01.07.2009

Choosing Hope

Jo Buchanan finds powerful inspiration close at hand

Jo Buchanan finds powerful inspiration close at hand

The Oxford Dictionary defines "hope" as a combination of expectation and desire. But hope is more than an abstract feeling. It is also a tangible part of our ability as human beings to create.

"Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change," says Jim Wallis. Some people are able to sustain superhuman effort to attain their dream through never losing sight of hope. Nelson Mandela is a wonderful example of this in our own time. The thousands of Jewish people who took part in the exodus from Egypt must have sustained extraordinary hope to survive exile in the wilderness away from their homeland.

"Hope is like a road in the country," says Lin Yutang, "There never was a road. But when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence." It is comforting to read the words of these wise people. But sometimes stress, lack of support, failure and rejection in day-to-day life can squash feelings of hope. Sometimes, it all seems easier said than done.

We regard people like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and others who have lived their lives based on hope and faith as saints, believing we could never emulate them. Yet all of us know of someone, a family member, friend, neighbour, work colleague, who has survived the impossible through sustaining hope and trust and basic bloody mindedness.

I know about such a woman. This woman, Ellen was her name, came out to Australia from England in the late 1800s. She met a fellow countryman on the ship. They married, settled in Melbourne and had four boys. When the youngest boy was two years old, Ellen's husband died from an insect bite and she was left to rear four sons under the age of eight, alone.

Penniless and unqualified in any form of trade or profession, she tried to exist in one room of a boarding house. But without money and with five mouths to feed, she took drastic action. What she did implies "giving up hope" and abandoning her children. But apparently Ellen had a plan, fuelled by the combined motivation of hope and faith.

She placed her three oldest boys in the Melbourne Orphan Asylum and the two year old in a Church of England Babies' Home in Brighton. She then travelled north by train to Echuca, seeking employment as a cook on a paddle steamer that towed barges laden with timber along the Murray River. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for that woman, living on the other side of the world from her homeland and family, leaving her children to work in a world of rough and ready lumberjacks.

The railway line to Echuca was built in 1864 and, as a result, the town's port had become the largest inland port in Australia. Two hundred paddle steamers traversed the river and the port was renowned for being a raucous township. Although the population was only 4000, Echuca boasted approximately 80 pubs and breweries. Brothels boomed, horse races were held in the main road and bare-knuckle fights lasted for hours on the riverbanks.

This was where Ellen based herself while she worked long hours on the paddle steamers as chief cook and bottle washer, saving every penny and gaining the experience and confidence to eventually take on paid employment back in one of Melbourne's many cafes. She never gave up hope that she would achieve this and reclaim her four children.

When she returned to Melbourne two years later, she successfully retrieved her three older children from the orphanage. But when she went to collect her youngest from the Babies' Home, she discovered he had been adopted. The laws governing adoption must have been slack at the turn of the twentieth century because, on hearing this, Ellen promptly hired a hansom cab and stormed the leafy country mansion in Hawthorn, successfully reclaiming her youngest son.

It must have been heartbreaking for her as the child cried all the way back to Melbourne, screaming for his mother. "I am your mother," repeated Ellen, sitting beside him in the cab, clinging desperately to hope.

Once she found a cottage to rent in Fitzroy, Ellen went to work as a cook at a city restaurant. Fitzroy in those days was a slum area. Their cottage was infested with rats, the roof leaked, the walls were damp. The cold water gully trap in the yard was used to wash bodies, dishes and laundry alike. Food was cooked in a pot hanging over the open fire. The four brothers slept sardine-style along the length of a double bed while their mother slept on the couch.

She didn't indulge in luxuries for herself. Instead of buying lipstick, she would wet her finger, rub it against the crimson wallpaper in the passage and carefully apply the red dye to her lips. The children took on paper runs after school and with their combined meagre incomes they resided together as a loving, close-knit family until the boys left home. Diaries and letters are evidence of the positive outcome achieved from a situation that appeared doomed to fail.

When she was 75, Ellen was nursed throughout a terminal illness by her devoted youngest son, the one who was two when he was placed in the Babies' Home. He organised her funeral and was with her when she died.

The yellowed death certificate dated May 10, 1937, accompanied by a note of thanks to the manager of the funeral parlour, rustle in my hands like dead leaves. The note is in my father's handwriting. Ellen was my grandmother.

As Alexander Pope once said, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." When feelings of hopelessness dominate, it's important to remember that we are still capable of choosing hope and, in doing so, we create a new reality.

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