By the time she was my age, 26, my Nana had six children under the age of ten. Growing up, she dreamed of being an air stewardess but it wouldn’t be until the age of 48, thirty-three years after her first child was born, she would leave Australia for the first time. When she finally arrived in London with my Pop, she couldn’t believe it, she had never seen anything like it. Heathrow was buzzing with people, it was bigger than any airport she’d ever seen in her whole life, with planes taking off to new and exotic locations every few minutes.
Nan grew up in the small town of Charters Towers in northern Queensland. If you’ve never heard of it before, Charters Towers is about 134 km west of Townsville, it is a town built by the gold mining boom in the late 1800s and it gets stinking hot in summer. The population now is around the 14,000 mark, but back in Nan’s day, it would have been closer to 7,000 at best. Her house had a chicken-wire front door and dirt floors.
To travel in those days was to take the train to Townsville, if you were really adventurous you’d make the 1,300km trip south, to Brisbane. Despite this, Nan always wanted to see the world and when she finally did, she didn’t waste any time making up for what she’d missed for so long. During her first Europe trip, she left my Pop with his family in Scotland and took off solo to Switzerland, spending a night in a shared dorm at a hostel, surrounded by strangers smoking, talking and drinking into the night. Terrified, she didn’t sleep a wink, when she saw my Pop again she told him she’d had the best time of her life and wasn’t afraid at all. It is still one of her favourite travel stories.
During the day she walked and walked, seeing as much as she could and savouring every sound, smell and taste, despite the freezing cold. In Charters Towers the temperature hovers around 30 degrees for most of the year, in Switzerland, it can drop as low as -6 in the major cities. The cold didn’t matter to her, all that mattered was she was finally there. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she says, “When you travel, you get to meet new people and hear their stories, they discuss things with you. Life now is just wonderful, from the moment you get on the plane the excitement is incredible.” It had taken her 48 years, but she’d finally found her freedom and she was going to enjoy every second of it.
A few years later her youngest son, my Uncle, took her to America and to this day she says San Francisco is her favourite place. The warmer weather suited her better and she would wake up early each morning to line up for fresh clam chowder. At times she would sneak off by herself and, fearlessly, catch the bus on her own, walking for hours, soaking up every part of what was around her. For a girl from country Queensland, it was a huge change and a daring adventure.
Our life paths have been very different, but my Nan’s love for travel and new experiences has passed through her, to my Mum and onto me. The struggles my Nan and Mum went through shaped their views on life which informed the values they instilled in me.
Few people have been more supportive of Matt and my decision to not settle down than my Nan and my Mum have been. My Nan’s view is it takes bravery to walk away from the security of normality and go into the unknown. She believes it will teach you patience and strength, you’ll be in new and often difficult situations, but it’s one of the best things you can do. It’s life-changing.
Nan has seen so many changes from the 1940s to now, the opportunities and choices available to us are endless and she believes we should take full advantage of them. Where she was expected to study then marry and start a family, we have options, we can travel then settle or start a family and travel with them or go into the wild and never settle. “Reach out for your life, Phoebe, grab onto it,, ” says Nan, “Experience it and do everything, don’t be like me. Live every day, have a wonderful life and don’t have too much responsibility.”
But what about people who are looking from the outside in, those who think you are selfish for indulging your life’s dreams and desires? “Selfish is good,” says Nan, “Because, you are considering yourself first. That’s why people think it’s selfish, but you have every right to put yourself first. If you don’t look out for yourself and put your dreams first, nobody else will. So put yourself first and be proud of it, don’t put off your young life.”
I’ve often taken for granted the freedom I have and the number of choices available to me, the ability to choose my own life path and have my family and friends support me. Hearing my Nan’s story puts it all into perspective. Don’t let fear, doubt or an endless list of ‘what-ifs’ take over, if there’s something in your heart you really want to follow, do it, don’t put it off any longer. If a girl who grew up in a dirt-floor house with a chicken-wire front door can do it, anyone can.