This week I was reminded that my father had died 24 years ago . This anniversary came shortly after we had observed a very subdued Anzac Day, so it was on this note that I reflected what his legacy might be, as May 8th is also the 75th anniversary of the end of 2nd World War in Europe. Dad however served in the Pacific until the end of 1945. He would have been astounded that I still had his army dress uniform – well, the jacket at least.
Dad was proud of his army service as an engineer in New Guinea and Borneo but he never talked about his war service much. When he did it was to recount funny occasions, such as when he lost his false front teeth overboard when the troop carrier hit a rough patch en route to Borneo. He lost his original teeth when a crank handle spun backwards while he was trying to start an army Jeep. He also recounted his chagrin at using a stinging nettle leaf instead of toilet paper whilst bivouacking in the New Guinea jungle. My sister and I were so intrigued by this chapter in Dad’s life that we scoured the Australian War Memorial archives and retraced some of his footsteps to Borneo and New Guinea in 2014.
The army jacket is a khaki wool with the insignia of the Royal Australian Engineers, a purple rectangle surrounded by 2 red stripes, sewn into the shoulder. The metal buttons are detailed with a map of Australia. Dad must have been very slight because when we found the jacket, while clearing out the family home, it fitted my 21 year old daughter. What am I to do with this jacket? It’s not op shop material but perhaps a museum might be interested.
Dad’s army service taught him many skills. He became a leader of 26 sappers in his patrol, who built roads, bridges, hospitals and wharves, often under fire, over a period of 3 years. The captain and other lieutenant in his unit became lifelong friends and professional colleagues. He worked with local people both in New Guinea where they provided labour and in Borneo. He must have been taken by the beauty of the Asian women because a print of Saw Ohn Nyun a Burmese princess, painted by Sir Gerald Kelly hung in my parents’ bedroom. It now it hangs above his old work desk in our activity room, among some of my own Asian treasures. The desk still has a faint tobacco tinge – Dad gave up smoking when I was quite small but it is still a familiar and comforting odour for me.
Tangible objects with their feel and smell bring back such primal memories. Dad might be surprised at what things we kept of his. Now that we have to consider downsizing ourselves we are faced with the dilemma of what to keep. I still have his 1930’s gramophone with the wind up handle and the metal needles which must be inserted into the stylus so that we can play our collection of 78’s. The Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite was my favourite dancing accompaniment as a child, whirling around our lounge room, in filmy tulle.
Dad was given a more modern gramophone and a collection of Beethoven symphonies when he left one of his employers in the early 1960’s. I was thus introduced to classical music, a love which has never waned. He was often humming Beethoven’s 7th or the Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, while he made outdoor furniture.
He saw himself as a craftsman. We still have the old rocking chairs he made which lived on the front verandah of our family home. I have an early photo of me and Dad’s mother rocking on them, just before she died. But no one sat on our front verandah really. It faced south west and was cold and sunless, however the chairs ended up on our sunny north facing deck, lovingly repaired by my husband. Perhaps they could go to a family home.
When I started school, one of our lessons was a sewing class and Dad gave me his mother’s sewing basket to proudly hold my needles and thread. Sixty five years later I am still using this small lacquered basket. Inside the needle case with the old fashioned tulips on the front it says ‘Golden Fleece Needles, made in England at Redditch where fine quality needles have been made by craftsmen for many generations’. Ma was a seamstress and both sides of the family featured high quality seamstresses. Perhaps Dad thought I would follow in their footsteps or perhaps he expected his daughters to follow in his professional footsteps. He certainly wanted us to do well.
I have kept few letters of Dad’s even though he kept all the letters of my travels through Asia in the 70’s. We found his diaries – pocket sized – with records of work meetings and technical details early on. The habit of recording daily events continued after he retired and there are glimpses of his thoughts and inner feelings. He was most eloquent about his family when my cousin began writing up her family history. We found copies of the handwritten notes he gave her detailing his early life.
Regrettably it is often only after our parents are gone do we have the emotional space to want to know more about their lives. With time and space, all the boundaries and expectations fall away. What would he want us to remember? Just that he was a present and loving father is enough.