There have been fifty eight Father’s Day celebrations for me. They have slid past in recent years with little more fanfare than a box of chocolates. With the intensity of the self-absorbed, it is easy to overlook the significance beyond the day itself. I spent last Sunday on Eyre Peninsula on a work trip. Sitting in the sun in Kimba, away from city distractions gave me the space and licence for reflection.
It is said that you only truly appreciate what you have when it’s gone. Well father is not gone yet, but he is 95, and he has also just been diagnosed with asbestosis. Both of these factors make it smart to review what I have now rather than later.
My father’s life has spanned truly remarkable social, cultural and technological changes. He was born during World War I, and was a conscientious objector in World War 2. (He subsequently accepted the call-up with the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.) He was born to a single mother, a situation that brought shame and disgrace to her and her family. Years later, I gave birth through choice to a child on my own, with that grandchild being welcomed by my father with great pride and joy.
Although my father did not have the opportunity to finish primary school, all of his daughters attained a post-graduate tertiary education. He remembers seeing the first aircraft fly over the country town in which he was living. Now I have a pilot’s licence and his family treats international jet travel as akin to catching a bus. He is not very tech-savvy, but he does have an email account and a mobile phone.
Those things that I have described are the trappings of his external environment. Other changes have come from within. He grew up in an era when sons were everything, and he assumed that he would have a family of sons too, instead of the four daughters that he sired. He has never totally overcome the bitterness of this disappointment but has learnt to embrace his daughters and their accomplishments. He still voices his disappointment in only having three grandchildren – hardly the dynasty he dreamed of.
Dad grew up in an environment that although within Australia’s egalitarian society, was still class-driven. His mother was firmly of the view that you could not step outside your station in life. This was no doubt reinforced by her time working as a domestic servant in Adelaide as she struggled to support herself and her child.
Perhaps some of those early experiences stimulated his political awakening, for as a young man he joined the Eureka Youth League and later the Communist Party. He developed a strong sense of justice and fair play. For example, he opposed funding for private schools on the basis that this money should be directed towards state-based education. Having missed out on the education that he had craved, he was adamant that the state should provide the best education possible to the general public, and of course without fees.
My early memories are of a dad who was tall, who was clever, who had black hair and clear blue eyes and a charm that he plied with the ladies. Osteoporosis and age have taken their toll on the height, the hair and they eyes, but he still likes to turn on the charm. He was never a man’s man, and he had more male acquaintances than mates. Neither a drinker, a smoker or a sporting man, he was not comfortable in blokey masculine company that was driven by those interests.
He loved exploring ideas however or scientific concepts. His information was gleaned from extensive reading and listening to the ABC radio. It was a self-education that was broader than the formal education that many of his cohorts received.
So what sort of Dad was he? Unconventional – definitely unconventional. After my birth, my mother was told she would not have any more children (not correct). The second of what were then two girls, I was not the boy he desperately wanted. So he made do with me instead. He took me to work with him from when I was a pre-schooler onwards, and later my younger sisters as well. He was determined to teach us the handyman skills that he deemed necessary.
Working with him, we were also the gophers, the fetch and carry people. He was a contractor in those days and was paid by output rather than by the hour. I didn’t realise it at the time but we did make his task a bit easier by attending to the set-up and breakdown tasks. I didn’t enjoy the instruction however, as his style was to lecture, while we were required to stand and watch his demonstrations obediently and attentively. Not fun at all.
Working with him was also the main avenue of spending any time with him as he worked most days and had little time for ‘playing’. He never attended our school or sporting events, and of course never followed sporting activities himself. He didn’t go fishing or cook family BBQs. All that was quite foreign to him. Of course he didn’t have any example of such parenting styles from his own childhood either. A step father came on the scene when Dad was around six, but these were the Depression years, and from what I understand, family times were fairly depressed as well. He did enjoy camping, with a more Spartan style than commonly favoured today. Camping would have been a regular event if he could have managed it and he was disappointed that as my sisters and I grew older, we were less and less interested. He was sure that this would not have been the case if we had been boys instead of girls.
He did play Chinese Checkers though, using a board made by interns when he was sent by the army to a camp based at Loveday in South Australia during the latter years of World War 2. He painted Quondong seeds to use as counters. We played many games with that set. We also made things with Meccano, played Pick-Up Sticks and listened to the radio. No TV in our house during our school years. We also read lots – books or papers. Avid readers, all of us. Dad soaked up information and education from these sources and would discuss it with anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. It has to be said though that his form of discussion leant more towards lecturing than a mutual exchange of ideas.
Resulting from his years of political activism, he also has an ASIO file. I ordered a copy of it a few years ago under Freedom of Information legislation, getting the details also that applied to my mother. By coincidence, my parents were visiting when the papers arrived in the post. We all read, astonished over our cups of tea. The insignificant detail that had been deemed suitable for recording and filing was almost laughable, except that it indicated that people in our neighbourhood or community had been interviewed at some stage to collate the personal and inane information.
For instance, my mother had attended a cake decorating class, organised by women within their political circle. That was funny but another example was a little sad. A neighbour, a refugee from a war-torn eastern block country, had approached my parents to act as referees on his application for Australian Citizenship. I believe they also helped him with filling in the forms. This association was seen as suspicious and was thoroughly investigated for sinister connections. I wonder how it affected the poor man’s application?
Although Dad was born into and brought up in impoverished circumstances, and lived for many of his formative years in rural areas, he is a very well-spoken man. He has often been thought to be English, but on his mother’s side at least, is an Australian of several generations.
His opinions in early life though were typical of that era. Women were the home-makers and he expected that his daughters would be also. A man needed sons of course with whom to achieve the important things in life and to preserve the family integrity and name. He was very unsophisticated and unschooled in the niceties of social engagement. He needed little in life in the way of material possessions, and had little understanding of those who did.
His sense of home decorating was Spartan and make-do. This was to give my mother a lot of grief, as she yearned for more creature comforts and despaired of father’s habit of dumping furniture and bits and pieces that he could see no further use for on the back verandah or in one of his many sheds, where they gradually deteriorated through exposure and neglect. In exasperation and frustration at the backyard clutter and detritus, mother referred to him as an old Steptoe. The concept of a neat and tidy back yard that could be used for socializing and family entertainment was quite foreign to him and still is.
He has never been a drinker, a smoker or a gambler, though I believe he did smoke the occasional pipe in his twenties. When Dad first started working, he automatically gave all his pay to his mother. Later, when he was married, he handed over his pay to my mother, who was the financial controller of the household. It never occurred to him to be either mean or precious in relation to his earnings. Not one to spend money flippantly, if ever I were in need of financial assistance, he would do what he could to help and has often offered.
It has only been during this last year that Dad has stopped trying to do household maintenance tasks for me, as he has always felt that he should look after his daughters. With both knees replaced and both hips too, thanks to arthritis, he would still try to get up on my roof to inspect the gutters or whatever. I learnt to keep quiet about chores that needed doing. It was easier not to let him know than to try to stop him from ‘assisting’. I guess that there are different ways that people say ‘I love you.’ Dad’s not a vocal man in that sense, but can belt it out with a hammer and nails.