It is tempting to feel as though we are living through “unprecedented” times. And that’s not surprising because we live in ahistorical times, in a place where concrete buries the past.
But for 101-year old Mary Browning, my grandmother, who grew up in the scrub that is now Cavill Mall in Surfers Paradise, there are precedents. Although she often says she can’t remember, the rivers of her memory run clear and deep – only faltering every now and then. In her early childhood there was no Gold Coast, no Surfers Paradise.
“It was nothing but bush”, she says. “Bush everywhere”. Nan was brought up in the first house to be built on the track between Main Beach and the Nerang River – given as a wedding present to her father Bill Emzin and his bride Eileen Norris.
The three-bedroom timber house was put up on one of three adjoining blocks, an allotment purchased by her hard-working South Sea Islander grandfather, Charley Emzin, who used to operate a winch ferry across the Nerang River – by hand.
Nan’s accordion-playing father Bill wasn’t prepared to farm the allotment as intended – his calling was as a boatman and fisherman. She has very fond memories of her father.
“He had a most beautiful nature; he never swore and he was always very polite. He was a lovely man. Everybody loved Pop”.
Her mother Eileen was second- generation Catholic Irish on one side and Third Fleeter on the other. Nevertheless, Nan and her only brother Chilla grew up believing they were Aboriginal. In fact, her parents were married at the home of Jenny Graham on Brighton Parade.
Nan remembers ‘Granny Graham’ always had a kerosene tin filled with water on the stove ready to make pippy soup, sand and all. At that time the paddle steamer Maid of Sker was plying the river with produce from the Nerang sugar mills en route to the refinery in Brisbane. When Nan asked when the child her mother was expecting would arrive, Eileen told her that the baby would come on ‘The Maid’. Every week or so, Nan would walk down to the river and sing out to the skipper “do you have my baby brother?”
Nan learned to swim in the Nerang River, and rarely swam in the surf. Keen surfer and entrepreneur Jim Cavill was the first to capitalise on this unpromising stretch of land, building the Surfers Paradise Hotel in 1925. He also maintained a zoo, where the star tourist attraction was a Malayan sun bear named Bunty.
Nan says Cavill used to practice golf in the spare allotment across the road from the Emzin home and Nan and her brother Chilla used to scout for golf balls. They didn’t go unrewarded. “He used to take us up to his hotel, take us into his office, and open his big safe, and he would give us twelve pennies”.
When the Depression hit the Emzin kids had crabs, fish and less often, oysters. “You could throw out a line, or make a fire and boil up a billycan,” she recalls.
Thanks to Bill and Eileen, the kids never went hungry – even in lean times.
“We lived off the land, you know? When you come to think of it, there wasn’t much else around”.
The Emzins also kept chickens – and anyone who knows my grandmother will know how much she loves her chooks. Nan admits she used to dress her bantam rooster in doll’s clothes and watch him run around the yard, just for fun. Nan is adamant that she never personally experienced racism but then she is one of the most positive, sweetest and uncomplaining people I know.
“There was no colour bar, we could go into the best hotels… And in Southport, wherever we went we were treated just like any other person”. Her mother Eileen ensured the kids weren’t treated differently. “She wouldn’t let anybody put anything over us just because we were coloured kids. She used to say to them, ‘Just because they’re coloured, you’re not taking their pencils and their books’. She always fought for us, Mum”.
Nan walked seven miles every day to attend school across the river in Southport, sometimes cutting through the scrub at Benowa. Unexpectedly, Nan finished school in the summer of 1930 and her working life began – as a childminder. “That was my first job, and I made twelve and sixpence. I used to give Mum the 10 shillings and I’d keep the two and sixpence for myself”.
Nan left Surfers Paradise in 1946 to live at Fingal with her returned serviceman husband Noel, a Bundjalung man. Their married life would begin in a tent. When Nan was packing her things she said she wanted to bring some pictures to hang.
My grandfather shot back, ‘What are you going to hang them on – skyhooks?’”
In the end, Noel’s mother and stepfather wouldn’t hear of them pitching a tent up the back with a seven-month old baby. They gave up their own bed and moved into the small front room of their house in Fingal.
Bill and Eileen Emzin remained on what was then Cavill Avenue. Her brother Chilla and his wife Enid raised their large family on the same property, although the house was dwarfed by high-rises. Enid Emzin sold up in the late seventies.
Nan has always enjoyed the best of health. A doctor treating her sickly brother for persistent bronchitis and other infections once jokingly said Nan was a germ carrier.
“I was never sick… I was the strong one. That’s part of why I’m still alive”.
Although she left Surfers a long time ago, Nan is deeply connected to her past. Meyer’s Ferry and Old Surfers is alive in her memory.
Living in the moment, we forget to recall the past. But if we listen attentively to those who hold the stories of our communities, we may find another way to understand the present and perhaps navigate an uncertain future.