I wrote this piece many months ago but have kept it to myself. I thought today, the last day of 2017 was a good time to post it. I hope that with a new year coming and having written about my mother’s death and its impact on me I can move on and feel a little more light hearted.
June 20 1980: Walking home carrying a couple of bags of groceries on this Friday afternoon I thought to myself what a day it had been and that I was really tired. My last day of school for many months; the beginning of my maternity leave. I was not allowed to be tired however because Mum and Dad were coming down for the weekend and we were all going to party tonight at Stephen’s work.
The groceries were heavy and I was also carrying this big baby around in my belly. Only six weeks to wait until we met this not so little critter. I put the groceries down and was fumbling in my handbag for the key to the front door when I heard the phone ringing. I cursed that the front door was always a bit tricky to open. I rushed and made things worse. The phone stopped…then started again. I got the door open, dropped the groceries and rushed to the phone. I heard my sister-in-law Chris ask
‘Is Steve there Anne?’ Instinctively I knew something terrible had happened
‘No he’s not home yet. What’s the matter? What’s happened?’
‘When will he be home?’ Chris asked.
“What’s the matter?. Tell me what’s happened.’ I cried.
‘There’s been a car accident. Mary has been killed. Austin is in hospital but he’ll be OK’
Amidst the howling and crying there was a mad jumble of questions and answers ‘how, where,why, where was John my brother, what was wrong with Dad?’ Later when I was more reasonable I felt so sad for poor Chris. She loved Mum too and would be shattered and in pain as well. She also had to ring my sister Ruth and tell her. Another terrible task
I never knew I could act in such a primeval way. I literally howled and screamed, running around the house, in and out of the house like a mad woman. Groceries were strew across the verandah. All the heaving was hurting my stomach and I was holding on scared that I might hurt my baby and he might come too early. When Stephen got home I was curled up in the foetal position heaving and crying. It seemed like forever that I was alone and isolated with my grief and pain but I later found out it was only about ten minutes.
Throughout the many years of our marriage I will always remember the strength and courage of my husband over the next few days and months and also at the birth of our son David exactly six weeks later. We had some pretty tough times over the years but I knew I’d never find a man again who was so good in a crisis even when he was pain himself.
At that time our parents had been very good friends for over 20 years. They met working in a small Aboriginal community at Tabulam in NSW. Stephen always liked saying he knew me before I was born.
I have a very precious photo of Mum, Stephen, his parents Vera and Geoff, his brother Clive and my brother John eating watermelon on the verandah on Christmas day 1953. The big watermelon in Mum’s tum was me, born 12 days later on the feast of the Epiphany. My mother loved Stephen very much and he her. We all had many very happy times together especially after we got married.
In 1975 Stephen and I moved in together before we married. This was rather risqué move way back then. Both sets of parents took a very, very dim view of this action. A few months later we decided to get married. It was Easter and Vera and Geoff were visiting Mum and Dad at Taree. It was so exciting that we could tell them together that we would no longer be living in sin! They were very excited!
Mary’s death was a tragedy in so many ways. My father Austin and my siblings John, Ruth and Kate struggled for years to come to terms with it and still do.
Mary and Austin were on their way from Taree to Sydney to visit Ruth and me when, only 20 ks from home, a car crossed onto the wrong side of the road and hit their car head on. Austin had chest and facial injuries. Mary had no visible injuries at all but died 2 hours later from collapsed lungs. Austin was so shocked because he thought she was going to be fine. She was thin and a little frail and the impact during the accident from the seat belt was what killed her. My brother John was only a few kilometres away in Tuncurry but he couldn’t get there till after Mary had died. She died alone.
That night my sister Ruth and her partner, who also lived in Sydney, came over and we spent the night together. Very little sleeping happened. We alternated between extreme outpourings of grief and disbelief; the hope that it just might be a terrible mistake. We left while it was still dark to travel to Taree and I remember worrying whether Stephen might fall asleep while driving. I was so frightened there might be another car accident and we would all die.
My poor little sister Kate was at University in Armidale and no-one could contact her. In the end the police went to her home and told her about Mum’s death. Everytime I think of this I feel so sad all over again. She was so young, only 21 and alone.
Mary was a woman who grew out of poverty and dysfunction. Her mother died in childbirth when she was two years of age. Mary and two of the other younger siblings then lived with their maternal grandmother Granny Wilson. They were 2, 4 & 6 years of age. The four older children were split up between various families including Sam Hill their father. Granny Wilson was illiterate, old, possibly sick and appears to have had a burning hatred of Sam Hill. The little ones virtually never saw him even though they lived in the same suburb in Brisbane. She wasn’t the best person to be bringing up 3 small children but foster care or an orphanage was probably the only alternative. In fact at about 12 years of age Mary was made a ward of the court and fostered. The Hill family was dogged by tragedy and pain throughout their lives. Mary’s death was just one of many terrible things that happened.
What do I remember about Mary? She was smart, funny, loving, feisty, compassionate, a bit of a rebel, a real looker and a little bit crass.
Not sure if the crassness came from ‘nature or nurture’. Austin pretty much had a doctorate in crassness. Mary was uneducated. Due to her impoverished family circumstances she left school at 14 and became an office worker. She read voraciously and widely. She introduced me to James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Xavier Herbert, Solzenitzen, Virginia Woolf and many, many other writers that I’d never heard of even while studying Arts at University. She was the first radical socialist I ever knew, but I really didn’t realise that until after she died. When I was driving home from Practise Teaching in 1975 I heard on the radio Gough Whitlam was sacked. I rang Mary as soon as I got home full of rage and a terrible feeling of disbelief and powerlessness. She answered the phone singing “We’ll keep the Red Flag Flying”. Oh how I loved her that day.
I remember about 1977 Mary stayed with me in Sydney. Stephen, in the RAN, was away at sea and Austin was on a golf trip to New Zealand. I was teaching at a school in my neighbourhood and on Friday afternoons we, mainly women as after all we were all in the humanities, would go to the local hotel and pretty much get a skinful. This night about 8 women including Mary left the pub and went to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant up the road. We were loud, talkative, brash, knew everything and wanted to share it with all and sundry especially about feminism and women’s rights. I remember Mary saying later that weekend how envious she was that I has such good women friends and that I had so much intellectual stimulation. About then I introduced her to Marilyn French’s book “The Woman’s Room” She alternated between, recognition, acceptance, anger, rebellion and a myriad of other emotions. That was when she finally decided she was going to apply to go to university. She was 52 years.
When Mary died in 1980 she was in her 2nd year at the University of New England (UNE). In her first year she studied English and Ancient History and got a Credit and Pass. Great for a 52 year old woman with no formal education at all. She was surprised and so happy at her success. Her success came at a cost though as she worked very hard somewhat to the detriment of her relationship with Austin. In 1980 Mary studied Politics. She was amazed she had the same lecturer as I did years before and how he still strode down the stairs into the lecture theatre with his gown flowing out behind him. If I remember correctly it was Colin Tatz, a great academic and historian.
The next few days after mum’s death are a blur. We drove out to Nabiac and retrieved all the stuff Mum and Dad had in the car
She was bringing down a little red Bonds Suit for my baby. Both of my children wore it and I spirited it away for my first grandchild who was born a few months ago. Mum was bringing down her famous peanut biscuits for Ruth. I remember us all sitting in the kitchen at home at Taree eating them and alternately laughing and crying. I remember when we first saw Mum’s sister Betty who had come down from Brisbane for the funeral. We were sitting by Dad’s bed in the hospital when she walked in. She looked so much like mum momentarily my heart leapt and I thought it was all a big mistake. Some horrible joke. But it wasn’t.
I remember walking into the church for the funeral. My stomach hurt so much. It seemed like my baby inside was going crazy and I thought I was going to faint or vomit. Stephen held me up and whispered
‘Just take a breath, and another. Just breathe slowly.’
I gathered up what strength and dignity I could muster and walked down to the front of the church. There was my poor old dad, face badly bruised, lots of stitches, John and Chris, Ruth and Kate and Aunty Betty all feeling just like me. Bereft. Stephen got up during the service and started to read the 23rd Psalm. After a few words he stopped and teared up and I was worried he wouldn’t be able to continue. I quietly whispered to myself the same words he had said to me earlier and willed him on. I have never been more proud of the man I married.
I really don’t remember much about the service at the cemetery. After all of the stuff was just about done and as the Minister was about to put the first dirt onto Mum’s coffin a group of people came forward and started to sing. They were Aboriginal people from Tabulam where Mum and Dad first lived after they were married. He was the teacher there for nine years. The four of us kids were born in Casino and lived there in our early lives. Kate, the youngest, was about 2 when we left almost 20 years before. They had heard of Mum’s death and came to pay their respects to her and to dad. All I really remember is the powerful harmonious singing in their own language. It was haunting and strangely uplifting yet painful beyond belief. They wouldn’t come to the wake. They just piled back into their cars and left. They had done what they came to do. It was such a comfort to Dad that these people remembered him and mum after all those years and wanted to share their respect for her with him and us in our terrible loss. Lots of people later said that Mum’s funeral was the best things that ever happened to relations between the aboriginal community and white folks in Taree.
All I remember about the wake is Dad tired and overwrought had to go back to the hospital and someone, who shall remain nameless because I can’t remember who it was, after imbibing a little too much fell down the stairs from the verandah into the garden bushes below. Lucky it was only a few steps and he bounced. Weirdly enough it made us laugh which was in short supply that day.
By a strange coincidence the same thing had at our wedding almost exactly five years before. Same steps, same garden, different person, though I do remember his name on that occasion. Those steps were short but clearly very dangerous.
I remember after the funeral Chris, Ruth, Kate and I went through all mum’s clothes and other possessions. She didn’t really have much. We very carefully and lovingly, towards each other and to mum’s memory, laid claim to the things that we wanted to keep. Later when I looked at what I had claimed I realised that most of the stuff was presents that I had given her at some time. It reinforced for me the belief that we buy for others the gifts that we would like for ourselves.
When David was born Austin was with us in Sydney as we were convinced the baby would come on the due date. David was duly punctual arriving the morning he was due. It was the best of days and the worst. I was glad he was a boy as the thought of a girl was very painful for me. The loss I felt that mum wasn’t there was sometimes insurmountable. I was on my own. No mother. The day after David was born Stephen was on duty for 24hrs. On completion he asked for leave from 8am, was refused and was expected to work a normal day. He left regardless. My feelings about the RAN were always very mixed and took a turn for the worse after that.
I felt pretty forlorn for quite a long time but I had Stephen and the rest of my family and his. They all told me how beautiful David was even though the poor boy had a hard road out of the womb into the real world and it really showed. He grew to be the most beautiful little boy and an adult I am immensely proud of. He was joined a few years later by Claire Mary. When she was little she always called herself “Claire Grandma Mary Carlin.” I saved a special dress that Mum had made for herself when she was younger and Claire wears it with pride. She never met her Grandmother Mary but she knows her very well.
Austin spent a heap of his strength and money through two inquests and an appeal to the NSW Supreme Court but Mary’s life went unavenged by the legal system. I say legal rather than justice as her death was the perfect example that justice is not necessarily achieved through the legal system. To this day over 36 years later I still feel angry that while she struggled to overcome extreme adversity in her early life and she managed to live a good, purposeful and giving life but she was betrayed in death.
The question I ask myself on a regular basis is how does someone cross onto the wrong side of the road, crash into another car, kill a women, badly injure her husband, lie in court and not even get a Negligent Driving charge, let alone, Manslaughter, Dangerous Driving …. or anything.
Our family was always convinced that the police officer who was at the scene of the accident and was the investigating officer into Mary’s death was corrupt; was paid by the driver of the car that caused the accident. The evidence given at both inquests by the police officer and the driver of the other car directly contradicted Austin’s evidence, that of another driver who was travelling behind Austin and also the evidence about the weather conditions at the time. Prior to the second inquest we watched the police officer brazenly hug both the driver of the other car and his wife’s as we all stood together outside the courtroom. It was devastating. The whole legal process proceeded as if Austin was the guilty party and the force of the Taree “justice” system set out to prove it.
I hear your thoughts now. She’s paranoid, twisted by grief, bitter, can’t get over a tragic accident. What we didn’t know at the time was that there were other extremely tragic examples of police corruption in Taree around the same time that came to light later. The most terrible was a Taree police officer found to be corrupt in a very serious matter where an innocent women went to gaol for ten years before her conviction was quashed. That officer was the same investigating officer into the accident that caused Mary’s death.
I only discovered the involvement of this police officer a few months ago visiting my brother in Forster. I had been following the case of the Taree woman wrongfully convicted and so had he. He had all Austin’s papers from the court cases and checked it out. Same officer. At first I was really angry…really angry… at the injustice. Really angry for Mary whose death was violated by individuals and the legal system.
Strangely enough this knowledge freed me in a way I didn’t expect. I felt sad for Dad’s years of sorrow and cynicism but was gratified he wasn’t wrong in being suspicious about the police for 30 years. He was a bit bitter and twisted and that dogged him for the rest of his life. Maybe he would have felt better if he knew the truth before he died. Maybe not. I can only speak for me. I feel an immense relief to know that what I knew deep in my heart was real, was true. We hadn’t imagined it, we weren’t paranoid, we weren’t twisted by grief. The real cause of our mother’s death was hidden by corruption.
Austin took many months to find the perfect inscription for Mary’s headstone. She loved poetry and especially loved William Blake.
Killed 20 June 1980
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour
Auguries of Innocence
My mother Mary Soorley nee Hill was a strong, amazing woman. She is an inspiration. I believe she is the reason John, Ruth, Kate and I, despite distance and difference, have always managed to maintain a close relationship.
We owed it to Mary, our mother.