Saturday, December 14, 2013

Meteor showers, fathers, and happiness

Someone reminded me.

Maybe only a few people will read this, but if I've written it, I'll remember it better.

The scene is a very suburban verandah of the 1960s. In those days, there were still eaves on red-brick project homes, they were mostly single-storey, and they always included a covered verandah of at least a few square metres.

The night I'm thinking of must have been in the summer school holidays, because as a (roughly) nine-year-old I rarely even got to stay awake late enough to see the TV test pattern! And this night, when the TV ended for the night, the whole family retired not to bed, but to the verandah.

And I was maybe nine years old. As the change-of-life child of the family, that meant my siblings were already 16, 18 and 20: old enough for long adult conversations while I tried to butt in (I guess) and doze while trying to stay awake.

No, the numbers don't work. I must have been eight, because by the time I was nine, the eldest had left home for university.

Was being awake this late exciting? You bet.

And it was summer, which in Sydney means it doesn't cool down early in the night. So I lazed around with the rest, and don't remember any details, but I do remember the meteor shower dad kept us all awake for.

There was a mattress or maybe an inflatable that I was lying on. There was adult talk all around. The night was muggy and dark. Even the suburbs, in those days, still had stars.

And the stars started moving, flashing across the sky. And every time he spotted one, dad would laugh and call and point.

And I remember, because that was one of the very few times I knew him to be happy.

I remember how deliriously happy he was when, in a rented Halvorsen cruiser, we ran into a wild storm trying to get to Pittwater. He was a seaman in World War Two: the waves crossing the mouth of the Hawkesbury were taller than our boat; mum and my siblings and me were cowering (I was put near dad for my own safety).

He was laughing like the Old Man of the Sea, swinging the boat towards every towering wave, turning it after the wave passed, yelling “turn you bastard!”, inching towards Pittwater, alive and mad and loving it.

Once, he bought me a gift I didn't expect, a whole new drum kit when I thought I was getting him to buy me a new pedal. My reaction made him happy, I think.

He wasn't happy that often. To my 50th year, my mother's explanation didn't go far beyond her standard explanation, that “the war changed him”.

I guess he may have been happy in the affair that, sometime when I was a kid, caused misery everywhere else. Or perhaps it may have only been a small relief of his own misery and madness. Mum once said she forgave him partly because of the war: because she had loved someone who took ship and never came home, but she understood.

He was over-the-moon when a vet said our Labrador, Denny, could be saved after he'd been hit by a car. It cost $1,800 – a considerable price in 1974 – but Denny repaid him by caring for dad when Alzheimer's degraded his brain. The dog would take him out each day, and always return him home.

There was one more time. The year was 1977, I think. I don't remember the reason for the trip, but it took us through the lower New England, and dad wanted to seek out a friend from the 1950s, when he was surveying roads around Barrington Tops.

His memory was perfect, then. He found Tom Meehan's place through unmarked dirt roads without trouble. It was a classic post-and-corrugated-iron shack, abandoned, but because it had no locks, we walked through it before we continued the search.

A road crew stopped us, and dad asked if they knew Tom, and they did, and pointed us to the right road. We drove for a while on the dirt, and an old man leaned against a rail-type fence.

Dad stopped the car, got out and yelled.

I'd know your beret anywhere on earth! Damn you, Tom! I thought you were dead!”

No, just had to move closer to town. How are you, Stan? This one of your sons?”

He was happy that evening, as well.

There's a photo of me, eleven or twelve years old, perched on a fallen tree, on the path that leads to The Ruined Castle in the Blue Mountains.

You weren't happy that day; perhaps you were worried about work, or quite possibly you resented being detailed to drag me out on a proper bushwalk.

But I was happy, and I've taken Ms T and the boys on the same walk, twice, and we love it. And I don't say so, but I think of you when I'm on that path.

Because I was happy, that day. So much so that I keep you in my mind whenever I tread that path.

And here I am, transported to the late 1960s by a friend's casual remark and wondering why.

I can't wish my father alive again. He wasn't particularly lovable. As mum said, the war changed him. What sanity the navy left him with, he saved to make sure he could provide for his family. It didn't leave much sanity for the home front. He was volatile, fey, dangerous.

I'm volatile and fey, but I've worked hard, and I'm a lot less dangerous.

My sons will at least remember happiness, because they've seen plenty. I may nag and carp and demand they do better, but I also laugh and love. Maybe without realising it, I've set myself the task of healing the wounds of my father's war, so my sons can somehow manage to be more sane than was given to he or I.

And I want them to know that a happy father isn't so unusual.

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