While I am wrangling a newborn, posting from me will be a little sparse. Thankfully! I have some amazing stand-ins who are here to share some of their most vivid childhood memories. Lilybett is representing Australia… or, ya know… the future! And her world sounds like a fantasy land of tropical magic. I think it is a good day to be transported. Also, if you’d like to read more about her life and her son check out her blog Lilybett and Boy.
In my youngest years, my family lived in a coastal town hemmed in by flood plains, a wide, brown river and wet, green mountains. A short drive away were beaches where we spent a lot of our weekends in and out of the waves, cutting our feet in rock pools and coming running when my Dad came in from his surf and whistled for us. When the waves were bad, we’d motor up and down the Pacific Highway in our Kombi van to find a better break. There are many memories of wet and salty weekends but much more vivid than these are the rarer ones of going to work with Dad on our banana plantation, a small patch of volcanic dirt clinging to the north side of South Brother Mountain.
For my father, the banana plantation was backbreaking labour with small returns and a constant threat of danger or loss: snakes and spiders dropping out of the leaves and bunches; rains causing mudslides and washing away the topsoil; or days and nights spent keeping bushfires at bay.
For me, it was magic.
On the drive up to the mountain, we’d count Burrawang trees and be on the lookout for Grug (a strange Australian fellow created by author Ted Prior). The closer we’d get to the plantation, the rougher the road became, turning eventually into a narrow track with a steep drop away from the passenger side. From there, the Bumpy Old Truck lived up to its name, with the engine making my eyeballs vibrate and I’d worry about them shaking loose. Once we hit the plantation, the smell of sunburnt earth and wet, living things grew and the smell of diesel fumes faded.
As Dad would hack at the undergrowth or harvest the big tiered bunches, I’d play in the doorway of the caravan chocked up on cinder blocks that was formally the plantation office. Informally, it was the home of two very cranky goannas that would hiss whenever the door was opened. I’d trail through the red dirt at the foot of the steep plots of trees, wanting to play under the long shivering fingers of the banana leaves and poke my fingers into the bulby alien flowers but never able to scramble up the initial metre high step. I’d also wield my own hammer, nailing bunches of unripened bananas on to a piece of wood, a job I thought was terribly important at the time but years later found was just busy work to keep me out from underfoot.
One weekend, Dad came charging out of the trees, threw me into the front cab of the truck and locked the door. A shotgun appeared, from the caravan, from the back of the truck, and he disappeared back into the green, yelling over his shoulder at me to stay put, ‘no matter what’. Hour-long minutes I stayed in that truck before I heard the gunshot, echoing off the mountainside and rattling through the windows. More hour-long minutes later, he returned, put the gun away and let me loose again. ‘Black Snake’.
I didn’t come to the plantation often after that, not by myself. Sometimes, we’d all trail up the mountain with the Kombi and Bumpy Old Truck full of friends and kids and spend the day in the dirt, showing them the trees and the view, picking fruit. More often, I would wait at home for Dad to bring home all the treasures and treats: buckets full of passionfruit or pawpaw, tiny ladyfingers or double deckers or bunches with five or six bananas stitched together like a catcher’s mitt.
Dad inevitably sold the plantation but he talks about it still, sometimes with fondness but usually with the shaking head of someone who survived and can now laugh about it. The red dirt is no longer under all our fingernails or stains the tread of our boots, but it lingers. I stopped eating bananas for quite a while, the tang and bitterness of banana skins, the metallic grit of hammer and nail, the pale yellow flesh all mixing in my mind and overwhelming my much younger senses. I returned to them as an adult and as a mother, buying them now for my Dear Boy, who’ll eat them mushed into his porridge, smashed on toast or in little rounds, peeling the skins himself. Babies and bananas just work.