My mother is in her eighty-ninth year. She lives with us, now that dementia, late effects of polio and arthritis are making her less and less independent. As her memory slips it is hard for her to recall some parts of her early life but others seem as clear as if they happened yesterday.
Clarice Maud Wheeler was born into a farming family on 14 November 1909, in Manilla in North Western New South Wales. She had four sisters and one brother. Their property was small, ‘a selection’ I believe, much of which fronted the Namoi River. In 1913, when Clarice was just four years old, she contracted poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, as it was then known. She spent some weeks in hospital in Manilla and made a good recovery despite being left with a deformed right leg and foot. No surgery, no calipers, no special boots were recommended to straighten those young bones. The doctors words were “just let her run barefoot and wild’. So that’s what she did!
She grew into a quiet, strong-willed and independent woman, having left school when she was about twelve years old. Schooling for the family was always a bit of a problem, as was often the case in rural areas in those days. The first school she attended was a one-teacher school on one side of the river, which meant she and her brother and sisters could only go to school when there was not too much water in the river. When a school opened on their side of the river, they not only had to walk several miles to get there but had to share the teacher with another school. He spent two days one week and three days on the alternate week at each school. For the latter part of her schooling, Clarice attended school in Manilla. The family rented a house in town where the mother and children lived during term time, so that the children could receive a more regular and stable education, albeit only to the end of primary school. After leaving school, she stayed at home, helping out both in the house and on the farm.
In 1932, one month before her twentythird birthday, Clarice married Clifford Porter, my father. They had been sweethearts since she was 16 and he 18. Cliff came from a farm on the other side of the river. He was the eldest of ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. The families attended the same parties, the same woolshed dances, played tennis and attended the same church, when, for mum’s family, the river could be crossed.
For the first seven years of her married life, my parents lived with my father’s parents and numerous of his brothers and sisters. Where they all fitted was a constant source of wonder to me. Life was not easy for Mum in the bush in those years. The laundry was not much more than a lean-to in the back corner of the yard, with the copper some distance from any building or fence. The toilet was outside the house yard, quite a trek up near the chookyard. As a child I remember this as a hazardous journey, made so by a turkey gobbler that had to be negotiated between the back gate and the toilet. The vegetable garden was about a twenty minute walk from the house, located there because of the proximity to the windmill and hence bore water. But, what a wonderful array of veggies the women managed to wrest from the soil.
The women by necessity were resourceful and innovative, and, in today’s parlance ‘multi-skilled, able to not only whip up a sponge cake with nothing more than a fork, but also able to help out in the shearing shed or sew wheat bags at the harvest. Preserving fruit and vegetables, jam making, bread making, producing enormous batches of scones on a daily basis to feed the men at shearing and harvest time, together with raising chooks, ducks and turkeys, poddy calves and motherless lambs and setting rabbit traps and skinning rabbits, were all part and parcel of women’s life on the land.
Clarice could also sew, knit and do exquisite embroidery. These skills she passed on to her two daughters at a very early age, with varying degrees of success. I remember making my first knitted garment, a tiny red vest for a miniature pink teddy, at about six, and I received a ‘duchess set’ to be embroidered in my Christmas stocking at age seven. I still have the latter (completed) but not the red vest.
So like many women of her time, Clarice was an ordinary woman doing ordinary things. Yet many of those things seem to us and our daughters and grand daughters quite extraordinary. And the contributions of those ordinary women to the productivity of their farms and to the family’s and nations economy were all too often unacknowledged.
I am grateful to my mother for the skills she passed onto me and for the opportunities she provided to enable my life to be so very different from hers. Through her story I would like to acknowledged her unsung farming ‘sisters’ who worked with, and often beside, their men folk to make their farms productive and economically viable enterprises.