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Photo: Kiriaki Koubaroulis

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The Paper Trail

I was given a pile of papers to look through on the first day of my residency at the Incubate Artists Studio at 80 North Terrace, Bankstown. Correspondence of many sorts, receipts, architectural drawings, tenders, fire safety records, memorandums, construction and alteration quotes, equipment supply records, a police report, a complaint letter and incident reports are among the papers that date from 1954 through to the early 1990s; some are handwritten, some typed.

The archive for this building where I sit to write is both rich and sparse. The building was repurposed last year as a pop-up creative space. Some items in the archive capture my attention immediately.

I unfold a bundle of papers nestled in the middle of the pile. The pages have a date in the top right hand corner. Five columns with typed headings: Time, Baby Feed/Change, Toilet, Rest Room, Care of Shopping. At the very top of the page: Women’s Rest Centre. In pen, in the rows below, dots and strokes count the women who visited the centre in half hour increments from morning to afternoon.

On the 5 June 1985, 187 women used the Bankstown Women’s Rest Centre. Of them, nine fed and changed their babies, 130 used the toilets, twelve left their shopping in the care of the attendant, and 36 used the Rest Room – a room described in the archive as having comfortable seating and heating in the winter, where women often waited for the bus home.

Another pile of papers tells a slightly earlier story of the place, that stretches back to the mid-1940s. Among them, I find a list of names of people to be compensated, letters written by lawyers on behalf of land-owner clients pleading a case for the rezoning and development of land, including the lot on which this building stands. And Council minutes documenting the passing of the motion for the resumption of the same land for recreational purposes.

I can’t work out the exact year the Women’s Rest Centre opened, but my guess is 1959. Later the building was modified to accommodate the Bankstown Baby Health Centre and Immunisation Clinic. There is no record of the Women’s Rest Centre in the local community directories after 2011.

The paper trail is seven decades long and women’s names appear only sporadically. When women’s names do appear, mostly they are being written about or on behalf of. There are some noteworthy exceptions, and those names intrigue me. They also stir a sense of connection – alliance even – to the women who are part of the story of this place.

Dancing Women

On Mondays they meet to dance outside the Round House – the original Council Chambers. It’s still used for council meetings and for occasional public events and school visits. A low building, round but angular with metal panels in shades of khaki and green. Pebblecrete slab walls give away its age. Maples and eucalypts protect the Round House, lining the wide path up to the Library and Knowledge Centre. I walk this way from the studio on North Terrace most days. I reckon there would be a Council record somewhere of the planting of these trees. I wonder if they witnessed the chaos of the fire that gutted the original admin building in 1997.

Jenny, the local history librarian who’s worked for Council for 43 years, told me there’s an underground passage that linked the Round House to the old admin building. The archives used to be housed here. While the fire didn’t reach them, water did. The attempt to save them was genius – wet archives were frozen in the back of refrigerated trucks on site and then transported to Melbourne to be thawed and dried, then returned. Apparently very little was actually lost.

I sit beneath the trees in the late morning. On a bench across the path, a middled-aged woman speaks loudly in Arabic. She holds the phone close to her mouth with one hand, with the other she pokes the air repeatedly, cradles her head, adjusts her hijab.

I watch the women dance.

They play music from some portable device. Their movements are large, sweeping, elegant; a code that I don’t understand. More women come, one under a parasol with lace-lined edges. They’re in dresses, bright, light and synthetic. Sticky, I imagine, in this summer heat. They all stop for instruction from one of the women and practice until they pin down that move. More women arrive. Happy, smiling faces. This is a group of friends, I’m sure. My guess is that they’re all retired, probably mothers and grandmothers. They speak in Chinese, but I have no idea if it is Cantonese or Mandarin. According to census records, statistically it’s more likely (only marginally) that it is Mandarin.

I wonder if they have any sense of the comfort it gives me to sit here and watch them. When the dancers leave, I leave too.

More Dancers

A group of Greek-speaking women belong to the local branch of the Older Women’s Network (OWN). The OWN’s website says it was started in 1987 by a group of women ‘tired of being invisible and ignored’. The Greek women’s group has been gathering weekly to dance, exercise and socialise at the Bankstown Arts Centre since 1994. Back then it was the Arts and Crafts Centre. I’m keen to meet them in the hope that I’ll find women who visited the Rest Centre.

I slip into the rehearsal studio and weave across the back of the room, where Vandana, the Arts Centre Director, introduces me to Voula. After the warm up exercises, Voula introduces me to the women gathered, and gestures that the floor is mine. I skim the room. There are at least 40 women present, at a guess. All aged between sixty and eighty.  I make my choice quickly in the moment. I choose Greek. There’s a collective sigh of relief – or is it surprise? – when I begin to speak.

I guessed these women, like my own mother, speak and understand English well enough. But I want to make it easy for them to place me. They appreciate this small act of accommodation, these women, masters of accommodation themselves.

I tell them about my writing project; explaining that I’m keen to talk to any women who used the Rest Centre. Four women give me their names and numbers. They’re warm and chatty. Their mannerisms are familiar: the shapes they draw with their hands when they talk, the way they lean in close, constricting the personal space between us. This code I know well.

Mothers

I manage to speak to Christina, then Georgina. They both visited the Women’s Rest Centre when their children were infants, from the mid-seventies through to the mid-eighties. Christina recalls being driven by her husband to the centre monthly, often having to wait in a long line of women stretching across the front of the building to see the nurse. The nurse answered any questions and offered advice on feeding, teething, growth and development. The baby’s height, weight and head circumference were measured then plotted on the respective charts.

I found a blank booklet containing these charts on my first day in the studio. It is for Girls 0-3 years. In the left-hand margin: Royal Alexander Hospital for Children (now The Children’s Hospital at Westmead). Across the bottom of the page: ‘Designed by the Department of Endocrinology, Adelaide Children’s Hospital, 1989′. At home later I flicked through my daughter’s Blue Book and realised the charts were pretty much the same.

As Christina describes her experience to me on the phone, I think not much has changed for mothers of babies since the seventies. Thirty years later, in the mid 2000s – just a couple of suburbs away at the Early Childhood Health Centres in Campsie and Belmore – my experience was similar.  But I drove myself and had scheduled appointments that weren’t all just about the baby. I remember the nurse asking about my level of support as a new mum, about how I was coping, how I was sleeping and eating, and if I’d connected with any local mother’s groups. There was a level of care for me as mother, even if just in the context of the mother-baby dyad.

Georgina tells me that the nurses were kind and helpful, always taking the time to explain things well, especially to the ‘New Australians’. She says there weren’t many Greeks in the area back then. I register a warmth and a brightness in her voice as she tells me that she’d visit the Rest Centre with a Greek girlfriend. They’d given birth within days of each other. They’d often shop together too. Not too far from the Rest Centre, where Lincraft is now, there was a Waltons. She remembers the cafeteria there that served meat pies and hot chips. For Greek produce, they shopped at the Olympic Deli on Bankstown City Plaza. Georgina still does.

Daughters

Photo: Kiriaki Koubaroulis

Photo: Kiriaki Koubaroulis

Joanne runs the deli now. It’s still a family business. Her parents opened it in 1956 – around the same time the Women’s Rest Centre was being built.

Behind the counter along the wall that runs the depth of the shop, from floor to ceiling, are shelves with tinned, dried and packaged goods. Homewares too – any good Greek deli has at least five different sizes of brikia. The signage above the shelves looks original. One reads SMALL GOODS, another, G OCERIES.

Vandana introduced me to Joanne on a tour of the neighbourhood, the day of my first visit to the Artists Studios. I found Joanne instantly likeable. In the shop as we talk, Vandana mentions a book, a community development project from the 1990s, with oral histories of local Greek migrant women that Joanne had worked on. I learn Joanne is also a photographer. She promises to bring in a copy of the book.

Over the next week or so, I drop in to the shop a few times to ask about it. On one visit I leave with olives, large and green, pickled in lemon and coriander seeds, two small loaves of crusty bread and a salami stick. Another time I leave with a bunch of the most fragrant dried oregano, a tub of fresh home-made tzatziki, another tub of those incredible green olives and a tray of lamb souvlakia – hand-cut, hand-skewered, and seasoned modestly with care, in just the right way. No packet mix here. The meat is trim but with just enough fat to melt away on the BBQ. The perfect souvlaki. I didn’t think they existed in Sydney anymore.

One day Joanne is there with the book.

The title of the book is From There to Here: Personal Experiences of Greek Women. I feel a quiet delight when I see on the cover that it is a project of the Greek Older Women’s Network, published in 1995. In the front half, the stories are printed in Greek. In the second half are the English translations. Joanne told me a little about her process. She interviewed the women in Greek and recorded their conversations on tape. Then compiled the stories in Greek first, transcribing them as true to the owner’s words as possible, before translating them into English. I’m impressed. This is difficult work.

The stories are each extraordinary but common. The themes familiar: duty to the father and brother, marriages to strangers by proxy, a woman’s worth measured by her dowry and her home-making skills, poverty and lack of opportunity, a chance at escape, displacement, longing, hard work, sacrifice, (duty again), pride and comfort in customs maintained, one homeland far away and one comfortable home here – but twice a stranger, acceptance, gratitude.

I know that projects such as these have specific community development aims. They are meant to have benefits for the participants: personal and cultural expression, fostering a new or stronger sense of belonging to the community. And they are meant to have benefits for the wider community: knowledge transfer inducing empathy, nurturing cross-cultural understanding and social cohesion. In this way these migration stories are instruments, tools. But all tools need a handler — someone to do the work.

In the case of these stories, that’s us. Joanne and me and all the others like us. As daughters of migrant women we inherit these stories and all the work that comes with them. We carry, keep, care-take, preserve and interpret, sometimes reinvent this inheritance; code-switching constantly to fashion the way from there to here for ourselves, our parents and our children in myriad ways everyday.

Women in the Archives

Two women were among the land-owners that had their lots taken by Council in the late 1940s. They both wrote letters asking for the decision to be reconsidered, expressing their intention to develop the land for business purposes. One had an Anglo surname, the other an Italian one. This was the only non-Anglo name that I picked up in skimming the archive, despite the fact that by 1956 there were enough ‘New Australians’ settled in the Bankstown community that the local Torch newspaper began to publish a foreign language supplement, rotating weekly through Italian, German and Polish. Today, 60 per cent of the population speak a language other than English, with 46.9 per cent speaking both English and their other language/s proficiently.

The archives also don’t contain any reference at all to local First Nations peoples. I have no way of knowing whether some of the people whose names I skim over are Indigenous, but what I can see clearly is that there is a very real gap in the archives in respect to any mention of local Aboriginal peoples, cultures, experiences and issues such as land rights. In an archive pertaining to the acquisition of land and the making of place, this seems particularly disturbing. There is a very real silence in the archives here. And a very real silencing.

More letters, authored by women: a 1972 complaint letter, polite and pointed in equal measure, from a mother of two, who wrote to commend Council on the ‘delightful rest rooms’ inside the Women’s Rest Centre. In the next paragraph she writes ‘would it be impertinent to ask “Have you ever tried to go to the toilet with a baby under your arms”? It is no joke I will assure you.’ Apparently, the Rest Centre had a policy at the time of not allowing prams into the building. Apparently also, toddlers weren’t allowed into the feeding cubicles with their own mothers and baby siblings. The author challenged these rules, asking for a justification. Following this letter, there is a copy of the reply from the Town Clerk, ‘acknowledging receipt’ of the letter and advising that the matter was ‘receiving attention’. No other follow up letter exists in the archive.

A 1984 letter on official letterhead from the Information and Media Liaison Officer of the Family Court of Australia. Enclosed was a public notice for an information session being held in Bankstown Square that ‘would be of great help to anyone [my italics] going through the distress of separation or anyone unsure about the future of their marriage’. The topics covered in the session included ‘marriage danger signals’. I wondered if these workshops were more geared towards those in a marriage in danger or those in a dangerous marriage. And I wondered, although these sessions were intended for woman attendees – obviously, why the words woman or women did not appear on the letter or the notice once.

Another letter from 1985. The group Women in the Community wrote to Council requesting permission to use the Women’s Rest Centre for monthly meetings. It was granted, with the following conditions: that the group leave the space neat and tidy and lock up after meetings; and that they not leave any materials — “letters, leaflets, posters” — behind. I later discover that this group was founded with the support of the Council in 1971 and had a long, successful and vocal history of advocating for women’s rights. I can’t get my head around the condition not allowing them to leave information about their work – vital and recognised work for women, about women, at the Women’s Rest Centre.

The author of the letter, the Secretary of Women in the Community at the time, was one Phyllis Johnson. I began to look for information about her and mentioned the letter to Jenny and Vandana . It turns out that Phyllis was a local legend. There is a thick yellow cardboard folder full of papers in the vertical file under her name in the Local History Room on the second floor of the Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre. It reveals an extraordinary life lived dedicated to championing various social justice causes. She attended her first International Women’s Day Rally in 1936 at the age of 19, and never missed another until she died in 2009. In fact for many years she was a member of the International Women’s Day Committee at Council, working voluntarily to organise local events – until she resigned in 1994 in protest at what she described as ‘a very elitist group’ hijacking the program.

I also learn that Phyllis was seminal to the establishment of the Betsy Bankstown Women’s Refuge and Crisis Centre, inaugurated by Women in the Community in 1975. I find reference to Betsy in old newspaper clippings – it was the second women’s refuge to be opened in Australia. That Phyllis and her cohort of activist women peers met regularly in this building, comforts and excites me. I imagine them, coming together here to organise and ready themselves to fight for the causes they believed in, steadfast and unwavering.

There is a photo of a pretty young woman with neat, short blonde hair; her head tilted to one side looking straight at me from the A4 glossy paper she’s printed on. She wears a white long-sleeve blouse, a black pencil skirt and a slight smile – no teeth showing. She’s leaning on a large appliance. The caption beneath her reads: ‘Does so much for so little’. The brochure is followed in the archive by purchase records for a coffee machine in 1988.

An incident report dated 1995, hand-written in blue pen. Apparently, a schoolgirl entered the centre to report two girls fighting in the public toilets outside. The attendant then went to check and found two girls ‘making a noise’. When the attendant returned to her desk she found that $20 was missing from the cash tin. She spoke to some other school girls that were present, who identified the girl that made off with the cash. The principal of the school was called and the incident reported to police. At the bottom, in red pen: ‘? Ban school girls’.

Pink Walls

The studio I sit in to write has pink walls. I don’t think they’ve had a fresh lick of paint since the 90s. Someone obviously decided it was a good choice of colour for a mothers and babies’ facility. In the mid morning, when the light is sweet and soft, they take on a peach glow and look much nicer then. There is grime and messy repair work everywhere and odd things I notice like vents half covered over by new walls, built somewhere in the later stages of this place’s history.

My window doesn’t open. But at least I can take in the view outside it. There’s a small courtyard with picnic benches and graffiti – someone is in love with Alsina. The original Alsina in Greek mythology was a sorceress, an enchantress. I bet this Alsina is too. The trains come and go, taking the people on the platform with them. Workers take a smoko or eat their lunch on the sandstone wall. Adjacent, there’s a pretty garden bed of white and purple flowers.

None of the windows open, actually. There’s a padlock on the outside toilet block, a padlock on the gate to the courtyard and I’m encouraged to keep the front door locked while I’m alone here. The fire safety signs on the wall shout compliance, too – a dead give away that this is a Council-run building.

On one wall in the largest space, now used for creative workshops, there are children’s artworks. Massive anthropomorphic fruits, each with a speech bubble. They’re threatening to eat each other. Super-cute and funny. In the next studio my neighbour has finished her residency here but has left a print of a self-portrait, a grieving watercolour woman, stuck to the door.

Since this space became the Incubate Artists Studios, all the groups that meet here for creative workshops are comprised of women and children. All the artists-in-residence that have used it have been women, all of us with a local connection to Bankstown or greater Western Sydney. Some of us speak more than one language, or have more than one culture or sense of homeland. On a small scale, we reflect the make up of the area today – a mix of people from 123 ancestral homelands, speaking 87 different languages — the top five in order of largest to smallest language group being Arabic, Vietnamese, Greek, Mandarin, Cantonese. And these are only the figures officially recorded in the census. Any response that yields less than 10 of the same is omitted.

But records don’t need to be official or archived to be valid and important. A conversation is just as meaningful as any letter from a lawyer. A self-portrait is just as true as any incident report. And an ancient song-line is just as real as any road on a map. The records have no end. The story of this place courses on and women continue to write ourselves into it.

Kiriaki Koubaroulis is the recipient of the inaugural Mother Tongues Residency offered by the Bankstown Arts Centre and Sydney Review of Books. This essay was written in the Incubate Artists Studios in Bankstown.