The small tales that weave a greater truth

"It was the 15th of August, 1945. We were all working diligently and all of a sudden the bells started ringing all over town. Mr Love, the accountant, said you can all pack up and go home. The war has ended! So we packed up and I thought, 'Oh, I'd like to go home', but I was at a boarding house, my bike was in dock and it had a flat tyre.

"It was the 15th of August, 1945. We were all working diligently and all of a sudden the bells started ringing all over town. Mr Love, the accountant, said you can all pack up and go home. The war has ended! So we packed up and I thought, 'Oh, I'd like to go home', but I was at a boarding house, my bike was in dock and it had a flat tyre.

"I said to Mrs Mallory where I was boarding, 'Heavens above, if I had my bike I'd ride home today'. She said, 'You can borrow mine'. So I did. It was a ladies' bike, and you couldn't make it go as fast as a men's bike, which I had. But anyway, I got on the bike and away I went.

"It took me five hours to get home. I had a head wind and, those days, the road went up and down and all over the place. When I got home to the farm, my father said, 'Where did you come from?' And I said, 'Off that bike. I came home to help you celebrate the end of the world war."'

Family always meant everything, even when there were head winds and crooked roads, and there had been plenty of those in this woman's long life.

She was old now, 92, telling this story. But when the stories of her life began flowing, just as they do for so many with a long store of years behind them, there was still a girl in there.

She sipped her wine, which meant it was 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

Ritual is a reliable friend for the passing of years. Lunch at midday, a cup of tea at 3 o'clock, the uncorking of a bottle at five. She and her husband were in the habit of setting up the Scrabble board to share the coming of evening, too, but he had gone now, months ago.

His absence left a silence. He had always done much of the talking and the storytelling, all through the 62 years of their marriage.

Finally, she had the space and the need to fill that silence with her own stories. When there was a son or granddaughters visiting, willing to listen, a light spread upon her face as the memories spilled into words. She had always been good with words.

Shyly, without telling anyone, she had written her autobiography and had published it herself, and she had been astonished so many people clamoured to buy and read the slim volume. There should have been no surprise.

It told stories of triumph over tribulation; of a young woman warned by doctors she would never have children and would live only a short life who went on to have two sons and to live into her 90s; of a family riven by old religious bigotry (her Protestant father brought home from World War I an Irish Catholic bride) and finding in the confusion of it a faith that sustained her for life; of waiting and waiting, prepared to be an old maid rather than marry someone unsuitable, until she met at a country dance the man who would share six decades of her life; of sharing with her husband the agony of losing a son to a motorcycle accident, but enduring; of mending birds with broken wings and sending them flying away; of gaining a kitchen window with a view of an ever-changing sea.

Australia has a long, long oral history. The Dreamtime, some call it. But our other history, the one that began when Europeans began arriving, is shorter than most of us realise until we do the numbers.

This one woman's little autobiography and the stories that filled her last evenings, a glass of wine at hand, covered more than a third of Australia's entire history since European settlement: most of the 20th century sprawling into the 21st.

Historians gather the big stories, as if viewed from above.

Old people tell the little stories from down below, the ones that fill the gaps in surprising and intimate ways. Who but someone who had experienced the moment could recall with such clarity when a world war ended and the bells began ringing and there was nothing but a borrowed bike and a long rural road to be battled until the proper celebrating could begin?

We know there was a Great Depression in the 1930s, but you could feel it when this woman told of her father lacking a penny ha'penny postage stamp to send a letter begging for an extension on the family farm's mortgage.

"There was no penny ha'penny in the house and no stamp, but we remembered a threepence had been dropped down the back verandah some time before, so the boards came up ... but we couldn't find the threepence," she recalled.

One of her sisters was sent "post-haste on Topsy [the pony] around to Aunt May's. She was poorer than we were, but fortunately, she had a stamp."

She told happy stories, too, and amusing anecdotes of old boyfriends and hopeless suitors - the sort of tales she would never have recounted when her husband was alive - and, protesting that she was all but deaf and her hands had become crippled, she would sit at her piano and play Schubert and waltzes and Irish songs that once had fuelled all-night parties in her home.

She is gone now, this woman who was my mother, just a few months after her husband, my father, which is often the way of things and which seems the proper end to a cycle. They now lie beneath the ground next to my brother.

She went on a stormy day, the sea all torn, a couple of weeks before the first election in which she did not wish to vote, for she could abide neither Tony Abbott nor Kevin Rudd for what she felt was their lack of compassion for the dispossessed.

I used the video camera on my phone, something my mother could never quite comprehend, to surreptitiously record her storytelling.

It is the wonder of a new age that the little stories can be kept in one's pocket to grow larger and more precious; fragments of a past kept living.

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