A MOTHER DIES. (story from 'The Man from Oodnadatta')
"We've got another baby" was the astonishing announcement from several small children
as I hooshed my camels down to Alindum Well. I was astonished and mystified. Only a few
months before I had baptised a new baby daughter to these folk I was visiting.
My astonishment was not lessened when the mother came out of the cottage to welcome me.
She held a very young baby in her arms. She smiled for a moment at my puzzled expression,
then looked sad. "It's Clara's baby padre. I've promised Dick to look after it until he
can make some permanent arrangement. Something went wrong when the baby was born and she
never recovered, she lasted a few days and they bought the baby straight to me".
"Straight to me" I repeated silently to myself and I recalled the little tent amid crude bush
surroundings, in which the baby had been born; and the 45-mile journey over the rough bush
track of the few-days old baby. I lifted the covering and found a healthy child. I lifted my
eyes from the baby's face to the face of the woman who held it, then over the group of silently
waiting children and on to the three-roomed galvanised-iron cottage which was their home.
"Mrs Mac you are a marvel, it's absolutely heroic". The unusual praise brought a self-conscious
blush to the bushwoman's cheeks. To cover her confusion she ordered the children inside to
prepare for the lessons which she knew I would be ready to give as soon as I had stacked my load.
I was hard put to think of some way of bringing cheer to the motherless family at Bokara Well.
As I rode along I wondered how the father of the four young children - the eldest a girl of
about 11 - was managing without his wife's assistance. I neededn't have worried.
There was an orderliness about the camp at Bokara, and a cleanliness about the children
which spoke volumes for the fathers efforts as substitue for the mother. Yet it was pathetic
to notice how marked in some directions was the absence of feminine influence and skill.
The children's clothes were spotlessly clean, as was their persons, but those same clothes
showed patches whose half-inch stiches and irregular shape told of laborious efforts by
unaccustomied fingers to keep the garments whole and tidy. The 11 years-old girls hair was clean
and shiny but was unkempt and hung in tangled rat-tails about her head and face.
With the fathers willing permission I straightened out the tangled hair and combed and brushed
it into orderly neatness. That night and the following day the father discussed the childrens
future and asked me to suggest a plan for their care and training. The plan was duly evolved.
It consisted of selling the station and investing the proceeds so as to provide for the
children's care and education until they should be old enough to fend for themselves;
the taking of the children to one of the big cities where the father's sister could take
charge of them; the father's return to the bush to earn his living and to suppliment from
his earnings the capital aquired from the sale of the property. Later the plan was carried
out and proved entirly successful. The nursing sister from Oodnadatta willingly volunteered
her services and' incidentally' learned something about the primitive conditions under which
the children had lived. On their arrival at the township they were installed in an empty cottage
and arrangements made to feed and otherwise care for them until the departure of the train.
On the afternoon of the first day the 11year-old girl was in the Sister's sitting room.
A draught caused the door to close with a slam. The child, startled by the slamming,
became nervous and tried to find a way out of the room. She knew that the door was for that
purpose but couldn't pull it open. The windows were covered with wire screens and she couldn't
get out that way. Becoming panic-stricken she beat upon the door and screamed for help.
All she needed to do was to turn the door-handle and let herself out. She was unable to do
this as she had never lived in a house and did not know how to open and shut a door.
Sister hurried to release her, and it was several minutes before she could realise that the
child had actually been a prisoner in the unlocked room. After breakfast the following morning
I was taken aside by the father and led away from the children. During the meal he had been
restless and depressed and seemed as if he had something he wished to say. "Will you come over
and look at Clara's grave?" he asked. Slowly we walked towards the foot of a low sandhill and
as we walked Dick unburdened himself. "I had a terrible job when the wife died", he said.
"Jack and Zoe (whom I had marrried on a previous visit) were away. The boy and his lubra and
all the other natives cleared out as soon as Clara died and there was only me and the kiddies
left on the place." He paused and I tried in vain to find something to say.
"As you know Clara was a big woman and when I tried to lift her body into the buggy to
fetch her to the grave I couldn't manage it. I couldn't ask the children to help me, they were
too small and I didn't know what to do. I didn't have any any wood to make a coffin and had to
wrap her in a blanket". "And how did you manage?" I asked gently. "For a long time I couldn't
think of anything. In the end I had to get a dry bullock-hide and put her on that. Where I dug
the grave was too far for me to pull the load myself and I had to hitch a horse to the hide
and drag it over that way. Then when I got..." he paused for a moment before continuing in an
unsteady voice, "got here, I had to put her in the grave myself. I couldn't fill it in because
I had to send to Oodnadatta to notify the police and had to cover the grave with a sheet of iron.
It was over a fortnight before the trooper got here and gave me a death certificate and I
couldn't fill it in". He turned away from the mound which marked his wife's last resting place.
Falling into step beside him, I went back to the children.
The substitute mother was Mary McKinnon wife of Alexander James. The new baby, a boy, died
in his eighties just a few years ago.(Oct 2003)