Characters on Public Transport

I like to take public transport whenever I can. Not only is it better for the environment, but I find that my day is uplifted when I engage with strangers.

Over the years, I have caught ferries, trains and buses with a litany of characters, all of whom taught me a great deal.

There was Dawn, resplendant  with her toothless grin, colourful dress sense and fascinators. She befriended me when my daughter was a baby, and was my companion on many a bus adventure. She would borrow money, and return it to my letterbox as soon as she could. I remember one time at the bus stop, she proudly showed me what she had gotten on sale from the chemist shop. There was makeup, but also a tube of Vagisil. When she pulled it out of its container, the man next to us on the seat was noticeably alarmed, and more so when this older lady went into great detail about she and her husband’s sex life! “My poor old vag!” she shrieked, then roared with laughter. I was taken aback when I saw a parcel in my letterbox, wrapped in a bag from the chemist’s. I prayed that she wasn’t sharing her tube of Vagisil with me, and was greatly relieved when it turned out to be a bottle of perfume! It was around this time that she invited me to a party at her place for her birthday. I was touched by her invitation, and dutifully arrived at kick-off. I rapped on her door, and her husband gruffly called out to “come in!” I did as he asked, only to find him sitting on the toilet with the door open, his trousers around his ankles! I asked after Dawn, and he said he didn’t know anything about a party, and that she was down the street, drinking beer and playing the polkies. I made a hasty exit, I can assure you! She passed away a few years ago, and many folk she’d met on the bus came to pay their respects.

There was another lady, Jean, whom I met during an hour-long ride to our local hospital. She was in her 80’s and volunteered there, taking the trip a few times a week. It kept her active and agile, she said. After her shift, she would walk for kilometres to keep her bones healthy and her mind sharp.

I met a woman in her 90’s, who’d been a dancer at the Trocadero in Sydney, over seventy years ago. She was quite well known back then, she assured me. She still had the composure and essence of a showgirl.

I met men who were widowers, and wrote instructions as to how to prepare easy and nutritious meals for themselves. I learned about their partner’s, and about their life together. Unforgettable stories of love conquering all. Even death itself couldn’t destroy the legacy of the life they’d shared.

I’ve chatted to teenagers, and taken notes (or should have), as to what music and fashion is in, and what their thoughts are on certain issues. It is always enlightening.

Today I met a dear lady, Madeline, who was waiting at the stop to get home. Radiant in a purple dress and glasses, she held an electric-blue walking stick. She is on the public system’s waiting list for further surgery, and in a lot of pain. This little Italian women told me of her family, and her place out at Orangeville, where she grows all her own vegetables and fruit. I could almost taste the tomatoes, as she described serving them with balsamic vinegar and basil leaves for lunch.

I have met performers, who entertained a carriage full of weary train travellers. There is nothing a performer likes better than a captive audience. My daughter practiced crying on queu in crowded trains for her drama class. It’s a great training ground for a career in the arts! I have been captivated by a songstress singing opera, and young men singing spiritual’s.

Last weekend, I travelled with two mothers on the train. One mum brings her daughter to a class in Sydney each Saturday from Bathurst, and the other brings her teen from the Central coast! Huge dedication from these mums, and quite inspiring. They would do anything to fulfil their child’s passion. As a parent, there is nothing quite like the joy of your child finding something that feeds their soul. Lunches and snacks are packed, as are books. They told me that it’s a luxury to be able to daydream whilst looking out the window, or have a nap after a busy week at work. It is indeed a gift, to be able to slow down for those precious hours and connect with their child. To just be, instead of do.

I have sat with new (and exhausted) parents and their babies, frail travellers, heartbroken lovers, the homeless and those in business suits. I have made eye contact with a reluctant girl who just wanted to disappear, and also those whom have wanted to be seen.  At the end of the day, I guess we all want to be visible. To have courtesy extended to us, and have our stories heard. We all crave a smile and kind word. Public transport allows us the opportunity to have an impact on a stranger’s life. We may turn their day around with our actions. Every where I go, I look for the Dawn’s; those with raucous laughs and fabulous tales. I also search for the recalcitrant, the lonely and sad. People are complex… People are amazing. Life is hard at times. We need each other. A community can come into being on a train carriage or bus. Community can be brought to life on a ferry. Every journey is an opportunity for connection.

A week in my life from twelve years ago (Part One)

I found the following pages that I wrote around twelve years ago. This was long before I became a mother; long before my child was in the school system and long before she was found to be dyslexic. I was around ladies who had been wounded in childhood, and through their own tenacity, had survived. I was around women over eighty whom I wanted to emulate in older years. Apparently, I never did like party plans! Reading through my summary of this particular week has me convinced that there are signposts along the way, indicating where we shall find ourselves, and who we are destined to become.

‘I gave Irma some photos, and she adored the images of her three friends, but at 83 years of age, was terribly critical of herself. “My neck is so wrinkled!” she cried. This distressed me, as I admire her in her deep-blue suit, straw hat atop her soft white hair.

We picked up Helen at the hostel. She is a strawberry-blonde with an impish face. She was excited on her 60th birthday; the giddy enthusiasm of a lady who has rarely had a birthday celebrated. We took her to see Murta in the nursing home. Helen leant over, and gave the grand lady a kiss. “I am praying to be taken home to heaven,” 99 year old Murta advised. “I just don’t understand why he has left me here!” “We cant bear to let you go yet,” I whispered. “When a nurse, the tea or cleaning lady enters your room , you greet them so warmly. You make them feel important and loved. You listen to them; you are doing important work.” Her eyes rimmed with tears as she talked about her dear friend Rex, who had recently died. “I had known him since he was a boy; long before he married Gwen…I have a card here to send to her, and I just don’t know what to say! I shall miss Rex forever. How can we go on without him?”

I took her hand, “write what you just said. Rex was one of your dearest friends; tell Gwen about the times you recall; the qualities that summed him up.” Murta clapped her hands. “What a wonderful idea! Yes, I shall!” She praised my woollen jacket, and I remarked that I had recently bought it. “Arent you a bloated capitalist?” she teased, then nodded approvingly when I said that it had only cost a few dollars at the opportunity shop. She looked wistful as we farewelled her. “Yes, I am here for a while longer… I must be patient.”

Murta at seventeen in the '20's
Murta at seventeen in the ’20’s

I took Helen to dinner. She talked of the health difficulties which made her walk with a cane, and of future surgery needed for cancer. No fuss, just the facts. She would have brushed away sympathy. A lady who had lived in scores of orphanages would never have it in her mind that those who love her want to care for her and are actually interested in the goings-on in her life. She devoured her dinner as though it were her last meal, and I carefully inquired as to where she had lived. “All over; Queensland, Melbourne and Sydney. I lived in  fifty homes…” Her voice grew soft. “Sometimes, I got warm flannelette sheets. They would hit me if I was naughty;didn’t make my bed properly or forgot to scrub my face. But, they gave me flannelette sheets sometimes.” It were as though her mind was torn between the memory of the beatings and the comfort of the sheets. Why can’t the nightmare people be bastards all the time? Why must they confuse with gifts and smiles before bearing down with fists?

Helen’s parents had given her away, and kept her younger sister. She holds no bitterness, for she is a sixty year old child. She shall never be old and embittered, a hard crust forming around her heart. Her eyes focused on a spot on the wall, as though she were being pulled into the past. To bring her back, I started a roaring rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ A fellow at the next table sang along, and I smiled in appreciation. The more folks made a fuss of Helen, the better. A lady volunteered to take our picture, and Helen had a smile as wide as the Harbour Bridge.

I was invited in when I dropped Helen back at the hostel. Dolls were seated at the dining table and across her bed. She introduced them all by name. Some had name tags pinned on their dresses so she wouldn’t forget. There was an enormous board over the telephone with important details of bank accounts and numbers written in big letters by her social worker. She brought out her little budgie, and excitedly showed us what she had bought herself for her birthday. Snow White and the seven dwarfs stood inside a box, waiting for Helen to find them a place.

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Postscript: Helen and Murta have been gone for a long while now, but left a gold-embossed stamp on my heart. I am so glad that Helen got to meet my daughter. Murta passed when I was going through IVF.

Sydney and the Wonder of Christmas

12289651_1058672524166592_6198241402834796503_n Today, we remember the two beautiful lives lost at the Lindt café in Martin Place on this day, a year ago. I was going to go in with my daughter, to meet a friend and her child. We were going to meet at Martin Place, and would have been in the café that very morning, but my spine was playing up. I stayed home instead. Life can be so indiscriminate. The survivors have been so very brave this past year, as have the families of those who didn’t make it out. How they have carried themselves is awe-inspiring. I pray for you all today. Anniversaries are so very hard.

Life is outrageously busy, with many things demanding our attention. You need to escape once in a while. My daughter and I travelled to Martin Place a few weeks ago, to see the Christmas Tree lit up. Light rain tapped onto our faces as we watched the concert, my daughter dancing and cartwheeling throughout. The tree was switched on, and fireworks rocketed into the sky. Elves arrived, cycling a sleigh as Santa and the City of Sydney Mayor, Clover Moore, reclined.

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Strangers need to gather together. We have a yearning for connection. It felt like the beginning of Christmas on this evening. By returning to Martin Place, people heal it. We honour those who were lost, and remember what the survivors endured. In a world gone mad, watching a child dance is an act of sanity.

Christmas can be tough. I have personally heard stories of alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, poverty and estrangements this past week. I wish I could banish all the agony, but I cant. I can provide a listening ear and what resources I have. I can love and extend myself. Everything is made larger at Christmas. Overtures of kindness and gatherings of loved ones… Loneliness and pain. Always look for the helpers. Those who listen and smile. Those with kind eyes and warm hearts. That is where hope resides. I hope that you get to attend a free gathering, no matter what your spiritual leaning. It gets you out of your own head and into the world of people and connection. May you have a peaceful season, floating on a calm and azure-blue sea. I pray that if you need help, you receive it. Let people hear your voice. For some, it has been silent for too long. You have been invisible for too long. Let them hear what you need. If the first person doesn’t get it, blame it on a faulty connection and try again with somebody else. Keep going. I am so glad that I did. I got to see my daughter dance in the light rain. I got to see people smiling and hugging in Martin Place. I got to see hope.

My little girl attended a Christmas party hosted by her singing teacher, Tiah. This young lady has brought our children the gift of song, and our little people have gained not only their voice, but confidence. She is studying at university, and I know she shall make a fine music teacher upon graduating. I am so thankful this whacky, quirky young lady is in our lives.

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We went to an event to benefit the MS society the next day, cornflour mixed with a rainbow of colour.

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Messy and chaotic, vibrant and as joyful as life itself. We were scheduled to be at Martin Place a year ago, but at the last moment, we weren’t. I remember resting in bed, my spine in spasms, when I heard what had happened. More responsibility to live a good life in honour of those who were there. Life is precious, and can end in an instant. The trick is to fully live whilst you are here.