She Didn’t Want to be a Nurse. Part One
She was young and she always knew she would become a nurse. In her town that was what a girl with brains did. Other girls got jobs in shops. The lucky ones married farmers or Stock and Station Agents. But she would be a nurse. Her mother was a nurse but she didn’t want to be a nurse. Around the dinner table at night the conversation never came up – it was just assumed and she just assumed it. Even if she didn’t like it.
One day she was left at home to make sure that the cows were let out into the bottom paddock just before sunset.
She went to her father’s workshop. Into forbidden territory. She crossed the yard and opened the door. The door wasn’t locked but it was taken for granted that she would never go there. She was a girl – the workshop was his world.
‘There’s a lot of valuable tools in there. I don’t want you muckin’ them up.’
There were! There were lots of tools. And machines.
‘Anyway there’s nothin’ in there for a girl to play with.’
But there was!
She had seen the boys in Metal Work class playing with a welder. She loved standing at the window and looking at the sparks fly. The boys all wore Darth Vader helmets so their eyes wouldn’t burn.
She turned on the welder and it started to hum. But she didn’t know what to do. Next day at school she asked one of the boys how it worked. She didn’t write it down – she just remembered it and stuck it all in a little box in her head. On Fridays the family went into town shopping. She and her two sisters always went but she started talking about staying home.
‘I’m old enough to stay on my own. And I can get dinner ready.’
That’s how it all started. Every Friday, as soon as they had gone she quickly prepared dinner and then went to her father’s shed.
‘Once you get the hang of it it’s dead easy,’ the boy had said. ‘But make sure you wear the goggles or whatever y’ Dad has or you’ll cook your eyes like a poached egg and you’ll go blind.’
She didn’t go blind. Around the back of the shed she found old pieces of steel from old machines. And she welded the pieces together. And some of the pieces looked like she wanted them to look.
Some of the pieces showed a movement or fluidity that she tried to express. But some just didn’t seem to work. She found the angle grinder and cut them up and tried again.
One piece really seemed to her to be a real work of art, but it wasn’t like the art that she was told about in school.
And every piece she took and hid in her room.
One day they came home early from town. She rushed into the house and set the dinner onto the stove. But she had left some welding on the welding bench.
‘What the hell is this?’ Her father shoved his way into her Saturday morning sleep.
‘What the hell is this welding shit on my bench? Have you been in there? Get up. Get dressed and tell me what the hell you been doing’.
When she had dressed she went into the kitchen and her mother had breakfast ready.
Her father came in and dropped her welding on the table.
‘Have you been muckin’ about in my shed? What the hell is this garbage? I thought I told you not to go in there. What’s a girl doing weldin’. It’s for boys not girls.’
She told him she wanted to weld things for her art class. Things that expressed the way she felt.
‘Well I don’t know how the hell I bloody feel about this other than to say that it looks like a pile of garbage.
So keep the hell out of my shed.
And get back to your studies. You wanna be a shop assistant all your life or a bloody nurse like all the decent girls in town. Your mum was a bloody nurse. It was good enough for her. What the hell you want?’
What she wanted didn’t really come into it. She was supposed to be a nurse like all the decent girls in town.
But she was cross.
The next morning, when her father and her mother were close enough to see she went to her father’s shed. She opened the door and picked up all the pieces of steel that she had welded. Everything that she had thought told a story. Everything. Every – bloody – thing that she had dreamed about that lay on her father’s shed floor.
And she picked it up. She picked it all up – everything.
And she walked to the dam and threw it all in and watched it splash and sink.
And she walked into the house and said nothing.
And she became a nurse.
She became a nurse and she was a good nurse. Actually a great nurse and she married a doctor and when their daughter died from leukaemia she couldn’t do anything to save her. She felt that she had failed as a nurse and she felt that she had failed as a mother and in the end she failed as a wife.
Her husband looked on in frustration because she could not allow anyone to reach her, particularly him. She had a breakdown and she recovered from her breakdown but all her happiness had gone. All her resilience had gone. Her desire to be a real person went as well.
She would get cross about little things. She got cross about dishes left on the sink or socks not put away. And she got cross about the Government. She got cross about big things but she didn’t do anything about any of it. She just got cross.
One night there was a report on the TV about “Men’s Sheds”.
“Why do you bloody men have a shed to yourselves? Somewhere to run away and hide in. A bunch of geriatric misfits with no real life of their own. “
She started to build up more and more anger. She read up about Men’s Sheds and deep down she was envious but she didn’t know that she was. It was too deep down and it was blinded by her anger.
“I am going to join a Men’s Shed. If they don’t let me I’ll go to the Equal Opportunity Ombudsman and kick up such a stink they’ll wish I never existed.”
“And if you go in with that attitude it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might be cross and think it’s wrong but you are still the same intelligent woman I married. Go in there and be polite and put on a ‘nice to meet you’ smile and see where it gets you. And if it doesn’t work then I’ll be the first to start your fight for you.”
She drove around to the Men’s Shed and walked in.
“Ducks on the pond” someone called. Not in anger just a statement.
She put on a small smile, nodded at the one who had called and said, “Quack”.
He came over. “Sorry dear. We don’t get many girls in here these days. What can we do for you?”
“I’d like to join. I know I’m not a man but I looked up the Men’s Shed website and it doesn’t actually say that women aren’t allowed.”
Some of the other men stopped what they were doing and came over. There began a general discussion. Two of the men were definitely opposed to the idea. But one old fellow on a wood-turning lathe said that he though it might be nice to have a few ‘young girls’ around.
She looked around at the shed as the men went on talking. It was a lot like her father’s shed but tidy and the tools and machines were all new. She noticed a welder like her father’s but in the same area were a couple of very modern welders. She wandered over and looked more carefully.
She hadn’t touched a piece of steel since that day when she threw all her things in the dam.
“What do you want to do?” She jumped and turned around. He had walked up quietly behind her. He was a quiet man.
“The boys have had a bit of a chat and we would like to know if you’d be happy if we said you could join for one day a week. You see this is a haven for us but old Jack over there is a retired lawyer and he thinks we might be in trouble if we said a straight out “No!”.
She nearly cried and a lump came in her throat.
“I’d love to learn to weld again,” she said.
And she learned to weld again and she made her first sculpture by the end of the third day.
“Hey you blokes. Come over here and see what Miss Wonderful had done. Just look at this. My goodness this is good enough to go into a gallery.”
It wasn’t good enough to go into a gallery but it nearly was.
Soon the men started asking her about things outside of what they were doing. A sort of woman’s aspect on things that they never talked to their wives about.
But the best day was when one of the men, one who had voted against her joining the Shed, said, “Goodnight love. See you tomorrow!”
It wasn’t a question. It was a straight out invitation. From that day on nobody said anything about one day a week. From then on she was a member.
And she stopped being cross and angry with the world. She started being happy with herself. She was back. She became herself again and she worked at becoming a wife again.
When she had gone to the city to nurse she left the farm for good and she left her father. Her mother came to visit about once a year and she came saying, “Your father sends his love.”
She never accepted his love and her mother would always say, “He means well.”
When her mother died that was the end of any contact she had with him.
She immersed herself in her welding and as one year blended into another year she became well-known. Some of her works sold well.
Her husband was proud of her and her confidence allowed their relationship to develop as it should have developed from the start.
On her sixtieth birthday she received an invitation in the mail to submit a work for inclusion in Heide Museum of Modern Art. The museum is in Melbourne and very close to where she lived and she was absolutely delighted.
She scrounged around old junk shops and collected an assortment of pieces of iron and constructed a piece that she felt told the story of her first piece that she had thrown in the dam all those years ago.
The curator was overwhelmed and they sent out invitations for a formal acceptance of the work.
Her sculpture was set in one of the outside areas on the flat down by the river and over one hundred people attended.
Some important dignitary made a very moving speech and she was invited to stand to reply.
But before she had a chance an old man in a wheel chair was pushed to the front and in his lap he carried an old and rusted piece of welded art work. Very haltingly he stood and turned to the audience.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, you may think that this is her greatest work. But I have here, her first piece. It is better by far that this piece that you see before you. The piece I have was made in secret. She had to hide her work when she started because of an old idea that women were unable to work with iron and steel. She had to hide her desires from prejudice against women. She overcame all this and I want you all to know that I am the proudest father here.”
She stepped down and went to her father that she had not seen for forty years. They held each other and the tears fell down her face.
And all her father said was, “I love you.” It was all he needed to say.
Her statue is set in the grounds and at the foot there is a small statue that is set just as firmly.
I suppose I could say that they lived happily ever after and that is true. But only for one year and then her father died. But it was a very good year. That is the end of the story.
But I want to add a postscript.
I want to tell you a tiny bit of her father’s life. This is told in his own words.
It started the day she came to the nursing home. Every Wednesday afternoon the ‘activities’ honcho invited someone to come and talk to us. I was never sure if it was to educate us or to keep us from thinking. Maybe in all honesty they thought that some of us would gain something, anything, from the visits. I always went and most of the time it did at least help to fill in the day.
I’ve still got the sheet that was pinned to the notice board. “Wednesday 24 July. 3.30 pm. We are pleased to advise that Susan Wilson, famous Australian sculptor, will come and talk about art.” When she walked in I nearly died, which wouldn’t have surprised anyone. I was eighty-eight and I could have kicked the bucket anytime. I was my Susan! The girl I hadn’t talked to for close on fifty years. And it was all my fault. I closed my eyes and hung my head and the tears just fell. One of the girls noticed and wheeled me out of the activities room and back to my room. She didn’t ask me what the matter was. They just assume that we old buggers get emotional now and then. All she did was make me a cup of tea and pat my hand and say, “You’ll be all right , Jack. Just have a bit of a snooze and it will be better when you wake up.”
But I didn’t have a snooze. Two days stuck in my head. The first was that Saturday morning when I burst into her room and swore at her and told her to keep out of my workshop. And I told her to settle on becoming a nurse. The second day was when she threw all her welding into the dam.
I feel very guilty now about the way I behaved that first day, but back then I thought it was right. I was cross and angry. It had been about five bad years on the farm. In the two weeks leading up to that Saturday morning I had shot and buried three hundred of my sheep. The prices sheep were bringing then was less that the cost of transporting them to the sale yards. I know it was a waste but then I could see no way out. So if Susan didn’t get a decent job there was no future for her. That’s how I felt.
The day she threw her welding in the dam I felt helpless and there was a seed of shame planted in my heart. As that seed burst into life and grew I could find no way to say sorry. Fifty years ago a man didn’t say sorry. It was a very difficult word to use. And even worse was to admit that you had been wrong.
Susan’s mother visited her and I asked her to tell Susan that I sent my love but she never responded. I don’t believe it was because she was mean-spirited but she had never heard me say that to her even when she was a baby. Some men have always found it difficult to express themselves in that way.
Ten years later we had about three years of drought and the dam dried out. And so I cleared all the rubbish that had fallen in over the years and the stuff that had been thrown in by Susan. But there was one piece that I saved; the first piece that seemed to me to actually say something. From that day on I followed her development as a real artist. I collected news cuttings and I visited showings of her work. Then the doctors told me how much time I had left. My GP said to me when all the results came back, “Well Jack, if there’s anything you have left that you need to do I reckon you’d better find a way of doing it. Sooner rather than never.”
So I told the nurse manager here at the home what I wanted and she organised with the Heidi Museum of Modern Art to let me make my little speech. That is what I did. And we have enjoyed being a father and daughter. At long bloody last.
But what a fool I was. I should have had the guts to go and talk with her and to say I was wrong. As I said; it takes a lot of courage to say sorry but I never had enough courage. She did. She accepted my apology and said thanks. Saying ‘thank you’ can take courage as well.