One day when I visit Dad in hospital he asks me if Mum has divorced him. If not, why is she not here?
No communication, he says.
You’re not divorced Dad. She’s just up the street at the nursing home. You’re still married. Fifty years you’ve been married.
Because she might have a boyfriend up North somewhere. I seem to remember her going up that way to see someone when I wasn’t around.
What is the memory he has?
He looks confused. Like he is searching the back catalogue of his mind. Rifling through it.
I think she had a boyfriend once…
Or was that my mother?
He says mudda. His Dutch accent means that th sounds like d.
Dis and dat. Mudda and fudda and brudda.
She had boyfriends. Because my father was .. and he raises his fists, clenches and shakes them …always do this and do that.
But we didn’t know my brother and me. We were kept in the dark. All secret secret, hush, hush puppies.
Then he starts circling in on his parents’ marriage. But not penetrating deeper. Just that they separated. His mother strayed. His father was unkind. It is simple. In his face it looks like he wants to know more about why the separation happened. But he is still like the child he was then and there is no one to ask anymore. The time for asking has gone. And he missed it.
I can only guess how he might have felt. But I think it was bewilderment, abandonment.
Is my father dead? He asks.
Oh yes Dad, a long time ago,
I don’t remember the funeral, he says.
That’s because you didn’t go Dad.
And my mother?
You didn’t go to her funeral either Dad.
He wants me to explain to him why he didn’t go.
I don’t know Dad. Perhaps because it was a long way to go and in those days it cost too much money. Remember how you worried about money?
But I don’t know why he didn’t go. It was probably around 1976 and I would have been twelve. I don’t remember seeing him grieve.
When, as a child you see your father show no emotion at the loss of a parent, you wonder what’s wrong with him. Or perhaps he was parented so poorly that the grandparents warrant no tears.
You worry about what love is and why he doesn’t feel it. You wonder how you will feel about your own parents and if they died how sad would you be? You make excuses for his lack of emotion. Well he’s an adult now – that’s why he’s not crying when his father has died. But you feel he is missing a bit of his heart. You love your dog more than he feels for a parent. You bury your face into the side of the animal, despite its greasy seborrhoea, and imagine its death. It hurts so much that you can’t stay with the thought too long. Why does a brown Dachshund with a smelly coat and bad teeth so easily absorb all the love you have to give? There is something about fur and tears; sobbing soothed by fingers buried deep in animal hide.
Now my sister and I had no living grandparents. My mother’s mother had died when I was two and she had had no contact with her father since she was herself a six year old child after her parents had separated.
As teenagers we knew there was a more interesting story but my mother never let it be discussed. Her father had abandoned them. She had a simple explanation for his badness – a gambler spurred on by the Chinese and a drunk.
Her mother, our maternal grandmother was, on the contrary, worshipped. Mummy as she was called by her daughter had never enabled her children to know or love their father after the separation and although he lived into his eighties he never saw his children again. He was demonised and his attempts later in life to reconnect were thwarted by their belief that to see him would be disloyal to Mummy.
Even now, as an eighty five year old, my mother won’t allow more than a few minutes talk of her father before cutting the conversation off at the knees.
As far as the Dutch grandparents went they too were little known to us. Our Grandpa visited in the summer because he was a keen cricket fan, but my memory of him is of pipe smoke and a scratchy walrus moustache. He wore a look of jowly disapproval. We spent three months in Holland, me as an eight year old and my sister ten. To us our paternal Granny was European summer, roastie potatoes, dining out. Neither of the Dutch grandparents knew how to play with children or engage them. Seen and not heard types.
We had no connection to them and it seems my Dad felt little warmth to them either. Around them he took on a scolded boy look. He became reticent in his speech, a bit tongue tied, awkward. Now though they keep coming back to him like the past has pushed forward into the space normally occupied by recent memory. His early life; with all its disappointments, his short comings made plain by a strict father, have taken on more significance. Like they just can’t be held down any longer. They bob to the surface, never lost in the first place.
It is as if recent memory is fine dust, grit and it is sieved out, leaving the heavier more solid rocks of the past caught in the mind’s mesh. He worries these pebbles, over and over. He holds them between his fingers, feeling their smooth surface, reclaiming them as known.
As teenagers we wondered if our parents were suited to one another. We were concerned for what look to us as unfulfilled lives. Lives that were tragically dull and filled with work and banality. I think now how naïve we were to think that we could see something they couldn’t. We gave them no credit for just getting by. For sticking together.
Long into the night my sister and I discussed from our beds how much better off they would be without one another, or if they just concentrated on their own betterment. We wanted our Dad to quit his job and find a passion. We felt deeply that his work was a grind, where Aussies looked down on him and even made fun of him. We bemoaned his acceptance of a poorly paid job that he just did for the pay check. Hiding out in the garden or the garage on the weekends he was perpetually nagged and hen pecked by our mother whose soul purpose appeared to be yelling at him from the back door. Occasionally he would explode back and she would burst into tears. Their weapons against one another were simple; his – swearing, hers – tears. During the week while we were at school she watched Another World and Days of Our Lives and organised luncheons with her girlfriends. She had no career, no car and an inclination for snobbishness. To us they looked like two people, one boat, two oars, both rowing for opposite shores.