My eldest daughter has been having an extended holiday with us, thanks to her partner's long service leave. Next week, they're off back to the Northern Territory, and I don't know when I'll see her again.
We've crammed a lot into the time, but somehow it never seems long enough. Last week, we decided to have a mother/daughter day, and she and I went up to town together.
First we shopped for birthday presents, trying to find a make up bag for the other daughter/sister. and a copy of Winnie the Pooh for my granddaughter. (I actually found a nice copy in what's left of the book department in David Jones! Very much looking forward to reading her the first few chapters before she goes.)
Then we had lunch at the Portrait Gallery - delicious; and we looked at all the nice things in the extremely nice shop there. Bought a couple more birthday presents.
Then we went to the Tom Roberts exhibition. It was blissfully quiet. We talked softly together about the paintings of Rickett's Point and Mentone, and I told her about how her Dad and I used to spend hours on those bayside beaches as teenagers. I stared at the brown, muddy rocks in the painting, remembering how soft and crumbly they are. I could almost feel the texture of them, and the briny smell of the tame little waves. The little figures were doing just the same things we used to do, paddling, sitting on the rocks, picking up shells.
We admired the portraits, gesturing to each other to come and look at our latest finds. 'You can feel how thick her hair is!' 'What an extraordinary face!' 'How respectful he seems to be towards all those women he painted!'
She wandered into the Childrens' Activity Room, and didn't come out for a long time. I found a chair and sat, thankfully, and gazed at a picture of boulders above a pool in the bush, and a horse looking strangely discomposed in one corner, (he has apparently just heard a shot fired, I read later!) I wondered how TR had managed to paint the HEAT. My daughter came out eventually, very pleased with herself, as she'd spent the time making a birthday card for her little girl.
As we left the exhibition, she took my hand - she often does this when we're walking in the street. She said how glad she was that she had seen the paintings, - thanks to my persistence, she said.
We stopped in Manuka, me to Coles, flagging a bit now, thinking of what supplies we needed to take home, while she had a last look for the make up bag. It was not to be found, but another gift was. I waited outside the shop, while the assistant made a major performance out of wrapping it up. We made faces at each other through the glass, it was taking so long. 'Like Rowan Atkinson in that scene from Love Actually' we giggled when she came out.
She had to stop at the bank in Woden. I waited for her outside again, watching the people going past. An elderly woman was approaching, she would have been in her late 70's perhaps. She had seen me before I saw her. She was looking straight into my face, and smiling a searching, gentle smile. I smiled back, and she walked right up to me.
'I was looking at you,' she said, 'and I thought for a moment you were my mother. But my mother's dead, of course.'
She touched my arm softly; she was leaning in towards me, her face quite close.
'Oh, I'm sorry I wasn't!' I said.
We both laughed quietly, as if we were old friends. There was a sort of confusion of hands and arms as I touched her too. Then she walked on.
It has happened to me, of course. Once it was the hair of a woman sitting with her back to me at a concert. Soft, greying, close cropped waves, exactly so, but the moment she moved her head the illusion was lost. Once it was a whole person, a little woman in a crowd, walking briskly, her face turned away from me. Again, the rush of recognition dissolved in a heartbeat.
When my daughter came out of the bank, she took my hand.
'Let's have a coffee,' she said, 'before we head home.'
I didn't mention my encounter with the elderly daughter.
Yesterday, we sent five cows to the cattle market in Tumut
Two of them had been with us so long they had names, 'Old Brown Cow', and 'Cassie.' Old Brown Cow was sixteen. She came from a neighbour's property, so had lived in the Valley all her life. Cassie came from a Yass property with her mother when she was a 'calf at foot.' They were the matriarchs of the herd, huge, powerful beasts, both gentle and assertive. Between them, they'd raised twenty five calves, and as aunties and grandmothers had helped look after countless more. They taught the younger cattle how to do things like walk through gates without freaking out, and one or other of them would usually take the lead when it was time for the herd to move. Many experiences of being yarded for drenching, and vaccinations, and weaning, and all the rest of it, had taught them to be stoic in the face of discomfort and inconvenience. They would know it would soon be over and they'd be back in the paddock, and they would have a calming effect on other stressed out cattle.
Cassie lost her calf last year. Only two days old, I found it in the top paddock, a carcass without a head. A wild dog had killed it. I knew something had happened because I saw Cassie standing almost without moving for hours on end, quite alone, and I went to investigate. She stood a few feet away as I approached the calf, her head bowed, staring at it, moaning softly with each breath. I talked to her, I admit. I told her how sorry I was, and how I wished I had been there to help. I wanted badly to stroke her, but tame though she was, she'd never quite let me get close enough to touch her in the paddock. She listened though. For several days, she stayed up there by herself, watching over the calf's body, then she went back to the herd.
We start the job early. My little granddaughter is excited to be helping. I find her a sturdy stick, which she wields very effectively, facing down a couple of cows who don't want to go up to the gate, until they give up and turn in with the others. The new ute purrs and bumps along smoothly and satisfactorily, its first test in the paddock. The sun is warm, and hundreds of tiny butterflies rise out of the grass around my feet. The river glistens. This is the best part of the day.
The cattle grunt and complain, but they go into the yard easily. Then we have to draft off the cows which are going to market into the small yard next to the loading ramp. Old Brown Cow goes first, resigned and uncomplaining, she expects she'll just have to squeeze through the crush as usual, have her jab and then back out to the paddock. She has a calf, which stays with the rest of the herd, but she is unconcerned at first.
Cassie lumbers through after her, followed by two young barren cows. Fat as butter and pretty as pictures, but no udders at all. For some reason they have never had calves, so they are of no use. Finally, the young cow who could not push her calf out last Spring. We had to call the vet from Tumut, who came out in the middle of his surgery on a Saturday morning and did a Caesarean on her. She recovered, but the vet told us she would never have another calf.
When the truck comes in the late afternoon, they have all been standing together for a long time, swishing at flies, leaning into the shade. Old Brown Cow is agitated now that her calf has gone back with the rest of the herd into the paddock, without her. She paces the fence and calls to it. The truck driver easily gets them up the ramp and they clatter onto the truck.. We stand for a while yarning to him and a neighbour. The cows stare through the slats of the truck. Then they're gone, down the road into the quiet evening.
I have recourse to many useful thoughts as we tidy up, indeed, I've been calling on them all day. The cows have had a good life on our property. The end will be swift and humane, (bit hazy on this last bit). The business provides a significant part of our income. We are growing food for peoples' tables.
But on these days, it doesn't suit to have a cattle business, and a conscience, both.
Today I went to a funeral. She was a neighbour and I thought of her as a friend, although as with all my neighbours out here, I didn't see her very often. I somehow thought that our friendship would develop with time. If I had pictured our friendship in the future, I may have seen cups of tea, or sitting out on the new paving with a bottle of wine, and talks of dogs, and country life, and gardens. I actually would have counted this gradually unfolding friendship as a current pleasure. The anticipation, the hopefulness of it.
She died very unexpectedly. She had gone into hospital for some routine operation or other, and died of complications. She was one year older than me, so of course, the comparisons loom - was it a health problem that I might develop? Maybe something I already have and don't know about! Only 66! Not even 70 yet! Is it possible that life could end so soon, so suddenly, no preparations made, so much left unfinished, no goodbyes? Yes.
The funeral was at the Gungahlin Crematorium, where almost all Canberra people go in the end. My father lay in just the same place as my neighbour, on that little raised stage, eighteen years ago now. My little grandson's Dad did too. And so did all the people who I knew through my work who died of HIV complications. The routines vary little. An hour roughly, of music, and flowers, and tears, and meetings of strangers, and speeches that struggle to express the inexpressible. -
And always, discovering so much about the person who has died that you never knew. My neighbour was an Oxford graduate with a degree in old English Literature! She was a great reader, and her house is apparently stuffed with books that she would never throw away. We could have talked of this, we could have lent each other books. We could have talked of the old England that has gone into the past. I wondered if she had read Jim Grace's 'Harvest' - almost no one in my life who I could talk to about the powerful impact of that book, but there she was at the top of the valley in her hidden house full of books - I could have talked to her about it, if I'd known, if I'd known her better.
Lots of other Valley residents were there. In their dark suits, and polished shoes, and soft blouses and dresses, they didn't appear at all awkward or out of place, like the rural Australian stereotype of country people at a funeral, but only as if they all just briefly showed another aspect of their lives. The speeches some of them made too, reflected much broader lives than the ones I see in the fire shed and the paddock. Many of them are University graduates, after all, and most of them, like us and like our neighbour, have not been born to a country life but have chosen it.
Her body lay in the coffin centre stage. Her-soon-to-be burned-to-ashes-body, no longer of use to her, the 'her' indeed vanished as soon as her heart took its last beat. A few family members went up to it when the celebrant invited them to, 'to say last words or pay a tribute'. Her son wept, but did not linger. His fingers traced shaky, hesitant lines on the wooden surface where her face was close beneath, then retreated as if repelled. I remember that monstrous realisation, that dawns so quickly after death, that once the person has gone, the body no longer means anything.
We stood around chatting afterwards, about grandchildren, and utes, and the rain. A dear friend from over the river who is facing a hip operation shortly told me vehemently that she had no intention of sharing the fate of our departed neighbour - she would get over her op and move on, and her hand swept the trees and the sky, 'for years' she said. I like to think there's something in that - the power of the mind to determine your longevity.
So we all drove away to our busy lives, with our plans, and our visions of the future, trying perhaps a bit harder to remember that really we only have today, this moment. Now.