I was nervous when I first walked in, wondering if they would be able to sense my lack of faith in their God. I was walking into a craft group at the St Luke’s church. After talking with them I am not sure of what they can and cant sense, but I am sure that this moment is not about me, or God.
It’s about a group of people who gather every week to make a craft, drink tea, and chat. They are humble when talking about the amazing space they have created for themselves and others in the community. Some are sitting and creating beautiful items that will be sold or gifted for charity, some are colouring in, and some make the tea. All tasks are done with smiles and laughter.
Below are the pieces I wrote after my visit. It’s four mini-essays that are being used for an exhibition by ZOË BROOKS called LIVE BY FAITH NOT FEELINGS. It’s on at Seventh Gallery in Fitzroy Melbourne, if you are in the area you should probably go and see it.
The thing that gets me is the serendipitous things that happen when we let them. While Zoe and I were talking about my part in this project my mum brought over a bag of things she no longer wants, as mothers sometimes do. Amongst the old pillows, bedside lamps, and velour leggings was my grandmum’s cross.
I had not yet told mum about this project so was a little taken aback that this gift would be in with all the other things. Long after the lampshades and pillows, and yes the velour leggings have gone to the op shop my grandmum’s cross sits in my kitchen. It reminds me of what my grandmother believed in and I no longer do.
The chapel is freezing, it feels hollow and empty. I can’t remember why the feeling is familiar to me, it could have been a cold empty church that I was in as a child or it could have been a cellar under the winery I worked in. We are here to look at a quilt that Yvonne has made, it’s hanging in front of us on the murky coloured bricks, it’s an abstract image symbolising a story from the bible, which I am sure I knew at one point of my catholic upbringing but have long since forgotten. It has fire in the middle which I notice is a little off centre. From the fire drips pale blue sequins representing water falling into the ocean. Surrounding this scene are the handprints of the parishioner’s, Yvonne points out the tiny hand of her grandson, ‘they are all different, each hand represents humanity and they belong to people that come to church’ she tells us.
It’s not hard to imagine the pews filled with colour and the excited voices of friends filling the room on a Sunday morning. Today, however, it’s empty, hollow and cold. Yvonne says her son died 17 years ago, that is when she started quilting. I looked at her momentarily as she speaks, unsure if either Yvonne or Zoë can hear my heart skipping faster at the shock of her talking about something so private. Yvonne doesn’t falter she continues, her voice steady as she tells us the story of the quilt.
The latest quilt she worked on is for herself, she tells us it’s big, ‘it goes from floor to floor over my bed, it’s got the nautical star in the centre’. By way of explaining her love of quilting she tells us she is good at maths. She also tells us about Michael, he too is good at maths. Michael is another son, I suppose, his name is spoken as if we should already know. I don’t ask, instead, we talk about the galah at the top of the quilt, it is purposefully not a dove, ‘we are in Australia after all’, Yvonne says looking at us anticipating our response.
Yvonne also makes lace and she likes to work on big projects, ‘that’s where the math helps…’ her latest project will be a shawl or a table runner, she is not sure yet. She started making lace, she tells us, ‘when my daughter died’. My response to this statement was harder to hide, a bolt of empathy, grief, and concern went through my heart. Zoë and I both had audible responses, that deep inhale of breath which accompanies a shock. Yvonne kept talking, telling us about the lacework group she is in.
While she spoke I wondered how long it takes to be able to talk, calmly about the death of your children. I feel like there is an order to things and Yvonne’s experience with the death of her children messes with it. We walk from the chapel into the main craft room and the activity, light and warmth help me understand how she can speak with equanimity about her life.
The room is warm despite the linoleum floor and the plastic chairs. It’s not such a big space, in the centre are 4 trestle tables nudged together to create a large workspace. Some of the women are knitting, some colouring in, one lady is falling asleep under the guise of knitting. The pale pink wool she has chosen is the same colour as her skin, I think I can see through to her bones. She has white tightly curled hair, her eyes are closed, her chin is resting on her chest, her hands and knitting resting on the table.
Conversations stop and start and the women can hardly hear each other over the sound of plastic scraping on the floor and the noise from the kitchen as morning tea is being prepared. I find a seat next to a lady who is colouring in an adult mandala book, and try to join in the conversation that is being held across the table. It is filled with the facial squints and the cupped hands over ears we get when straining to hear. They are talking about a friend who had died, the lady across the table can’t believe it. She sits behind a loom through which she is weaving coloured lengths of fabric.
‘It happens so fast sometimes, I’ll never get used to that.’ She pauses twisting the end of the fabric before threading it through. There is reflection in her voice and I wonder when Judy died. ‘He has a beautiful voice though’ the lady to my right says, she is looking across the table, I look up to see who she is talking to, it seems we are in the same conversation and the lady on the loom is not lost. ‘Will he sing then?’ she asks and I realise that it was only a few days ago that Judy died and it is her son who has the beautiful voice. ‘Yes I suppose so, he has the voice of an angel, it’s one of those voices that makes you feel deep inside, I can’t remember his name.’ She turns to me her pencils are down now and the book closed. ‘Whatshisname?’ ‘Yes whatshisname and thingamabob, I know a few of them now’. The lady across the table smiles at her joke.
The work is slow as conversation bounces back and forth. This group of women have been meeting every Wednesday for a long time. They are comfortable and happy to be together.
The Scottish lady at the end of the table launches straight into her story. She came from Scotland to Australia on a boat. She talks about the 10 pounds they paid for the fare and lining up to get on board. The story is gaining momentum and she becomes more animated as she talks. It is like she has told this story a gazillion times before.
‘They weren’t going to let us on because the child had measles’. Which child? I wonder and rack my brain thinking I must have missed something. ‘Finally, they let us on, they decided we could be in isolation, near the medical suite, away from the rest of the ship. My husband was not allowed to stay with us, it was just me and the child.’ As she talks she is watching for my response. I figure out that the child is her daughter, and I wonder why she does not refer to her by name.
Her story continues, ‘…a few days into the journey the child was better …but we stayed down there. There was a nightlight in the hall outside my room, but on this night it was out and the ship was pitch black. ‘I was so frightened, never been so scared. I held onto the child and tried to soothe her as the steward came down to get us, there was a fire and we needed to get off the ship’.
‘My husband came running through the crowd to us and held us, we were so scared…’ She tells the story in such a way that I am mesmerised by her Scottish accent and I start thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. She looks strong and vital as she speaks, she sits at the head of the table almost like she is holding court, her knitting pushed to the side and her hands moving with the story.
The story has a happy ending, they left the ship, had two weeks in Malta and a choice whether to fly or sail to Australia. They sailed and stayed in a hostel in Geelong for two years while they found their feet.
Later while I’m talking to Janet at the other end of the table, I see the Scottish lady getting out of her seat. I see that as she rises she is shaking, her arm muscles working hard. She holds onto the chair as she twists around to reach for her walker.
I see the fragility that age brings us and I understand that the story she tells provokes emotion for me, the first time listener. For her, the storyteller, years of reminiscence has meant she can to separate herself from the terror of that night on the ship while her listeners travel along with her on the original journey. A moment later I am caught up in the swell of another conversation. I didn’t get a chance to ask her name.
Pauline sits in a big lounge chair, it almost swallows her up, her feet don’t touch the ground. ‘You were Christened over here at St Luke’s’, she says to Zoë ‘you went to Church a few times, but Bruce went to Church every week until he was 18’. Bruce is Pauline’s son, Zoë’s dad. Her voice is frail and quiet, she takes a breath and tells me about her faith.
‘I can honestly say that faith has been just wonderful, because it’s always something you can rely on, it’s good knowing that when you have sadness or aching or even if someone else is suffering you can close your eyes and meditate with prayer. The thing is Bruce might want something when he is older. It would be good for him to have a refresher, because one day he may jolly well need his faith’.
‘I believe in prayer very strongly it been something that I have needed, I pray and my prayers have been answered. I don’t want to push it on anyone else because it’s always there and if they need it, God is always saying “Come here to me” and he will be waiting if they want it’. I notice the noise has stopped we are all listening, the coffee-making has stopped, Laurie’s laughter and joking have stopped, even Zoë’s pet sparrow Yiddie seems to understand the importance of what Pauline is saying and she sits still.
Pauline and Laurie go to Church on Sundays and craft group on Wednesdays. ‘We were going to Tasmania’ Laurie says ‘I said to Charles Gauche over at St Luke’s, that we wouldn’t get to Church while we were away and he said “if you can’t find him in the scenery over there you won’t be able to find him in the church”’.
Zoë wants to know more about her experience in the Church, she asks if they know about the time her mum told her that someone from the church had come over and offered to do an exorcism on her?
‘No!’ Pauline said ‘No, that would not be someone from our church.’ I don’t think her indignation is aimed at the thought that Zoë might be possessed but rather that someone from her Church may be into exorcisms.