‘Harriet Jane’, was my Great Grandmother’s name, and a detail I have known from a very young age. My Father would refer to his Grandmother as “Harriet Jane”, when embarking on yet another Grandma tale.
“Oh, Harriet Jane, she was a typical schoolteacher!” He’d say, referring to his Grandmother’s disciplinary ways.
My sisters and I laughed when he told us, “If I didn’t eat everything on my lunch plate, Grandma would place it in the ice chest and serve it up again and again until I ate it!”
I was also schooled in the position Harriet held on our family tree. She was the second oldest of nine children blessed to Irish Immigrants George and Harriet Deane. From a young age, I could also tell you the names of each of her siblings. Knowing such details seemed natural to me, like the physical features we inherit. Years down the track I was amazed at how little my friends knew about their ancestors; they knew neither, their Grandmothers’ maiden names, nor those of their Great Grandmothers. These details were normal inclusions of my family history education. My childhood was spent in the company of storytellers whose tales were varied and many. It was from those tales that I gleaned the few details I have of my Great Grandmother. In recent times, I have also relied on the memories of some of her Grandchildren.
In contrast to Dad’s accounts, his cousin Norma remembered Grandma with great affection.
“Grandma was firm, but I always found her to be fair.” She remembered from the times she and her siblings lived with their Grandparents.
I listened as Norma recalled happy times, pleased to hear that Grandma possessed redeeming qualities that my Father as a young boy had failed to see.
“Lenny and I lived with Grandma when we first got married,” Norma added. “She was like an older sister to me.”
Like Norma, her brother John was also sympathetic of his Grandmother.
“I don’t think my Grandparents’ life was particularly happy,” he said.
I listened intently as John spoke, waiting for him to tell me about a tragic event that caused the demise of his Grandparents’ life, but he simply added, “They had no money, they were poor.”
“They never gave us Christmas presents. Grandma would buy the cheapest cuts of meat and the cheapest jams…Lemon and melon was her favourite. I think my Grandfather received a small Army Pension, but little else.”
I am still left wondering about Harriet, the young girl. Who was the girl before life’s events moulded her into the person whom I was acquainted; the person my dad and his cousins knew? Who was the young girl adorned with frills, flounces and bows in her wedding photo? The young lady who chose an upswept hat, of frothy chiffon and floral blooms is a contrast to the stern disciplinarian of my father’s memories. If a photo speaks one thousand words, then Harriet Deane was a feminine girl, whose beauty, although captured in sepia tones, is still shouting out from the frame. Hers was not a beauty of the traditionally pretty kind; no, hers was timeless. Her glorious upswept crown of auburn red hair and her face of porcelain white, speak of her Irish heritage. It was those same traits that she passed down to my own family. She doesn’t smile, instead, she stares ahead towards the future of her dreams, with one hand gently placed on her seated sweetheart’s shoulder. It was a bond that would carry them along a rather difficult journey over the next fifty three years.
Perhaps it was that journey that helped strengthen her character, although she hailed from a family of strong characters. She was a product of Irish parents whose steely determination sought a better life than Ireland was offering during the 1860s. According to legend, Harriet’s father, George Deane and his sons were a wild, formidable mob. George was a man who “dared that he could, if dared that he could not”. One story puts them in the midst of a brawl in one of the local pubs. George receives a gash in his arm for his efforts, and proceeds to stitch it up with a needle and thread as he continues to enjoy his drink.
His strong independent mind was also inherited by his younger daughters Lily and Nelly. Both were champion equestrians. Both pursued nursing careers. Lily nursed in Egypt during The Great War. According to family stories, upon her homecoming she borrowed five pounds from her Mother and set off for Sydney. There, she made her money buying small rundown hospitals, building them up and selling them. She repaid her debt to her Mother and never looked back.
Meanwhile, Nelly settled for a life on the land, working with cattle and horses, proving to be a magnificent horsewoman. Behind the guise of a lady, her spirit was woven from those same tough threads that formed the fabric of the Deane family.
I’m curious whether Harriet was an accomplished horsewoman like her younger sisters. After-all, she came from a family of horse experts. Her Father and Brothers bought and sold horses throughout Queensland and as far south as the area where Canberra now stands. It has been said that George had an eye for a good horse and Harriet Snr bred horses when the family lived near Charters Towers.
Perhaps Harriet was less spirited than her younger sisters, although it has been hinted by family that, along with her red hair, a glimmer of the customary fiery temper occasionally surfaced. She definitely possessed the same steely grace as her sisters, carrying herself with a calm deliberation. Her Queensland teaching records describe her as being quiet and reserved, a temperament that may prefer quiet studious pursuits like reading and writing. Norma told me that Grandma and her Mother corresponded with each other every day.
Perhaps Harriet the Mother can be best characterized by her own words that she wrote to her son Ron on 13th May, 1923:
“I am glad you have noticed that you can find kindness and unselfishness wherever you go because I have often hinted to you that although you mightn’t be actually selfish, you were inclined to be very self-centred. Association with the world teaches us that we are very dependent on one another especially in sickness and sudden emergencies and when we receive kindness the least we can do is to pass it on, even if we cannot return it to those we received it from.”
These are the words of a Mother who cares about her son’s wellbeing; a Mother who sees the importance of a world filled with kindness and consideration. Her words indeed paint a portrait of a soft hearted woman.
At the end of her life’s journey, the elderly Harriet hadn’t lost those soft feminine traits of her youth. The delicate black ribbon she tied around her whispy white hair, the lace curtains on her windows, the shimmery silk quilt on her bed and the faded floral teacups from which she drank tea, all painted a picture of femininity. Perhaps the soft side of her nature had at times been overshadowed by living with a soldier for a husband and four sons.
Harriet did enjoy working in her garden. When I commented to Norma that Grandma’s garden was always nice, she looked at me and said “I thought it was rather bare, myself.”
The flower beds that lined the front garden path were sparsely planted with single gerberas, plain and unfanciful flowers. The hedge that shielded the downstairs regions of her house was kept carefully pruned. Her garden mirrored the latter years of her life in that it was simple, orderly and uncomplicated. She had at last found peace in her life; something that, despite world peace being declared twice in her lifetime, she was never able to previously achieve for herself.