So enamoured was I about having a newly-installed verandah that I decided to invite both my grandmothers for arvo tea on 18 April 1910. It was a date I was yet to be born (34 years later). Apart from everything else, I wondered if I’d be able to tell them I was a radical lesbian feminist, a political identity that wasn’t even invented until the 1970s.
My Scottish grandmother, Mary Davidson Gillespie (nee Lamb), arrived right on time at 2pm. Partly, I suspect, because she didn’t want to be late for her own 30th birthday celebration. ‘Welcome welcome,’ I greeted her, ‘Come in, come in,’ and was glad to feel her arms around me and to receive a soft kiss on the cheek. As we hugged, I was not at all surprised to note that she was about five months pregnant, even though it was mainly concealed beneath the fulsome ankle-length skirt and the buttoned-to-the-neck jacket in marked contrast to my Frida Kahlo-print pants and my purple Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival teeshirt. Having been brought up in Melbourne’s inclement weather, I noted, with no surprise, that she was carrying an umbrella and wore her dark hair up in a loose bun without a hat. Mary was not tall and she had an assertive manner as befitted someone who’d lived on Gunai Kurnai country in Gippsland since she’d been married in 1903.
We’d no sooner started walking down the hallway when out of the spare room popped my Irish grandmother, Eliza Ann Taylor (nee Waugh), looming tall, slim and enthusiastic at the age of 42. She had changed into a form-fitting long-sleeve top over a long slim skirt that reached to the top of her ankle boots. Because she’d had to come halfway round the world for this reunion and had arrived off the boat late yesterday afternoon, she’d stayed with me overnight.
I introduced these two significant womyn whom I had never met before because they’d died long before I was born in 1944. They’d been born in neighbouring countries, Scotland and Ireland, but had grown up and for the rest of their lives had lived 10,000 miles apart. I lead the way down through the house, ‘It’s very like the houses in Belfast,’ explained Eliza as Mary gazed around at my long narrow single-fronted brick terrace, ‘Although there, they’re more two up and two down.’
‘That’s not unlike the house my mother used to live in in Leith, so she tells me,’ agreed Mary, ‘The bedrooms upstairs and an all-purpose scullery at the back.’
As my house is well over 100 years old and I’ve kept the original layout intact with a few minimal changes, I was pleased that it was still recognisably familiar to my grandmothers. In fact, while I do have a tiny inside toilet and shower off the small kitchen at the back, the old dunny is still situated in the far left hand corner of the backyard, behind the peach and lemon trees, doing duty as a storage area. Over the forty plus years I’ve been living here, many of my friends have commented, especially when I had open fireplaces in the living areas, that it seemed like a country house.
‘I don’t know about you, Mary,’ said Eliza, as we paused for a moment in the small lounge room, ‘but I was born and raised in a small place on the coast of County Down called Donaghadee and have been living on a farm with my husband and seven children for several years now.’
‘Well I was born in Scotland but immigrated to Melbourne with my family in 1882 when I was two. We lived at the Richmond City Baths where my father was the Caretaker for quite some time, but soon after I was married there in 1903 my husband and I moved to live on a farm in Tynong Gippsland,’ Mary said recalling where the Gillespie family had eventually settled after my great grandfather’s family had immigrated from Scotland in 1852, and his second wife, Margaret Ross, from Edinburgh in 1857.
‘So we’re both country womyn,’ Eliza said, ‘It’s never an easy life, is it? Especially with the wee ones and you pregnant again, by the looks of it.’
‘That’s right,’ Mary looked down at her swollen stomach, ‘I’ve two wee bairns at home, Mary Margaret aged six and James Peter aged two. My Robert Alexander sadly died three years ago at the age of seventeen months, and now this one and maybe more, who knows?’ I knew the answer to Mary’s question, but didn’t tell Mary that her final child after this one would be Doris Belle who would die at the age of five months.
‘I’m pleased to say that at my age, I’ll be 43 next month, it’s unlikely I’ll have any more,’ Eliza responded. ‘My youngest, Victor, is two and a half years old now and a handful enough, although my oldest daughter Mary who just turned 18 has always been a grand help with the babes as they came along, a real mother’s little helper.’ So much so that Eliza’s daughter Mary, who was illiterate like her mother, wouldn’t get married until 1921 when she was 29 by which time the Taylor family were living in Belfast and her siblings, William Henry, James Edward, Emily Teresa, Sydney, Robert Archer and Victor were either grown up with jobs, had left home or had died.
It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out that grandmother Mary was carrying another girl who would be named Jean Christina for her aunts. Jean Christina would grow up to become my mother and now here was a reference to my father, Victor, who was already in the world, albeit on the other side of it. However I had no intention of mentioning that by the end of the following year, on the 13th December 1911 to be exact, my grandmother Eliza Ann would die of pulmonary TB at the age of 44. As would my grandmother Mary at the age of 35 at the Infectious Diseases ward of the Austin Hospital on 18 December 1915. In fact, by the time my mother was 16, both her parents and all four siblings would be dead of TB.
‘My Mary Margaret, young as she is, is much the same,’ offered Mary. ‘She couldn’t properly understand where her brother Robert Alexander had gone when he died. She watches James Peter like a hawk to make sure he doesn’t just suddenly disappear as well. It’s sad she has had to learn about death at such a young age.’
I ushered them through the kitchen and out the back door to the verandah where I had set the table with assorted sandwiches, a tier of freshly baked scones with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream in bowls, and a selection of cakes from the French-style bakery across the road in Lygon Street. I had included a setting for the three of us using my mother’s green and gold cups, saucers and plates set with a matching sugar bowl and milk jug plus bone handled knives to do the due.
‘And where are you staying while you’re in town, Mary?’ Eliza wanted to know as she settled herself on the cushion of one of the wooden chairs I’d painted and decorated, looking hungrily at the food, ‘I presume Tynong is a fair distance from here, Australia seems so vast compared to Ireland.’
‘Not so far compared to the rest of the country,’ Mary replied, ‘and it so happens I’m staying at 67 Jenkins Street Northcote, a couple of suburbs away from here with my mother and my three younger sisters Elizabeth, Christina and Georgina, or Lee, Chree and Ena as they prefer to be called and our brother Chas or Charles who are all still living with our mother, Annie Lamb.’
I knew that Mary’s mother Annie Lamb had been a widow since her husband, Mary’s father, had died of TB at the age of 51 on 11 December 1907 while working as a Railway Signalman, his previous occupation in Scotland, while living at Jenkins Street. I also knew that Annie and Charles and two of her daughters, Lee and Ena, (Chree would already have married by that time in 1911 and gone to live in NSW with her husband where they had four sons), would later move, round about 1914, to ‘Leemont’ 24 Jarvie Street in Brunswick East just three streets away from where I was living now.
When I had first moved into Brunswick East in 1970 I had been startled when my mother had told me, just five months before she died of cancer at the age of 59, that my Great Aunty Lee and her daughter Lee lived just around the corner at 24 Jarvie Street in a house I had stayed in as a child with my family on one of our infrequent visits to Melbourne, a long overnight train journey away from where I had been brought up on a dried fruit vineyard in Mildura South.
‘How fortunate,’ Eliza exclaimed. ‘It must be fun catching up, especially if you haven’t seen them for a while.’
‘True, true,’ Mary said thoughtfully. ‘And they’ve changed so much. I can hardly believe that Chas is now almost 12 and my sisters, who are almost 24, 22 and 18 respectively, seem quite grown up all of a sudden.’
In researching my family tree over the past several decades, and more recently going down the rabbit holes of Ancestry.com, I also knew that while Ena had married in 1916 and moved to Hawthorn and had three children, Lee had stayed living with her mother and brother and didn’t marry till 27 November 1920, just seven days after my great grandmother, Annie, had died on 20 November 1920.
In the meantime, Charles had joined the army at the age on 16 and in 1915 was sent to fight in Gallipoli. After 26 days he was wounded before eventually being invalided out of the army and sent back to live with his mother in East Brunswick in August 1916. Four months later he was accepted back into the army, sent to the killing fields of Europe and was killed on 4 October 1917. As a result, his name was on the WW1 Honour Roll in the foyer of the Brunswick Town Hall.
‘How did you get here from Northcote,’ I asked Grandmother Mary.
‘I considered walking,’ she began and when I looked startled she added, ‘It’s not all that far for someone who lives in the country! But in deference to my condition, as my husband keeps reminding me to do, I took the tram down High Street and the bus along Glenlyon Road.’ Just as I had done many times myself over the years.
When I had first found out from her death certificate that my great grandmother Annie Lamb had lived and died in Jarvie Street, my connection to Brunswick that I had felt since I had first moved here in 1970 made sense. And now here I was out on the verandah, sharing arvo tea and enjoying the company of these dear long dead but not forgotten grandmothers of mine.
‘But enough about us,’ exclaimed Mary, ‘As you’re the oldest of my three grandchildren,’ how she knew that, goodness only knows, ‘we want to hear all about you, don’t we Eliza?’
‘We sure do,’ agreed Eliza, ‘Especially as you’re one of the five of my grandchildren born in Australia,’ the other three grandchildren having been born in Belfast.
So I began. I told them I had been married, had three children, the youngest of whom had died, and four grandchildren. I told them I was now a lesbian, a sapphist, a lover of womyn … searching for a word they might understand. I said that my lovers for the previous forty or so years had been lesbians. I need not have worried because this information seemed not to phase them in the least. Either that or they were too polite to say they didn’t understand what I was talking about.
We chatted for hours. Mary and I celebrated our dual birthdays and we all roared laughing, until the sun went down and we had to switch on the lights. I’d obviously inherited my sense of humour from both of these strongly opinionated and upstanding womyn. As a grandmother myself to three grandsons and a granddaughter whom I loved dearly, and knowing from experience how precious that bond is across the generations, I couldn’t have been happier.
I enjoyed meeting these female ancestors so much I decided that next time I might invite my great grandmothers, all four of them, for arvo tea on the verandah, separately and at different significant times. For example, I could invite my great grandmother Margaret Gillespie (nee Ross) sometime between the time she arrived on her own in Geelong from Scotland on 18 April 1857 and before she was to be married to my great grandfather a widower with two daughters, aged five and one, and a son aged two, in Geelong on 25 November 1858.
It might be rather too sad to invite the aforementioned great grandmother Annie Lamb (nee Morton) to arvo tea the day after she arrived in Williamstown with her second husband and her daughter from her previous marriage in Scotland aged seven as well as her daughter aged two, my grandmother, and her two sons aged four and one – because the four year old died on 2nd December 1882, the day after they landed. But I could be there with tea and plenty of sympathy, having lost a baby myself.
One of my Irish great grandmothers, Mary Waugh nee McKea had eight children, the second of whom was my grandmother Eliza Ann who was illiterate according to my father’s birth certificate. Maybe her mother was as well; a topic for discussion perhaps at the end of her not very long life at the age of 54 on 21 April 1894.
The other Irish great grandmother, Mary Jane Taylor nee Brown, could not only read and write, she made a will in 1888 which was probated in 1894, leaving the farms in Carryreagh and Ballyvester, which had formerly been in the possession of Mary Jane Taylor’s mother, to her son, my grandfather, something I’d like to talk to her about. Acting on Monique Wittig’s paraphrased words ‘if you can’t remember, invent’, these flights of the imagination were so emotionally satisfying and utterly fascinating there seemed no end to these arvo tea possibilities.
This story is a spin-off from a five volume family memoir I’ve been writing off and on since the beginning of 1994 to document my ancestors and family tree, my life and my immediate family up to 1969.
The impetus for this particular story was that fantasy about who, from the past, would we like to invite to dinner? I could think of no-one else I’d rather meet that my grandmothers.
I wanted there to be acceptance on both sides of the changes in society without having to go into all the details of modern-day differences, trams and busses were running and electricity had been invented by 1910, for example.
I was as accepting of their sudden appearances as they were not surprised about being there in a strange place. The main thing for me was just to get a feel for these two important womyn by putting my Scottish grandmother’s pregnancy and family in the context of my Irish grandmother’s family and how without ever meeting each other in real life their family trees had grown in land far from their origins to include myself and many others.
Jean Taylor is a radical lesbian feminist writer and activist based on Wurundjeri country in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. Her earlier works were under the pseudonym of Emily George; now Jean publishes in her own name and the 2008+ imprint Dyke Books Inc. – established to publish lesbian writing by lesbian writers. Jean’s books include Brazen Hussies: A Herstory of Radical Activism in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Victoria 1970 – 1979 (2009) and Stroppy Dykes: Radical Lesbian Feminist Activism in Victoria During the 1980s (2012) and Lesbians Ignite set in Victoria during the 1990s. Her work can be found at www.dykebooks.com.