The Matrons Ball
You get Driver Reviver stops all over the country. These are places where different community groups serve free coffee, tea and cordial and a small packet of sweet biscuits, if you are that way inclined. They are usually tiny buildings built in rest centres and are aimed at encouraging drivers who are making long journeys to pull over for a few minutes and take a break before driver fatigue sets in. But because they are manned by volunteers, 24 hours a day, they only exist during public holidays and sometimes for part of the school holidays. This depends, of course, on how big a pool of volunteers is available. This is when the bulk of our amateur drivers are on the roads and when driving is at its most dangerous.
I pulled up at one such Reviver Centre on the Bruce Highway up near Mackay. The place did not seem to have too much activity. From what I could work out the town consisted of a pub/motel and a convenience store and not many people. A number of which spent a lot of time in the pub.
I was sitting on one of those hard wooden benches in the park under the shade of a large fig tree. I think it was one of those Moreton Bay ones that someone had brought in and planted as a seedling. Minding my own business, enjoying the warmth and gentle, southerly breeze my eyes just naturally closed. I started to reminisce about another time and place not dissimilar to this one.
There was a young fellow from the district who had a real love of history. So much so that he had pursued his interest to the point of going to university and getting himself a couple of degrees. He managed to secure himself a job in Rocky (Rockhampton) at the University there and within a relatively short time he built a reputation as the local history expert. He spent a lot of his free time speaking to the long-term farming families and residents about the stories that had been passed down through the generations. And it seems that such was his knowledge that that he could tell you the happenings and who was involved of every pioneering family around Yaamba. The Royal Oak was the centre of most this activity. One of four pubs that existed at one time which I guess attests as to why it is the only one surviving, now. If you need to know anything about the Yaamba district this was the man to see and the hotel was the place to go.
Mary Bellacanta was a local girl who was not particularly good looking but with good childbearing hips she was the sort of wife material that farmers find attractive and she was in the right age group for a potential husband to be courting her. But it seemed she only had eyes for the quietly spoken and somewhat introverted red-headed Hamish Younger who was also of Yaamba pioneering stock. Mary could trace her family back to 1858 around Yamba. It was a well-accepted fact in the district that the farming aristocracy acquaint and socialise with each other. And the best place to do it was at the annual Matrons Ball. This being the foremost event of the social season and held, naturally, in the back of The Royal Oak. But this important event was by invitation only. Those that were considered to be suitable for attendance were chosen by a committee made up of mature well-fed ladies from the old established farming families, the country aristocracy. Mary’s aunt, Mrs Taylor-Ashford, was the Secretary and Hamish’s mother sat on the committee. Mary was very keen to go and hopefully get another chance to get a step closer to Hamish Younger asking her out. It wasn’t considered, after all, a real date if a girl wasn’t taken to dinner in Rocky. A meal at the pub just didn’t do it.
Now as it turns out with the Bicentennial celebrations going on that year, the State government was keen to compile a more detailed account of local events and the people who pioneered the land. Naturally they contacted our local history guru who was very willing to oblige. So they sent a questionnaire of the types of information they would like to know before they came for a formal fact-finding visit. He and Mary had been school friends and had remained pals even after he had come back from Uni. So it was quite a normal thing for him to involve her in the projects that directly involved the district.
Lisa Taylor, third generation, of Yaamba Taylors was unable to further her education to become a school teacher so her father sent her south to obtain her qualifications. That was in 1902. Lisa returned to Yaamba just a few years before the outbreak of the Great War with her son James and no husband who had died a few years earlier of consumption. Not an uncommon thing in those times. It seems that she had met Jim Bellacanta, an Italian immigrant, whilst studying, they married and Lisa graduated from teachers college in Melbourne. Jim’s darkish Mediterranean complexion would have accounted for James’s olive skin though he is said have had a flattish face unlike the sharpish nose and cheeks of the southern Italian. Like anywhere not everyone who comes from the same region has exactly the same features. About a year after returning to Yaamba Lisa remarried and did rather well for herself financially but she did not have any other children. James kept his father’s name and a dynasty from his many children has extended throughout the district. So the story goes.
Early colonial records are often vague. Which of course is why a local-knowledge person was so important; to put the real personalities into the cold facts of history. After the meeting with the officials the two friends got together. Mary was absolutely flabbergasted.
“We can leave things the way they are and not create a disturbance.”
“No, we will stick with tradition.”
On the night of the ball after the debutantes had been presented. The Ladies of the committee had ordained, according to custom, that all the available spinsters attending should have a part of their pioneering dynasty read to the assembled gathering. And that his being the celebration of the bicentennial year of European settlement to be read out by their chaperon for the evening.
When it came to Mary’s turn Mary’s chaperon and well-known historian stood up proud and began his oratory. He began, naturally enough, with Chips Taylor getting his grant of land in 1858. Then he came to the story of Lisa, Mary’s great-grandmother.
“In 1902 Mervyn Taylor suspecting his daughter Lisa to be pregnant to his half caste aboriginal foreman Wooli.” A big sigh came over the room. “Decided that this was for no good and would not only lower the family standing in the community but would be the ruination of Lisa’s life. So he had her sent to Melbourne to have the child and leave it with the nuns to bring up. But Lisa had kept the child and the following year, though there is no record of this, she married Jim Bellicanta, an Italian migrant and a good, kindly provider. At the time, this made it easier to explain why Lisa had not returned after the one year of teachers college that they did in those days. Jim Bellicanta died 3 years later of consumption. A few years later Lisa returned home with James Bellecanta, her son. This story has not been told before tonight. Things have been left to the inevitable presumption that James‘s father was born Italian. James was in fact a quarter caste aboriginal and all the born Bellacanta’s in this district have indigenous blood. And in this year of celebrating our unitedness in assimilation and multi-culturism how proud Mary is of her ties with both the indigenous and immigrant peoples that make up our society and heritage.”
A deadly silence as shock-waves radiated throughout the room. Mrs Younger turned plain-flour white. Mrs Taylor-Ashford’s large frame had a definite sway to it as if she were going to faint. Then slowly a polite handclap from the official party. And the MC introduced the next spinster. Nothing was said. No conversations ensued. Just a few polite nods of the head as Mary made eye contact with people as they walked by.
“I guess that’s torn it”. She spoke quietly.
Then the main event of the evening.
“The available Bachelors may now ask the Spinster of their choice to join them in the Matrons Waltz”
Mary’s heart sank with disappointment her golden opportunity was gone. Then a gentle tap on the shoulder.
“May I have the pleasure”?
She turned to face the most handsome man in the room and before she could collect herself she was waltzing, no gliding through the air, to the recorded music of The Blue Danube. She barely heard the words he said amongst her sheer joy and ecstasy.
“………Change your name to Younger……”
And the nod of “Yes,Yes,Yes”
That was a while ago and times have changed, I am told, but I still go to see Mary and Hamish a couple of times a year just to keep my records up to date.