I have the opportunity to visit a coastal town in the south-east of South Australia. I am beaming beyond belief at the opportunity to be back in the area. I’m thinking of going down there this weekend to try to get my bearings. I feel lost as I try to understand where a new development will be in relation to a particular farm where many years ago my heart softened, and opened to vulnerability for just a moment of my life.
The truth is, I am lost: lost in my own love story. A piece of my heart got left behind in this remote coastal strip. I call in to the motoring organisation to buy a map, as if that will locate me better than Google maps have on my computer at home. I think I need to find a location in the landscape, but it is really the location in my heart that is lost. My memory tells me the turn off to the beach is almost opposite the farm. I’m sure it is opposite the rangeland where my friend and I used to walk at dusk or in the moonlight and watch and listen to the nocturnal native animals.
The tears begin to fall like floodwater as I recall the details of my secret life on this coast. We travelled around in ‘Suzie’ the new ochre coloured small 4-wheel drive Suzuki. The old grey British Land Rover from our earlier exploits was long gone, and the yellow one that replaced it in the years we were apart is not really part of my story. It rested in the implement shed.
We had explored a lot of South Australia in that old Land Rover. We first met when I was about 16 and she was mid 30s; older than my biological mother, but fitting the gap in my being. I don’t know why we formed this friendship. She had so much to offer me; I had so little to offer anyone except my company. She owned a farm in the Adelaide Hills. I left home to live in the middle of her farm. I commuted to Adelaide for school, and later for University, but weekends and holidays I accompanied her on her rural ventures. She bought and sold horses and we went to occasional cattle markets. She taught me how to live in the landscape, and encouraged my relationship with animals. We were active in voluntary work for community services and often helped out in the local hospital. We both had backgrounds in medical studies.
She bought an old building down the coast that she thought should be heritage listed, and we began renovating it as we went backwards and forwards to Adelaide. I remember some horror trips as the wind and rain buffeted the Land Rover through the Coorong. I did a lot of driving because she would often get migraines when we were heading for home.
We both had other lives as well. One long weekend, I took a group of my activist friends for a holiday in her partially renovated cottage. In that coastal town I became friends with a man who later became my husband, who later bogged our new Kombi on the town beach and where I later still, holidayed with my children when separated. Yet they are not part of this love story. They are part of my life story.
My friend was unhappy that I married and had children. She said I was making the same mistakes she had made. Yet for me, it was something I wanted. I didn’t know any of my ancestral flesh and blood, and I thought I could fix that by having a big family of my own. My husband bought a 9-seater Kombi after our first child was born. Having my own doubts about the big family thing after the birth of one child had not dampened his enthusiasm. The Kombi held the road through the Coorong a bit better than the Land Rover. My friend moved further away in the Adelaide Hills. I remained in the house, and we purchased a few acres of her farm. The trips down south ended.
I did not adjust to my new family life without her. I didn’t know then what I know now. A child separated from her mother at birth, can do loss and grief as depressingly as anyone – perhaps like no other. Subsequent losses add to the first unresolved loss and disenfranchised grief. I lost a second family before I was three years old. My adoptive mother died soon after the first birthday of my third child. We had never been close, but while she was alive, her presence in my life covered the gaping hole left by the early losses. After her death I fell into the hole. I just could not work a marriage partnership as my friend had predicted. By ending the marriage I had to let go of my home – in the middle of the farm which used to belong to my friend. It was the last debilitating loss – my last connection with her. I made another ill-fated attempt to salvage the marriage in another house in the city.
One day my adoptive father phoned to say there was a death notice in the paper for my friend’s husband. He thought I might want to go to the funeral. For some reason even my adoptive parents realised how much good had come into my life with this friend. They said I spoke differently (copying her accent), and behaved in a more ‘civilised’ way, something they had not nurtured in me. I didn’t know how I would be received, but I went to the funeral. My friend was glad to see me. Her husband had many loyal business connections and his distinguished air force career was acknowledged by serving officers. They all understood the continuing trauma in a man who saw too much horror as a bomber pilot. His friends were her acquaintances. My friend and I exchanged new addresses and phone numbers.
She had bought a farm just out of that same coastal town; her husband had died, and I was divorcing my husband. Soon after the funeral a mutual friend phoned to say my friend was ill. She was in the coastal hospital where we used to stop for medication for her migraines on the way back to Adelaide. I was told she would love to see me.
I never felt the stirrings of love until I was with my friend again in her home down the coast. I was about 30, divorcing from a marriage where I produced my three children. I loved my husband in the same way I had initially loved my friend; I wonder now if I could only feel love for him while I had love for her. Of course I loved my children, but there was always an obstacle to feeling love or loved. I lived in fear my children would be taken from me as I had been taken from my mother. I was considering some hard choices. My friend wanted me to move in with her. She had investigated how to get the children to and from school in the town. Whenever the children had access with their father, I disappeared to the farm. I tried not to think about the eruptions that would occur if I were to move the children so far away to the farm. My husband was trying to prove my unsuitability as a mother on the basis of mental illness so he could have custody of the children. How much more ammunition would I like to offer him? Two women living together . . . this was 1980 – questions would be asked and assumptions made about mental illness. Too far from him for access . . . emergencies . . .
We were lying on the lush green grass in the middle of the court yard. Different parts of the farm house surrounded the lawn, so it felt enclosed except for the infinite stretch of clear sky forming a ceiling beyond reach. We were talking about nothing in particular when the hardness in my heart dissolved and I wanted to roll over closer to her as the sexual urges began moistening my body. I got control of myself quickly, wondering if she felt it too. She was softer now as well; surely she must have experienced the jolting electricity. How long has she been waiting for me to dissolve into submission? I wondered how things would change now? Could we complete the circuit, or would we disconnect the wiring? We were together at last, but we were both fiercely independent creatures. Sexual urges were normal, but the stirring of feelings of love were something new and frightening and out of control.
We had known each other for maybe 15 years, from a time before I ever thought about my future, or knew my husband. We had been apart for large parts of those years, but we had some intense experiences together. We were both unlicked cubs, who never developed a relationship with our mothers. We were both searching for the missing pieces of ourselves. She knew her history – it stretched back for generations, and across continents. But like many of the British aristocracy in India she had been wet-nursed and cared for by Indian servants until it was time to be bundled off to boarding school in England at the age of 5 while her parents remained in India. Later she was sent to ‘finishing school’ in Switzerland. She was an only child who knew incredible privilege, knew who her parents were, but did not know much about relating to them. I was adopted then soon to lose another family and knew nothing about life and love except what I had learnt from her. My adoptive father, like my friend was also a child of the British Army in India. His family moved to Australia when he was young, but he grew up not really knowing his father whose life was always somewhere else. There was not a lot of love or familiarity around us. I could never understand why he didn’t try to stop this friendship when it first started. He tried to stop most everything else he knew or thought he knew I was doing.
My friend and I had travelled the country, studying its intricacies and learning from whoever was teaching, trying to find our place of belonging. But I did not think our re-newed relationship could incorporate my children, even though she was offering. Nor did I think I could part with them for the sake of a love affair. I did not trust permanency, and I feared losing everything. I could not face the embarrassment of the scandal it would create. It was too much to bear thinking about. I eventually chose the care of my children over the love of my life. I closed my heart and returned to the city. She said she was going back to New Zealand which she thought of as home, even though she had never lived there. I believed her. I tried to forget that other life, and mostly I kept so busy I did not think about it too much.
My children grew and got jobs and left home and my work took me to Canberra. I completed the work project, undertook another one then had a breakdown. Suddenly there was the gnawing yearning for my friend and my life down the coast. I came back to South Australia, and stayed with one of my sons who lived and worked in the south east. I returned to the coastal town and met someone who knew my friend. She told me she had not gone to New Zealand, and had in fact remained in the area until quite recently. She assured me there was no chance my friend was still alive; she sold up when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. She gave me an address, but said she had had mail returned from there. I never wrote; I knew she had gone – that was when I had the breakdown. I wondered what I might have done differently if I had known she was still there all those years. But I had done what I had to do. I gave my children the best I could. But my heart was heavy again and I felt so alone.
I learnt to love in that coastal area. I’ve never understood why my life takes the turns it does. Nothing in my life has made much sense to me. I’ve learned to follow my instincts and trust the existential promptings that come, because in time understanding might follow. At least that is the way I like to describe to myself the apparent chaotic nature of my life. I have attributed my wide ranging experiences at different times to leadings of the spirit, ancestors, gifts of the Universe, goddesses or the winds of change. I’m a team player with the cosmos; I never credit my own agency. It is only now in my retirement years I begin to see a bigger picture of incredible opportunities I have been given to overcome the pain of separation from my mother at birth.
I try to stem the tide of tears; the tears of the years. I hope I can contribute something worthwhile to stem the march of madness that seeks to clear the vegetation from the dunes; the vegetation that roots the dunes together for all time, and canopies the burrows and nests of the most vulnerable creatures of the land; the vegetation that feeds and heals the lives of us all. As I have been held together, rooted, protected, nurtured and loved in this environment; I want it to continue for the healing of all the vulnerabilities of humanity.
I did not need to travel the roads again to remember the profound feelings of loss and grief, and regret that I could not embrace all that was on offer 35 years ago. The memories of that coast bring back the memories of the love that opened my heart to fully experience the life I live.