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As a child, I didn’t really have any visions about growing up until I was about thirteen. Until then, I was too busy surviving childhood. But for all that, I knew I wanted to be a writer of some sort.
At Christmas and birthdays, when asked what I’d like, my request was always the same: “I want a book.” So I read. And read. And read. Losing myself in the stories; who would want to grow up?
When I reached junior high, I began to contemplate the future and thought maybe I could be a journalist. My father would have been okay with that—possibly even proud of me—but my mother had different ideas. I should add here that when I was born in 1948, my mother was forty-two and my father was sixty. So, although my dad was quite open to what I might be “when I grew up,” my mother’s idea (although not stated aloud) was quite different. I would stay with her and take care of her in her old age, which was quite a common expectation of a daughter back then; especially if you belonged to the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
In my second year at junior high, we did a “vocational aptitude” test, and mine showed that I had low-level math skills (no surprise there, so a career in science was out) and high—very high comprehension skills. The comments at the end of the results stated: “A career in journalism is quite within the scope of the results.” I don’t remember much else, except something about needing to study more blah, blah, blah especially in math to make the most of my opportunities.
I was on the cusp of a great career—the Pulitzer Prize beckoned. Then, three months before my fifteenth birthday, my father died of a sudden heart attack and I grew up. I became an adult and went out to work to support my mother.
My first job was behind the cash register in a butcher shop. I hated it! My second job was in a department store (again behind the counter) selling whatever the particular department I was assigned to that day sold. I do remember getting into trouble with my supervisor for being too generous with the soft-serve ice cream cones (a new innovation in stores at the time) when serving children. Both these jobs only lasted a couple of months.
Then came my big break (in my mother’s eyes at least) and I began working for the New South Wales Department of Motor Transport (DMT is our version of the U.S. DMV). I began in the lowest job available—opening the mail. Thousands of letters and payments for driver’s license or car registration renewals and paper cuts were in abundant supply.
Everyone was regularly tested for their honesty. The supervisor of the mailroom would take the cheque out of an envelope and replace it with cash, then put the envelope into a particular bundle for the day’s victim. I remember one poor girl being accused of stealing $120 (a small fortune considering our weekly wage was $17.50), but it turned out the supervisor’s stupid assistant had given the bundle of mail to the wrong girl. It almost cost her job. It did cost the assistant a verbal dressing down for his carelessness. We were all delighted. He was a horrible, slimy little man who smelled disgusting.
Travelling to my place of employment was the hardest part of the job, It meant a twenty-minute bus trip, an hour and a half train trip and finally another bus journey of fifteen minutes—just one of the joys of being an adult that I certainly hadn’t had a vision of as a child.
I stayed with the DMT until I married and had my first child, but by this time, I had climbed up a few rungs on the ladder, been through four different departments and now had a plum job at the local DMT in the town where I lived (it didn’t rate being called a city until 1979). Travelling two hours each way to and from work was now just a memory.
Looking back now that I’m retired, I realise I was right to want to hold onto my childhood as long as I could. Childhood is precious and can be cut short by circumstances beyond our control, and I’ve always accepted that—though not always gracefully. My childhood was tough, and there was not much time to play with friends. We owned a poultry farm with 3,000 chickens in various stages of life, and when both my parents became ill at the same time, I had six months off school (I was eleven) to do all the work with the help of a local teenager in need of a job.
My childhood was lonely. I was an only child—only I wasn’t. But that’s a story for another time.