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Sunday, August 21, 2011

93. A Family Get Together

Pop - Bill Kipping and Lil Smith at their wedding, 1958.

Monday, August 22, 2010

Creative Writing class

Catching thoughts as they slide through my mind ...

The mind never stops – there is constant movement, a never-ending flow of ideas. The river of words and images and sights and feelings and memories – always memories – goes on, even in my sleep. Sometimes I wake, mid sentence. Or I wake in the midst of a story, a dream that has held me in its thrall for hours, it seems.
Right now, it’s Monday morning, and I am churning out the words. The pump is primed, the words are flowing out onto the paper ...

Yesterday I went to the Mitcham pub to my Uncle Murray’s 90th birthday. Ninety – God, Imagine living that long. And what a life he has had. He was in Darwin at the time of the bombing in 1943. He and Betty Tyres married in the years of the Second World War, and their one child – Faye – was born in 1944.
My memories of Faye are not all that clear. I recall really liking her. She was a little princess, with a face a little like the young Elizabeth Taylor. Curly hair framed her attractive face. She was over-protected and pampered, as we only children tend to be.
Once, back in about 1948 or 1949 I went by train out to Mitcham, where Uncle Murray met me and drove me through the open paddocks that were Mitcham at that time, to Alwyn Grove, a dirt road maybe 600 metres long. There were perhaps three houses in the street at the time; the rest was tall long grass. I stayed overnight at their house. It seemed so large, this weatherboard house in the open paddocks in the newly emerging suburb that would become Mitcham. And it was large by comparison with the working man’s cottage that I had grown up in in Coburg. The house at 82 Reynard Street was perhaps 16 feet across and 40 – 50 feet long – a house of maybe six squares in the old way of measuring house size. Uncle Murray and Aunty Betty's house was twice the size of my house.

What do I recall of that night? Little other than bath time, when Faye and I, both dressed in underpants for modesty’s sake, were bathed together.
Years later, when we were around 15, we danced together, at somebody's wedding. I recall smelling her shampooed hair as we danced a slow foxtrot. I recall that we held each other close, and that I felt some stirring of an attraction that could not, of course, be taken any further: relationships between cousins were taboo.
I can’t remember if Faye was at my 21st birthday party. We rarely saw each other for the next twenty years. Then I heard the news that Faye had suffered a massive haemorrhage in the brain – a stroke that wiped out her memory, her speech, most of her movement, leaving her totally dependent. She couldn’t move by herself or feed herself.
There was a terrible irony, a cruelty, in this event. For all those years when the rest of us had married and settled down and had children, Faye had been alone. She had continued to live in the Mitcham house with her parents, who continued to dote on her. But in the months leading up to her stroke she had commenced a relationship with a dentist, a relationship that looked to have some prospect of ‘leading somewhere’. She and her friend were having dinner at a sophisticated restaurant when Faye experienced a blinding, mind-numbing headache that was the precursor to the traumatic stroke that would leave her in little better than a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
She was 49 when she died, 10 or 15 years after the stroke. For that whole time Murray and Betty cared for Faye: fed her, dressed her, took her to occupational therapists and hospitals and clinics, controlled her intake of medicines prescribed to deal with the myriad of things that were going wrong with her body.
And throughout that time, I often found myself thinking of Faye and what a terrible sadness it was that her life was reduced to this.
On the window of the pub Thelma - or maybe Lynette - has stuck up some photographs - maybe a dozen photos of aspects of Murray's life. There's a photo of a very snappily dressed young man, in an expensive overcoat and cravat, with a very young Betty. There's a photo of their wedding, and another of Murray in his army shorts and army shirt, taken in Darwin. But the most poignant photo shows a beautiful young girl of maybe 11 or 12 years, sitting on a horse. It was Thelma's first horse; the girl is Faye.

The two remaining elders – Murray himself and my Aunt Doreen, now 83 – were there, along with most of the surviving cousins, gathered yesterday to celebrate Murray’s milestone. Murray remembered every one; he still has his faculties. We are all growing old. Thelma, the oldest, is 74 now. Trevor didn’t come down from Newry; he’s busy selling off their cattle, as he and Thelma prepare for retirement. Her sister, Valerie, who is 71 didn’t come down either; she’s celebrating her 71st birthday. But Ray – the third of that Kipping branch, was there. He and I chatted about the disappearance of all the old sayings that were once so much a part of Australian life: bot, ‘Up in Lizzie’s room behind the clock’, ‘a wigmam for a goose’s bridle (or perhaps bridal) ... Ray plays the computer game Hearts a lot; claims to have achieved an 85% + success rate; has played over 20,000 games. At 72, he still lives in his small flat in Northcote, and watches the neighbours come, make a mess of their flat, and then move on. He’s lived there for thirty years or more, the one solid consistent element in the ever-changing parade of short term occupants of these units.
Thelma's daughter, Sharon, is there. I have a flash of memory. I recall a time, 51 years ago, when I was a boy of 17 and she was a new born. I remember nursing her when I went down to Thelma and Trevor's farm at Newry. She was perhaps a month old. Now she has grown children of her own. Her eldest son is a singer; he's in the States, hoping to make it big, but it's hard going. Success is never easily won.

Aunty Doreen is 83 now. Her daughter Leanne and son-in-law Rod brought her down from Hamilton a couple of days ago. They visited her brother Bob Powles up in the Nursing home where he will live out the last of his days. It’s several years since they have seen each other. Thinking of Bobby reminds me that it was he who built the wooden filing cabinet that I still have in my office. It must be almost 50 years old now. He was an excellent cabinet maker, a loner, a heavy smoker. Emphysema will take him in the end no doubt.
Rod and Leanne seem pretty happy. They live out at the Hamilton airport where Rod is caretaker and odd job man. Leanne works for a hospital fund.
My cousin Craig – Doreen’s only son – and his wife Pauline and their four kids were there. They seem solid as ever, one of that rare phenomenon: the happy family. Jessica has grown into a fine young woman – focussed, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, intelligent. Patrick has emerged from the sullenness of his early adolescent and is friendly, cheerful, communicative. Georgia’s in Year 9 now, and Anna in Grade 5, and both are outgoing kids and good company.
And of course, Lynette is there. I ask how her daughters are, whether things have improved. ‘No,’ she says, feigning cheerfulness, or resignation, or a mixture of the two. She seems in good nick, and much less intrusive and attention seeking than she was a few years back. I realise, with slight discomfort, that I forgot to ask her how her relationship with Geoffrey Cox is coming along. Happiness is not easily come by; rarely do our lives live up to our expectations. Life mooches on; we struggle through, making do. I’ve always loved that Christian blessing, the Desiderata: ‘Lord, give me the strength to change those things that can be changed; the forbearance to accept those things that can’t be changed; and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Both Karin and Jordan were ill, so it was just Tanner and me. Tanner was friendly and readily fell in with her older second cousin’s – Anna and Georgia. Tanner is almost as tall as Anna, who is almost three years her senior.
Even Leanne, the youngest of the Kipping clan cousins, is rapidly approaching 50. At moments like this, all the old clich├ęs emerge: What happened to our youth? Where has the last 50 years gone? Doreen is on a walking frame. The two small steps up into the eating area are too large at this stage for Doreen – she needs help to raise her feet the necessary six inches. Murray uses a walking stick to get around. Both he and Doreen have their faculties; they remember their pasts. Doreen speaks of Kip – my Uncle Arthur who died five years ago: ‘I miss him something awful,’ she says. ‘I know he wasn’t the easiest man to live with – with his drinking – but I’d give the world to have him back.’
Thelma makes a speech. She apologises, saying that she is no orator, but her speech is honest and heartfelt. She praises Murray for his longevity, for the way he nursed first Faye and then Betty, through illness and during their final days. He is alone now; has been for – what – four years or more. Reminds us of his love for greyhounds. Says of him (though not specifically in these words) that he has coped with life’s cruelties with dignity and steadfastness and loyalty to Faye and to Betty – around whose lives his own life has orbited; and wonders whether any of the rest of us would have been so committed, so noble, so reliable. Which is a fair point to make.
At Thelma’s instigation we have each contributed toward a new TV set for Murray. He still enjoys watching the horse races.
At one point, Leanne tells me that she really enjoys reading my blog especially when I write about the past, about how things were. The way we were, but can never be again. That part of our lives has passed, and we are growing older.
And so we each find our ways of filling our days and our nights, our ways of remembering and forgetting the past that has shaped and misshapen us, the moments and days and years of our lives. We look at Murray with his paper like skin and his aging body and his walking frame, and remember the passing of Uncle Arthur, Faye, Betty, Linda and Herbie, Pop, Iris, and Ivan, and know that no matter what, that is what awaits us.
At three o’clock we say our farewells, Tanner and me, and head off home.

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