At first I felt I could’t write on this topic – a retired spinster school teacher and erstwhile blue stocking with limited experience in long term romantic relationships to draw on, I felt I couldn’t do it justice.
I’ve decided to write about my relationships with place instead. After all, places can be romantic! They can also be just bearable, and sometimes be disasters. I have lived in romantic places, London; Madrid; mid western British Columbia in Canada; and had extended stays in others including Mexico, Portugal, Thailand and the vibrant cities of Vancouver, Montreal and New York. “Melbourne”, a place with which I had a number of long term relationships, had its romantic moments—but Benalla?
My relationship with Benalla began over sixty years ago when I would travel with my family from Melbourne to Benalla during my father’s three or four week work break. We didn’t have a car – so travelled on the ‘Daylight Express’, stopping at Seymour - “Where you see less!”, according to my father, who had been stationed at Puckapunyal during the World War II. I remember looking forward to a sandwich and cup of tea at the then fully operational dining room when the train pulled in to Seymour Station. After Seymour, the train stopped at small stations including Avenel, Longwood, Euroa, Violet Town, Baddaginnie before approaching the outskirts of Benalla through rather dreary paddocks later developed to become the Monds housing estate.
The best thing about arriving the Benalla Station was always watching out for the Land Rover of my Uncle Lex, a soldier settler with land on bush covered Tiger Hill who share farmed in Molyullah, milking cows for the Hill family. I loved getting up early in the mornings to ‘help with the milking’, riding the neighbour’s palomino pony and attending the little Molyullah Primary School for a few weeks. I met the children of families such as the Hills, Paynes, Ryans, Clarks, Murrays, Beards, Glazebrooks, Johnston’s, Ramsden, Rutty’s and more –meeting up with them again over the years at the annual Molyullah Easter Show which featured the running of the Molyullah Gift equivalent of the Stawell Gift; trotting races with bookmakers on site; Highland Dancing competitions; barrel racing ponies, spinning wheel; children’s egg and spoon and sack races, and more.
Molyullah was romantic to me, Benalla just an after thought - the place we came into or left from on the train; or where we enjoyed a pie or pastie at Hyde’s Bakery when in town to pick up supplies.
Despite visiting my uncle often over the years, I resisted applying to teach in Benalla when I could easily have done so; resisted my Uncle’s suggestion that I perhaps build a little house on a block he would set aside for me on the Tiger Hill Road.
It took another thirty years – after teaching in a range of country and city schools; travelling and living overseas, and changing career from teaching to social work – for me to commit to living in the North East. In 1998, not long after selling my miner's cottage in Daylesford and starting employment as a social worker at Centrelink in Wangaratta, I fell in love with and bought a house in Monds Avenue Benalla - a cathedral ceiling recovered brick house built on the same dreary paddocks I remember travelling through as the train slowed down to enter Benalla.
My relationship with Benalla faced many challenges as my hopes for living close to family were tested. My sister and her husband, who had moved to the North East to become partners with my uncle in running his farm, weren’t (and I suspect still aren’t) quite sure why I decided to move to Benalla. While ‘there for one another’ at times of need, we live largely independent lives.
My loved uncle, seventy four with angina and needing new knees when I relocated, rarely came into Benalla, and when he did, rarely drove further in to town than the Tower Milk Bar to collect supplies. A roast dinner could very occasionally entice him to Monds Avenue! Eventually a patient in the Morrie Evans wing at the Benalla Hospital, he passed away five years ago leaving me an unexpected bequest – even after seventeen years when I explain to older locals that my uncle was Lex Devitt–I’m accepted without question!
My mother, though happily staying with me in Benalla for weeks at a time for over a decade, (always religiously visiting Miller’s Drapery Store during her visits), decided against moving from Melbourne to Benalla until coming here in 2010 as a high care resident at Alkoomi before passing away in 2014 at 101 years.
So, despite moving to Benalla in 1998 to be connected to family, I find myself seventeen years later, stoically ‘sticking it out’ alone in Benalla …. ‘for better for worse’.
I’m still enjoying living in Monds Avenue, though am finding retirement financially challenging. I didn’t prioritize planning for retirement in my youth– leaving jobs taking my super with me to travel overseas, living ‘in the moment’ rather than thinking about the future. The result - my part pension is significantly more pension than part! While I own my own house, house values in Benalla are such that there aren’t many places where I could afford a house as pleasant as I have here. So here I’ll stay! I’m learning to manage on the pension, have lots of interests which don’t cost a lot of money and always have plenty to do. A new world has ‘opened up’ for me in Benalla during my retirement to enrich my life, and I always have the ABC!
My body is also a challenge! Recurrent asthma and rising blood pressure continue to be treated by the doctors at the Carrier Street clinic while knee damage in 2002 from a fall on uneven road in Nunn Street has precipitated worsening mobility and the looming prospect of knee replacements. Fortunately it’s relatively easy to park close to any building in Benalla –an enormous plus! In early 2013 ‘in sickness and in health’ assumed new meaning when I was diagnosed with breast cancer only three months after retiring from teaching. A public patient at Wangaratta Hospital, I received impressive levels of care and recent test results were thankfully clear.
In conclusion, I would have to say my long term relationship with Benalla as a place hasn’t been a passionate one, but it has been a gently romantic and supportive relationship. I feel settled, safe, comfortable and peaceful in Benalla. I have many interests and many friends with shared values – in education; reading; the environment; arts and crafts; politics and more. I have good friends living nearby, vigilant neighbours who watch out for me and am thrilled to have vegetables planted by a wonderfully willing older worker (or ‘wower’) now thriving in my fertile Monds paddock backyard.
‘For better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’! It seems highly likely now that I will stay in Benalla until ‘death do me part’, perhaps joining my mother and uncle who have adjoining graves at Moorngag bush cemetery. The care they received in Benalla in their fragile ‘Fourth Age’ has given me heart that perhaps Benalla will do the same for me one day—and Moorngag’s bushland cemetery would certainly be a beautiful place for my ashes to settle.
September 21, 2015