Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday arvo cabbages and kings.

It is all too easy for me to judge and misjudge my father. After all, I am working with hindsight here, having done my best to forget whatever happened during those months and even years; and also working with what I have subsequently learned from others.
Years ago I first made the observation that he was a man out of his time. He really does belong in the early 1800s: where scientists were a breed apart; where having 'Dr' in front of your name was in-and-of-itself a badge of honour worthy of respect; and where such complex issues as homosexuality simply didn't exist. Back then a man such as my father would know his place and (and this is where this all springs from) everyone else would too: most notably children and wives. He simply wasn't made for the modern age and that is the crux of things and why I have never seen eye to eye with him, and in all probability never will. I state this as fact, and with no sense of loss. It's just the way things are.
But even now I'm not starting at the beginning. And to confuse matters there are two beginnings. No, scratch that: there is a beginning and there is a locus. The locus, as with all things concerning my family, is the death of my mother. It's funny how often I've read about the concept of all the happenings in a novel or story relating to a single event, yet how long it took me to realise that it was true for my life. Must be one of those proximity-to-the-issue things.

The beginning - the true beginning - is, well, the beginning of my father's relationship with my mother.
You can tell a lot from someone with no guile, by how they phrase things. My father emigrated from England in 1968. I asked him why, thinking it had something to do with the imminent nuclear holocaust (He had previously told me a bit about what it was like to live under the omnipresent threat of a nuclear exchange. Having been born during the 1940's blitz and been bombed and strafed; and then moving to Hamburg during the early fifties so that Grandpa could train pilots for the resurrection of Lufthansa; and being your basic war-nerd, war was always *there*.) But, no. He emigrated because his job moved out to Australia, so he upped sticks at the age of 28. That was why he moved countries.
When he talks of the girl he left behind in England he says "People expected us to get married", and pretty much left it at that. But the lack of emotion when he said it I couldn't wholly attribute to the decades that had passed. People, back then, did simply expect you to get married. There was no hanging about until you were forty to say "What the hell - we've been together sixteen years, might as well get married", like today. In those days it was a bit unusual to not be married by twenty-five.
I really think he was then, as he is now, a path of least resistance kind of guy - passive to the whims of society. Now, it's easy for me to make pronouncements in the anything-goes type of world we live in now, but even so, I reckon he was passive even for those days and the reason why he wasn't married is because it didn't happen to him.

By contrast, my mother had lived and worked overseas for about three years and met a guy in London. His name was Paul and he was an American journalist. And they shacked up together in Chicago for nearly two years before a blazing row of some sort culminated in him "throwing a frozen lamb chop" at my mum-to-be. She wrote home to her older brother for the fare home - which he sent - and she came back. She never said anything more about what went wrong with Paul than what I've related above.
At this point in my aunt's rendition the phrase "on the shelf at 27" came up. Now, when that famous bloke wrote "The past is another country: they do things differently there" I can't but splutter and yell "Another country?! Talk about another freaking planet!!"

My dad said she had eyes like Shirley McLaine. I can understand that: I'm a big fan of eyes. Just what my mum saw in dad is the topic for one of those late-night red wine drinking sessions I'd like to have with her now. I simply can't reconcile the two of them: el Dorko straight from nineteen-century, class-stratified England with the social skills of a squashed badger; and a young, beach-loving woman who'd taken herself out in the world and had taken a bit of a beating in the process, but come back proven. Maybe she had come back too bruised. Maybe she believed that she had to take the plunge or be consigned to 'the shelf'. Who knows? [You will forgive me idolising my mother here: I did my abject best to forget her - and succeeded.]
They quickly got married; got a house; and got pregnant.

My mum had drive, and she had a certain stubbornness. But what she also had was kids, and that greatly restricted her options. Certainly when her sister got divorced she was seen as letting down the family etc etc. My mum was subject to the same forces and perhaps the amount of allimony and support she would have got would have been akin to destitution. Certainly we were poorer than I remember, so maybe leaving simply wasn't an option. As with most marriage trouble it revolved around money. Strangely my dad's attitude was that his money was his money. Which is an odd notion to subscribe to if you have a wife who can't work because she is taking care of your three kids; and if you are meant to be in love with this woman.
She wanted to go back to work and earn money for herself. And this was one of the major reasons cancer was so unfair. So unfair, because she'd had to put off her life to do right by her family and just as she was about to get it back on track her future was a hospital bed and chemotherapy. One more year: that was the plan. Once Pip was old enough, mum was going back to work. One more year for a woman who'd taken herself overseas and worked in Spain, France, the UK and USA; and the only thing that could have stopped her did so.
I like to think that's when he fell in love with her again. When he couldn't but be confronted by the sheer strength of her, and thus humanity. She'd given up on him years ago (even beseeching the mother-in-law she'd never got on with "Take care of my kids, because there's no-one else"), but she wasn't about to give up on her kids and she hung on as long as she could for us.
I didn't cry at her funeral, but dad wept as he should have. Maybe real life had finally caught up with him; dragged him from his previous-century mindset and dumped him firmly on the shore of the present day. A battered bodysurfer? Or more like a strand of kelp with a sheered holdfast?
He never liked the beach.
I think he never understood it.
Mum always took us up to Newport and after we'd splashed around in the surf she walked us out to the headland with it's jumbled boulders and rockpools. Her brother and sister always let her swim out first to see if there were any sharks.

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