aunt from the South Australian Riverland and together we drove my 1965 Holden across the Nullabor back for Christmas in the West. We got to talk, just us. I now wish I had of talked even more because so much of what I want to ask my Aunt is lost. After a succession of tragic twists and turns my Aunt has dementia. She no longer remembers her youth, her mother, her father. She speaks in regret and anger. My babies are confused as my mother's. My Aunt's experiences and skills and stories are buried beneath a blanket of fog. Until that afternoon embroidery class I had not really really given myself time to think about my Aunt. Distance and babies and a mother who picks up and soldiers on had provided a sort of buffer that let me look on from a distance, intellectualising not feeling. But that afternoon I wished that I was sitting with my Aunt again. That between back stitches I had got the chance to tell her that I thought she was extraordinary, knowing that despite her amazing experiences and achievements and adventures she sadly thought very little of herself.