My grandmother was a domestic goddess who could put Nigella to shame. When she wasn’t baking her own bread, with its comforting smell which filled the house, eaten, straight from the oven dripping butter down our faces, she was clothing us in exquisitely hand-sewn dresses, knitting my grandpa’s socks, or making biscuits and shortbread. The house was neat as the pins that lived in her beautifully hand-embroidered pincushions. Somehow the traits of domesticity weren’t inherited by either me or my mum, so when we went over to Perth to visit the rest of our family, Mum’s mending accompanied her on the drive over the Nullabor so her big sister could sort it out for her. My sister and I flew over, marvelling at how big Australia is. I’d just handed in my last ever essay for my four-year degree and I spent the first part of the trip feeling lost, and terrified of all the choices I was facing as my comfortable student life with all its well-worn, familiar contours was snatched out from under my feet.
What did I want to do with my life? There I was, after four years of study, without a clue.
Our family is split by Australia, and the visit was a bit of a reunion. We hadn’t seen much of each other since my nana died a few years ago. We gathered in my aunty’s kitchen in the 40 degree heat to pore over her old cookbooks. With a steady stream of one-sided conversations directed to our grandparents in the heavens (located somewhere not far above my aunty’s ceiling, apparently) we baked and ate. Caught together, in the intimacy of a history of shared memories: of drinking tea from the same china, being held in the same arms, of familiar stories and the same associations of smells – my nana’s perfume, worn by both my aunty and my mum, mingled with the deliciousness of baking shortbread.
When it came to leaving, I decided to join my parents on the drive home. We took over a week to cover the same distance as that four hour flight, and got to see the sheer and surprising size of Australia, and just how dry and empty it can be where the roads don’t have bends and the only sign of human life are the roadhouses and the road kill.
The first night we spent in Kalgoorlie. The lady in the tourist information centre said we should go to the Super Pit. It’s probably the biggest hole you’ll ever see. An open-cut mine where trucks whose wheels are more than twice as tall as me trundle incessantly, carrying the dirt from the bottom to the top for the gold that’s in it. It’s dry and it’s dusty and it’s breathtakingly huge; for a sensitive type not into trucks and explosions it seemed more than a little desolate.
After the Super Pit we went to the Mining Hall of Fame, which the tourist information lady had claimed was a highlight. We went on a tour of an underground mine. It would be a lie to say that the retired miner who took the tour was charming, although he was certainly a character. He greeted the apparently bad news that I live in Sydney with something of a sneer which paled into insignificance beside the open disdain he held for the group of French tourists unfortunate enough to accompany us. As we wandered through the twisting tunnels in the darkness he embarked on a non-stop monologue about a group even worse than the French: the female population as a whole, out to do nothing but gossip and chatter and steal a man’s hard-earned money. He clinched his tour with a little joke. “Would you like to work in a mine?” he asked the one little girl who had actually been paying attention the entire time and making excited comments about her ambitions in the mining industry. She nodded. “Well I have the machine for you. It has a pedal, and a needle, and it’s called a Singer sewing machine, that’s what women can do!” He laughed wheezily, apparently under the impression that he had just shared a particularly breathtaking witticism. We thanked God it was the end of the tour and raced to the lift that would take us back, not only to light and air and the cafe, but also, it would seem, to the values of the 21st century.
Dad assured me that it had been an excellent opportunity to get a taste of what real old-fashioned miners were like, redolent with authenticity. I wasn’t impressed. How dare he suggest that the little girl with her sparkly pigtails and enthusiasm should stick with domesticity. I grew up, shorthaired and dirty, firmly believing I could do anything anyone could. The angriest I can remember being was when a boy at camp suggested I couldn’t be the leader of our canoe because as a boy the position should go to him, never mind that I was better at paddling than he was, and he got a sound telling off from both by me and the teacher. This was my world – princess one day, ship’s boy the next, and if my fairy costume happened to get covered in mud, so be it.
After the tour we hurried to a picnic area for a restoring bite to eat. There were two women there and we got chatting. They had come to Kalgoorlie to drive trucks in the Super Pit. “I don’t like the idea of mining, but someone’s going to do it,” one of them told me with a wink. “I just want to drive the biggest truck in the biggest hole!” I ate the last piece of shortbread, feeling relieved.
Women can drive trucks, and sewing machines too. The shock and surprise the miner’s comments elicited speak more of how out of place they are than the horror of their truth. Surely the discomfit we feel in the face of sexism points to the gains that have been made from the world where women were allowed sewing machines but definitely not trucks or heavy machinery. That doesn’t mean that old attitudes don’t die hard, or that there aren’t still inequalities in the realm of gender relations, but it does mean that we don’t have to all be domestically inclined. I like to think of my Nana as a happy housewife, but despite her bright and curious mind and her passion for language, she never had the opportunities I have had to study and work, or to drive a truck if I can ever work out how to use a gearstick. Sometimes it feels hard to negotiate all the choices I have, but that old bastard made me realise just how lucky I am.