The white sycamore bed was made for her wedding day; in fact, the whole suite of bedroom furniture was handmade by her father, who owned a joinery shop in Ipswich. Her five children were conceived there, and it is where her husband passed away, sleeping peacefully on the left-hand side. For more than 44 years it has overlooked the Brisbane River, and now I watch with sadness as the muddy waters lap relentlessly at the bedroom door.
We can’t move it. There’s not enough of us, and nowhere to store it. We have no tools. We have to make executive decisions on what to take, what to leave. I spent an entire day packing up my mother-in-law’s life. I drove through pouring rain to begin the melancholy chore of packing, wrapping, sorting, rescuing her home.
It has endured the 1974 floods and already I can see the waterline has crept up past the eaves of the garage shed. Two tyres swirl in a backwash eddy, spinning lazy circles. A bush turkey looks confused, standing on the water’s edge, peering in.
Handing my camera to my brother-in-law, I ask him to walk around and photograph the house before we begin. Starting in the dining room, I rescued a beloved china dinner set, wrapping each plate in Qld Country Life newspaper — ironically with headlines of the flood — and placing them in old packing cartons.
I decide not to take certain glassware, as these can easily be replaced and we have to prioritise. Photographs and pictures from the walls are rescued and stacked carefully. My mother-in-law is an enthusiastic photographer. We open cupboard upon cupboard, drawer after drawer, to find with dismay more photo albums, more slides, more negatives, more, more, more!
In frustration I crossly opened one album, only to find myself staring back at my family, grinning into the camera. I’ve never seen these photos before! I am dressed in white and 15 years younger, sailing the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. My husband is skippering the yacht. We all look so happy.
My sister-in-law arrives and we move as a team, packing more boxes, cushioning the contents with newspapers and care, securing them with love. She grabs insurance papers and filing cabinet stuff. Yes, there is flood insurance. My other little sister-in-law and her American husband arrive soon after. I insist we stop and take a photograph of us all, and the home that will never be the same again. Chairs are hurriedly pulled together, the timer is set. Smile!
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 were to see far worse, as the day unfolded.
More neighbours arrived. No, we are not looting. Yes, we would love you to help. Lists are made: furniture, boxes, storage. We have to keep track of it all.
I update Twitter in between cartons, noting how my fingers are black with printer’s ink. Towels are spread across the front door, not to keep out the water, but to keep us from slipping. I wear my old lady’s shoes; red leather (like the Pope’s) 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 happens in slow motion.
I open a huge drawer under the bed. It’s full of wrapped newspaper parcels.
We weren’t rescuing stuff, we were rescuing memories. Mother-in-law kept everything, good or not, useful or not, worthless, worthy. It was all sentimentally kept.
Another pontoon breaks loose. A very expensive speedboat is perched on it, gaily sailing down the river; sightseeing, 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!
There are two sets of children’s encyclopedias. To leave, or to take? They are probably worth money, collectables. They are probably worthless, redundant. A family discussion: they are saved.
The following day my son and I arrived just in time to see the water swirl around the house, and as we watch, water laps onto the cream carpet. Our timing is superb. We nearly cry, but don’t; it’s pointless. You can’t change Mother Nature, and it’s only a house.
The home has all been packed away, for now.
This article was first published on Crikey.com