Hanging from the tree was an old car tyre which formed a swing. Today there are trampolines, in my day there were swings. Many happy hours were spent swinging from this tree and probably many falls resulting in numerous bruises and gravel rashes.
Next, after Mum’s death In January 1937, there was a large Cyprus tree at the Villa Maria Boys Boarding School in the countryside of Ballarat East. Villa was a converted mansion in a property of approximately 40 acres. It was run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, whose main girls’ convent was situated in a Ballarat East complex.
The mansion was fronted by a very large garden, with a circular lawn surrounded by gravel and plants. Alongside the garden the nuns had installed a large asphalt playground.
In the far corner of the playground stood a majestic Cyprus tree. To me, as a 5-year old, it was huge!
(There were 6 nuns catering for 25 boys ranging in age from 5 years to 13 or 14 years. I was the second youngest).
This tree was a haven for the boys, and one can imagine all of us, at some stage or another, climbing it. As you got older, you climbed higher.
The older boys had an apparatus comprising two opened jam tins connected by a length of cord. One boy would climb the tree with one jam tin to his mouth and communicate with another on the ground, holding the other jam tin to his ear. Was this an early telephone?? One can only imagine.
From the foot of the tree to the front road was a much lower Cyprus hedge. The space between the feet of the trees comprising the hedge made for little cubby holes for the boys. I shared one with Johnno Crotty. This was our private space—no intruders!!
At the end of the hedge was the front fence and the main road. On the other side of the road was the main railway line between Melbourne and Geelong.
Among the kids there were some very unhappy ones, missing a home environment. It was not uncommon for somebody to suddenly go missing. The rest of us would form a search part to try and locate the runaway.
A group of us would regularly play in the lane and watch the trains go by, particularly the Geelong train. Why?? One of us, Peter Langdon, had his mother living in Geelong. There was never any mention of a father.
For some reason we wondered how easy it would be to catch the Geelong train. Words led to action. We put all our threepenny pieces together to enable Peter to buy a ticket and planned for him to “run away”, walk the several miles to the Victoria Street tram, then the Lydiard Street tram to the railway station. On boarding the train Peter would, on approaching Villa, hang a handkerchief out the window to signify to the rest of us that he was on board. All this was successful. What we weren’t privy to was the scolding Peter’s mother gave him while immediately arranging to bring him back to Villa.
Some 30 or 40 years later I met Peter at a school reunion where he chided me for being the instigator of his unfortunate experience.
In the countryside surrounding Villa there was a pine plantation. The falling pine needles provided a lovely soft bed to encourage toboganing. We would gather any piece of timber or discarded corrugated iron to use as a sled. One day I came to grief and an edge of rusted iron became embedded in my shin. I managed to hide my wound until it became infected, and puss oozed from it. My visit to the infirmary met with a chastisement and a several day spell in bed. I still carry a scar.
There were some good days and some bad days at Villa. Unfortunately, I tend to remember the bad days and have been known to write that I could never readily recall the good ones.
I must admit that the nuns gave me a good education, resulting in my merit certificate. They also provided me with a home, such as it was, for 7½ years, which I would not otherwise have had.
It is not fair, then, for me to ridicule the “mercy” part of “Sisters of Mercy”. I cannot expect that they would fill the void, or the emptiness, of a childhood without a mother.