The grandfather I hardly knew

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Genetics are a strange thing, aren't they? How much of ourselves - our tastes and desires, our political proclivities and our personal requirements for freedom - are due to those who went before us?

I was chatting with my Mum on the phone yesterday, asking her questions about my paternal grandfather. I don't know where the questions came from but I went looking online before for some more information about him, a man I barely knew - indeed, who I only met once in my adult years. I found a memorial for him - you can see it here. It spun me out upon reading it to realise anew how much commonality we shared - I had known all of this stuff about him, but my fish memory has served to banish it from my conscious memory. It sent a chill up my spine when I realised that today, as I write, it is exactly three years since he died.

Perhaps it is not also a coincidence that my anarchic tendencies, pot smoking, love of freedom and of trees were all first contained in this man who I hardly knew. My grandfather lived among the Aborigines in the Northern Territory. He flew planes. He was a goddamn go-getter and when I wrote him a letter in 1991 aged 20 - searching for my roots and identity, always searching - his reply was thus:

Dear Sue

What a charming letter and what a surprise. Enough of that Grandpa bullshit - my name is Andrew as every small child up to 100 plus people call me that.

Don't know what Anne - my present wife - would be to you if any. Probably be referred as a cock relation. Anyway I'm off to have lunch with her in a few minutes. We get along fine although we do not live together. A good marriage as we live in separate suburbs. I presume that a perfect marriage would be when both parties live in separate continents.

Kylie [his daughter with Anne] is a very special lady. She and I should be going to Sydney for the week end on the 19th as my nephew's son is celebrating his 21st. His name is also Andrew. I can't go as one of my ex lovers will be here from 15th Oct to 25th on a visit from the Isle of Man. So Kylie will represent me in Sydney.

Like you I have music most times, perhaps not the same variety but it's a matter of one's choice. Am doing the second year of musicology at Monash this year [he would have been 73 at the time of writing].

We should arrange to meet to see how much we have in common, as I also find life a ball. What about lunch on Sun 27th Oct? I can pick you up at your place if you want transport and bring you here. My phone is xxx xxxx and I would love to meet you.


Perhaps it is timely that now, on the third anniversary of his death, a tear forms in my eye when I realise the extent of what I missed out on. A kindred spirit. My grandfather, being onto his second family by the time I was growing up, was not viewed with much love in our household, when he was ever viewed at all. But I had grasped enough essence of the man to want to meet him for myself. I never was one for believing others' versions of events even back then.

I used to get drunk in Namatjira Park as a teenager, little realising that the trees I was drinking under were planted by my own stock. We did meet back then in October 1991 and we hit it off really well. We had an awful lot in common. I can only hope that the exuberance he displayed all the way through to the end of his life, is an exuberance that I shall regain again sometime soon. I know I had it back then, as a plucky 20 year old full of piss and vinegar, and even now I sure would love to learn how to fly a plane in the Northern Territory :) His daughter Kylie was there when I visited. I remember her saying, "Dad, you are such a cunt!" and I was swimming with the headiness of these strange people, so unlike my own lower-middle-class family. I loved his house, a place of light and dark, with a cellar underneath, full of trees outside, a place full of life and interesting things, an artistic kind of place. I felt so at home there - I don't understand why I didn't see him again. Perhaps I picked up on some kind of "this was nice but let's not get too involved" vibe from him; perhaps it was latent family pressure, even though I kept it reasonably under wraps. Neither my father or auntie would have been particularly enamoured of my visiting Andrew, although I'm sure both of them understood why. I don't even remember telling my grandmother about the visit at all, but perhaps I did (I did like to get sly rises out of my family in whatever way I could :) Life seemed so interminably stodgy to me back then and it often still does now.

When I visited him, his 20 year old granddaughter, Andrew said to me, "Making love to your grandmother was like banging a sack of flour", which, you can understand, stuck in my head and shall stay there forever as a long-term memory. I don't remember if I had the temerity to laugh out loud but I sure hope so.

My poor grandmother. I don't know the situation there but it was obvious they were an ill-matched couple. I'm sure he cheated on her a few times and perhaps it is here that her bitterness began, a bitterness which spread over me and my childhood living, as we did, in the main house while she lived out in the granny flat at the back. It was lovely of her to allow her son and his wife and children to live under her roof - and didn't she let us know, in 100 different small niggly ways. And goodness, didn't she also let me know that I wasn't like her "Chook" - my brother was always her favourite, while my main recollection of her from my childhood is a face pinched in suspicion as she looked at me. Perhaps she saw some genes come through she wasn't too happy about.

They broke up when my father was a teenager. I'm not so sure Andrew was a great father to my dad and my auntie. But I do know that my grandmother coerced her children into going out and spying on him and such. It was not an amicable break, although I think my father did see his father a few times in his teenage years. I know they drove across the Nullarbor Plain together (funny, Mum and Dad are off to do the same thing in a few week's time. How synchronous this post is, coming out of nowhere. I didn't even know I was going to write it, much less shed a tear for the grandfather that, if all the planets were aligned correctly, I would have got to know better.

And by God, I would have been a hell-raiser if I had :) I really wish I had. But gee, I feel like I carry an awful lot of him around in my body. I'm just really glad I've been reminded of it - there's a swagger in my walk that wasn't there an hour ago :)

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