The Brisbane River twists and turns its way through our city; doubling back and kinking its ancient river beds into a shape only a contortionist would recognise.
In front of my mother-in-laws home, it becomes a bay; a quiet inlet of tiny mud crabs and mangroves. It’s a beautiful chocolate brown river at the best of times; my sons have rowed on it, we have crossed its many bridges admiring the strength of her water and the elegance of hidden curves within the suburbs. Today the river sits in my mother-in-laws kitchen, and lounge room, and her children’s bedrooms. A mud crab peaks out from behind what were once placemats and serviettes; and scuttles off within the swollen cupboards again, hiding from the volunteers who have emerged to help.
When I drove to my mother-in-law's home yesterday morning, the second day of cleaning, my heart sank. I was the only car there. ‘Never mind, buckle up, and get on with it” I roused on myself. Again I walked around and took images, noting each stage of de-construction and repair. It’s difficult to know where to start. I need the pool area mud shovelled and then gurneyed off, and eye off the monster water gurney my husband has brought home from his work. I have no idea how to operate it. I can barely wheel it, let alone start the petrol engine.
Soon, Steve the builder arrives, and we walk around the house inspecting each room for structural damage. Call me Blisters, he tells me. Blisters? Yeah, I always turn up after all the hard work is done.
We stand together, arms folded, just looking. He points to a crack in the wall.
Was that here before?
No. I photographed all of this area, and I don’t remember seeing that.
This is bad, Patty, he tells me.
Yeah, I know.
I’m still uploading some images to Twitter when the first sound came.
“Yoo hooo” a cheery voice called out. “Good morning!” and there they are again; my marvellous Mormon Angels. There’s one or two familiar faces and the rest are new, eager young men with American accents, fresh faced stunning blonde women who should be still coming home from a nightclub.
They have brought an army of supplies today. Huge 10 litre spray bottles of disinfectant, new hoses, cleaning wipes, brooms, and stuff I can’t even recall. My brain simply cannot take it all in. We hug, and I burst into tears in their arms.
“Thankyou for coming again, thankyou, thankyou” and my voice becomes strangled and tight, I can barely speak.
“It’s our pleasure to be here and to serve you” they say, again. Wiping my tears away, it’s time to get serious. First, the pool area; and the gorgeous blonde and the young man take new shovels and begin the disgusting task of shovelling the thick mud, which is now drying at an alarming rate. It’s heavy, thankless, back-breaking work.
Wave after wave of smiling faces come into the house; some of the men organise themselves into teams, others come to me for direction. I begin to pack away dry food from the cupboard. Like most of our own pantries, some food has weevils and is clearly out of date, and other foodstuffs are new, recently purchased. I place them into two separate piles, but somewhere along the line both piles are tossed out. Oh well. We all meant well. It’s time to clean out the fridge. This is soon hauled up the driveway, and the mud that is left is disheartening.
Teams of women remove all that is left of the girls rooms. Mud and water have obviously damaged so much, but they find small things that may be salvageable. Another pile is created in the driveway, for mother-in-law to sift through.
An older woman comes to me: “Would your mother-in-law like this kept?” she asks, holding up an ancient, broken clock radio.
“I’m sure she would like that kept, but we are going to throw it out” I say, and we both burst out laughing.
During the morning Blisters comes to me.
"You shouldn’t be cleaning Patty, you need to be organising the people."
Yes, I know, but what more can I do? I already have three people cleaning out the laundry area, the pool area is beginning to look more reasonable, and the fridge has been moved, along with the washing machine and dryer.
Unknown to me, others are quietly moving the green waste from the side of the house, restoring the pathway that will give us access to the front of the house. I’m taking as many images as I can, for myself, for my mother-in-law and the insurers. Teams of two take out rubbish piles. I have no idea what it is. I stop them and try to photograph it, but it’s just a pile of bloody muddy mess. Unrecognisable.
Standing at the doorway of the girl’s bedroom, I hear a woman – on her hands and knees deep in 2 inches of mud and soggy chipboard – say to her colleague: “Its so good to be here working with you, this is such fun.”
“Are you serious?” I ask her, incredulously.
“Yes, we don’t get the chance to work together often, I’m really enjoying myself.”
The attitude of my Mormon Angels astounds me, I am so grateful, and touched.
Blisters and his friend, Ian, tackle the curtains. They need a ladder to access them but it must be done.
“Come on dearie, we’re on the curtains” Blisters mocks, and soon I have two piles. One to be thrown and one of each curtain, for insurance.
My husband has asked one of his employees, Wayne, to come and lend a hand. He turns up with his family of two young sons, and his wife. They all pitch in, mucking out the storage shed downstairs, until we all decide it’s just too dangerous in the slippery, stinking mud.
At lunchtime, the leader of the Mormon group comes to me. “Would you like to join us for lunch, Patty?”
I hesitate, but only for a moment, the truth is I haven’t had breakfast, so together we walk up the driveway, away from the hive of activity, but closer to the shocking pile of what was my mother-in-laws house.
There is a cardboard box full of beautifully wrapped food. Fresh sandwiches, in at least 6 different fillings; fresh fruit, apples, bananas, muesli bars and so on.
A large plastic container is full of tasty chocolate cupcakes with white icing. It’s obvious that much love and care has been placed into each lunch. Volunteers sit on the roadway, exhausted. I bite into my cheese and Vegemite sandwich, only to my embarrassment, hear the leader begin to say Grace. I swallow quickly and close my eyes, hands clasped.
His Grace is long and eloquent, and I squeeze my eyes as he also blesses me and my mother-in-laws home.
After we have eaten, finally, my mother-in-law arrives with her daughter. She’s naturally shocked, and quietly; slowly, walks around the house she designed and raised her five children in. She’s one of the lucky ones, really. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose so much, but she has also been saved so much. We have all of her furniture, all of her photographs, all of her precious belongings and clothes. We have her home in cardboard boxes. Others in Brisbane have had water up to their ceiling, lost their possessions, lost their loved ones. We are all so blessed in comparison.
She comes to us, still standing outside, taking a moment to relax. “I don’t know what to say. Thankyou. Thankyou all.”
Her bed, the white sycamore bed, is going to be taken away to be restored, it should come up ok, and she’s so grateful. I leave them to it; tag off with her daughter, and head for home.
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