My elderly mother in law is at her beach house safe, but stuck; unable to drive as rising floodwaters have cut off the highway between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane. She's helpless, and has been told to stay put, there's nothing she can do, leave it to us kids. Nevertheless, she frets all day about her home where she raised five children. She wrings her hands and listens to the radio. It's all she can do.
I drive over at 8am to check out her home on the river at Indooroopilly and note the flood measurements. The water was almost up to the eaves of a small backyard shed. I took a photo on my phone and emailed it straight to my husband, who was anxiously battling his own rising waters in Caboolture, at the car Dealership.
Handing my camera to my brother in law, I ask him to walk around and photograph the house before we begin. We two in-laws begin to pack mum in laws life and family history. Starting in the dining room, I rescued her beloved mother’s china and dinner set, wrapping each beautiful plate in Qld Country Life newspaper – ironically with headlines of the flood – and placing them in old packing cartons I had stored in my garage. I knew one day they’d come in handy!
After a solid two hours of wrapping and packing, my brother in law tells me he has ‘put the jug on’ to make me a cuppa. He’s very considerate like that. We are both children of Anglican priests and we laugh and joke about our parents’ unusual trade.
“I don’t really do tea at this hour of the day, any wine in her fridge?” Cheekily we open a chilled red wine, and toast to her house and contents and family. (Only my mother in law would keep a red wine in the fridge!) I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.
I’ll say one thing about my mother in law, boy can she hoard! She’s kept every piece of china (three broken cup handles in the cupboard) and every thing she’s ever bought. Music sheets, old videos covered in gecko poo, empty bottles of cocktail mixers and so on. Her own mother’s china is carefully wrapped and placed into proper moving cartons. I make executive decisions not to take certain glassware, these can easily be replaced and we have to prioritise. Brother in law moves around quietly rescuing the photographs and pictures from the walls, carefully stacking them in order to easily move them. My mother in law is also a photographer, and we open cupboard and cupboard, drawer after drawer, and find in dismay more photo albums, more slides, more negatives, more, more, more!
In frustration I crossly open one album, only to find myself staring back, my sons grinning at the camera. I’ve never seen these images! I’m dressed in white, my own camera firmly strapped to my side, we are sailing the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. My husband is skippering the yacht, we all look so happy.
|My Youngest on the winch.|
There’s a lot to be said for scouts, and all of it about empowering the individual to dig deep within himself, to be strong, to grow that spine.
The phone rings in a constant stream of concern from Tony, my young brother in law who now lives in Cairns. He tells us to talk to a local man up the hill, who knows everything about floods and water. We seek him out and are pleased he will be able to meet us in an hour’s time. The next day my husband tells me this man - a physicist - married a nun, and had eight children! Meanwhile, we start on packing her bedroom and bathroom, TV, DVD player, cd’s and so forth.
Her daughter arrives, and then we move like a team, more boxes, more packing tape, more newspapers. She grabs insurance papers and filing cabinet stuff. Yes, there is flood insurance. Whew. We relax but only for a moment. When her sister and her American husband arrive soon after, I insist we stop and take a photograph of us all, and the home which will never be the same again. Chairs are hurriedly pulled together, the timer is set. Smile!
More wrapping, more photographs. Strangers arrive with a shy smile. “Can we help?”
“Do you have any storage room please? A garage? “
As we speak I glance out the window, to see a pontoon floating past, unmanned. It’s shocking, but we are to see far worse than that as the day unfolds.
|A yacht drifts down the river - as sailors we all feel helpless|
The swimming pool looks so enticing, and three frangipannis sit quietly in the same position all day. I watch them during the day, they give me peace, calming wild thoughts.
More neighbours arrive, no doubt summoned by the high pitched alarms going off earlier. No, we are not looting, yes, we would love you to help. A woman called Marge runs home in the rain to change into daggy clothes. Two strapping lads – all height and muscles – arrive to begin to lift the furniture. Lists are made: furniture to someone’s garage, boxes to this person’s home, storage gone to this one’s house. We have to keep track of it all.
My husband rings on the mobile. The Caboolture River is rising fast, areas are evacuated, most of the staff have left to save their own homes. We have no flood insurance. Really, it’s only water, and stuff, and cars. The important thing is we are all safe. I begin to sing.
Raindrops keep falling on my head… and my American brother in law rushes into the room, singing with me, and twirls me around. We waltz and spin, laughing and singing. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” he says grinning.
Er…yes. I was thinking Johnny Farnham. A quick hug and it’s back to work. Family work, work with strangers, whose kindness we embrace and hold onto.
I update Twitter in between cartons, noting my fingers are black with printer’s ink. Ironically I used to work for The Land and Qld Country Life newspapers, and I wrap each rose patterned china cup in headline news of the floods.
“Soaked! Big cotton crop drenched” the headlines shout. Memories of my time as a young advertising representative, living at Murphy’s Creek, working in Toowoomba, flood back. No pun intended.
Towels are spread at the front door, not to keep out the water, but to keep us from slipping. I am wearing my old ladies shoes, red leather (like the Popes) as I cannot afford to fall and hurt myself. We all walk deliberately slower than we normally would. It’s like a bad dream, everything is happening in slow motion.
Old school friends ring me, full of concern. Ann, in Nambour. Julie, herself stuck at Five Rocks. We chat and speak at the horror in Toowoomba.
In the childhood room of my sister in laws I open a huge drawer under the bed. It’s full of wrapped newspaper parcels.
|Salt and pepper anyone?|
"Mandy! What do you want done with these?” I yell. It seems they are a salt and pepper collection from a great aunt, they must be saved, even though they’ve never been viewed since her passing 20 years ago. We aren’t rescuing stuff, we are rescuing memories.
In other cupboards, two dolls fall out, one dressed in pink with a creepy blue eye staring at me; one naked. She’s kept everything, good or not, useful or not, worthless, worthy, it’s all kept.
Another pontoon breaks loose with a very expensive speedboat on it, perched gaily sailing down the river, spinning slowly. There are rips and eddies out there, the river is an untamed child, kicking her heels in defiance. I won’t do it, I won’t go, I must, I must, I must!
|A speedboat perched high and dry spins it crewless way to the river mouth|
There are two sets of Children’s encyclopaedias. To leave, or to take. They are probably worth money, collectables. They are probably worthless, redundant. A family discussion, they are saved. If we have time, and if we have boxes, things are saved. I pack her bathroom, taking only the fuller shampoos, lotions, toilet paper.
A man, a stranger to me, stands beside me, gazing out to the river. His hair is grey, classic gold glasses perch, spotted with raindrops. I resist the urge to take them off and wipe them.
“What do you do Peter?” I ask him.
“I’m a doctor. I live up ther street.”
My head begins to fill with figures and statistics. Wivenhoe Dam is at 195%. Bremmer River to peak at 19 metres, no, 22 metres. It will be as worse, it will be worse, The Caboolture River will peak at 3.3 metres. Below me the water laps the roof of the garden shed. It’s almost covered.
Someone places a chocolate biscuit in my mouth. I don’t even look to see who it was, I eat it greedily.
Most of the stuff, and all of the furniture has been packed, wrapped and moved. I’m spent, exhausted, and sit on the remaining seat to send a message to my husband and son. My eldest boy is mopping out my own home, rainwater floods into a bedroom downstairs, and I forgot to roll up the rugs when I left this morning.
|My own home has flooded, but this is rainfall, not flood water|
My hair is sticking to my head, I stink, and my feet are red, discoloured from the Pope’s colouring coming off on my damp feet.
In a final push to the kitchen I note with dismay mother in law has also kept every piece of plastic, every baking tin, every recipe book. I pack her books, she loves to cook. There’s nothing much to save in the fridge, but I take out some meat from the freezer. Her daughter hands me a bottle of sweet chilli sauce.
“Here Patty, take this!” and we both laugh, knowing how much mother in law loves her sauce.
In time I beg to go home, but my car is missing. Men have been using it all day, for the 4wd capacity, and the tow ball; hauling trailer after trailer to strangers homes.
|We expect the water to completly cover the roofline|
“I’m done, I’ve got nothing left,” I yawn, and I wonder how I can leave with some dignity, leaving them here to continue to pack. I feel such a coward, a chicken, a useless, worthless piece of gutless waste-of-space, but I can do no more. There’s no energy in my tank, and I must go home. When I get into the car, someone has changed my clock. Why would they do that? For goodness sakes! It says it’s 5.55pm, and it’s clearly only just after lunch. The 6pm news comes on the radio, and I’m shocked. Shocked at the whole day gone, shocked at the nightmare of packing, and mess of lives, and secretly delighted it’s so late. That explains why I’m tired.
Drive home James, and don’t spare the horses.