Australia Day ambassador Susanne Gervay said she was ‘beside herself’ when she came across a hand-embroidered binder filled with school magazines at a little second-hand shop in Deepwater on her travels from Armidale Airport to Tenterfield.
“That was a huge find for me,” she said, and she’s eagerly looking forward to sharing it with the deputy editor of The School Magazine when next they meet. The magazine for children which has been published continuously by the NSW Department of Education and Communities in its many incarnations since its first issue in 1916.
The ears of Maree Parker (nee Jones) must have been burning on January 26 as Ms Gervay raved about her great find and how it epitomises those country crafts of old. Mrs Parker is the ‘M Jones’ who embroidered the cover eight decades ago.
She doesn’t recall that particular item but she’s kicking herself that this year is one of the very few Australia Day ceremonies she’s missed. She would have happily put up her hand to claim the recognition, and she’s heard since that many in the audience knew the connection and didn’t speak up. Hughie McCowen put the pieces of the puzzle together for Ms Gervay, however, who was thrilled to be put in contact with Mrs Parker and vice versa.
Mrs Parker was homeschooled at Oakdale (which Barry McCowen now owns) by her mother courtesy of the gloriously-named Miss Plunkett’s Correspondence School until she was eight. Then she used to ride to Sandy Flat Public School, “across the line and then back along 5 Mile Road”.
She figures it was during this time she created the cover, considering it was for school magazines, making it around 80 years old. She said it was probably done at home during her own time.
“I was always doing things like that,” she said, “always fiddling and making designs.
“I still do my ‘M’s like that.”
On completion of primary school Mrs Parker and a lot of other children from as far as Deepwater used to catch the mail train which came up from Sydney to Tenterfield for their secondary education. She caught it at 7am after riding her horse Velvet to Sandy Flat, which she said claimed the honour of the longest unattended country rail platform.
She well remembers the train slipping and sliding on the icy tracks in winter as it struggled to get up the hill to Bungulla, but while it refilled from the water tank there the kids took the opportunity to raid a nearby loquat tree when the fruit was ripe.
The students caught the mail train home again, but as this was during the war years the troop trains took precedence and the mail train was often parked in a siding until late at night, with Mrs Parker and her classmates left shivering in the cold.
One advantage of this time, however, was that there was an army signal station at Sandy Flat and the soldiers stayed in the hall. Courtesy of the soldiers Velvet would always be caught and saddled waiting for young Maree’s return, whatever the time of night.
While she doesn’t recall it ever being reported in the papers, she well remembers the incident where her train stopped at Bluff River for military police to deal with three Japanese soldiers who had apparently attempted to blow up the railway bridge.
Her demonstrated dexterity with the sewing needle from an early age went on to serve her well in a career which has revolved around cloth. At one stage she did all the alteration work for Sherelle’s, the ladieswear store she now runs with daughter Sheree and which this year celebrates 33 years in business.
Ambassador Gervay said her writing is inspired by the people and events she encounters on her Australia Day travels, and the embroidered magazine cover handmade by M Jones may yet be the beginnings of another novel.