Flying 2022


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Flying with My Sister

I tell about my sister Nadya, writer, artist, dancer, joker. Oldest resident of Beechworth Lunatic Asylum.


Born in Melbourne in 1946, Nadya lived all her adult life as a Ward of the State of Victoria. She died this year, of lung cancer. At 75.

Over the years Nadya wrote letters to our grandfather Ca Roberts.

The letters are directions for the production of a film she wanted Ca to make and to show to Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I wanted to follow Nadya's directions but the directions are not clear.

Her letters reflect a freely associating creative mind.
Colourful, textured, rhythmic scenes transform.
Characters turn into each other and herself.
No line appears to separate them.

When I posted a call for stories about Nadya to the Beechworth Community Facebook page, generations of her carers responded. I also received, by Australia Post, heartfelt works of art that serve as messages from people who made them to be shared. So this story is an animated mix of my experience of Nadya, fragments from her film directions, family stories and photos passed down, Facebook Messages, and works of art.

Our mother Jean Ralston was a tailor and an artist. During WW2 she sewd army trousers and army tents. She later worked as an artist in Bill Onus's Aboriginal Enterprises studio. She made costumes for J C Williamsons theatre company. She did alterations for wealthy women in fashion salons in Toorak.

Nadya was the child of Jean's first marriage, to Peter Carver. He was an actor known for his role in the ABC TV series The Yarns of Billy Borker.

My father Noel Roberts told me he met Jean at a party. He said she reminded him of his war-time lover, Elyse, after whom I was named. Noel showed me a tiny photo of Elyse dressed in a sarong, sitting on a beach. In the photo she is smiling and holding a coconut like an offering to my father, the photographer.

Nadya and I grew up together. We first lived together on Norfolk Island where I was born. Noel was working there to establish radio communications systems after the war. There's a photo of Nadya under an arch made of whale bones, sitting behind a boy on a rocking horse.

There's a story from a local that Jean and Noel were the bohemians of the island and that they set fire to a Norfolk Island pine at a beach party.

When Jean married Noel, Nadya became a Roberts.

Soon after I was born we moved to Christchurch New Zealand. Noel's job was to install radio communications systems at Harewood airport.

Grandma Roberts came to visit and took Nadya to live for a time with her and grandpa Ca in their house in Melbourne. Norah and Ca's house house was full of paintings by Ca's father, the artist Tom Roberts. Pictures of people in fine clothes. Pictures of family and friends. Pictures of Australian bush. Nadya told me that Norah and Ca taught her to read and write. It's likely they also encouraged her drawing.

When Nadya returned to Christchurch she and I were inseparable.

We lived in a government housing estate inside the airport. Noel was home every day for breakfast lunch and tea.

For me and Nadya there was space and freedom to explore. Planes moved close around us. We felt earthquakes.

We watched Queen Elizabeth and her Duke drive by on their tour of the colonies. We stood waving flags, our tiny feet in tiny shoes, with socks trimmed with crowns, machine embroidered.

For us life was fun but chaotic. Noel and Jean shouted and threw things at each other.

Noel wanted us to call him and Jean by their first names. For us, Noel was always Noel. But I followed Nadya's lead and called Jean Mum.

Noel called me Elyse after his war-time lover. But ever since Norah's visit I was called Lisa.

Mum encouraged our drawing and painting. I don't have any memories of her reading to us. She sang to us.

Nadya and I drew on walls inside and outside our little airport house. We drew with charcoal from the hearth. Sometimes we drew with soft lead pencil we found in Noel's workshop. Noel would yell at us to scrub it off. We collected travel brochures from airport lounges and stuffed them down ventilators in buildings. We stamped and broke up ice that formed on puddles. We climbed up onto the back of a fire truck that suddenly took off with the driver unaware of us clinging on. We swam in the long shallow pool used for washing fire hoses.

One day Noel stood with us on the flat airport ground, drawing in the air the curve of the earth. He explained that England was directly under us. Nadya enlisted a small boy called Grahame to dig with us to make a hole to get to England.

In 1954 we sailed by ship across the Tasman sea to Melbourne. We moved into 'Talisman', the house in Kallista, in the Dandenong Ranges, designed by our great grandparents, Tom Roberts and Lillie Williamson.

In Talisman we were not living so much on top of each other as we were on Harewood airport. Rooms were arranged around a central chimney. Around the house was a garden with Tom’s studio at one end. Sherbrooke Forest was a short walk away.

Noel was away most of the day doing what he loved, building and fixing radios on ships. Leaving early to work in Melbourne and coming home after dark. Calling in on his mother and other people he liked.

Mum was the happiest I'd ever seen her. Working as an artist in Bill Onus's studio, Aboriginal Enterprises. Expressing herself in ways she could not before. Mum was curious and proud of her Aboriginal ancestry, like her uncle Bill was. But her mother Phoebe wasn't. She spun a story that she was Maori. Phoebe banned all talk about our history.

Nadya and I grew up in a family divided in ways we couldn't understand. We did what we liked. We listened but we didn't take sides.

Nadya's father, Peter Carver, came to Talisman once with his mother to meet Nadya.

I saw them ceremoniously present to Nadya a doll in a long white box with a clear plastic lid. Its hard moulded head had hair painted on like the cut for a boy. Its rag body was dressed in blue velvet pantaloons and a beret. Like an artist. Nadya called it Pandora. Nadya screamed and demanded real hair for the doll. Mum found a wig and glued it on Pandora.

Nadya and I would spend hours on our own In Kallista. Or with Mum in Tom's studio, drawing, painting and making things from scraps.

We shared a bedroom and at night we would talk before we slept. We imagined the branches tapping on our window were creatures from the stories that Noel read to us. The Violet Fairy Book, Wind in the Willows, The Magic Pudding, Tom Sawyer and Huckleyberry Finn.

Nadya loved birds. She asked for two budgies. A blue one and a gold one. Mum bought them for her, and a cage. Very soon Nadya opened the cage door and let them out. She said she wanted them to be free.

Nadya and I last lived together in Glen Waverley, in a house Noel got built with a war service loan. Ca gave Noel his green Holden car so we could travel in comfort as a family. Our brother Tom was born in 1958. No safety belts in those days. Once Nadya pushed me as we drove along and I clung to the handle of a swinging back door.

When Nadya was around 15 she was approaching men for sex, in our street and in the local pub. It was then she was assessed by the psychiatrist Geoff Goding and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Geoff introduced family therapy to Australia. He also worked as a Superintendent at the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum, and invited residents to staff meetings to discuss how they wanted to spend their leisure time. He enabled them to form clubs where they could do what they liked: arts, crafts, reading, writing, performing, gardening and so on.

I remember a family meeting with Geoff at the Bouverie Clinic in Melbourne. After some talking with us all he invited me to play by myself in the hall. The hall had colourful stained glass windows high on the walls. At one end of the hall was a stage with velvet curtains. I danced with the lights that cast colour from the glass onto the floor.

One day Nadya was taken from Glen Waverley to be a ward of the state. She then lived in different places around Victoria, in institutions that have changed their name over time: May Day (Beechworth Hospital), Aradale (Ararat), Laurundel (Bundoora?), Wodonga, Willows, Blackwood.

My brother Tom remembers Nadya coming to stay and asking Mum if she could come home 'for good'.

In the months before she died, I got closest to Nadya than ever I saw her most days and we shared memories. We agreed that our family included all the people who have cared for us, and that here we both were, in a sense, home together for good.

Now telling this story I learn even more about her world, from the many other people who cared for Nadya.

I am telling this story for my family and other people to celebrate relationships that make us who we are.