Maggie Wildblood, 75, has been writing for years and has just completed a memoir. She has won a number of short story competitions, and meets regularly with a group of fellow writers to discuss and critique each others’ work.
“Oh, almost forgot. Your key. Good luck. Let me know if I can help you again.” He grinned.
As an estate agent, Michael must have said these words many times. Trotted them out at the end of a sale almost without thinking.
He was young, young enough to be one of my sons. Plunging a hand into his pocket he produced a key dangling from a red plastic label. He put the key into my left hand, he shook my right. Our business was ended, over. I was no longer a client. My new life, was just beginning. The key, like all the others that popped in and out of his life, was of interest no longer, just an insignificant piece of metal. It was anything but insignificant to me.
After my marriage ended, I rented a tiny two-bedroom unit at Gladesville. Rental accommodation was scarce in Sydney in the mid-1980s, and my rent increased at the end of my first six months. I knew it would continue to do so; it would have been a rare landlord who didn’t raise the rent as often as was legal in that environment.
Once the divorce settlement came through, I began looking for something to buy so I could stop paying rent. I wanted a place of my own. The bank was very happy to give me a mortgage, my first. I wasn’t to know the interest rate of 13.5 per cent would escalate to 18 per cent, but I suppose even if I had, I would still have bought something, somewhere.
That rate rise however was in the future. Right here and now I stood holding the key, the first key that had ever been entirely mine, the first key I didn’t have to share with anyone else. It opened the door to my new home. As my fingers curled possessively around it, I itched to drive there, park on the crumbling bitumen of the parking lot in my space, climb the two flights of steps, open my door, and be there in my home.
That’s what I did. Shutting the front door behind me, I glanced left into the kitchen, already beginning to plan changes to the cupboards, to the floor, to the colour scheme. From that spot too I could see the floor-to-ceiling windows of the living room.
“This carpet’s got to go”, I thought as I did my ‘grand tour’, opening and shutting windows, flushing the lavatory, turning the lights on and off – things I hadn’t even thought to do on my one and only inspection of the place.
Then I opened the balcony door, walked out to glory in the 180-degree view, from the northern pylon of the Bridge, across the city and, if I leaned out a bit, west to the Blue Mountains.
“This is mine, all mine!”
Running my fingers along the walls, opening and closing doors, I wondered about some of the women in my life. Had each of them had this feeling of possession, achievement, pride, when she held her first key, entered her own home for the first time?
My parents had lived in rented accommodation all their married life: seven houses by the time I was seven. After my mother died I found a memento she had kept through all those moves and beyond. Rolled up and hidden at the back of her wardrobe were architectural drawings of the house she and my father were going to build together one day, the home in which they would live happily ever after.
My father’s parents, Gran and Da Zincke, lived all 50-plus years of their marriage first in rented accommodation in New Zealand where they were married, later in Sydney. My grandfather didn’t ever earn enough for them to buy a home of their own. It’s only in my lifetime that ordinary people have yearned enough, earned enough, to own their own slice of the Australian pie.
Auntie Mollie Zincke broke the family pattern. Following her retirement after forty-seven years at the MLC, Mollie bought herself a unit. Although her new home was many kilometres from her previous one, she didn’t move very far in her head. The unit bore an astonishing resemblance to the flat she’d shared with Gran and Da for most of her adult life. How amazing that she, whose lifelong experience had been rented premises, bought real estate for the first time at the age of 60!
My mother outdid Mollie owning her own home when she was 57! I say ‘she owned’ because everyone spoke of the unit as hers. Ralph, her third husband, was co-owner, but it was ‘her’ unit. Marriage to Ralph made the purchase possible. Ralph had worked for the CBC since he was 16, interrupted only by WWII when he ‘served King and Country’. The combination of my mother’s share portfolio as security, and Ralph’s connection with ‘The Bank’ enabled them to buy a home, the first for either of them. It was a unit at Wollstonecraft, bought off the plan, and she lived there for more than 25 years, staying on after Ralph’s death.
A nester, life had forced my mother back to the house of Tetty, her own mother, many times; but living in someone else’s home, no matter how familiar, would never have been the same as having her own. She loved her unit, and like a bower bird she constantly moved things around: furniture, ornaments, pictures, plants.
Tetty, my other grandmother, was a home owner too. Born in the late 19th century, she bought a Federation house in Macpherson Street, Cremorne after the death of her father. It became home not just for her husband, herself, and their family of five, but for countless others who were always welcome. Purchasing real estate on your own was a radical thing for a woman in the 1920s, particularly a married woman. Stories hover in the back of my mind about other places Tetty owned and lost because people couldn’t afford the rents during the Depression, and I suppose she couldn’t then pay the mortgages. I was seven when my mother and I moved there, and Tetty’s is the home of my childhood.
I wasn’t a trail blazer, the first woman on either side of my family to own real estate. I was following the lead of some remarkable women who were ahead of their times. Did we share those same feelings of possession, pride, achievement, holding those insignificant pieces of metal that signified so much?
Although I’ve had several homes since my first, that little unit with the marvellous view, it will always hold a special place in my heart. When I closed its front door for the last time, I took with me memories of many happy years.
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