The Things That Shape Us

In a glass-half-full kind of mentality, many are acknowledging the positive effects of being in lockdown. Time spent with immediate family in great supply, drawing young siblings closer together; time to write; time to contemplate – the latter, not always a good thing. But lockdown is also robbing of us experiences close to our heart. Today is my father’s birthday and as my dad enters a new decade of life, a momentous milestone of a life well-lived, I am wholly aware that the greatest gift is the one I cannot deliver; time spent with the family. So, instead, I wish to give him the gift he has largely imparted to me; the gift of words.

As the most well-read person I know, devouring books at a cracking pace – my mother calls my father’s book of the moment his ‘safety blanket,’ carrying it everywhere should a small window of time present itself – it is often my father who supplements my hunger for literature. Laying down an open book at the kitchen table, or, more recently, presenting it to me from across the fence, Dad will insist, ‘Just read a page. Start here.’ And in that snapshot of well-written prose, ranging from vastly different texts, will be the kernel of an idea. A concept on impressionistic art, Dad making the connection between painting and writing; both the artist and the writer learning to portray what they see, rather than what they know to be there. Or another text, the cumulative effect of language portraying the drudgery of a soldier’s existence, the language mirroring the weight of the soldier’s pack, the exhaustion of his unrelenting journey into combat. Whatever the text, it is an offering from Dad to me, presenting one of life’s many truisms; that literature should be shared.

Though Dad insists he is a reader, not a writer, he has a keen eye for observing human nature; be it via the lens of his camera or through conversation. Attracted to interesting characters, Dad takes genuine interest in the stories of others. With the ease of a storyteller, Dad will sit at the head of dining room table reeling off any one of the stories he has collected, told and retold across the years. A young Scottish lad referring to his curls in a thick Scottish accent, ‘I ‘ate them.’ Dad as a young man finding himself on the back of a truck in Greece being transported to a quarry, with several others; the driver and his burly companion emerging from the cab, demanding their passengers ‘load rock’. Dad’s stories have been a part of life for as long as I can remember. Known mostly by their punch lines, it is only in recent years that I have had the foresight to take note of their preceding story.

In many ways, Dad has given me the tools to write; and to live. It is through years of observation that I have long known and admired Dad’s commitment both to his family and his work. The notion of hard work demonstrated through long days at the office, through his scrubbing of dishes and kitchen surfaces as if preparing for the arrival of the Queen, through his time spent seated at the kitchen table with this daughter of his working on maths homework or the like. It was around the time Dad gave me one solid piece of advice that I began writing in earnest, developing a daily writing practice. ‘It doesn’t matter what you write,’ Dad said. ‘The important thing is that you keep writing.’ 

Dad’s praise is not easily earned, but when it is felt, boy does it feel good. In my final year of high school I applied myself to my schooling with even greater vigour than before, filling my afternoons and weekends with a strict study regime. Heeding Dad’s mantra that featured heavily in my adolescence years, ‘Not a Good Idea,’ I was sensible to the nth degree. The morning I received my VCE results, I discovered that all my hard work had paid off more than I ever could have imagined.  So stunned at the result appearing on my screen in the form of an official text message, I rose from bed to find Dad pulling on his socks for work and angled the screen toward him. Without a single word spoken between us, Dad slipped on his glasses, read my result and threw his arms around me; my mother discovering us at the front hall, not knowing whether our hugging was in misery or celebration. When I finally looked up at Dad he had tears in his eyes; the same look he gets upon witnessing some Olympic feat – emotion tied with Dad’s own identity as a sportsman; Dad running with the Olympic torch in the torch relay preceding the 1956 Melbourne Olympic games as a boy of sixteen; Dad, the recipient of the VFL Under 19s Morrish Medal in 1959, playing for Fitzroy.

Though Dad’s stories reveal a sense of adventure and daring, as a father, Dad always seemed to move at a steady, sensible pace, like the way he runs; Dad teaching me this too, how to breathe to increase my longevity as a runner and perhaps, more profoundly in life. There are many lessons Dad has taught me, qualities he has instilled. The value of hard work. A love of literature. But also the joy of life. Something Dad projects on to the next generation too, as he takes our four-year-old to see the boats and eat ice-cream by the pier – or as he had done several months ago. Two people, big and small, sharing in the fulfilment found in togetherness by the sea; an experience close to both their hearts. This joy of life felt just as keenly now – albeit in smaller bursts from across the fence – as Dad performs for his grandchildren teetering on the edge of a puddle. And then, much to our children’s delight, Dad, losing his footing, resurfacing with wet socks and a smile on his face. 

Happy Birthday, Dad, you’ve certainly made quite a splash!

The Park

The Return of the Park. The Park Strikes Back. These are titles that denote the last couple weeks. Where parents everywhere have been unleashing their children, releasing them from the home, the monotony of the daily walk, a walk well-travelled. A welcome babysitter of slides and swings and monkey bars. I’ll be honest, it does feel just a little naughty. The logic a little hard to fathom. Scenes of kids everywhere, butting up against each other to hurry down the slide, kids racing to make it first up the ladder, little ones nearly being bowled over while others test out the swing’s capacity to go ‘higher’; juxtaposed with scenes at home behind gates, longingly watching the rubbish truck or the mailman, where our son seeks regular clarification on the day of the week, while the other son asks ‘is it morning time?’ late in the afternoon. A reel of contradiction.

As we make our way up the hill on our daily walk, the morning parks are set to reopen,  I wonder how long it will be before our park is reinhabited by children. As we draw near, I see that despite the early hour, the park is already serving its intended function; children playing on the equipment, as natural as breathing air.

Our middle son, so well-versed in ‘Coronavirus’ as the explanation for everything we are not permitted to do, stands at the edge of the playground, arms folded.

‘No!’ he says, when we encourage him to go play, ‘Coronavirus’.

I often wonder about the frustrations children experience in coaching their parents –  my mother used to call it ‘bringing up mother’ – how difficult that our son must be the voice of reason. I’m sure our toddler experiences this on a daily basis too, vigorously nodding her head when we ascertain what she is after; as though frequently frustrated by our incompetence. 

When we insist our son go play, pointing out the other children swarming the playground, kids being pushed on the swing by their masked parents, shooting hoops, climbing, swinging, running; our son unfolds his arms. 

‘Is the Coronavirus over?’ he asks.

It seems the logic of opening parks is lost on our four-year-old too – the same child who had stood forlorn in front of a sign erected beside the playground that read ‘Area closed,’ when the play equipment was still adorned with red and white safety tape. 

Finally, our son relents, drawn by the lure of fun. As our kids join the other children, there is a strangeness to overcome, as though defying the rules, or defying logic. We may join a park full of children, but we are not yet permitted to welcome a guest to our home. But as our sons run, unencumbered and free, our daughter delighting in conquering a climb and swinging on the swing; I must admit, this ultra-normal, pre-COVID activity of park play; it feels, well…normal.