Nearly every week letters find their way to us from Australia. Nanna writes in curly script on fine paper, Aunty Shirley sends aerogrammes with drawings of gum nuts and wildflowers down the edges and Cate’s envelopes burst with page after page of scratchy writing because she thinks so fast and can’t write the words down fast enough.
One day a letter arrives with a properly typed address. Cate’s been given a new typewriter and now I can read everything as fast as it was written. Her letters jump about – new paragraphs start on a new day and stories from home, jokes and ideas jam from edge to edge of each page.
Sometimes a letter arrives which was sent before the last one – as if it had taken its own journey and found us at last – just at the right address. One day mum gets a letter from her friend Aunty Dawn, but inside the pages are in Uncle John’s writing. Aunty Dawn is not very well and is having tests in hospital.
There is not very much we can do. The letter has taken more than a month to arrive, so Mum decides Aunty Dawn must be well and home by now and we could buy something small to mail to her. Mum says, “If Dawn is not very well but can still sit up and do something in bed – some fabric for embroidery would be perfect.”
“If you want some fabric you must see Mrs Chang,” our neighbour Dewi suggests when Mum shares the news,”she has everything – very beautiful things you can buy for your friend – and she can make you any clothes you like. You can draw a design or find one in a book and she will make it for you just exactly right.”
So we head off the next day to Mrs Chang, the dressmaker in Cihampelas, and I take my note book in case I can also draw a design for some new clothes.
The bejak drops us at a plain building which stretches along the street and we go up some steps and down a short alley to find the shop door. We step into Mrs Chang’s shop and a warm, sharp smell, like clothes coming off the clothesline on a hot day mixed with mothballs, stings my nostrils.
Rolls of fabric jostle up the walls and over the benches. Sheer satiny silks in butterfly colours are drawn out from their rolls and flutter in time as the lazy fan wafts overhead. A stack of block printed batik in bold designs sits beside hand drawn panels of water buffalo ploughing rice fields on stiff cotton parcels. On one side there is a rainbow of silks – some very soft and light, others heavy and coarse. On the back wall a battery of bottled buttons sparkles and shimmers beside a cascade of bright ribbons and floating braids.
“It’s better than Myer’s mum!” I gasp.
“Yes it’s wonderful – but we must keep and eye on the time – the Post Office closes at 12 o’clock,” Mum knows that time does strange things in shops like these.
“Canti, canti!” Mrs Chang sings to another customer as she drapes a red silk over one shoulder. Her hair is clipped high up in the Javanese style and she wears a simple working smock of grey linen tied across the front a black dress and flat black shoes.
“Selamat pagi Ibu, Good morning, Good morning,” she calls to us, “Just a moment – do look around.”
In the few minutes it takes for Mrs Chang to say goodbye to her last customer we have forgotten the purpose of the visit altogether. In what feels like only a few minutes more Mrs Chang has our measurements and finds fabrics and matching braids and buttons and zips and lays it all out for two other women who appear from below the house to take it away.
“Jumat, Jumat– yes Friday,” she tells the women, “Yes – everything ready for Friday.”
“Bagus sekali, next week!” I think how very fast they must be to finish the clothes by next week.
“Tidak!” Mrs Chang laughs – “Jumat this week – dua hari saja Ibu.”
We arrive at the Post Office just in time and stand in line to buy the stamps and another line to weigh the parcel and then have the stamps stamped and then in another line to buy some aerogrammes.
“We’ll buy some quilting fabric for Jill and you can post it off with your letter to Cate when we come back for the clothes,” says Mum.
The new outfits from the house of Mrs Chang sit ready to go on Friday.
“Come back soon,” Mrs Chang smiles and waves us away sure of our return.
We post off the patchwork cloth to Jill and a letter to Cate and go home in great anticipation to unwrap the tantalisingly perfect brown parcels and try on the new clothes.
My new dress is a simple dark cotton and Mum has a new sleeveless top and pants.
A short time later Mrs Chang welcomes Mum and I back to the shop like old customers. This time though Johnny, Matt and Tony command the attention of a small clutch of seamstresses who set themselves to tease and measure them and take orders of shorts and shirts, another outfit for me and more clothes for Mum. All the details find their way onto Mrs Chang’s notebook with quick little sketches in the margins.
“Will we pick up the clothes on Friday Mum?”
“Not this time. We might be going away for a while.”
Mum turns her attention to the boys who bicker all the way home and says no more about where we might be going.
“Pointless,” says Tony about a trip to a dressmaker with no apparent purpose.
“You’ll be thankful when you finally have some clothes that fit,” Mum insists.
“Some letters have come,” Dad says when we come in, “Here Chas this is one from Cate – you can go and read it in your bedroom. Tony – take the other boys with you into your room. You can all play cards.”
Dad holds another letter and his voice is firm and quiet enough for us to know not to ask questions.
From my bedroom I hear Mum gasp and cry out. I leave Cate’s letter unopened on the table beside the bed and just lie in the quiet and watch the geckos on the ceiling.
When I venture back into the living room I see Mum outside by the clothesline. She takes a cloth from the clothesline and presses it to her face and Dad holds her tight to stop her shaking.
At tea time no-one talks and Mum goes in bed early with little Bart cuddling her. Dad puts the other boys to bed early too and then tells Tony and I that Aunty Dawn had cancer and she died very suddenly. He says we can write a letter to her little children and Uncle John if we want to.
I sit up at the table and stare at the pale blue aerogramme with its special tabs and bright stripes. As I look at it I see it is just like a dress pattern – a little template that you fold and put the sides together to make a seam. And I see that an aerogramme can also hold your heart inside and carry it to someone else if you want to.
“It’s OK Chas,” Dad says looking down at the blank page,”Sometimes it is very hard to write the words you want to say. You hop into bed and I’ll make a start for you.”
I took a long time to write this chapter because, of course, losing someone so close to our family from cancer was a shock and had a profound effect on so many people. Dawn would only have been in her mid 30s.
On dressmaking in Indonesia – I found a lovely (and much more recent post) about dress makers in Jakarta by Lydia Tomkiw at her blog Ma Vie a Someplace in This World
Some (possibly young) people may have no idea what an aerogramme is or have any concept that not so long ago this was the only affordable form of international communication.
You can visit Susan Lendroth‘s “Post Whistle” blog for a post on aerogrammes(image below is from there) Some old ones are worth a bit of money these days.