Memories of a rural childhood – F is for figs and flower shows



Dad loved figs and regularly checked for ripe fruit in the trees near the house.  These figs were a small variety, pale in colour, but very tasty – quite a contrast to the also tasty but much larger, darker figs that I first met in the backyard of the house we bought from a Greek family in Coburg, and that I am fighting a losing battle for with the hungry birds in my current garden!

Flower Shows

The annual winter flower show started when I was quite young. My grandmother and I both had an entry in the first show. Soon it was a regular part of our year. At Brownies, we were shown how best to decorate saucers of sand so none of the sand was visible and instructed about the fundamentals of floral art.

Getting all the entries ready was quite a process, especially for Mum! During the day, she collected and scrubbed all of Dad’s vegetables for the Produce section, and also gathered most of the flowers, leaves, sand and vases we would need after school. It was a rush to get everything ready and in place at the local hall by the 7 pm deadline. Last minute repairs were often needed, even though the most delicate entries were cradled on our laps in the car!

I still have certificates showing that I won or came second in such sections as “Arrangement for a Dressing Table”, “As I Like It”, “Craft for Girls”, “Arrangement to Illustrate a Nursery Rhyme”, “Flat Arrangement in a Saucer of Damp Sand”, “Creature made of Horticultural Material” and even one for “Parsnips”. I think that I won “Best in Section” a couple of times but can only remember one of the prizes, a colourful book about native flowers! Dad won many prizes for “Collection of Vegetables” and lots of other certificates.


Memories of a rural childhood – E is for eels, eczema and education



The dam at the bottom of the hill was conveniently located for my brothers to try out their fishing rods. As their big sister, I seemed to mostly spend my time attaching worms and untangling the lines. Not many fish were caught, mainly just eels. These were carried back up the hill for Mum to cook. The whole family had a share, sometimes just a tiny morsel. There were yabbies in the dam too, but these weren’t caught very often!


Imagine having to bandage your young child from head to toe, including a face mask. That’s what my mother had to do when I developed weeping sores due to eczema from the age of 6 months. Whether it was due to a food intolerance or an allergy was never established. I was fortunate in that I was only hospitalised for a couple of weeks and eventually recovered fully. Allergies to pollens and dust have caused me to have hay fever symptoms and itchy eyes from time to time, but I have never had eczema again. One of my brothers was far more severely affected for a much longer time than me. I vaguely remember Mum bathing him in Pinetarsol and then dabbing the sores with cotton wool soaked in Gentian Violet. My sister and I sometimes used the leftovers to anoint our dolls!


Our parents were determined to enable all their children to make the most of their educational opportunities. It must have been quite a challenge to pay for books and uniforms at times. A couple of us winning scholarships must have helped! Mum and Dad definitely succeeded in this aim, as all eight of us started some form of tertiary education and it has become an expectation for the next generation.

D is for dracunculus and decimal currency


Dracunculus vulgaris

These unusual lilies were originally planted by my grandfather, Frederick Arthur Roberts. They grew near the old chestnut tree for many years and had nearly died out by the time Mum and I decided to rescue them. We knew them as Dead Horse Lilies though that name is usually given to a different species. They have beautifully marked green and white stems and deep purple flowers. A wonderful garden plant except for the smell of rotting meat on the one or two days a year that it needs to attract flies for pollination! The hotter the day, the worse the smell.

dead horse lilystems






Decimal Currency

Australia changed from using pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents on 14th February 1966. My first view of the new currency occurred that morning on the school bus when one of our teachers showed us some shiny new coins with Australian animals on the reverse.  There seemed to be quite a fuss being made of the “decimal currency babies” who were born that day. My youngest brother had arrived five days earlier and so missed out on the attention.

Memories of a rural childhood – C is for Chickens, Carrots, Corn and Chilblains



My sister and I once washed some chickens! We were very young at the time – preschoolers! I have no real memories of the washing process but have a very vague mental picture of a number of very wet, bedraggled dead chickens lined up on a potato or sugar bag in the sun. Needless to say, Mum wasn’t impressed with our helping the hen to keep her chickens clean!


Helping Dad at the carrot washer was a semi-frequent task after school on winter Mondays and Wednesdays. The rollers sorted the carrots into three size ranges: small, premium, and large. We checked the carrots as they rolled down the slope, discarded any deformed or broken ones and pushed the rest into the labelled plastic bags. Dad dealt with the larger numbers of the best size. I preferred the little ones as there was always a chance of nibbling a few of the very tasty broken tips. They were definitely the best carrots for eating raw. Nothing in the shops these days is in any way comparable to these freshly washed morsels. It was fun to use the big scales to weigh the bags and the gadget that twisted the wires holding the bags closed.


Dad started growing corn at about the time I started High School. Having an income at the same time as all the expenses of buying books and uniforms and the haircuts and dentist visits was very useful. Fresh corn was a regular part of our diet in summer from then on – cooked within a few minutes of picking. Fresh is definitely best! Lots of the excess corn was frozen for use for the rest of the year.


We alternately walked or rode bikes to primary school but caught the bus to high school. Standing for ages waiting for the bus on frosty mornings was not fun! Leather school shoes and thin grey stockings provided little insulation from the cold, so chilblains were a regular occurrence!


Memories of a rural childhood – B is for Blackberries and Birthdays



The best blackberries to pick were often in the most difficult places. I remember one time when I donned gumboots and carried a bucket and billy down the hill in order to pick the large, sweet, tasty, well-watered blackberries near the creek at the bottom. Our dog Axel accompanied me. He stood beside the bucket whilst I clambered out along a fallen gum tree to pick the delicious fruits. Every so often I returned to empty the billy into the bucket. I was impressed with Axel’s loyalty and staying power until I realised that he, having a sweet tooth, was helping himself from the conveniently placed bucket!


I was most impressed when reading an extract from a Family Bible with my Grandmother, I realised that I was born 100 years to the day after my great grandfather, Robert Ferres – and that one of my brothers was born 100 years after one of his brothers! The chances of such duplication seemed quite incredible.

Many years later when teaching probability to a year 12 Maths class, I came across the shared birthday paradox – in a room of 23 people, the chance of two sharing the same birthday is 50%. I took a chance and introduced the concept. My students were sceptical until we shared birthdays and, fortunately for me, discovered that two of them did share a birthday! Anyone interested in the maths can find a relatively simple explanation on this site. It doesn’t, however, help with the added complexity of the 100-year gap!




Memories of a rural childhood – A is for Apples and Apricots



My maternal grandmother Ida Mary Gibson Roberts (nee Ferres) visited us one day a week for many years. One of my most enduring memories is of her sitting at the kitchen table peeling, trimming and cutting up huge piles of windfall apples (even the very tiniest most grub-eaten ones) so they could be stewed for the family to eat with our evening meal.


Some hot years Dad drove into the Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market between Christmas and New Year to take advantage of the availability of cheaper fruit at that time. We loved it when he came home with many cases of luscious, ripe apricots. We kids ate lots of them fresh. We also helped with cutting them in half and placing them in the Fowler’s Vacola bottles ready for preserving and cutting them up for jam making.