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Fri, 31 Mar 2006
As he did so often in life, my father thwarted me in death. Of course, that was not his objective and I suspect he would be surprised if he could hear me make that claim. Our 47 shared years involved, on my side at least, a great deal of pain followed by a significant period of estrangement and ended in a rather drawn out truce.
During that truce, when some kind of slow developing maturity allowed me to see my father as an incompetent father and husband rather than a malevolent ogre, I formed a plan. I was going to find a suitable opportunity to sit down with him and engage him in discussion about my childhood and adolescent years. I thought I could get him to tell me about his life as he saw it and perhaps explain some of the choices he had made. In return, I would tell him a bit about how those choices had impacted on me.
I visited him several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the intention of having this talk. But I had not considered how my mother would take this. In those days—as had been her habit for decades—my mother spent most of her time in bed or in various psychiatric establishments. When she was in hospital, my father was unavailable to me because he said he needed to attend to her. When she was at home, she would not tolerate a conversation going on in another part of their flat for more than five minutes. She would start calling out for attention, be it for food or cups of tea or an unnecessary check on the time for her next medication, or some other pretext. Rather than compete, I decided that I would wait until she died and then I’d have my talk with my father. It seemed clear enough to me that my father would long outlive my mother.
I hope I’ve learned now that it’s smart to do the important things as soon as you know they are important. My father lived to the age of 81, but it was not long enough. Despite making a career of being sickly, of accomplishing virtually nothing in her entire life, and of enriching a large number of medical practitioners over many decades, my mother outlived my father by ten years, giving me ample time to regret my foolish plan.
After my father died, somebody suggested that I might like to write a letter to him, an unsent letter, in which I could at least ask him the questions that had plagued me. At the time, I thought this sounded like something I could do. But almost a dozen years have passed and I still have not written the letter. I think my reluctance stems from the artificiality of addressing myself to somebody who no longer exists. But, even if I don’t write to him, there are questions that I want to ask.
Although he never revealed much about himself, I know my father had a difficult early life. His father was a gambler and an alcoholic who died long before I was born. His mother was a nasty bigoted Irish Catholic who hated Jews and was unfailingly hostile towards my mother because of my mother’s tiny amount of Jewish blood. My father and his younger brother fell out over some undisclosed issue when they were young men and did not speak for decades. My father relented when his brother was on his death bed and went to visit him in hospital. What did they say to each other? That’s one question I would have asked.
My father was a sportsman, with a particular fondness for football. He was always contemptuous of my lack of aptitude for all ball games. And he showed a complete lack of interest in those sporting activities in which I had some ability.
He was a complete control freak, who couldn’t bear to see me try to boil water without rushing over to empty the kettle, refill it with cold water and put it back on the stove. Of course, he had to re-light the gas the right way too.
It’s not surprising that my mother was so useless. Anything that anybody else did was wrong. My father cooked all the meals, washed all the clothes, dressed the four kids for school, did the gardening and shopping, had a full time job as a teacher, a part time job teaching English to migrants, and was also completing a degree while we were at school.
If I displeased him, he would either give me the silent treatment (which he could keep up for days) or, if I appeared to be deliberately defying him, he would slap me across the face with his huge footballer’s hand. Our house was small, with solid concrete walls. Those slaps often bounced my head on the walls. I lived in abject fear of doing something to provoke them.
My teachers at the awful Christian Brothers college (where my father had once been the star pupil, school captain and captain of most of the sports teams) made my life hell in all the usual ways so beloved of nasty degenerate religious folk. But, to make matters worse, they had a habit of sending reports home every term which would say, “Greg would do so much better if he would only apply himself to his work”, even though the report would also show I had scored 98% or better in every subject. My father invariably punished me for my lack of effort. Having sweated blood to get those scores, I hated him for that.
When I was 25, my 18-year-old brother bought himself a rifle, went out to the Dandenongs, walked amongst the trees for a while, wrote a farewell letter and shot himself. He had an even harder time as a kid than I did. Not only did he fail to live up to our father’s sporting prowess at that vile school, but he also had to compete with my academic record which was suddenly wonderful now that I wasn’t there any more. While I was living as far away from Melbourne as I could, he was struggling with his life and making a poor fist of it. It’s clear that our parents had no idea how to help him. It is less clear how much they tried, beyond getting guidance from the cretins in the church and trying to force him to get off the drugs and booze.
At the time, I blamed my parents for his suicide. Years later, I became aware that I was angry with him too, for taking the easy way out without ever communicating anything to the rest of us. Now I’m just sad that he was unable to make anything out of his life. But I would have liked to be able to ask my father about that, too.
Despite his many failings, my father was loved by his students. As a young teacher, he worked in three tiny rural schools in East Gippsland. He was the only teacher and he spent one week in each school, living with the families whose kids he taught. Those kids and their parents kept in touch with him for ever. And clearly they thought he was the greatest teacher ever born.
I also met student teachers who had him as a lecturer in later years. To my surprise, many of those young men and women also thought he was a saint.
I think the thing that most saddens me now is the knowledge that my father was an intelligent man who wanted to be a good person and to live his life well. But, despite his intelligence, he was never able to get out from under the burden of his religion and he never managed to overcome the legacy of his family. I also regret that he was unable to teach me any of the things that would have been good to know when it was my turn to be a husband and parent.
When we buried him—in a Catholic church as my mother wanted—I was surprised to see one the bishops of Melbourne in the congregation. That surprise turned to anger when the celebrating priest, presumably without getting the bishop’s approval, chose to launch an aggressive attack on me and my siblings for our failure to follow the church. I’d never seen anything like it before and—in deference to my mother—I felt unable to respond to him.
When my father was lowered into the grave, I was still seething about the priest. But I was also grieving about my lost opportunity to sit down with my father to talk with him about his life and my part in it.
It has taken me a long time to get around to writing this. It’s over eleven years since he died, and I have been thinking about what to write—on and off—all that time. I think I’ve finally understood something now and that’s probably what has freed me to put this all in words. The real truth is probably that I could never have had that talk with him. Whatever it was that made him inaccessible to me for a serious conversation was not really my mother and her demands or any of the other events that seemed to get in the way—it was just the natural state of being for the man he was. I will need to find my own answers to my questions in my own way. Now it’s time for me to let go—of him and especially of my feeling of failure for not managing to orchestrate that conversation.