Growing Pineapples in the Outback

Beck Lister and Tony Kelly on the porch at Madang St, Mount Isa

I first met Rebecca Lister probably in early 2017 when she was working for Headspace in Mount Isa. I knew little about her except what she told me when I was doing a story about her work. She was born locally and she had recently worked in the arts industry in Melbourne. I didn’t know anything about her family but I instinctively warmed to her. Beck, as she introduced herself, was a bit unusual for Mount Isa and a bubbly person, a breath of fresh air doing important work with the mental health of young people in town. I thought she deserved the honour of Spirit of Mount Isa at the local Australia Day awards in 2018.

Then at some point she left town again and I forgot about her until I got an invite to a book launch in Mount Isa in March this year. The book was called “Growing Pineapples in the Outback” and it was written by Beck and her husband Tony Kelly, taking chapters each in turn. From reading the press release I found out she and Tony were now back in Melbourne, but the reason they came to Mount Isa was to look after Beck’s mother Diana Lister in the last days of her life, an experience that lasted three years. I went to the launch, met Beck and was introduced to Tony and listened with rapt attention as they read passages from the book. I thought to myself I must read the book.

But this was mid March and when we weren’t talking about the book, we were making nervous jokes about coronavirus which was spreading though Europe and already heading our way. Within a week or two Australia was shut down and I forgot all about Beck and her book again as we came to terms with the pandemic.

Then a few weeks ago I was reading an article about pineapples and wanted to know about them and why they became so emblematic of Queensland. But when I searched the Mount Isa Library archive for books about pineapples nothing came up except for Beck and Tony’s book. I took it as a sign that I needed to read it.

I found out the events of the book happened before I knew Beck. A photo of her mum said that Diana Lister died in late 2016 aged 92. The storyline of the book is the last couple of years of her life. Diana lived for 69 years in a house on Madang St in Soldiers Hill, alone for the last 20 since her husband died. When visiting her a year earlier Beck noticed her mum was struggling and decided she and Tony needed to move back to Mount Isa to care for her.

Tony, a lawyer, agreed and got a job in Mount Isa in native title. With their own children in Melbourne old enough to look after themselves, they moved into the Madang St house. Beck continued with her Melbourne playwright activity but would become the primary caregiver. The house was small so the couple set up their own space in the carport.

Beck was born in Mount Isa so there was lot familiar to her, but it was a much stranger experience for Tony. On one of his first trips out bush for his native title work, he suffered two punctures in rough scrubby country and got a message to police to send help. They took Tony to Dajarra to get a replacement tyre and then return to the car to put it on and it’s well after midnight when he gets back to Mount Isa, an early lesson not to underestimate the area’s remoteness.

Beck had a difficult childhood, with an alcoholic father and an elder brother who disappeared and later committed suicide. Diana preferred not to talk about those times and resisted her daughters efforts when she brought up the conversation.

Meanwhile Tony documents his efforts to get into life in Mount Isa, dodging ducklice and crocodiles as he swims in the lake, or organising poorly attended tennis games. He has difficulty with some locals as he speaks about his work encountering scepticism about native title and the belief Aboriginal people get special treatment. But at home the trio get on well, especially with word games like Upwords and crosswords or watching Letters and Numbers on TV.

Beck worries about her mother’s health and whether she is badgering her into prolonging her life. She wonders whether it is really about her and whether she is too scared to let go of her mother. But with Diana being a hoarder, Beck enjoys going through all her stuff and remembering her own childhood in the process.

About half way through the book I realise who Tony reminds me of. He is the brother of singer Paul Kelly who they go to watch in concert at Longreach. Tony relates an awkward conversation backstage with two locals in moleskins, Wrangler shirts and RM Williams boots who ask if he is Paul’s brother. “Have you come up from Melbourne too?” one asks him. “No I live in Mount Isa,” he replied which made him sound almost a local. They were less happy with his answer when they asked him his job and he told them he worked in native title. “Silence, the men shuffled uncomfortably”, Tony wrote but he proceeded to tell them the details. “The claim is only over crown land but that does include pastoral leases”. His nephew Dan Kelly rescued him with “another beer, Tone” and advised him to stick to talking about the State of Origin or the weather. “The scions of the early settlers – the great-grandchildren of the murderers, dispersers and dispossessors clearly didn’t want to bat the breeze about native title,” Tony wrote.

Tony’s sense of alienation grew at Isa rodeo time when Beck was away for several weeks on theatre business. He was there alone, “fascinated and appalled” by the rope and tie event and was disappointed by the Mardi Gras “just a few trucks with kids on the back”. Miles St was full of ugly iron-clad shops while the pub was “full of pokies, oversized steaks and mass-produced beers” for “sun-damaged tight-lipped people”. Tony admitted his despair was deeper than his problems with the Outback, it came from getting old and worrying about finances in coming retirement and, more prosaically, missing Beck.

When she came home the mood changed. Her natural optimism spread to Tony and Diana. As they entered into the second year of caring for her mother, Beck felt “she may have found herself.” The second year was harder on other levels as Diana’s condition deteriorated. Beck subconsciously puts down roots working hard on the garden, including planting the pineapples of the book’s title. Long time infatuated by pineapple gifts and even getting a pineapple tattoo, she grows three in pots and a few in the cyad garden but then she plants more at the back of the yard and there is so many she’s lost count. On a visit her daughter asks her how long they take to fruit. Five years, Beck replies, and is asked “are you going to stay there until they do?” Maybe, she shrugs in reply.

Tony is aware of this. “With each new hole I dig, it will become harder to leave”. He is happy because Beck is happy but he is worried about his job and whether he should look for another down south. It all depends on the great unsaid, when would Diana die, and that could not be predicted. In that second year, Beck has her first contract with youth mental health group Headspace and even gets to go on their float in the 2016 Rodeo Mardi Gras, something she never got to do growing up in Mount Isa. Diana tells Beck her grandmother rode in the rodeo, something she never knew. “Life with mum sometimes feels like a slow reveal soap opera,” Beck wrote.

As the heat of the summer of 2016 approaches, Diana’s health is fading. Some nights she isn’t good and they wonder if this is the end. The topic of her approaching death is the elephant in the room whenever there is talk of the future. Tony looks for jobs down south but can’t tell prospective employers when he might be available. One morning when Diana is late getting up Tony catches himself feeling disappointed as well as relieved when she does emerge.

Yet they are spreading roots like the plants in their garden. They join the community choir, form a small circle of friends, and Tony is the secretary of the tennis club. Life is simple and there is time to write, tend the garden, and most importantly spend time with Diana. The end closes in and Beck’s brother Paul comes from Florida to see his mum for the last time. At the last minute Diana decides she cannot attend Christmas Carols in which Beck and Tony are performing with the choir.

At a medical appointment doctors are alarmed at Diana’s heart rate and keep her in hospital. There is a tearful farewell to Paul who must return to America and a day later she suffers a massive stroke and goes into a coma. For the next four days the family gather around her and she waited until another son David arrived from Mackay before she died.

In the new year Tony accepts a job down south while Beck stays on to prepare the house for sale. Tony admits he was grateful for the opportunity to live with Diana and “help see out her life with grace and laughter”. Beck did not leave until the end of the year where she worked as a clinical lead for James Cook University, wrote a play and developed the first Mount Isa Youth Short Film Festival. Just before Christmas she harvested the first pineapple but acknowledged she now had more family in Mount Isa cemetery than alive in town. She said she would miss being close to her mum but remembered how content she was in her final years.

Though she didn’t say it, that was in no small measure down to the love from Beck and Tony and the sacrifices they made to look after an elderly parent in her dying days. No one could wish for more from their offspring. As reviewer Sophie Cunningham writes, Growing Pineapples in the Outback is infused with the daily acts of love that make life worth living.