The death of my Grandfather – a sense of loss

Hi Pop

I was in the early years of Primary School when you died, apart from the visit to the Barber when I was three, every other memory I have of you is one of kindness and love.

The trips to see you on those magical Sundays when we would set off early to travel the eighty odd kilometres due west, are etched in my mind as if they were yesterday.

The trip itself, was always an adventure; in summer; the road was a dusty, pot holed strip of red gravel with watery mirages sweeping across the plains, and in winter; it was a greasy, perilous series of mud filled holes.

Your tiny, dark home on the outskirts of town had doorways certainly not built for your towering height, You were a giant stooping as you went from room to room, there was no running water in the kitchen and tiny, wizened Nan would have to carry buckets to fill the sink.

You were a strange pair; you, as tall as Nan was short, you; a former Catholic who renounced his religion to marry your god fearing, non-drinking Baptist wife. Your love had been hardened in the depths of the Depression and the pain of having your oldest son captured and held as a POW for most of the Second World War.

You always seemed happy with each other and were always genuinely pleased to see us on these visits.

I hated the dusty, god forsaken town where you lived but loved the time with you. Despite poverty, there was always a sweet from Nan and a cheeky twinkle in your eye as I sat on your knee while you read to me in your deep, sonorous voice.

I don’t know why I was not allowed to go to your funeral, I recall wandering round the schoolyard that day, not really understanding you were truly gone, hoping I would go home to find out, it had all been an awful mistake.

Many years later, I would be at the funerals of Sascha’s Mum and Dad, watching as my small grandchildren somberly bid farewell to their Nan and Pop, I felt a dreadful sense of loss I was not allowed the same honour when you died.

If there are separate places beyond, for Catholics and non-Catholics, I am not sure where you would fit in. I remember your furtive visits to the Nunnery next to where you lived late in life. You would sit and talk to the Nuns, as you mended their shoes, in some sort of rapprochement with the religion of your birth.

I don’t think it matters, wherever you are; it will be a place reserved for the truly good and truly humble.

I miss you Pop

Bruce

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Primary School – a solitary child meets the world

Dear Miss F

It was early 1957, and you and I were arriving at Primary School at the same time. You were a young teacher just out of college in Sydney, I was a young boy, being  exposed to other children for virtually the first time.

I am not sure who got the biggest culture shock! I do know that almost sixty years later, your kindness and gentleness are still etched in my mind

School was a tiny, two roomed, weatherboard structure sitting between the Lutheran Church at the top of the rise and the Ecumenical Church where the Presbyterians, Methodists and other minor religions attended for their monthly worship.

The school hierarchy  was very simple; little school and big school. I was young at the time to be starting school, but this was necessary in order to ensure there were at least 47 kids enrolled from Kindergarten through to Sixth Class.

As I recall; 47 was the cutoff point for two teacher schools, any less than that and we would have reverted to just one teacher. The kids closest to turning five were sent to school, ready or not, and; a sixth class student who was lagging behind, was warmly recommended to repeat a year before heading off to High School.

I vaguely remember a boy who was almost 15 lining up for school every day; a lumbering hulk of almost man who; although “not the full quid” in the parlance of the day; was a treasured institution for his capacity to make up the numbers.

I think there were seven kids who started school with me, but; with the exception of the  two or three who went to the monthly Presbyterian Sunday School, I knew none of them. Even with the ones I did know, there was certainly none that I could have called a friend.

Such were the social barriers between Lutheran and non-Lutheran families; farm workers and landowners, I have often wondered what you made of this  level of social stratification in such a small community.

I had never been involved in anything outside of the farm or the immediate family; there were no  Cub scouts, no Pony Club or other outside activities which may have challenged my insularity and, as result; I was totally unprepared for the rough and tumble of the school yard.

A strange, geeky boy who could not throw a ball, bowl a cricket ball or; as winter rolled around, proved to be totally useless on the football field, was never going to win Mr Popularity, but; other than being shunned at selection for most sports, there was no real overt bullying.

It did hurt that the girls were more sought after to make up the numbers for football or cricket than me, but generally, my first years at Primary School were fairly uneventful and you were never anything but kind to me.

The breakup of several, nearby large holdings into Soldier Settlement  blocks meant  the bus route had to be extended and it was no longer practical for us to catch the bus to and from school.  It was decided we would make our own way, so we could get our chores done before dark. Dad bought a small paddock opposite the school so Jerry  could ride his horse and I was given a bike for my sixth birthday.

I liked this arrangement; Jerry would ride off ahead of me and I would spend the half hour riding to school in endless conversations with my imaginary friend;Bill.

On wet cold mornings. I would look forward to the welcome warmth of both you and the old wood heater. We would talk as I shed layers of clothes and through chattering teeth,  told you of my adventures on the way to school; the frog on the road, the magpie that had swooped me or; the fog  I could barely see through.

You and Bill, neither of you ever seemed to lose patience with me.

Thanks

Bruce

 

A brother is born – Exposing the fragility of a family

Dear Mum

Things changed after Terry was born, I question whether it was just me, but I don’t think so. You were searching for something more than the stultifying atmosphere of the farm and looking back now it is clear that you were not well.

A whole lot happened in the next five years; I started school, your father died, Steve went off to Boarding school, Dad became more and more obsessed with all sorts of obligations beyond the farm, Aunts and Uncles on both sides of the family were going through bitter divorces, your beloved brother; imprisoned on Crete during the war, was drinking more and it must have seemed like you were all alone.

Understanding now what was happening to you, makes it easier to accept, but the bitterness that crept up on you, affected us all. You had been our haven and suddenly; that haven was not there.

A lot more is known now about post-natal depression, but; at the time it was hard for a five-year-old to see his loving mother turn her back on him.

Dad did not know how to deal with things, we stopped going to visit people as a family, and; increasingly the only visitors to the farm were those people there on business; the wool classers and shearers, the stud stock people, the agents and of course; the political hacks nearing the end of their time and searching for one more endorsement from a man whose star was rising.

I loved it when we had visitors, no matter why they were there. Hostilities would be put on hold and peace would reign. Image became everything as Dad searched wider afield for places of influence and you slowly found your way into a more accepting environment further afield than the local village CWA.

Life at home when the visitors would leave became an ongoing battlefield, bitter words and accusations flew, as kids; we were caught in the middle and often expected to pick sides in this increasingly bitter battle.

I was torn.

To the outside world, we were the exemplary family; inside the gates to the farm, a war was raging and we were the collateral damage.

This dichotomy would have long lasting repercussions; image was everything while the family fragmented.

Who were we?

Your son

Bruce

 

Innocent belief – Before the storm

Dear Steve

It’s a cool fresh morning as I sit on the balcony; contemplating my walk to the corner for coffee and the papers. It is quite mild in my eyrie as I ponder how many layers of clothes I need to put on before tackling the chill of the day.

You were the eldest of my siblings. born in the middle of WW11 and torn by the tug of war between the love of our mother and the selfish, grasping attention seeking of Dad’s parents.

You would have been a toddler before you ever met Dad when he came home from the war, I cannot imagine what it was like; meeting your father for the first time in those circumstances.

My thoughts this morning, were drawn to a time long ago, when I sat with you as you tried to wrestle milk from the recalcitrant Jersey cow in the muddy, milking bay. 

It was a clear morning, just like today, my teeth were chattering in the cold, and I was trying to climb the railings to get closer to the sun. You laughed at me and with your superior scientific knowledge, tried to explain to me, that the world warmed from the ground up. I don’t whether you were right or wrong but it didn’t matter much, you told me and I believed you.

The cow kicked the bucket and milk sloshed over the concrete bay as you quickly tried to save what was left of your morning toil.

We both knew the punishment if you went back to the house with less than the usual amount for the morning. There would be dark mutterings about your ineptitude, and; if things were not good on the home front this morning, the belt may well be whisked from our father’s trousers and you would be heading off to school with red welts on your arse as you sat uncomfortably, on the hard seats of the old, green Austin bus for the five Kilometer trip to the village.

You were my special big brother at that magical time, I was old enough to appreciate your protection and I savored the time with you as you finished your last year at Primary School, before being sent off to Boarding school for your secondary education.

There were eight years and two other children between you and I. You guarded me from the mood swings and rages of Jerry and tried to protect me from the excesses of our Father’s rages.

There were the times when I could sit in the safety and warmth of the lounge room and listen as you practiced on the piano. Even at my young age I could tell you had a love and gift for music. It was your retreat from the coarseness of the farm yard where you were expected to do the work of a man before and after school. Being with you at these times; provided a secure and warm haven for me.

Many years later, when I would sit with you, as you lay dying, ravaged by the scourge of AIDS at its worst I would remember these times, and try to put out of my mind the times in between, when your gentleness and love betrayed you and many in your family.

My thoughts as I write this, are conflicted, but the love and warmth I had for you as a young child lingers

Bruce

Hi Mum and Dad – There were good times

A friend of mine’s Mother has just passed away on the other side of the world, in France. He has been over there for the last week to be there for her last days and will be coming home soon.

It seems we are all victims of the tyranny of distance to a greater or lesser extent. It brought to mind the times I was lucky enough to be able to spend with Dad after he was flown to Sydney before he died and to some extent, the sense of loss I feel at not being able to be there, when Mum died.

Doing this Blog has brought back many memories, the temptation to concentrate on the bad is always there, but there were good times; especially in my early years.

I remember the Sundays, visiting friends; usually many miles from home, large roasts and spirited conversations were the order of the day before we headed home late in the afternoon. Us kids would fall asleep in the back of the car, dozily listening to the two of you talk and laugh.

There were the other weekends when the old Austin Truck would be loaded with Chloe’s and Jerry’s horses; I would sit in the front with both of you, while Chloe and Jerry would share the crate with the horses and we would head off to a Pony Club Gymkhana.

I can’t remember where Steve was at these times, probably; he had headed off to Piano practice with Dawn who lived several Ks away.

One thing that has struck me even this early into my ramblings is, the distance we would travel to see your friends, we would drive past many neighbors in order to get where we were going.

In many ways I see now, we were almost isolated, living as we did, right in the heart of the largest German settlement in Southern NSW. As Presbyterians; we were not part of the strong Lutheran culture that surrounded us. We lived amongst our immediate neighbors but we did not live with them.

Occasionally as a special treat, we would head off on a wintry Saturday afternoon to see the local football team play at home or, almost as good; I would sit with Dad in the machinery shed as he tinkered with an obstinate piece of machinery, the crackly old battery radio, broadcasting the game.

Every couple of years in January, we would set off in the pre -dawn; crammed into the old Plymouth with a hired Caravan in tow as we traversed the mountains to the beaches of the South Coast. We would arrive late in the afternoon, erect the old army tent next to the Van and fall asleep with the strange sounds of the waves breaking on the beach below.

These were the good times and it has been worth starting on this journey to remember they did exist, the times when the family worked together and the growing tensions were put on hold.

I don’t know what really went wrong, probably a whole host of little reasons bubbled together to create the divisions that would tear the fabric of the family apart and leave us all damaged to some extent.

I read all the time, books about people surviving their childhoods. Almost invariably, there is a clear cut villain and a strong partner who holds the fabric of family together.

The roles were blurred in our family; just two good people fighting their own demons; lost in a jungle of debt, doubt, ambition, isolation and bitterness.

Neither of you knew how to escape.

Love

Bruce

Dear Chloe and Jerry – Missed time with siblings, Why?

You were four and six years older than me, respectively; but in some respects I never really knew either of you when I was a child.

Chloe; you were the horse obsessed big sister who was sent off to boarding school when I was still five years’ old and Jerry; you were the older brother, wanting to prove you were the farmer of the family.

In hindsight that was not too difficult! Steve’s interest certainly ran more to the musical and whilst I loved the land, my love was far more intrinsic than practical.

My failings in this regard were a point of frustration to you and the resulting rages left me wanting to steer clear of you.

The disdain for my lack of expertise on the horse was palpable, although I do remember times when Chloe would patiently put me atop Bonnie and try to teach me the proper way to hold the reins and rise to the trot. Your lessons paid off to the extent, that even recently; I was complimented on my ability on the horse when a few of us went riding one weekend. My efforts would not have earned me any brownie points from either of you but up against novices I managed to look pretty good.

Chloe; you and Steven had a bond when I was little, and whilst I was not excluded from your little club; an interloper six or eight years younger was not unreasonably excluded from big kid’s games.

Jerry; I don’t know why we never bonded, I can never remember a time when we were close. I was the mummy’s boy when we were small and you were very definitely, much more at home, outside with Dad.

I admired your skill with cattle, your fearlessness on the horse, your ability to converse with grown up visitors, your prowess on the sports ground and your dogged determination which made up for any lack of skill in any of the above.

Probably, I have never told you how much I did admire you as a kid. I was shy and to an extent scared of being left with you. I knew the calm times could be broken so easily and you would erupt into one of your infamous rages.

I am sorry for the distance between us as kids. To some extent it was my own fault; it was easier for me to retreat into the imaginary world of Bill than take the chance of being rebuffed by an older sister or brother.

There was in later years. a wonderful rapprochement with Chloe especially when you and the big G would offer me sanctuary when things got too tough at home. Those times at “Gunyah” were special to me, sharing the birth and childhood of your two daughters, with you and your big bear of a husband.

Jerry; we did try to get closer over the years but these efforts generally petered out and I do regret this.

Times have been tough for both of you, the wounds of childhood have proven to be insurmountable, I desperately wish I could repair the past for all of us, but at least with Chloe now, we do get to laugh at and, with; each other on those wonderful, rare times when we do get together.

Love

Bruce