We’re “holidaying” in Australia right now. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly relaxing, what with:
-Wearing comical bulky woollen multilayered winter outfits.
-Dealing with unsettled kids, which means constantly upsetting them in the day by putting them in and out of the car; and cruelly prising them from our legs so we can attempt to go places on our own; and sleeping next to them at night.
It’s nice though. It’s wonderful. Interspersed with all that stuff, it’s two weeks of dinner dates and seeing how much friends’ kids have grown, and Melbourne cafes and drives down never-ending ocean highways.
Just one little story that I wanted to jot down. Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of my pop’s death. We’re staying with my nan, and I drove her to the cemetery to put flowers on her husband’s grave. She asked me to pull up outside the tea shop/florist and gave me $10 to buy some carnations. The man running both parts of the operation was managing to serve about 12 customers all at once with sincerity and respect, making each feel as if they were his sole concern. After I’d selected a small bunch of purple-fringed white carnations, I asked him to cut the stems short because they were to go in my pop’s grave, which is just a small headstone on the grassy lawn, rather than a full grave. The tea shop/florist man took each carnation out of the cheap crinkly cellophane as if it were a prized hothouse-grown specimen and delicately snipped off excess leaves. Then he gathered the stems together in basically the same arrangement they’d been in previously. He had a sort of industrial saw that he was using to trim the flowers, but even that was somehow operated with quiet dignity. He called me love and charged me $6 instead of $8. And I thought, that is a tough gig. Everyone he deals with is grieving for someone. To be honest, my pop died seven years before I was born so my lowered mood was empathy for my nan and my mum and the rest of my family, rather than grief – and my 45-second transaction with the tea shop/flower guy still made me feel better.
By the time we’d driven to the lawn where my pop is buried, it was just starting to rain. I walked arm-in-arm with my nan down the aisles until we found his spot. She removed the square plastic flower receptacle and went to fill it with water. I haven’t been to pop’s grave for years, and for the first time I noticed that a lot of the immediately surrounding graves were for children – 3 years old, 8 months old, 7 years old. The headstones for children featured flocks of lambs being guided by angels. My pop’s headstone has a ship sailing on an ocean rendered beautifully in curling waves. At the shore, the curls become trees – a bush scene, trees and hills. Apparently my pop loved the water but hated the sand; that’s why my nan asked the craftsman to create a country scene uniquely abutting an ocean.
My nan leaned down to arrange the short posy of carnations in the grille, and I stood in the rain and listened to her talk to her husband, whose voice she hasn’t heard for 37 years – 17 years longer than they were even together for. I know that she does talk to him all the time conversationally, at home, but to hear her speak so painfully to him on the day of his anniversary…it was like time stopped for a few seconds.
I remember sitting on a bamboo chair in our kitchen in Brunswick one winter when I was about 8 years old. Mum was making rhubarb on the stove, talking to my nan. There was nothing special about the moment; it was just something I decided I would always remember. To this day I can hear the rhubarb stewing in the pot, smell it caramelising despite mum’s brisk wooden-spooning, hear mum and nan talking at the same time. I was a bit of an odd kid I guess, and I have quite a collection of those “moments” I deliberately preserved in my mind with picture-perfect recollection. They nearly all mean nothing.
My pop, whose name was Kevin, died in an industrial accident. He was a builder, working on a scaffold that had been shoddily constructed using the wrong screws. It collapsed and he fell three storeys to the ground. He suffered a broken thumb and a fractured vertebrae. When the doctors sedated him to reset his thumb, he – completely unexpectedly – died from an undiscovered blood clot in his leg. My mum was 18, my uncle 15, and my aunty 12. My nan was a widow before 40.
Standing next to her yesterday, in fact standing on the very site of where she herself will be buried one day – I won’t forget it. It was early afternoon but dark with rain and winter, and the city-bound train went past only metres away, covering my nan’s voice for a moment. She knelt down and brushed some errant leaves from the headstone and she said, “Ah Kevi, if my tears could bring you back, you’d have been here years ago.”
In the car on the way out of the cemetery gates, she told me that her grandfather and uncles had been gravediggers and general caretakers there when she was a girl, and when there were old, limp wreathes that needed disposing of, they’d first remove the ribbons and bows and give them to her to tie her hair up. The ribbons were thick and rough, but she’d still “thought she was Christmas”.