Maureen Burke

2022 Spring Journal

What Did I Inherit?

I was told I’m a story-teller.
Well I must have inherited it from my Uncle Mick.
He was a seriously good story-teller who wove magic for us children when we were young. You’ve heard of Aunty Nell who was deaf and mute, well Uncle Mick was her brother and lived with her in the home in which they were born.

He would come across the paddocks every morning to sit on a chair between the sink and the wall in our kitchen.
Mum would say, ‘Mick you waste my morning every day.’
Mick would answer, ‘But whom would you rather waste your time with?’.

Mick was also seriously shy – with us but also with Aunty Nell.
To illustrate: Aunty Nell’s birthday was coming up and Mick knew exactly what to give her – a watch. He knew he could not wrap the watch and give it to her as he wished her a ‘happy birthday’. So he gave her a box of ‘Roses’ chocolates instead.

The watch was in the middle of the chocolates.

Mick was not a risk-taker. He drove to the local township, 3 miles away at a top speed of 15 m.p.h. If we were in the car he would ask if we’d like him to go fast. With our encouragement he would gradually speed up to 16,17,18, and eventually 30 m.p.h. Which showed on the speedo for 1 sec. then we were back to 15 again.

But – Mick had a vivid imagination.
‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’ he’d ask.
What a question! That’s what we were hanging around for. ‘Yes’!
‘What do you want in it?’
Three horses, a fox, two snakes, a bull and a dog – and an elephant!
Mick wove a story that had us enthralled!
When the elephant appeared I felt I had helped make the story.
We always ran out of time.
And it was never completed.
The next day or so we’d have a totally new story with new ingredients.

Neither the story-teller nor the audience remembered the stories,

the joy being in the moment of the telling.
What an inheritance!

The Best First Day

It has been a busy morning.
Michael off to grade 1 at school 100 yards away.
Peter off to school also because he was too lonely without Michael and he promised the school master he would not run home when he felt like it. That’s another story.
I’m up but too young for school. I’m nearly four years old.
The milking is finishing up. We can tell because the light in the kitchen shines more brightly when the milking machines are switched off.
Mum has just cleaned the bedrooms. She is having a cup of coffee before the men come in for morning tea.

Dad comes in. He looks at me, tells me he is short-handed because Tim is going to a funeral, so he will need me to help him.
I’m going to help dad!

I don’t really know what dad does apart from milking and making fences. I can’t do either of those things. Maybe he’s going to fix engines. I know he’s good at that. I’ve watched him fix things but I don’t know how to use a hammer or a screw driver.

Morning tea is finished. Dad tells me to put on my rubber boots because it has been raining and we’ll be working outside. I’m getting excited now. We walk across the home paddock, through the gate to the middle paddock. The cows are standing around but I’m not scared because I’m with my dad.

The tractor is by the fence. It’s got a load of hay in the trailer. Dad says, now I want you to drive the tractor I’ll show you how.

I’m going to drive the tractor!

It’s so big!

Dad lifts me up onto the seat. He starts the engine. The tractor moves v e r y slowly. My hands just reach the steering wheel. And dad tells me I can drive wherever I like.

I’m in charge of the world.

It doesn’t matter that I cannot speed up, slow down or turn the wheel very far. I am driving and dad is forking out the hay for the cows.

This is the first day I drove.

Asked later in life when I learned to drive, I would always reply that I have been driving since I was four.
Never mind that it was quite a few years until the second day I was in the driver’s seat.

You can do it!

Aunty Nell was four. She was beautiful, gentle, artistic and intelligent. The second of what would be eight children in her family. She did not speak. Her mother contracted rubella before Nell was born and as a result Nell could neither hear nor talk.

Nell was a favoured daughter, warmly coddled by her parents and siblings. She could run free on the farm and made friends with other non-talkers, the hens, cows, pigs and dogs, even a rabbit or two.

Nell was quite adventurous so on this fateful day she climbed the windmill just outside the house. It was tall and when she looked down fear froze her whole body.
To shouts of “You can do it!” little Nell could not respond. She did not hear the encouragement. Her father had to climb up, which was easy, and climb down with her in his arms, not nearly as easy.

That day her parents made the hardest decision of their lives: their little Nell would have to go to a specialised school for those who were deaf if she was to have any hope of an independent life. This school was in Wahroonga, Sydney, 1200 miles away.

Taken by her father to stay in a city environment only to come home for a holiday at Christmas each year, Nell was terrified. Her screams tore her father’s heart to shreds. He said to himself, “You can do this”, as he forced himself to walk away.

Nell blossomed. She became the manager of the Clerical Vestment Unit in Wahroonga. Her work was keenly sought by clerics, parishes and dioceses.

In later life she came home to care for her parents.

Every day she brightened our home, an easy walk across the paddocks. She and mum wrote to each other as they drank coffee. Aunty Nell would draw whatever we asked – always some animal or other, and she laughed with dad as they talked and joked one-handed.

A little girl who couldn’t, now a woman who could.

I Look into Her Eyes

I look into her eyes, I see eternity.

 Her ears have heard the stories from the dreamtime, when ancestors roamed the earth, when mountains, seas, rivers, fish, stars and animals began.

She has seen the smallness of her habitat and heard of those who swam in larger lakes. She knows the local grasses but heard of different flora when the indigenous custodians cared for this land. She has listened to stories of the coming of the white man who sowed different crops and changed the composition of the water. Tales passed down describe very large animals from whom her ancestors learned to hide in their burrows just above the waterline.

Dusky, for that is her name, has a fine, brown, sleek, waterproof coat. She is the size of what I imagine an otter to be though she has a badger’s tail. Her eyes are dark and small for one who has seen so much. Prominent on her face is her duck’s bill through which she also breathes and which is sensitive and ideal for scavenging the small water animals among the reeds. I cannot see her sensitive ears hidden among the fur on her head. Her webbed front feet act as flippers allowing her to glide swiftly through the water. Her back feet act as rudder and brake.

Dusky does not return my gaze. She is the most timid of animals. She lives at the lake at the back of our farm and we have to hold our breath whenever we want to catch sight of her. Early morning or at dusk as we wait, we sometimes see three little humps moving on the water showing her head, body and tail, which disappear if we make a noise.

She spends half her time outside moving across land or even basking in the sun.

She is of course a platypus, uniquely Australian, a monotreme who lays eggs and suckles her young who are called puggles from milk patches on her skin.

My favourite animal, a soft, silky version of her sits on my pillow, to greet me when I come in to my room. She embodies eons of history.

I guess when I look into her eyes what I feel is love.

Maureen is an Australian Loreto Sister who has been a mathematician, teacher and youth worker in most Australian states and South Sudan. She is now relishing the experience given through AnawimArts of finding her latent skills in writing and storytelling. 

One thought on “Maureen Burke”

  1. Thank you Maureen for sharing your vivid life memories. Please keep writing more. Blessings, Maria B

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