Harriet Jane Lyons

‘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.”

William & Harriet (Deane) Lyons_NEW

William and Harriet Lyons married 15th October 1902

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.

George & Harriet Deane

George and Harriet Deane (Harriet Lyons’ parents)

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.



Eight Years of Sundays

Grandma's house 2The house at 10 Redpath Street was nothing out of the ordinary.  It was typical as far as old timber Queensland houses go, suspended high on timber stumps with a verandah that swept across the front and down one side.  It was not magnificently large, nor was it perfectly positioned.   The football field across the street set the scene for very noisy Sunday afternoon visits and often the footy fans who parked across the driveway roused Dad’s temper because they blocked our exit. Even the garden, which was kept neat and weed-free could not be described as beautiful.

Despite its inability to stand out on the architectural landscape, that old house holds a special place in my heart.  It was Grandma’s house.  It was the keeper of my childhood memories; the place where my entire set of “Grandma Memories” were played out.

Grandma was my great Grandmother and I was only acquainted with her for the first eight years of my life.  The only words that I imagine I said to her would have been “hello”, “thank you”, “please” and goodbye”.  Age earned her respect.  Manners were mandatory. This was the sixties, children were expected to be seen and not heard.

The scenes of my memories take place on Sunday afternoons when my family visited for tea. The scenario never changed from one Sunday to the next.  We always found Grandma in her bedroom during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

“Hello Grandma,” Mum softly announces our arrival as she enters Grandma’s bedroom. My sisters, my Dad and I follow.

Grandma looks up from her book, her blue eyes widen from surprise as they peer through rimless spectacles.

“Hello….I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” she gives us one of her faint half smiles.

“How’s Grandma?” Dad asks.

“One can’t complain,” Grandma replies as she pulls herself up against her cosy nest of pillows.  She places her well-read book face down onto the blue vintage quilt and proceeds to push a few stray strands of white hair back off her face. The expanse of blue quilt seems to dwarf Grandma’s already diminutive frame.

“I’ll boil the kettle, shall I?” says Grandma.  Her words are more a statement than a question.

The soothing aroma of hot tea and freshly baked scones warmly invite us to take our seats around Grandma’s oval table.  The silent sound of anticipation clings to the steam that rises from the teapot as all eyes focus on Grandma.  From the moment she takes charge of the pot, all the frailties of her 90 years evaporate, giving way to a demeanour of quiet self-assurance.  She becomes that young school teacher she once was.  She is in command of her class.  We are her students.

As she churns the thick black brew with a silver spoon, I count to myself.  First clockwise…one…two…and three.  Her hand pauses, before it slowly urges the spoon in the opposite direction… one…two…three.  She pauses again, then replaces the lid on the pot, lets it sit for another few moments before she pours the steaming black liquid into delicate china cups.  Once she has handed out the cups of tea, she leans against the backrest of her chair lifting her cup to her thin pursed lips.  With each sip, she seems to inhale the steam rising from the cup, savouring the moment, allowing that young school teacher to return to the past.

Whilst the adults sip their tea and slip into conversation, my sisters and I sink into our chairs silently stuffing our mouths with plump pumpkin scones smothered in butter and jam.  I cannot concentrate on the adult conversation for long as there is too much to see and too little time.  I love visiting Grandma’s old house, it is full of wonderful treasures.  Everything is so old.  Even the teacups seem to be as old as Grandma with their fine network of cracks and lines…just like her face!

These afternoon tea scenes at Grandma’s house play over and over in my mind.  The details rarely vary.  I cannot recall any conversations.  Time has silenced Grandma’s Irish Brogue.  My memories are like silent movies, the star of which I realize I know very little about.  I wish I had been a precocious child who incessantly asked questions.  If only I could revisit those years and quiz Grandma about her life; about her childhood, her life on the farm, her husband and about my Grandfather’s childhood escapades.  It never occurs to a child that the words “The End” will one day appear on that big silver screen in the sky.  It never occurred to me that Grandma would one day leave our lives forever.  Hindsight leaves us with many “if onlys”. Sadly, when I visited Grandma all those years ago, there were no questions burning holes in my young mind.

I am forever grateful for my own set of memories from those Sunday visits.  Although faded with time, they are precious. They are all I have to hold onto with any degree of certainty.  Now, fifty years on, I am left with the question, “Who was Harriet Lyons?”  During her long life, she was characterized by the titles of “Daughter”, “Sister”, “Aunt”, “Wife”, “Mother”, “Grandmother” and “Great Grandmother”. Who was the woman behind those titles?  Born in 1875, she witnessed great changes as the world transitioned from the 19th to the 20th century.  Her life would have also been tempered by two world wars and the great depression.  Perhaps I might find clues lurking in the dark regions of those old cupboards that silently sat in her home.  Year after year, they witnessed her life unfold.  Perhaps, even you, my readers, knew Grandma better than I did, and have your own stories to be told?

Welcome to my life behind cupboard doors

WMJ portrait

William M.J. Lyons

Dearest Family and Friends,

I sincerely wish each and every one of you a most wonderful and joyous Christmas.

One hundred years ago, I spent Christmas convalescing in the No. 3 London General Hospital, following my evacuation from the bloody shores of Gallipoli the September before.  That Christmas marked the end of the most horrific year of my career.

The complete story of my Military career has remained untold.  Now with the passing of time, the wounds of war have healed, and through my Great Granddaughter, Kim Chambers, I am ready to speak more freely of my experiences.

So, dear family, I invite you to the opening of my old cupboard doors;  to watch this space, each week, as my story unfolds.

Kindest Regards

Captain William Lyons (deceased)