Sunday, June 21, 2009


As the resident family philosopher, my brother Robert is now soundly entrenched in that role, I thought I might take on the mantle of family historian. My approach will be an account of my personal experiences, as they relate to the family history. Life with the O'Keefes through my eyes. Bear with me.

In 1944, after his effort for the war ended, Dad, who had been working in Melbourne pulling apart enemy vehicles (so I believe), packed the family - Mum, Dad, sister Nanette, brother John and me, a babe in arms - into Lydia, the 1926 Dodge four cylinder canvas top that he had bought for 15 pounds (petrol was scarce) (number plate PW984) and we set off for Sydney. I was two years old and Robert was embryonic.

Of course, I don't remember any of this. I'm smart, but not that smart. What I do remember - my first memory - is the smell of rotting cabbage and the smart style of navy nylon stockings. I shall explain.In Sydney, Dad found a flat in the St James Building (now called Stanley Units at the corner of Yurong and Stanley Sts, East Sydney), where Mum’s sister Bonnie already lived and we moved in - the then family (Robert arrived in Oct 1945) plus Nona and Grandfather, Mum's parents. (Had they come down from Murwillumbah? - I don't know.)

Our flat was at the back of the building, so it was closer to use the goods (i.e., garbage) lift, with its clanky iron-mesh door. That's where three year old me often found myself with Nona, she impeccably dressed with her long blue rinsed hair twisted up into a plait on the top of her head - like a blueberry Danish - and the aforementioned straight-seamed nylons, and me inhaling both the scent of her perfume and the stench of rotting garbage.

But it wasn't long before we moved out to a semi-detached cottage in Ryde. Bowden St was (and, let's face it, still is) half way between Top Ryde and West Ryde station, and ran off Victoria Rd (are you still with me?). No 73 was at the top of the street, only a vacant block separating it from Victoria Rd.Now, let me run you down the hill and tell you about the families and houses on our side of the street. Next door (No 71) was Mrs Winterbottom (more about these names later), then at 69 were Auntie Mary (Dad's sister) and Uncle Frank. Come to think of it, that's probably how Dad found the place. At 67 were a Scottish family, the Gordon's, with their son Jimmy, somewhere about the age of me and Robert.Time for a major confession.

One day, Robert and I thought it would be fun (OK, Robert, it was all my idea) to play a prank on Jimmy. I peed into a DA bottle (you youngies call them long necks) and we told him it was beer. He fell for it, we went screaming off down the hill and he never spoke to us again. Oh, come on, officer, I was only eight years old!To continue, at 65 were the witch and her husband. The Millses were great gardeners and had even taken over their bit of nature strip and planted shrubs in a circular bed with flagstone edging. Woe betide any child (or adult) who set foot on that sacred patch while Mrs M was at watch behind the curtains. The big challenge was to run down from the top of the hill and leap over the flower bed and scamper so you didn't get caught. Another reason I had for hating her was that she christened me Boofhead (see Oz comic character of that time). By the way, I'm reminded of the great billycart ride in Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs - have you read it?

In an effort to prove to you that I am not perfect, I confess that I have no idea who lived at 63, so let's move on. No 61 housed the Hollands, a husband and wife team who drove their motorbikes around the Wheel of Death at the Royal Easter Show and other venues, no doubt. You'd occassionally hear the roar of motorbike engines late at night, especially as Easter approached.Now permit me to jump ahead. No 57 was a vacant block, which Dad purchased around 1949/50 and designed a house which we subsequently moved into on its completion. Brand new and fibro, probably riddled with asbestos, but nevertheless, the newest house on the street. After we moved in we met our neighbours at 59, Mr Thompson and Bill. To my childish mind they were ancient, but in hindsight perhaps 50ish and 30ish respectively. Mr Thompson was English (maybe Bill was) and every month he'd pass over the back fence the copies of Beano and other kids' comics that his family sent out from England. Nowadays I wonder if they were a gay couple. Of course, I knew nothing of gays - let alone sex - in those days and it certainly wasn't a topic of conversation at the O'Keefe dinner table (nothing much was). But these days I have many gay friends in a relationship with a similar age discrepancy (pace Mum and Dad) - I feel it may have something to do with father-son bonding and there's definitely a PhD in it. Anyway, they were very friendly (not too friendly, if you get my drift) and I loved the comics.

At 55 lived the Baarts. They were Dutch, so we didn't have much in common with them. Then at 53 came Nona and Grandfather. They rented a lovely old weatherboard house with a large back yard. Grandfather mowed the grass with a real scythe (think Grim Reaper, you youngies) and you'd think he'd done it with nail clippers.Next to them was vacant land and a gully, where we kids used to play our games (no Nintendo in those days, just Cops and Robbers) and that brings me to the end of our side of Bowden St.But there's lots more and some fun stories to share, so if you scream and shout, I'll tell you more next time.Funny, I can't remember why I've walked into the bathroom, but I'm crystal clear on son much of this. Oh, dear.


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