Sylvania – a suburb in the Sutherland Shire, South of Sydney – in 1954 was, to a child with any perception, an idyllic place to grow up. Betty and Joe, my parents, had bought a huge half-acre property for £100 around the start of 1950.
Before proceeding with the building of the house – said building to be done mainly by my father – they built a garage. It would eventually house a car, but for beginnings was to house them, and the newly born me.
I was, from the time of my birth, fairly good – at leadt as good as a baby can be. I spent most of my days asleep, making appearances when visitors arrived by climbing up on my cot and perring at guests through the curtain that divided the garage in half.
Mum was a Methodist, though denying any belief, and dad was, by hus own reckoning, a lapsed Catholic. This could have caused consternation as to which religion I was to be raised in, especially with the Catholic side of the family still being fairly devout.
But dad’s parents were pretty well out of the picture by this stage either having died, or been consigned to a sanatorium (so I was told), so there was only mum’s family left to be appeased.
To fit in with the local community, the majority of who were Congregational, I was christened into the Congregational church at Sylvania Heights. Religion was never forced down my throat, so attendance at church was somewhat sporadic for our family.
The Sylvania milk run was owned and operated by Eadie and Burt Samways, one of the areas more affluent families, who resided directly across the road from our slowly evolving home.
The Samways lived in a 2-storey abode, with stables for the horses that drew the milk wagons at the rear, and a large semi-circular drive that centred on their front door.
The front gardens were full of Gardenia’s, and one of my most eagerly recalled recollections of growing up in Sylvania was the perfume of Gardenia’s and Jasmine filling the air in the spring, and summer heat.
The dirt road threw dust up into the air as the occasional car sped along it, and it was the duty of my beloved and devoted dog Trixie to ensure my safe crossing of it, to visit the Samways, who were my Godparents.
Sylvania was home to 2 churches. There was the obligatory Catholic – though if anyone living here was a member of it, they never admitted to it – and the Sylvanua Heights Congregational Church, of which the Samways were highly regarded members. It is to their honoured memory that they were not pious biddies, just honest, hard working people who believed you were judged by example, not by belief.
Winters in this idyllic suburb were crisp and cold. The frost underfoot leoft playoful footprints as of ghosts – created by walking backwards in ones own footprints, so that they seemed to disappear into mowhere – and the open fireplace in the lounge room was warm and welcoming, inviting one to cook toast or heat marshmallows in its glow.
It was an invitation to family love and warmth that was to only last a short while. The wireless (valve radio) was the centre of our household, until television took its rapacious hold in the early 60s. It sprouted serials in the morning to get mum’s day started, and a deranged sparrow – Sammy, by name – and a Jiminy-styled grasshopper – called Gerald – saw me off to school in the mornings.
Summers were hot, and I roamed the streets shoeless and shirtless, being tanned the colour of dark brown leather. Trixie roamed the streets with me, and to see either one of us was to see both, as we were, from the very geginning, inseparable.
Saturday was baking day, and I, along with all the other young rogues in the street, went from house to house, tasting each cooks soecialties. Banana pikelets, pumpkin scones, iced cup cakes, Cornflake and Anzac biscuits, lamingtons, jam tarts, vanilla slices, neenish tarts and butterfly cakes were all sampled along the way. On this day, mum would bake pies for the coming week, sometimes steak pue if meat was affordable, but always apple, or apple and rhubarb to go with the Sunday roast. Mum’s father loved coconut tarts, so if a visit to nana and pop was on the cards, a batch of these could be smelt baking in the oven.
Of dad’s family, very little was known. The family roots would eventually be traced back to the 1500s, through Yorkshire and Lancashire (mum’s family through Cornwall), with my Great Grandfather Frederick William Pickhills, my Great Grand Uncle George Rickinson Swan, and my Great Grand Aunt Clara all arriving here from the 1860s.
Life in “Chiswick”, in Sydney’s northern suburb of Chatswood, was strict, and dad, though opposed to war, took advantage of the call-up to escape the family squabbles and bitching. He fought in Borneo and New Guinea, though in the mechanic’s corp, not as a soldier.He earned himself the two service medals, and managed to depart from the army with an Honourable Dischsrge. He left the world of war behind him, attended TAFE (then known as a trchnical college, or atech, for short) to become a carpenter, then proceeded to spend most of the remainder of his life as a grease monkey.
Mum’s family were later traced, with no thanks to her, as she had no intetest in her families roots. William and Mary Barron lived in the inner-city suburb of Leichhardt. They were a kindly, grandparenty couple, who doted on their grandchildren. Pop’s mother – Emily Rule – was still alive when I was a kid, and my recollections of her are of standing by her bed in a nursing home, and receiving handfuls of tiny shells, pennies and half-pennies from this old, wrinkled woman. The shells were used to add weight to the milk jug covers she crocheted, and were stitched around the edges of the completed items. Mum had one sister – Gwen, and two brothers – Les, and Gordon.
Where my parents met, and the general course of their romance that eventually led to marriage is a story that was never related to me. The only photographs of them show a happy, smiling couple either in the backyard of mum’s home, or on the steps of the church where they were wed. If they were ever in love, which it is supposed they were, it was never particularly obvious to me as I grew up.
Affection was not easily given by either parent, and the words “I love you!” cannot be recollected at all. However, it was a reasonably happy childhood, spent in a happy place. That problems existed was vaguely unsettling to me, for as little as mum and dad realised it, they had given life to a sensitive, intelligent child. Being aware of the workd around me, and being aware of my capabilities, and the potential life held for me was no easy matter. Neither parent encouraged the artistic side of my nature, that was evident from a very young age. In fact, dad seemed in fear of it! This fear and chaining of his own nature wss to have far-reaching effects on my life as I developed.
My grandparents regularly went to what was referred to as “the weekender”, owned by their son Gordon, at Mortisett, on Lake Macquarie. It was in this quiet, remote retreat that I found the most happiness, and a side to my nature that was to have a blossoming later in my life. The old weatherboard house had no running water, no electricity or gas, no sewerage. For a child growing up with such modern conveniences always to hand, this was a world of wonder. Water was collected in a huge, corrugated iron rainwater tank, with a layer of kerosene floating on its surface to prevent an explosion of mosquito’s. Lighting came from methylated spirit hurricane lamps, the refrigerator ran on kerosene, and cooking was done on a huge cast-iron fuel stove, or on a Primus. The stove never went out, and if you wished to bathe, water was boiled in a huge copper vat in the backyard, and carted inside to fill the bath. Bathing was in order of age, from oldest to youngest. The toilet was outdoors, at the end of a fairly long path. You had to take a lantern with you at night, and keep an eye out for red-back spiders. Simpler nightly ablutions were attended to by using a chamber-pot, kept under the bed.
Dad and pop would go out fishing in the early hours of the morning, and often returned with catches of flathead, bream or leatherjacket, lobsters, mud crabs or prawns. Nights were spent around the lino-clad kitchen table, playing endless games of dominies or cards, and swatting mosquitoes. These were Elysian days, the memories of them always returning to me when I was in need of a happy childhood memory.
My brother, Kevin, was born in 1958. His birth was to facilitate an eventual chain of tragic events whose repetcussions were to forever alter, and rip apart our family. You can read his story here https://timalderman.com/2012/04/23/kevin-pickhills-the-unspoken-name/.
Tim Alderman. First published in 2001 on Too Write (http://www.toowrite.com), and revised in 2017, and again in 2020