DON’T CALL ME PATSY! Pebbles from the pocket of life

My mother, Pat Parker (nee Platford) very late in life, decided to try and write her memoirs. Her health unfortunately deteriorated before she got very far with it. What follows is what she managed to get down on paper before leaving all the joy and pain behind.

The title comes from the simple fact that she hated, really hated being called Patsy. These are her pebbles, kept safe in her pocket until it was time to skip them across the lake that she grew to love.

With thanks to Wendy Parker for keeping the writings intact and to Lee-Anne Ovington for typing up the hand written notes and sending them to me. I have done some light editing, such as filling in some missing context and background detail
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Part One: STRUGGLE TOWN

I was born in 1932 in a little town called Bingara in northern NSW. I thought it was lovely, but my mum would have thought differently. To her and others who called it home, it was Struggle Town. There was little money, the Great Depression was in full swing and we were surviving mainly on food coupons.

My father, John Platford, was a rabbit trapper; a common depression era occupation due to plague proportion numbers and the toll taken on farmers. Yelarbon, two and half hours away and just across the Queensland border, had a chiller factory with 151 trappers on its books. My father was one of them and as a result, he would be away a lot.

They do not call them “depressions” for nothing and when he was home, what little money he had, my father spent mainly on wine. Of course, this did not fix the problems any of us had, least of all his and he would go off his head when rolling drunk and chase mum (Coral) around the house with whatever implement that was handy.  During these episodes, she would gather all the kids and we would all hide in the bush until it was deemed safe to come out.

I was very much a rebel, a tomboy. I got flogged a lot both at home and at school. Those nuns did not need wine to bring out any latent sadism. Their cruelty was cool and calculated and in the name of the Lord.  But I survived all of that and more. Like the cat whose ribs were visible and fur only in patches, I must have had nine lives.  Once, I nearly had my head chopped off with an axe and still bear the scar on my neck; twice I nearly drowned. On another occasion I almost fell from a high branch in the tallest tree while swinging from it by the legs, just managing to grab another branch in time.

There were eight of us kids and in the main, we got along okay, though at times I thought one of my brothers had inherited my father’s mean streak. I recall one such time as being when he chased me to the roof of the house simply because I had eaten the last carrot. In hindsight, the real cruelty stands out as being the chronic lack of food that drove such desperate behavior.

In other respects, I consider I had a good childhood in that I had so much freedom to explore the beautiful and rugged landscape. I loved to go up to the mountains, climb the monkey ropes and swing from them, then quench my thirst from the natural spring waters. Those were the happy times for me in Struggle Town.

Another favorite thing was to visit the Gypsy camps when they came through town. They were good, kind people and taught me how to play the violin and harmonica – gifts given that lasted throughout the years,

My grandmother was a strict Catholic of Irish heritage and her mother (my Great-Great-Grandmother) would go around the town visiting the sick. One night a terrible storm struck, and she was guided on her rounds by a light of unknown source.  That was the story, anyway, as handed down to me.  There is much mystery in the mists of time and memory and such stories, true or false to whatever degree, have their place.

Our closest neighbors lived over the hill. There was Sweetie and Dolly, their brother, Sonny, their mother, father, and Granny.  The girls were my closest friends.   

The family had an old cane pram. Granny was small and not terribly mobile. Sonny was a rascal of a kid. Add the hill and it was a combination that could only have one outcome. Sonny would take Granny in the pram to the top of the hill so she could take in the view. But at the top one day, the Devil (as the nuns would have it) took over and he let it go, with the pram and Granny hurtling down to the bottom.  I never saw Granny again.

Years later I was telling the story to my Aunt Jean. She suggested they must have buried Granny in the paddock. We had a good laugh about that. What else could you do? I am sure she survived, but perhaps was moved to a safer location – away from Sonny!

As it turned out, we would soon also be leaving Bingara.

World War II broke out in Europe and my father joined the Air Force. The rest of us were relocated by the government to Sydney so that mum and some of the older kids could work in factories producing essential products. We were allotted a terrace in Forest Lodge and given permanent rights to stay at minimal rent. That was the end of the marriage. Mum was now officially a “deserted wife”.  

That old terrace, sold back into the private market after the death of my mother, would now be worth well over a million dollars with the area being cleansed of its working class roots and the dirt under the nails, to become another enclave of young professionals.

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Pat Parker, Hereford St, Forest Lodge, year unknown

Part Two: WORKING AT MORISSET PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL

I married Bob Parker in 1955 in Sydney. We had only met three weeks earlier. The following year, we relocated to Bonnells Bay on Lake Macquarie as it was Bob’s hometown. I had never seen a prettier place than this little bay.

Having settled in, we wanted to buy a house of our own and the only way we could do that was for me to get a job. Bob’s family had been in the fishing industry going back three generations, only for his generation to be forced out on the back of too many licences combined with increasing restrictions and red tape. Eventually professional fishing would be stopped altogether to save stocks for recreational fishing as part of the growing tourist industry. Some of his close relatives as a result, went to work at Morisset Psychiatric Hospital, so that seemed like a good option. I applied and had an interview which went well.

Within 4 weeks I received word to come to the hospital to get measured for a uniform. Nurse Hamel was there to greet me. It was not a good first impression. She handled me roughly, turning and twisting me this way and that, whipping her tape around torso and limbs. Adding insult, she also coldly informed me that I had no waist!

With that done, the next thing I had to figure out was how was I going to get to work on a regular basis as we had no car. The hospital was, and still is, In the middle of thick bushland and back then most employees rode pushbikes to work. So, a pushbike it was, and despite never having ridden one before, I quickly learned, with not too many skinned knees to show for it.

My first day riding through the bush was nerve-wracking on a rickety bike with no lights in the pitch black. Forget the whites of their eyes! All you could see was the red glow of cigarettes being puffed on by other riders. To get to the hospital, you had to go down a big hill which was home to a piggery. A lot of the trusted patients worked there feeding the animals and on that first ride past, all I could hear was someone screaming out, “get this down ya gut, you *&T)@@##”. I took off so fast you could not see me for dust. Pigs might fly but I was praying they would not do it just now!

Once there, I had to report to the administration block where I got my ward allocation. I was then taken to ward 3. I was more than a bit shocked when we got there. The female patients were all stark naked. I was given the job of ensuring that each of them got a shower.

After that ordeal, we went to the day room with Sister Kennedy. The original Nurse Ratched. She was in charge and handed me a bunch of keys with the instructions never leave a door unlocked – to always lock the door behind you. And never EVER let the patients out after dark to go to the toilet (yes, in those days, the conveniences were anything but).

Though the patients called me “nurse”, I had no formal training. Yet on my first day I was left alone with the whole ward with the only advice being “never let them see that you are scared of them. If you do you won’t last”. That warning alone was enough to put me on edge. Particularly since some of the patients were in straight-jackets (something thankfully phased out with more humane treatment and advances in psychiatry). Once alone, one of the straight-jacketed younger girls rushed at me. I was petrified and she knew it. I think now that was her point. After the evening meal, it was lock up time. For some, including this girl, that meant going to a padded cell. After escorting her to her “room”, I could hardly wait to lock her safely in – more so on my way out as she tried to call me back. Instead, I locked the door and fled.

The next few days were hectic. And each day I was again reminded not to let them out after dark. On one of those nights, I had locked the same girl in her cell when I noted she had her legs crossed and was crying that she needed to go to the toilet. Having overcome some of my fear, I stood pondering the situation as she continued pleading. Finally, I said, “you’re not allowed out after dark. Sister Kennedy is very strict about that”. It had no effect. She was now pleading with me “I promise not to escape! you can come stand outside and wait! Please! Please!

After a long sigh, I said “okay but I will wait. Don’t be long.”

So, having unlocked the door to the outside and locked it behind me, she disappeared into the toilet singing out “You can go inside if you like. I promise I won’t escape”. And that spur of the moment decision to do just that nearly cost me my job. By the time I unlocked and locked the door again my shift was over. I figured the night staff would let her in. How wrong and naïve I was. She had hidden clothes in the toilet and was already over the fence when I handed over to night staff and was wobbling along on my bike home again.

Next morning when reporting to ward 3, Sister Kennedy was waiting. She bellowed “what did I tell you about letting the patient’s out after dark!” I pleaded my case, such as it was, while she shoved a form into my hand. “Lucky for you she was caught boarding the train for Sydney.” As punishment, Sister Kennedy cut the young girls hair off- ever last strand – and she was then locked in a cage with a warning to staff that if anyone gave her a cigarette, it would be instant dismissal. I had to check her records. I had to know why she had been put in the hospital to start with. To my astonishment, It had nothing to do with mental health. She had been mixing with a bad crowd and her parents, unable to control her, had her committed. Those are not reasons for incarceration in an almost medieval institution.  Learning these facts, I could only feel pity for her.

The next day I had to report to another ward. I was told to prepare all of the patients for shock therapy. Watching the patient’s convulse was hard, as no anesthesia was used. My duty was to console them with a cup of tea. This was what we did all that day.

One patient named Selina must have had too many shocks, or maybe too few if the aim was to “sedate”. She played up holy hell back on the ward, but Sister Kennedy quickly put a stop to it with an arm twist. I don’t think they teach that in Nurse school anymore. With arm stretched up behind her back, Selina was marched upstairs. I could hear the beating. The next day in another ward more horror; the whole ward was filled with women with different diseases, including the horribly debilitating Huntington’s Disease. These patients were also treated poorly. One nurse – a Russian, said in her home country these people would not be kept alive. To be honest, I felt conflicted about this. Part of me thought, “maybe they are better off dead if this is the only alternative.” That’s how truly bad it was.

My next rostered shift was night shift 12pm till 6am. My first night duties were to keep the coal loaded in the fires all night. Come early morning, by then a bit worse for wear, I was ordered to go outside and pick up all of the rubbish. After this I was ordered to go wake the real nurses, accommodated on the grounds in a secure area, for day shift.

I was unaware of the word” lesbian”, or even that it was possible for women to have a relationship with another woman. It was never talked about grow up. But I witnessed a lot of it between patients and between nurses at the hospital. And that morning was the start of this education as nurses, hearing my footsteps, scurried half naked, back to their own rooms. To say I was shocked is an understatement. It was after all 1958. The world has grown up a bit since then. Now I wonder what happened to them all and what battles they went through just to be themselves.

They had their own morgue out in the back of one of the buildings where the bodies would be taken for experiments. At these times, you would catch glimpses of strangers in suits, sometimes with medical bags in hand. No one talked about them, or what they were doing. No one dared. There was a Cold War in full swing, and no one was immune from contributing – not even the dead. I have to wonder now if any of them actually died as a result of psychiatric experiments. Over the years, such things have been found to have happened in other institutions in NSW and indeed, around the world. There are many stories to tell about Morisset Mental Hospital. But the old punchline applies: You had to be there to see it, to believe it, to spend the rest of your life trying to UNsee it.   

And for me and Bob, it was all for naught. His income was too spotty and mine too low to buy a home and it would be a couple of decades before that would change.

PART THREE: Marriage

My husband was Robert Thomas Parker (7/11/34 – 24/10/1994). He suffered with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP). He most likely had this from the time we married, but it is a disease that can go in and out of remission and vary greatly with each new episode. I think Bob knew from an early age that he was a bit different to everyone else – and I don’t think it was just the CIDP.

There were 14 children in his family, but four had died at a very young age. Including one either side of Bob.

Maybe that was part of what drove him. Maybe it was knowing his very existence was sheer luck, and that he had an undiagnosed condition that may still cut his life short anyway. Stubborn to the core, he did not see a doctor until much later in life when the symptoms started to worsen. In the meantime, he had an urgency to achieve as much in his life as he could, as quickly as he could.

I had only known him 3 weeks before we married. I was 24 he was 21 and what followed was seven children and 39 years of highs and lows.

I always ask myself if there is a God why would he let so many suffer. I then remind myself that Bob is now at peace – something that he did not have for much of during his life. But what a character he was! I feel I have to write while I think of different times we had. Bob was better known as “Snoopy” to work colleagues after he became union rep at the local RSL where he worked nights, and as “Uncle Chock” to his growing list of nieces and nephews on account of his skin color –  Chock being short for chocolate – a tone that was the product of having some French Canadian and American Native Indian on his mother’s side, accentuated by a life lived outdoors under the mighty Australian sun.

While employed at the club, Bob talked the PMG boys into putting a telephone in the workshop he had set up himself to repair the club’s poker machines. The PMG was the federal department of the Post-Master General and it had responsibility for not just mail, but all methods of communication, including phones. Most of the men working on the phone side of the PMG were young and would be the equivalent of today’s computer nerds – and thus always up for a bit of mischief with the “power” they wielded. So, setting up a phone in a local RSL Club for the purpose of making some cash on the side was no problem.

And that is how Bob’s Dial-An-Insult Service was born. You can find his ads in archived copies of the Campbelltown newspapers.

One particular night Bob answered his insult phone and recognized the caller as the Mayor of Campbelltown – at the time, still a country town, but marked for great future expansion. He had landed there in 1967 with Bob doing the street-side curbs and gutters as subdivision after subdivision rolled out.   He would do this work from sunrise until about two to three in the afternoon/ Eventually, he also started doing an afternoon shift pouring beers in a pub and then added the night shift at the RSL Club to his roster. Somehow, he also found the time to coach kids football. But now I am getting sidetracked. I started to say that one night, after answering his insult line, he recognized the caller as the Mayor of Campbelltown. The Mayor was a large man, so Bob called him a “big fat pompous pig who hadn’t seen his feet since sucking his toes as a baby!” Of course, those who rang could not work out how this person knew what they looked like, but between his three jobs and football coaching, Bob knew just about anyone and had a great memory for voices. I think that was part of why the service turned out to be popular – callers must have thought he was psychic!

The stories he told about this time in his life were quite funny, but all good things come to an end and renovations at the RSL saw his insult phone line disconnected.

Bob was into fighting in his early life and won a number of fights. The only gym in Newcastle wanted Bob to go train under their management and become a professional, but at the time tennis was his real passion – added to which he had put his age up to get the fights that he had already had. He was sixteen and fighting men in their twenties. So that was that.

Bob had to wear an eye patch due to double vision – part of his CIDP.  Still, we did countless trips back and forth from Sydney to Newcastle – and despite wearing the patch and coping with seven kids piled in the back of his old work truck, he never had a single accident.

The whole time I knew Bob, he was in and out of remission. I never knew the real him without the horrendous disease. On one of our trips, the kids were fighting, and he didn’t have his patch on. That was the closest we ever came to an accident, pulling up just inches from a steep descent over the side of the road.

Still, he would not admit his double vision could interfere with his judgement. One time we were camping over near Wangi. He was in a terrible mood, so I left him to set up our camp. When I returned an hour later, I found he had pitched the tent on the edge of a large Cliff.

Early in my life with Bob we had an old kerosene fridge (yes, there really was such a thing). One day after we put in some fresh meat, we left for the day, only to find on our return that the fridge had gone out and all the meat had gone off. Bob got as mad as you can get and he just picked the fridge up like it was made of cardboard, carried it outside, got his axe and smashed it up.

Two or three of Bob’s brothers had also taken up boxing at various times. it was said that they were related to the late great Les Darcy. I still don’t know if that is true, but his mother’s maiden name was Darcy (editor’s note: it has since been established beyond all doubt that the relationship to Les Darcy was no more than family myth).

Like me, Bob’s childhood had been tough, though not in all the same ways as it had been for me. Food was not such an issue because of the fishing and good soil for growing vegetables.  But it was still a very large family living on a modest income and with only a small fishing shack to call home. No connection to water mains. No electricity. No sanitation.

That sort of upbringing kills you inside – or makes you. It can also shape your sense of humor. And so it was with Bob. A good example was once when we had Troy, one of his nephews, staying with us for a holiday and he took him to work on a subdivision just starting to be hewn out of the bushland that still dominated.  At some point during the day, Troy informed him he need to go to the toilet. Bob pointed to the trees and said, “you’ve got hundreds to choose from”. “But Uncle Chock”, Troy complained, “I need to do a number two. I need toilet paper!” With that, Bob went to his truck and ripped up an old empty cement bag for him. He would tell us later that he could see Troy crouched behind a bush, grimacing as he wiped. Troy never complained about it though. It was just the way the Parkers rolled.  And It was a bloody funny story when Bob told it, complete with a recreation of Troy’s grimaces.

There are other stories I cannot speak of now, though I started with the idea of doing so. There were as many dark days as there were good and as hard as it is not to speak of them, it is harder still to let those memories out. Maybe one day.

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