Echoes of The Past

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“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Henry David Thoreau

When I think about my father I appreciate he always supported my dream to be a writer. He encouraged and praised me. He was the first person to show me how powerful, amazing and entertaining the English language can be. He introduced me to many brilliant and effective authors and poets, but most of all he believed in my desire and need to write.

Although a flawed man with many personal demons he truly loved his family. When I discovered a notebook of his after he died my tears were for his lost dreams as I read poems, snippets of stories and even a short play.

As my older sister Cate said at Dad’s funeral, ‘who knows what dad could have achieved if he’d had  educational opportunities and economic freedom to make choices…’  Like many of his generation who lived through the Great Depression and WW2, he never went to high school and always chased money to survive, and support his family.

 However, he did go to night school, he did constantly improve himself no matter what job he had and he was a prime example of someone with a thirst for knowledge, who educated himself. Education was the key to success as far as Dad was concerned. We must study hard at school and not waste ‘the talents God gave you’. No doubt the regrets he felt at his own failure to stay engaged with the school system coloured his attitude.

Today, the tenth anniversary of his death, I reflect on how glad I am that he was my Dad and be grateful for the gifts he gave me and the memories I choose to honour.

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“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

August 25, 2005

The air carries the smell of spring, but it will be some hours before the sun provides daylight and any warmth. I make an effort to peer into the night with weary and moist eyes. The raucous laughter of kookaburras breaks the stillness – an echo triggering memories of childhood days spent at Croydon in the 1960s. Kookaburras swooped down and stole our cat’s dinner, the raw kangaroo meat an irresistible and easy meal. The birds returned to the trees their laughter like petals blown in the wind.

Tonight the birds swoop from tree to tree, searching for breakfast or perhaps a late supper, their demeanour similar to a hawk. It is 4.00am. Are they congratulating each other on a successful hunt, or have they spotted prey? The hospital grounds and car parks studded with trees may provide what the birds seek. If not, the mini forest stretching north towards Belgrave like a thick, mottled green tablecloth undoubtedly holds enough scurrying mammals to keep the kookaburras laughing for some time.

I can’t recall the last time I heard a kookaburra in Mordialloc where I have lived for twenty-one years. Close to the sea, the gulls are prevalent, but because of the prolonged drought, it is more likely the squealing of rosellas and harsh caws of wattlebirds and ravens demanding or complaining at the lack of food.

I look from the window of Room 2 East Ward on the second floor of William Angliss Hospital, in the aptly named Melbourne suburb, of Ferntree Gully. The shadows of the night change shape to become recognisable objects. There is solace in the ordinariness of the scene – a maintenance worker parks his car and toolbox in hand disappears into the bowels of a building I assume houses the hospital generator. Nurses travel between the adjacent nurses’ home and the main hospital; navy cardigans clasped around shoulders, the only indication there is an early morning chill to the air.

I press my legs against the wall radiator, but the artificial warmth of hot water pipes will not relieve the coldness I feel. I want to open the window wide and scream, ‘Don’t you know my father is dying?’ Nothing has prepared me for this night, even although it is barely three years since I farewelled my husband, John. You can never prepare or become used to losing someone you love. Death is indeed the last frontier. I grip the windowsill realising the harsh reality of day may deliver a cruel blow.

The nurse turned down the wall radiator earlier in the evening with no noticeable cooling of the room apart from the removal of body heat when others in the family left just before midnight. The dodgy heater a bit like Dad’s health the last few years: sometimes okay, other times difficult to know if operating well. The intermittent work of his pancreas made his diabetes almost impossible to regulate. So many years he struggled with diabetes – a terrible sentence for someone with a sweet tooth and robust appetite.

The softness of Dad’s hands as I held them a few minutes ago lingers on my skin. Hands, once dry, calloused worker’s hands transformed soft and smooth despite the accumulated wrinkles of 83 years. Stretched over arthritic bones, his fragile skin, like precious parchment. The paleness almost transparent, belying his olive complexion inherited from the survivors of the wrecked sixteenth century Spanish Armada intermarrying with the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast islands. Well, that’s the mythology still hotly debated by historians. I can hear Dad’s voice disparagingly saying, ‘but what do academics know.’ He was a great storyteller and as Robert McKee teaches, it’s all about the power of story!

The memory of our trip to Australia in 1962, on the migrant ship SS Orion, makes me smile. The ship picked up 500 Greek migrants at Piraeus and after a few days in the Mediterranean sun, the Greek passengers approached my sun-tanned Dad thinking he was Greek. How could this olive-skinned man, sporting coal black hair and moustache be Scottish!  For the rest of the voyage, they tried to strike up conversations. ‘Sorry Jimmy,’ said Dad like a typical Glaswegian, ‘don’t know yir lingo.’

The subdued lighting of the hospital room dulls the age and sun spots, mottling the backs of his hands. The marks fade into insignificance on his thin muscle-wasted arms. When younger and stronger, and employed as a ‘boy wakener,’ he knocked the doors of sleeping drivers with those hands at a time when working class people didn’t own watches or clocks and there were no telephones for early morning wake up calls.

As a fireman, he shovelled 5 tonnes of coal a day into the ferocious flames of a steam train’s furnace. As a locomotive driver, he manipulated train controls and signals and became a diesel instructor and acting depot foreman during a twenty-five-year career with British Rail. In Australia, Dad worked at many semi-skilled jobs as he chased money for his family during a further twenty-seven years driving. His arms steering everything from petrol tankers, delivery vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, buses, utilities, and station wagons.

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He never went to high school, but when it came to a car engine he could revive and fix motors others would abandon to the wrecker’s yard. I picture him wiping oily hands on a cloth or his dungarees.  I’ve never driven a car but surprise myself with the mechanical knowledge absorbed from endless conversations between Dad and my brothers.

I remember as a little girl in Scotland waiting for my dad’s train to pass by the house. Whenever he drove the steam engine he nicknamed “Ivanhoe” he would blow the whistle loudly just as he rounded the bend. In the distance, we could see his once snowy white handkerchief appear as a tiny speck amongst the belching smoke and steam as he gathered speed for the hill before him. We knew he could see the bed sheet we frantically waved with Mum’s help from the upstairs bedroom window because another long-drawn blast which sounded like “Ivanhoe, oh, oh,o …” echoed throughout the valley.

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Younger, stronger arms cuddled a wife and six children, ten grandchildren and embraced four step-grandchildren when they joined the clan. How I ache for those arms to hold me close once more, to make me feel safe. Dad always fearless, his strength, a refuge. He took on bullies in the workplace, bullies in the street. His slightly misshapen nose testimony to defending a stranger from would-be muggers, teaching a scab a lesson on worker solidarity and corralling a bull that escaped in the rail-yards. A trophy of fights he could have done without, but Dad often as game as a dozen commandos.

I rub my thumb along his; trace the outline of his nail. His fingernails, longer than I recall, strong and manicured – testimony to the attentive personal care received in the nursing home where he has lived as a dementia patient for the last seven years.

Strangers cut his nails, bathe him, trim his hair and moustache, and even wipe his bottom. I remember, his fingernails never long but always clean. Scrubbed to remove the embedded coal dust when he was a railwayman in Scotland. Scrubbed even harder to be rid of engine oil with his first job in Australia of petrol tanker driver and then a serviceman for Exide Batteries. Over the years, scrubbing removed a variety of debris from his many blue-collar occupations, including pottery dust and garden soil.

Yet, Dad’s hands were much gentler than Mum’s – not the skin, but his touch. He was the one who washed wounds gently, dabbed calamine lotion on even the tiniest mosquito bite or chickenpox blister. Perhaps, if he had not been the youngest of thirteen children and denied the opportunity for further education, he may have been a doctor. His dedication to self-education at night school and constant thirst for knowledge proved he had the intellectual capacity.

A moan reminds me that Dad is still in this world. His laboured breathing eases to an almost gentle rhythmic snore. I sit in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair, grateful my sister, Rita left a large curved pillow squashed to support a back beginning to ache with tension and lack of comfortable sleep.

Dad’s slack-jaw repose, unsettling. Awed at his vulnerability, I remember a man with an explosive temper, yet the patience to teach and to learn. Now he lies helpless at the mercy of a hospital system that sees him as a nuisance. A dying old man, taking a bed and resources more useful to younger, fitter others. I relive the argument between my brother George and the Charge Nurse earlier in the day when they tried to convince us Dad should be discharged and sent back to the nursing home. Our system has a lot to learn about dying and grief.

An unwanted patient here, Dad showed much patience in his life. He spent hours to find an intermittent fault on electrical equipment or the origin of an unusual noise in a car or motorbike engine. More hours in makeshift darkrooms developing black and white photographs until the best possible copy was printed. He often shared a useful or attractive object produced from leftover scrap wood from off-cuts in the bargain bin outside the local hardware shop. His photographic and developing skills, his expertise with cars and motorbikes and his DIY talents all passed on to his children with varying success.

To be a good provider for his wife and children and to be a good parent his driving force. He never appeared hesitant making the tough decisions once we were capable of understanding and contributing. He laid down rules about our social life, the friends we chummed with, insisted we apply ourselves at school and take responsibility for chores in and out of the home. Robust arguments about the length of my brother’s hair in the 60s, when my sisters and I could start ‘dating’, our behaviour at school and at home all memories that fade into insignificance in comparison to the years he sacrificed to keep us healthy and safe.

The Protestant work ethic and the Church of Scotland shaped much of Dad’s thinking, but also socialist writers like Robert Tressell who wrote, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and he identified not only with the poetry of Robert Burns but the imperfect man. We grew up with Burns’ quotations ringing in our ears and all of us can recite verses, especially the ones with moral and ethical points! Dad admired politicians like Keir Hardie and the Bevan brothers. Papa had bought Tressell’s book for Dad to read, and Dad encouraged his children to read it.  I bought copies for my daughters.

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I change the cassette tape that is playing softly in the background. Rabbie Burns poetry set to music or songs he has written. Scottish singers as diverse as Duncan Macrae, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, the Alexander Brothers and The Corries singing their hearts out

I flick through the box of tapes brought from the nursing home. Each song or artist stirs memories of family celebrations or other occasions. I picture Dad working in his shed happily ‘making sawdust’ as he referred to his woodworking hobby. Or he’s reclining in his armchair, a glass of brandy (or a good malt whisky when he felt flush), not far from his hand. He loved his music and the advancements in technology from old 78s to vinyl LPs; reel to reel to cassette tapes – all marvellous inventions in his eyes. Unfortunately, with the onset of dementia, he missed the proliferation of CDs – and I can’t conjure an image of him with an iPod or MP3 player either – his hearing aids would get in the way and I think he’d be a vocal critic of social media! ‘If someone wants to talk to me let them say it to my face, or pick up the phone!’

When diagnosed with Tinnitus in the 70s his love of playing music intensified as he tried to block the constant noises and ringing in his ears. He used alcohol too and became someone else, his personality forever damaged by attempts to cure this cruel byproduct of industrial deafness and medication after the Hong Kong Flu. I recall the pain in his eyes when he read a poem of mine about Bermagui where I referred to ‘the silence of nature’.

‘Oh, what I’d give for silence,’ he murmured through tears.

A gurgling erupts from Dad’s throat and his brow furrows. He screws his eyes even more tightly shut and pulls his knees up towards his chest and moans. I remember the stabbing pains of early labour and assume his frail body is experiencing waves of uneven pain. I shiver. Is that the scent of death on his breath? I know medication and his lack of sustenance are probably causing the unusual sweet/sour smell, but fear freezes my heart.

I stand up to seek out a nurse when the door creaks open and two nurses on night duty tiptoe into the room. I chatted with these friendly women at the beginning of their shift. They have no problem with my family’s determination to ensure one or more of Dad’s kinfolk will be with him until the end and are not surprised to see me.

The small dark-skinned nurse came from a family of eight and trained in England, ‘We just want to turn your Dad and check how he is going.’

The grey-haired nurse with a Queensland drawl worked as a relief sister in Dad’s first nursing home. She speaks with familiarity, ‘We’ll just give George a bit of a sponge and change.’

Thank you,’ I whisper. ‘He appears to be in a bit of pain… writhing around.’

The other nurse flicks through Dad’s chart, ‘No problem, we’ll give him something for the pain.’

‘Yes,’ agrees the Queenslander leaning over to take his pulse,  ‘we’ll look after your dad, don’t worry.’

Kenneth MacKellar is singing ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’ and my heart begins to race.

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road,
Fill’d with joys and sorrows too,
As you journey on how your heart will yearn
For the things most dear to you.
With wealth and love ’tis so,
But onward we must go.

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.

I desperately need fresh air. ‘I’ll just go outside for a few minutes,’ I stutter. The nurses nod their approval.

Outside I stare at the sky and try to identify Orion – the shapeshifter that to me is a saucepan – and the Southern Cross. If I can see them, the world will be okay because for as long as I can remember since moving to Australia, I have always searched the night sky for those constellations. I breathe in the eucalyptus air. A dark shape swoops. Kookaburras laugh.

Who am I trying to fool? My world will never be the same again. I realise I’ve been crying and dab away the tears before returning to resume my vigil. It will be daylight soon and my sister Cate will come to relieve me, but I know I will not leave Dad – not just yet.

Dad 2004
Dad 2004

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

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Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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