Cassy Bonnes, 53, knows heartbreaking loss – and resilience. This dirt-bike riding mum of two explains how she has found a way to be happy and comfortable in her own skin.
“Whoever you are, you are living on in me”
I grew up in Hillcrest on a Housing Trust estate. I come from a family of five – my parents and an older brother and younger sister. We had a German Shepherd, Paddy, and Tommy the turtle who roamed freely in the backyard.
I wouldn’t say it was a happy home. Mum worked a lot and dad was old school, where kids were seen and not heard. My mum and dad split when I was eight years old.
I had open-heart surgery when I was six due to a congenital heart disease called pulmonary stenosis. I was climbing some grapevine rungs when one broke and I fell backwards onto the concrete splitting my head open. Whilst in hospital getting stitched up they found out I had this heart condition and I was operated on. I remember being in hospital and waiting for my mum to come visit me. It was lonely and scary and I just wanted to be home. It felt like I was in there forever.
I went to Holden Hill Primary for a few years and then we moved to Klemzig after my parents split, so the rest of my primary school years were spent at Klemzig Primary.
I hated school because I got teased a lot. I used to get teased about my scar because it was pretty raised (keloid scarring) and red looking and used to poke out of my T-shirts. I also got teased about not having much, like nice clothing or a nice house.
I don’t really remember much about school or that period of my life – what I do remember isn’t nice. There was so much going on emotionally for me. Mum and dad were fighting, mum then started dating other men, and I had to share my dad with his girlfriend. It was that kid stuff that goes on when you come from a broken home.
My happiest childhood memories were school holidays spent at my grandparents’ dairy farm at Yankalilla. We would milk the cows, ride motorbikes, go over to Victor Harbor where my other Nanna lived. It was such a happy place. I just loved my granny and grandpa, Tom and Joyce Bonnes, and I wanted to live there.
My favourite time at the farm was Easter, when we would make nests from hay and put them outside in the old fridge for Easter bunny to leave eggs. Sometimes the cows would come and eat the hay and eggs. I loved being with my grandparents, it was the only time I felt truly loved.
Dad put us on motorbikes when we were five and I immediately loved it. I was a real tomboy. I used to race mini bikes at Three Star MC, up until I was 13. I still ride dirt bikes today.
One of my favourite teenage memories was when a family friend took me for a ride on his road bike, scraping the pegs on the corners with sparks flying out everywhere up near Chain of Ponds Road. I’ve always had a need for speed, I think because when you’re riding your bike you’re not thinking about anything else – I love the adrenalin and the sense of freedom.
I got my first car when I was 16 and I had a head-on crash two weeks later. Luckily I wasn’t injured, just a blood nose.
I also had to go to court around this time because I got caught dragging my LT 1600 Celica down Pulteney Street at 3am. I had one point left on my license for a whole year. That didn’t stop me!
I always wanted to be an air hostess when I grew up but I wasn’t tall enough. Being 5’4” didn’t cut it back then. I used to daydream about travelling the world, meeting people and not being tied down to anything.
My first job was as the lift girl in Myer – you know, “second floor, haberdashery”. I got sacked because some guy said something sexist to me and I told him to fuck off. I’m not good with rules. I’m not sure where that comes from but I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak. My grandpa always said, “don’t let anybody ever break your spirit”, and I haven’t – I don’t know how.
I never thought I would be a mum but, when I was 20, I met Jim and we had our son Ben when I was 21.
Ben was the cutest, cheekiest little boy. I loved being his mum. We used to go the park a lot: he loved the swings, swimming at my mum’s and singing in the car.
Sadly, Ben drowned in the back yard pool when he was two and a half. My mum was babysitting while I was at a footy show with Jim. I had actually driven to my mum’s to pick him up and take him with me but he wanted to stay with my mum. It was like he knew he was going, he wrapped his little arms tightly around my neck and said “I love you mummy”. I walked out the door and in the morning I got a call from Mum saying Ben was in hospital. I never thought it was anything serious, he was such a mischievous kid. He died on Adelaide Cup Day 1990. Water Boatman won that year. I will never forget that day.
My granny lost her son when he was 18 and she told me the day of Ben’s funeral, “you will never get over losing Ben but you will learn to live with the pain”. I have done just that and I’ve always believed when your time’s up your time’s up, not that it made it any easier.
I got my first tattoo in 1990 as a tribute to my son and have continued to get them as a form of healing. I have a tattoo that says “Ben-James” with a rose, the stars and moon. Rose is his flower and he is my star and is now in heaven (the moon).
I love tattoos and will continue to get more.
Ben’s birthday is October 29 and every year I go to his grave at Enfield Cemetery and give him roses because when he was born Jim gave me 24 long-stem red roses. So that is Ben’s flower. I visit the grave and wash his little face because there is a photo of him, and I just tidy it all up, lay on the grass and talk to him. But I think Ben is with me everywhere. The grave is just a place I can go and give him a gift because I can’t give him a present on his birthday.
I went on to have two more children with Jim: Lysandra, now 27, who has been living and working in Europe for the past seven years, and Allie, 26, my youngest is a phlebotomist.
Jim and I eventually broke up and I always had boyfriends – I went from one shit relationship to the next. I didn’t need time to get over them because I think I was never really emotionally there.
I met my now-husband Ja, a farmer, on an internet dating site 10 years ago. One of the girls I was working with was on the site and said you should try it.
I got lots of interest from blokes who said they like romantic dinners and walks on the beach. I’m not romantic – I was not brought up like that.
Ja had similar things on his profile – camping, motorbikes, fast cars. We met after three weeks and that was it. We were the same – we just worked. I love him. We got married in Vegas on 12/3/12. I chose that date so I wouldn’t forget it and every year I forget.
Ja is very strong and giving and he would do anything for me. He is also very stable and there is no bullshit about him.
I tell everyone that life hurts less with Ja in it. He just lets me be who I am. He is not judgmental or jealous, he lets me swear and carry on. And he makes me laugh every day.
When I met Ja I felt like it was my turn. I’d had 40 years of pretty crap relationships and finally I found someone who accepted me for me.
Ja has two boys, Jack and Mitch, from a previous marriage who both work on farms. They are beautiful boys.
I’ve worked in administration all my life. I’m not really a customer service kind of person. These days I’m the finance manager for a small steel frame manufacturing company based on the Yorke Peninsula. I truly love my job, I enjoy the work – paperwork has always been my thing – the hours. What’s not to love about working Monday to Thursday? And the guys I work with are great.
I had to have more open-heart surgery when I was 42. I received a human heart valve. I never found out who donated it because at the time life was busy and I wasn’t sure how to be grateful because someone died for me to get that. Now I say, whoever you are, you are living on in me. I guess I could still find out who it was – maybe I will one day.
I know myself so well these days. I used to worry so much about what people think. Now I don’t give a shit. You can say whatever you want to me, and I say “whatever”. I’ve been hurt so many times. I’m pretty much an open book so if there’s something that someone doesn’t know about me it’s because they haven’t looked or asked.
These days, I love going to our shack, hanging with the farmer, the kids, family and friends. I love putting the boat in the water and going for a ski, just living life in the sunshine, having a laugh and not taking life or myself too seriously.
I’m looking forward to experiencing new days, continued happiness, watching my kids live the life they want and just enjoying feeling comfortable in my own skin. It feels good.