A very personal story

After the fire events of the past week in particular and the past couple of months, I have decided to share a very personal fire story.

On February 7th 1967, I was four years and six weeks old, too young in many people’s opinion to remember too much but believe me, I remember everything that happened that day.  We lived in Hobart, Tasmania. It was my first day of preschool and my sister’s first day of primary school. I came home on the bus (the teacher put me on the bus at the preschool end and Mr Dufty made sure I was safe during the very short journey) which was not unusual in those days as men still caught the bus home for lunch and usually my Dad would have been on the bus too but he was away on an Army Reserve camp. Mum collected me off the bus and I clearly remember her saying look at those dreadful fires at Lenah Valley, I didn’t see any fires as I was looking the wrong way towards South Hobart.  It was a stinking hot day and I spent the afternoon changing outfits to match those of our next-door neighbour as I played outside. Mum left my eleven-month-old baby brother, toddler sister and I with our neighbour, Ha (and the way she got that name is a whole other story) while she went to pick up my sister from school. (Figure 1 An aerial image of our road after the fires.)

Mum returned about 15 minutes later to find us sitting on Ha’s front lawn with Aunty Sheila (one of those not biological aunts) and her toddler. Our house was right next to a bush reserve and the reserve was on fire as was our house. Mum did not have her purse with her and tried to get into the house to grab some valuables and let the cat out, but the heat was so intense that she couldn’t get to the door. We all crammed into our Hillman Hunter car (tiny little thing), 3 adults and 5 children and down the hill we raced to the Goulburn Street Primary School. The school hall had become an evacuation center and there we sat on the floor. Every time the door opened smoke and dirt blew in. The hall was full of women and children who had no idea if they still had a house or not. Everyone was distressed and I mean really distressed.  As the day became evening news would filter in and people were told time after time that their house was gone. On our side of the road, ten houses were destroyed and on the other side it was more hit and miss but many houses went. At some point in the evening, some friends arrived and took us to their house -our house no longer existed. Mum left a note on the door in case Dad went there as she was unable to get in touch with him. The Mills family were wonderful to us. We had nothing except was we were wearing, I had on shorts and a top, my older sister her school uniform and the toddler and baby were in just a nappy. I vividly remember waking up in the middle of the night and my father was there, he and another man from the area had gone AWOL from the army camp to find their families. In the following weeks my Dad and the other man faced a court-martial for their actions but after a public outcry, the charges were dropped. I didn’t know any of that until much later but imagine the stress that added to my parent’s hugely distressed lives.

The following day my parents took my sister to school (St Mary’s College in Hobart) to tell them that they would be taking my sister to the state school as there was no way they could now afford the fees with me needing to start the next year and the other two following after. The nuns told my parents that all fees would be waived until they could afford it and they meant it! We were charity students for many years. As well as that they allowed me to go to school for that week as the preschool was closed and they knew my parents would be busy. They also provided us with lunch for that week. I had a great time at school and was thoroughly put out when I wasn’t allowed to continue and had to wait one whole year before I could really start.

I had a doll just one doll called Topsy. She was a black baby doll and the seam in her head had split a little, so she was held together with Elastoplast (I have one photo of me with her in my arms). I loved that doll and I cried for the next week as she was lost, I also cried for the cat and just cried a lot in general. Marie Mills had just started High School and she and her friends spent a week trying to find me a black baby doll. They found me a black doll, but she wasn’t right and although I still have that doll, I cried some more.

One week after the fires we moved into emergency accommodation with the Toohey family who we lived with for 6 weeks. In the room that my sister and I were to share were twin beds and on each bed was a baby doll -one of them was black and she was perfect -my new Topsy. Of course, I have my Topsy doll to this day, and she has travelled all over Australia with me. That doll means so much to me that I really can’t put it into words.

After 6 weeks we moved in with my Grandfather -poor man went from Batchelor working shift work to being a family man with two other adults and four very damaged children in his house that had an outside toilet and two power points in the whole house. But he had a television which we had never had! We lived with Grandpa for 8 months while our new house (on the same site as the old one) was built.

We were given everything that we needed. I recall going to a charity centre and seeing a rocking horse which we were then given, it still lives at my sister’s house and has been loved by a whole new generation of children. Our swing survived but the seat was burned so someone replaced the seat for us. A woman who my parents had never met bought my sister all the uniform items that had been lost and each of us a piece of clothing. One of Mum’s friends sent 3 little blue corduroy pinafores with red cardigans to match. I have another sister born 18 months after the fire and that poor child wore those pinafores and cardigans year after year.

The point of me telling this story at this time is to point out that an event like this changes you forever. We didn’t receive counselling (just not available then) which is something people today have access to thankfully. My older sister has never spoken about that day and fifty years later still refuses to talk about it. My younger brother and sister don’t have actual memories, but they were still emotionally damaged. My mum never really got over the whole event. Anxiety became something we just lived with. We always had a go-bag ready during summer with the one photo album we had of our baby years (my uncle gathered all the photos my mum had sent to family and put them in a beautiful red leather album which is now in the custody of my sister). Our family history is divided into pre-fire and post-fire. We have no family heirlooms, no baptism dress or family treasures other than my Mum’s engagement and wedding rings. Material possessions can be replaced but nothing is ever the same. The smell of bush fire smoke instantly throws me into severe anxiety. I have a Jackie French book that I was given for Christmas two years ago, but I can’t read it as it is about bush fires. I can’t watch news footage of fires. The thought of people driving past fire scenes for a look makes me incredibly angry. Don’t get me started on looters.

I am a hoarder and I know why! If you lose everything it becomes very hard to get rid of things!

If you know people impacted by fire, have patience, know they are grieving and will for a long time. Don’t use platitudes like at least you are alive -they know that but won’t be feeling lucky in any way. Listen if that is what they need. Give what you can.

Many years after the fire my Mum was talking to a bus driver at our closest bus stop and he told her how in 1967 he had dropped a little girl off at that stop and he had never been able to stop thinking about her and what had become of her on that awful day. Mum was able to tell him that I was that little girl and I was alive, well and rebellious. People who are in the periphery of a disaster suffer too.

Figure 2Topsy, the wrong doll and the doll that was on my sisters’ bed.

The loss of a doll can represent the loss of everything!