I was having difficulty reaching my desk through the paper files on the floor. The time for a clean-up had long departed. The urgent need to find a misplaced piece of paper became the motivation to begin. In my clean up, my attention was drawn to a document I found on the floor. ‘Aerograms from our time in Zambia Africa 1971 to 1973’.
Over 15 years ago, while cleaning out Mum’s house I found tucked away at the bottom of a wardrobe, an old biscuit tin. Inside were neatly folded aerograms I had written to my mother most Sunday evenings while in Zambia.
I picked them up and began reading. As I read, the pages come alive with memories. It was always about waiting. Waiting for news from home. Waiting for the birth of our children. Grandparents waiting for news of their grandchildren. We were so dependent on a small fragile aerogram.
As I flicked through the aerograms, I was drawn to one dated 1 December 1971. That date, that aerogram had great significance for us. I had written “Joan is still around and at the moment is 11 days overdue. She goes to see her doctor tomorrow”.
We were waiting for a small child to be born. One who was exercising a mind of its own. It was not ready to take that first step into our world. I remember clearly, the waiting, not knowing, unable to plan beyond a few hours at a time.
Memories come flooding back. I had been working at the Kalulushi Farm College Zambia for 2 months having recently arrived from Australia. I was teaching farm mechanics and working with college employed mechanics.
It was Saturday, a warm wet day. The tropical rain arrived in the early hours of the morning. We had driven a short distance to a small private clinic in Kitwe, a copper mining town with a population of 120,000. On arrival, we were greeted by the nursing staff and Joan settled in. Dr Jenkinson, Joan’s doctor, a long-time local doctor was expected at the clinic shortly. With little for me to do, and instructions to ring the clinic around lunch time to check on Joan, I left. Where to go now I asked myself.
I drove out towards the farm college about 12 miles away, passing through the small mining town of Kalulushi. The Rev Bill Hinks, and his wife Phyllis were friends we had recently met. As I drove through town, the thought occurred to drop into their place. I might be offered a cup of tea.
Changing direction, I arrived to find Bill in the veggie garden. “Looking for a cup of tea?” he sang out as I stepped from my car. “Funny about that” I said. “You must be a mind reader”. “No, not really” he said “It’s just that I have two grown up daughters. Waiting around is thirsty business. “Come in” he said. “Phyllis can put on the kettle and you can update us on Joan”.
We sat and talked. Phylis, keen to know when Joan would give birth. “Dr Jenkins said late afternoon” I said. Phylis scoffed at that comment. “You can’t always believe those doctors. Babies come when they are good and ready. It’s almost lunch time. I‘ll rustle up a bit of lunch while you phone the clinic to see how Joan is”.
I was beginning to think I would be better off at the college fitting a reconditioned engine in a 12-seater Toyota bus. At least my mind would be on other things.
After lunch, I was sent off by Phillis to check on Joan at the clinic and if nothing was happening (code for no contractions) come for tea.
Arriving at the clinic, I found Joan pacing around, restless. We sat in a small room and conversed in small talk. “I called into the Hinks”, I said “had an offer for lunch”. After lunch I was ordered back to be with you”. Dr Jenkinson was nowhere to be seen and all was quiet. Returning to the Hinks late afternoon, I stayed for dinner. Phyllis was keen for me to return to Joan.
Nothing was happening. This waiting business was getting a bit difficult for us both. Then around 9.00pm things began to happen, slowly. The beginnings of a contraction, then quiet, then another.
Dr Jenkinson arrived sometime later, dressed in a grey safari suit. He came in to see Joan. After a brief examination, he asked Joan to hold on, as he had not had dinner and was hungry. With that, he left the room. Joan was not impressed. The nurse assigned to Joan for the birth came in and quietly and without any fuss prepared Joan. The contractions were increasing, it was just after midnight. It had started to rain.
Dr Jenkinson came into the birthing room. In a very matter of fact way, he examined Joan. He smiled. “It does not matter how many babies I deliver; I never tire of the wonder, of the birth of a child”. Without any sense of urgency, dressed in his grey safari suit, he prepared Joan for the birth of our first child. I remember the lights appeared dim in the background. The midwife, a native South African sang softly a beautiful lullaby. All was quiet and very peaceful. Not so for Joan!!
It was as though Dr Jenkinson was slowing down time. The long wait nearly over. “Babies arrive in this world when they are ready”, he said softly. Then quite quickly there emerged this small baby. “She has a good set of lungs” observed Dr Jenkinson as she opened her mouth to announce her presence in the world. “Do you want to be wheeled back to your room” asked Dr Jenkinson. “No” Joan replied. “I can walk back. It’s not far”.
Arriving at the Hinks’ for breakfast Sunday morning, Bill was long gone to attend to his first service at a church community in a nearby township. Phillis was all questions about Joan and our child. So, what are you going to call her” ask Phillis? “Tanya Maree” I said. “Who is she named after” she asked. “No one” I said.
Life had changed for Joan and I forever. Arriving at the clinic Sunday morning, I could hear a baby sounding off. Not happy with the world. Stepping into Joan’s room, I found her sitting up on the bed. “Can you hear that loud noise coming from the nursey” she asked. I nodded my head. “That’s our daughter” she said. “She’s been going all night”.
I realised the aerogram was still in my hand. I wonder; when did I send the next aerogram to be announcing the safe arrival of Tanya? Flicking through the emails again, I found it. It was dated 16 December 1971. My opening comments were in the aerogram were “Since Tanya arrived nearly two weeks ago, I have not had a chance to write, although I should have”. It was in that moment I realised they were waiting as well. Waiting thousands of miles away.
Waiting for the birth of our first child was a difficult time. How much more difficult it must have been for our parents. We were separated by thousands of miles. Different time zones, different cultures. different environments brought together by a fragile and at times irregular air mail service. The waiting was over, for a time for Joan and me. The waiting had just begun for both our families back in Australia who would not be able to cuddle their grandchildren for another two years.