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Thursday, March 4, 2010

4. Autobiography (2) Edith and Bill: A Love Story

Edith and Bill: my grandparents

Edith Davis married William Kipping in the early years of the twentieth century. They were my grandparents on my mother's side of the family: the Kippings. Edith died in the 1950s - while I was in primary school. William - or Pop as we, his grandchildren, called him - died in 1968 at the age of 84. I had fond memories of Pop - memories of a kindly, white haired old man. He lived with my parents and I for several years - after the death of his second wife. He had a great sense of fun. I was very sad when he died.

In the mid 1980s, as my own parents grew more and more frail, and their impending deaths could not be denied, I became obsessed with family history. I pored over micro fische records of births and deaths; I visited graveyards and town halls and historical societies; I interviewed both of my parents, as well as aunts and uncles. My appetite for details of my family history was seemingly insatiable.

In this process I discovered more than one skeleton locked away in the family closets. My stern, black-clad Catholic grandmother, on the Carozzi side - Caterina Mazza - had had five children with my grandfather, Annibale Carozzi, during the 1890s. They had then married - in 1900 - and had another 4 children. I was astounded.

I successfully searched for the birth records of my aunts and uncles on the Kipping side of the family, and found all but one. Linda, Ken, Iris, Murray, arthur - the records showed that they had been born to Edith (Davis) Kipping and William Kipping in the early years of the twentith century. But there was no record for my oldest uncle - Uncle Gordon. Eventually I found his records. He had been born to Edith David (an unmarried woman) in 1902; no father was named. Subsequently my cousin Lynette discovered that Edith had had a second child out of wedlock - a girl she called Violet.

What brought Bill and Edith together, I wondered. As a 'teller of stories and a singer of songs' I decided to create a tale of two people: Edith and Bill. Some of what follows is certainly true; much is almost certainly untrue. You will need to judge for yourself whether or not the story is plausible ...

An Imaginative Recreation

Edith lay in her bed, her body curled up, but rigid. The years had not been kind. Her back was aching, stiff from years of lifting children, years of pregnancy. It was Monday night. Mondays were washing days. That morning she had struggled with the bed sheets. Lifting them into the old copper had been easy enough. The white sheets were crumpled up and light and easy to move. But getting them out of the copper when they were heavy with near boiling water had been almost impossible.

Edith shoved the copper stick into the steaming water. Soap suds scabbed the surface.

"Mum!" Arthur, her youngest, appeared at the door of the lean to wash house. Arthur was three.
"Iry take my block."
His sister, Iris, also appeared.
"No I didn't. He wasn't playing with it, Mum."
"You two stop you're fighting or I take to you with the copper stick.” And she looked to the doorway with a menacing eye. The two little urchins stole away; they knew better than to provoke their mother when she was in this mood.

Edith used all her strength to drag and lift the heavy sheets from the water. More than once scalding water oozed and dripped from the sheet, ran along the stick and down her arm. She winced as it scalded and reddened her wrist and hand.

"Bugger!" she said.

It was as well old Bill wasn't about. He didn't like to hear that kind of language.

"Edith," he would say whenever she swore. "The Lord gave us tongues so that we might praise Him, not so that we might curse and utter oaths."

"I know, Bill, I know," she would reply - for peace. "Sometimes I just can't restrain myself."

"I know that, Edith. Only too well," he would reply, and his jaw would set sternly.

And she would clench her teeth and narrow her eyes. When they'd first married, these words from Bill would reduce her to tears and to subservience. What right had she to stand up against this good man who had done so much for her.

"There's a wildness in you, Edie," the minister had told her during the preparatory lessons she had taken in the weeks preceding the wedding. "But with the Lord's help, and with the love of your husband, you will be able to overcome it, Edith."

Edith heaved the sheet into the concrete trough which she had already filled with clear cold water. As she lowered the sheets and dropped them in, the water rippled and splashed. Soap scum, released from the sheets, formed a thin residue on the surface. Edith slumped back at the effort. She was not a large woman - no more than five feet. "You're skinny as a broom stick," the men on the station where her father was manager used to say.

"You need to get some flesh onto those bones of yours," Bill kept telling her.

Oh yes, she had been wild alright. Wild and wilful - those were the words her father had used.

"You've brought such dishonour upon the family, Edith! I have a position of importance at this place, and you and your carnal desires have brought shame upon us all!"

So she had left the quiet of Roseneath station, leading sheep station in the Western district, where her father was manager, and travelled to Casterton, to the south.

She'd left Roseneath and her father and mother, and she'd left Harry Stark, too - the man whose child she bore. Oh, she had loved him, that twenty four year old shearer who had stolen the heart of sixteen year old Edith Davis. But she'd paid him back, in her own way, paid him back for his betrayal of their love. Young Gordon's birth certificate bore the father's name: Gordon Stark Davis.

Edith fed the sheets into the mangle and turned the handle. When that was done, she carried the sheets out the back and hoisted them onto the clothes line. Bill had chosen strong saplings, and he'd dug them in deep so that the posts would not lean. Then he's pounded down the earth around them for hours. That was the kind of man he was - strong, hard working, reliable, solid. He bent the world to his will, building structures that would last over time.

Edith moved in her bed. Tired as she was, sleep was slow in coming. Cooking for Bill and the six children was hard work enough. Wash days always left her exhausted - yet sleep would not come.

Bill was a very religious man. He'd joined the Salvation army while still very young. It had stilled the wildness in him. The Army was his Rock of Ages. In its certainties he had found security, something solid to hold on to in a shifting, godless world. When impure thoughts had assailed his body and mind in those growing up years, it was in the community of the Saved that he had found strength; it was in the words of the Lord that he had found resolve.

In his wild young days he had been the Devil’s prey. He’d drunk strong liquor and done much he was ashamed of. His sexual urges had been strong, at times uncontrollable, and too often he had succumbed to the sin of Onan. But he had sought forgiveness, and that forgiveness had been granted. His God was stern and demanding, but He was also a caring and forgiving God.
Bill sank to his knees beside the heath. He prayed ,mumbling the words aloud, but not so loud as to be heard by human ears - the ears of his wife and children. His confessions were not for human ears - they were for the Lord.

"Oh Lord," he prayed. "Forgive me my sins. Today, Lord, I cursed the horses on two occasions, and raised the hip in anger and brought pain to these, Thy creatures, Oh Lord. Forgive me my sins."

As he prayed, his eyes were closed, his head raised, and he looked to Heaven with the eyes of his spirit. His hand clenched his Bible, the very word of God, to his chest.

"Lord, guide me I pray. As Thou knowest, Edith continues to defy Thy word and Thy teachings. This morning, Lord, I raised my voice in anger to her. Yet she disobeys me Lord, and she disobeys Thee. I fear that the Devil speaks to her heart."

Their argument that morning had been heated.
"I'll be going out tonight, Bill. There's no harm in it. None. It is not as if we are playing for money. We play for match sticks. It is harmless fun - and there's precious little of that in my life."

"Card games and gambling are the creations of the Devil, Edith. Do you not see that? Do you not see that this is the Devil's way - tempting you with things that seem harmless, but that lead you into the way of temptation." He paused. "If you must go out go to the Kingdom Hall. There is a prayer meeting there tonight.

"I want to have some pleasure, Bill. My life is so empty of joy. I cook and wash and sew and care for you and the children - that is my life."

"For that is how the Lord appointed it, Edith. That the woman be the helpmate for the man."
It had been at the Salvationists temple, their Kingdom Hall, that Edith had met Bill. Like Harry, Bill was older; he was 27. He had a steady job as a coach driver; he drove the coach from Casterton to Hamilton and back each day. He was a man, and of a marrying age.

One Sunday night, he took her aside.

"Edith," he said. "Your time is drawing near. The ladies of the Bible Society will take Gordon from you. They'll have you declared a person not fit to raise a child."

"What am I to do, Bill?"

"Edith, is the father of your child likely to return?"

Edith blushed. It was a very direct question. She felt the blood flush her cheeks, and her tongue - which she had fought hard to restrain for these two months that she had been in the care of the good Salvationist people - was ready to rush into a declaration of her obstinate independence.

"Because, if he's not - I would be willing to marry you."

Oh the thoughts that raced through her head at that moment. He was a good man, this William Kipping, a pious man who had shunned alcohol. He didn’t smoke. He was a man of good deeds, and much admired in the small congregation. He had prospects, too - he held a steady job coach driving; he was a man of standing doing an important job in the community. He would provide her and her child with a home, and in time, perhaps even a degree of respectability, something fallen women could rarely achieve. Yet something held her back; she knew that she did not truly love him. Despite his betrayal, it was thoughts of Harry Stark that still stirred her deep passion.

Years later, after they were married and she had borne six children by Bill, she understood - as she had not, at the time - the nature of the pact she had made with Bill that night when he proposed.

Edith stabbed into the scummy water and the white sheets in the trough, then turned on the tap and began dragging the sheets across the divide into the second trough. The second rinse, with Reckitts Blue, always made the difference.

The sight of the sheets prompted the return, unbidden, of the image of Violet. Like Gordon, Violet had been a mistake. The whole affair had been a mistake, but at 17, with a child on the breast, and Harry still talking marriage, and images of a church wedding, of flowers, of respectability, and Harry insistent that he loved her and wanted her …

Violet had been a sickly child from the beginning, bleating at night like a sick lamb, endlessly, and not taking to the breast. By then, Edith's father had disowned her, had told her never to darken his door again. The room at the hotel was tiny, and caring for two babies would be hard. But at least Harry could visit her there.

There was talk, of course, and fingers pointing at her in the streets, old crones whispering as she passed, and the tight lipped ladies of the church guild tut tutting and discussing taking the children away so that they might be brought up in a proper Christian environment.

Edith had always stood up to them. There was pride in her, a refusal to be ashamed. "Let she who is without sin …" she would spit at them, and apart from their accusing looks, there was little they could do.

And then, Violet had died. Edith had woken in the middle of the night. In her dream, Harry was riding home through heavy rains; the creeks were rising and the driving rain meant that visibility was reduced to almost nothing. He tried to ford a swollen creek, but the current was too strong, and it was dragging him and his horse away. She woke, screaming his name.

But Harry Stark hadn't drowned. He had visited her room that night to slide an envelope under her door.

She swirled the sheets around to ensure that the clean water seeped through, removing the soap. It was hard work, and the muscles in her shoulders ached.

The note had read:
Dear Edie,
I got to go up north. There's good work up there, droving. I don't reckon I could cut it as a father. I'll send money. I'm not ready for marrying.
Yours faithfully,
Harry S.

Mrs McMillan, the publican's wife, found the note when she rushed to Edith's room to find what was wrong. The old woman found Edith holding the cold body of the baby to her bosom; Gordon was crying in is cot.

So Harry Stark went north to Queensland, droving, and Edie stayed in Casterton, mourning the death of Violet, mourning the loss of Harry, mourning the loss of the life she had dreamed of - a seventeen year old girl with a youngun', no husband, and no prospect of getting one, rejected by her family.

One night, in early April, she stood on the bridge above the Glenelg River, at the edge of town. The moon's light formed a silvery path along the straight stretch of river, and it looked so warm, so welcoming. It seemed to offer Edith a road to redemption. For she realised, now, that there was nothing for her in this world but suffering and misery, and that she was being punished for her sin, punished for giving her body to Harry Stark, for giving in to the temptations of the flesh. She was a figure of gossip and rejection among the women of the town.

Looking at the river, the idea of jumping into the glittering water began to take hold of her. Gordon lay sleeping in her arms, and her arms ached from the weight of him. At 16 months he was still not walking. And it seemed to Edith that the silence and beauty of the river offered more hope than the bridge. So she picked her way down the embankment, and holding the sleeping Gordon to her, she stepped into the river.

The water was icy, and she shivered at the shock. But she did not stop; she saw now that this was the solution.

"Sleep, my little one. Let us both sleep," she whispered, wading deeper.

A group of Salvationists, walking to their homes together after a prayer meeting, saved her life, and the life of her son. They saw her from the bridge, and two of the men rushed to her aid, wading into the water, taking Gordon from her and pulling her to the bank. As she lay in the wet grass, shivering, they prayed for her, called upon the Lord to give her the strength to live. They took her back to the Temple, and gave her warm clothes and bread and a cup of hot soup.

The Salvaton Army officers, the Captain and his wife, took her in; they gave her a room in their small house, and food and clothing, in return for which she helped with the cleaning and in the garden. They were good people, doing the Lord's work. And they gave her some protection from the good ladies of the Ladies Benevolent Society, who had it within their powers to take her child from her.

Edith's arm was aching. If often ached, had done since the time she had defied him, and he had hit her.
"I'll not have you going to the cards, Edith. I won't have it."
Bill's jaw had become a fixed unmoving feature. Nothing she said could move him. So, she lied to him.

"Alright, Bill. I'll do as you ask. I'll not go."

But when Bill went off to his prayer meeting, Edith went to her cards, thinking to be home before him.

"I'm going out for a time," she told Gordon. "I'll be back shortly. I want you to look after the little one. Will you be a good boy, and do that for mummy?"

That night, the luck was with her. They played Euchre, and Edith could not lose. She won most hands, and she won every game. And her cheeks were flushed with the pleasure of winning.

She laughed as she had not laughed in years. For two hours she revelled in the simple pleasure of this silly game, of winning at cards. The heavy weight of the guilt she bore, the weight of Bill's demands and expectations, the weight of the daily chores of cooking and washing and changing nappy rags, and wiping noses, and - most heavy of all - the weight of her loss of Violet lifted for that short time. For an all too brief moment, she felt free of life's burden, she was flying free as she had not done since she was a wild sixteen year old girl too much in love with life, too passionate for her own good.

It was nine when she finally looked up from her cards. 'Nine,' she thought. 'Bill will be home soon. Perhaps I'll play one more game - there's no harm ..'

"Oh, Lady Luck is shining on you tonight, Edith Kipping," Maisie Brown said. "I've never seen such a run of good luck!"

It was almost ten when she finally left. Stepping out into the cold air, she was suddenly sobered. The excitement of the cards, of her winning, of her sense that she could not be beaten this night, all cooled suddenly. She began to dread facing Bill. She knew he would be angry. When she rounded the corner closest heir home, Bill was waiting for her, leaning on the post of the gas lamp.

"Bill. I can explain," she tried to tell him.
But there was no explaining to Bill that night. The wrath of the Lord had taken him over, and he would not listen, for indeed, he could not hear, so loud was the wrathful voice of the Lord in his ears.

"You have broken your sacred vow, Edith. You vowed, when we wed, to love, honour and obey. You vowed to be my helpmate, to cleave to me and no other. Do you remember, Edith - when we wed?"

"It was only a game of cards, Bill. A harmless game of cards."

Bill raised his arm and struck her.
"You will do as I tell you, Edith. You will not disobey me again!"

The blow knocked her from her feet, and she fell, awkwardly. She felt a searing pain in her arm, and knew at once that it was broken.

That night changed their lives. At the hospital, the doctor looked at the bride above Edith's eye.

"The arm’s broken in two places. How did this happen?" he asked.
Bill bowed his head, consumed by guilt at his violent action.
"I … It was …" he stammered.
"It was an accident," Edith lied. "I tripped in the gutter. I was just lucky that Bill came out to look for me, and brought me here."

In the morning, Bill was repentant. He prayed for hours, praying to his stern god for forgiveness. He had a temper, he knew he had a temper, oh Lord, teach him to control his temper.

In his shame, he could barely bring himself to speak to Edith. For her part, Edith felt better. The scales were now more even - for a time, they were even in her favour.

Bill's attitude to card playing did not change until much later - long after Edith had died. For the forty more years they were together, he continued to regard card playing, like moving pictures and dancing, to be instruments of the Devil. However, he relented to the extent that he allowed Edith to play Patience at home, and Euchre, if she could someone to play with; and occasionally, he even allowed her to go out for a night of cards.

She died in 1953. They had been married for almost fifty years. He lived to the age of 84; he died in 1968. He mellowed in his later years. He even went to picture shows and occasionally played cards. He married again a few years after Edith died; he was 70 at the time.

He remained a Salvationist all his years, and when he died his burial service was conducted by the Salvos. I'm grateful that he did allow Edith to play cards; it was one of the few pleasures she took in life, one of the few things that brought a smile to her otherwise tightly drawn lips. I’m grateful too because it allowed her to teach me - her grandson - how to play Euchre.

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