Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dennis' daughter

Eighty years ago today my father was born in a little place called Wylkatchem, Western Australia.

From what I know of it he had a tough early life.

He was a young boy in the Depression. The second of three children, much later there was a fourth. Life was hard. I don't know when it was that Grandma became a single parent after the breakdown of the marriage, but I know times were tough.

Dad talked of living (as a child) on the banks of the river in a tent. This was in Perth. He talked of being in a reform school in his teens in Sydney.

He was a man's man. Largely self-taught. He valued education but was wary of the arrogance of class privilege that often came with an educated person's lifestyle.

He was very intelligent, with an easy grasp of most subjects - especially in the science engineering and physics field. He could do fantastic technical drawings. He could make anything structural of steel to any specifications. He could weld.

He drove taxis. He rode motorbikes with sidecars at the Speedway. He drove trucks, including big prime movers. He could repair any engine, on any machine.

He was a Mason. He valued service and integrity. He valued family. He could hold a grudge.

He preferred plain cooking, but appreciated good slow Italian cooking, a bit of Chinese and a good Singaporean chilli crab.

In his later years he worked as a mechanic, an engineering estimator, and a security guard.

He respected guns, and taught me to shoot. He took me out driving in every vehicle my license would allow me to drive, so I could be confident to drive anything I got behind, except somehow he never taught me to back a trailer. Oops. Still, I've driven tractors, trucks, stick shifts, column shifts, automatics, vintages and you-name-its.

He loved lollies, and had quite a sweet tooth. He was fiercely independent and very private. We didn't have a lot, but we had enough and I felt rich, and secure. He played Lotto. He had his chair, a recliner rocker that was hotly contested as long as he was not in it. This is how I remember him very clearly. I'm delighted I have such a 'like' photo of him, and although there are others of him around, this is a beauty. Cropped out is the cat at his feet.

He loved to fish, and I wish I could lay my hands on a wonderful photo of him holding two enormous deep sea dhufish, after a great day of fishing, the cats at his feet. He loved his cats. He loved dogs too, and used to breed dachshunds when I was a small child, but my Mum didn't like dogs, so they had to go.

He was a hoarder, a pack rat. Remind you of anyone? You should have seen his shed when he died. I still have some of his stuff, including his diary from the year I was born, noting my birth. I treasure his handwriting.

He loved his four daughters, and always vowed that he was more than happy to be the father of four girls, with no sons. I was born when he was 32, the last of us a few days after his 40th birthday. I remember making him a card for his 40th. This week I will make a 40th card for that sister.

He was allegedly domestically capable, but this was rarely demonstrated. Instead he was waited on hand and foot, his cuppa quickly fetched within minutes of his return after a hard day's work.

He was a sparse drinker who enjoyed a tipple but rarely over-indulged. Gift bottles of whisky would last for years, eked out in his occasional Irish coffee. He always smoked however, for a few years it was a pipe, later rollies.

I have a treasured memory of him in the last days of his life, in a palliative care unit at the time, sitting outside on a patio, offering me his ancient woollen dressing gown against the evening cold, while he rolled a smoke. We sat together peaceably for a time and then he was tired and I tucked him back in bed. It was the last conversation we ever shared.

The next morning he slipped into unconsciousness, and was taken home where we spent the next 48 hours preparing to let him go. He was barely rousable. The only words he spoke that weekend were of love. "Th'nk you" "Love you" as we turned him, or cleaned him, or stroked him. It was pretty special, and a great privilege to nurse him at the end of his life. He died peacefully on a Sunday at lunchtime, hours after seeing an old friend from Speedway days. We laid him out in his full Masonic regalia, as a Past Master, with family photos in his pocket, his XXXX strong peppermints, money for the paper. The months of his illness had finally seen the grease stains fade from his fingertips, and the undertakers somehow buffed out the welding sparks from his glasses. We were so astonished that we each commented on it at the viewing.

He was a man of dignity and few words, but occasionally he would rabbit on about an unlikely topic. He spoke to all men. He loved children, and called them all Charlie. Five of his grandchildren were born in his lifetime, luckily mine, as the eldest, knew him. The working windmill and swing he built for my kids are still in my yard.

He died one month after he turned 65, from pancreatic cancer, a fast and aggressive cancer that took no prisoners. It is on both sides of the family, and I feel a little daunted at the thought that I may have seen my future end. I hope I have the courage and dignity he showed.

I miss him, and yet I don't. Everything he was to me, he still is. A guide, a mentor, a role model. Steadfast, old-fashioned but interested in innovation. I have his lessons, and he is within me. I often sense his presence. Sometimes I hear myself laughing his throaty deep chuckle. Of course I do miss him, and love him, his acceptance and insights. Even now, fifteen years after his passing, I still have the instinct to tell him something. He was a thinker. I wish he could visit, but maybe he does. I know he would be proud of me, of the Laura I am today. Except he called me Jane. Its a long story. I'm not sure what he'd make of us all now. Things have really changed a lot for our family, not all for the better.

But, today I celebrate the anniversary of his birth. The roast dinner is on. I will raise a glass. Writing this has led to more than a tear or two (where're the tissues when you need them?). This is my favourite photo of my Dad and I together on my wedding day in 1985.And I am proud to be Dennis' daughter.


Natalie said...

Pass the tissue.
Every word was good, so that I feel as though I've met him. Very nice.

Lesley said...

Lovely! I never met him, but I'm sure he'd have been very happy and proud to read what you wrote about him.
I could see Dennis's grand-daughter in that first pic, too!

mtnchild said...

What a lovely tribute! I don't think there are many of us, of a certain age, that can't see their own father in your post.

Thank you Laura for such a nice post.


Cathy said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It was a beautiful tribute.

Debby said...

Reading has led to more than a few tears. Laura, my dear, you are so very fortunate to have these wonderful memories, and we are so very fortunate that you chose to share them.

Happy Birthday, Dennis!

Kel said...

bah, Im at work. pass them tissues! should learn not to read blogs at work! what a wonderful piece of writing , a very special tribute to your dad. my grandad smoked pipe tobacco in his rollies, had bunged up specs from his work, stained fingers (from the tobacco), Bryll creamed hair, a comb in his top pocket, listened to the horses on his transistor radio from 'his' chair and always had the xxxx mints. must be generational!

victoria said...

Okay, that brought tears to my eyes too. I really liked reading about how he lived in a tent and was in reform school - hard beginnings - and grew into such a good and interesting man and how much you love him. That was a beautiful tribute. Hugs.

persiflage said...

Your father's story and your description of him, especially as he was dying, were very moving, and showed very clearly your love for him. Thank you for this.

Lisa L said...

hugs...and more hugs. anniversaries can be hard. I'm glad you're making a nice dins to celebrate his life :)

Stomper Girl said...

This was a beautiful tribute. Sometimes I think it is hard to see parents as people, but you obviously could see the men and the father.

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness, that made do a wee bit more than sniffle :( Lovely post.