IN THE BEGINNING
When I was born, I had a body.
It was white and soft and squishy, filled with all the things I need to survive. It cleverly provided the functions required to grow and develop outside the comforts of my mother’s womb. What my body didn’t know when it was born was that it wasn’t considered the right shape or the right size. While it functioned in a beautiful, healthy, and practical manner, aesthetically it didn’t conform to the ideal of beauty espoused by those who raised me and the society in which they lived.
My parents married in 1964. As is so often the case in the island state of Tasmania, they meet through mutual friends. My mother is just twenty years old, beautiful, petite, and working at LJ Hooker as a receptionist. She has a fractious and difficult relationship with her parents and is desperately seeking a way to leave behind a world of inconsistent affection, financial struggle, and her drunken, adulterous father.
My father is thirty-one years old and very close to his identical twin brother and adoring parents in Melbourne. A flautist in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and professional runner, engaged twice before, passionate about music and sport, tall, dark, and handsome.
In their wedding photos, my mother has a radiant smile on her face. She’s young, in love, marrying a handsome man, and making strides up her all-important social ladder. She’s in the prime of youth, has a love of arts and literature, a discerning eye for beauty, a keen ear for nuance and a prodigious memory. My father is comfortable and familiar in the spotlight, with a beautiful young woman on his arm, his gentle and friendly nature loving the warm circle of affection from family and friends. Life looks complete with a successful career in music and athletics, and an adoring wife by his side. Together they seem ready to conquer the world, and the next step is to start a family.
The newlyweds buy a tiny little cottage in Jenkins Street, in the riverside suburb of Taroona. It’s on a long, steep, narrow block, with a creek trickling down to the Derwent River. It’s lush, green, and overgrown. Most of the land is unusable for building purposes but wild and tranquil when the newlyweds look out the sunny kitchen window in the white weatherboard cottage at the top of the block. The sounds of cockatoos, kookaburras, and the pink and grey galahs fill the little cottage with a symphony of nature’s works. This is the first of many homes they will own. In this house, I’m conceived.
On Friday 25 February 1966, I’m extracted from my petite mother’s womb through a high forceps delivery, weighing in at 10lb 10oz—a big, fat, healthy blob of a baby girl. This scares (and disappoints) the living daylights out of my mother. For a beautiful young woman deeply concerned about physical appearance, a fat baby (and a girl no less) is not good news. Four weeks after I am born, she tries putting a positive spin on my weight problem with her first entry in my baby book:
She has red hair, blue eyes, lashes darkening. Is beautiful now, though all her double chins are marring her beauty at present. We love her though. We will have to slim her down soon, I can see that.
And she spends the rest of her life trying to slim me down.
My father beams with pride as he drives from the Queen Alexander Maternity Hospital to the little cottage on the overgrown block, his delicate wife beside him and newborn daughter in a wicker basket on the back seat of the old Mercury Monterey. In his customary absent-minded manner, he loses his grip, drops the basket, and I roll out onto the doorstep of the sunny cottage.
Dad adores me, with my double chins and soft red hair. He’s away a lot—rehearsing, performing, training, and racing—but when he’s there, his face beams with pride and love. After more than half a century, I can still see it in the old black and white photos.
It’s only a year before my parents and their itchy feet sell the little cottage and move across the river to build a new brick home. On Tuesday 07 February 1967, Hobart city and the surrounding areas are devastated by bushfire. While most of the fire rages on the other side of the river, even in Tranmere the embers of burnt stringybark eucalypts and Tasmanian bluegums float through the air. My mother and I are safely ensconced in the newly constructed house, sweltering through the 39°C day, while dad joins a host of other residents stamping out spot fires as they appear.
When the day is over, 2,640 square kilometres have burned, taking sixty-four lives, 62,000 livestock, innumerable native wildlife and 1,293 homes. My great grandparents lose their family home, burned to ashes on the lower slopes of Mount Wellington. But the Eastern Shore is safe and our new home unscathed in the aftermath of the Black Tuesday tragedy. For eighteen months, family life is without incident—simple and innocent with my mother planting herb gardens, making jam, and trying to tame her unruly daughter, while dad performs with the orchestra, appears on television and radio, and trains at the North Hobart Football Oval. But soon, their young family is irreparably changed.
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