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        Family Values

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        Let me say from the outset, that there was nothing special in the beginning about my family or myself, and if fate hadn't dealt us a series of such dreadful interventions, we would have “strut and fret our hour upon the stage” before disappearing into those vast and barren wastelands of forgotten history.

 

Where are those busy at their trades

generations upon generations, whose

bones are peat, who shared intimate

moments in bars and between sheets?

Who tucked their children into bed,

and with love and kisses, protected

and fed, in numberless houses on

numberless streets? What meaning

do such lives bequeath, whose bout

within this journey is less significant

than a mayfly's flutter against

the wind? (1)

 

      You could say we - or perhaps I, to be precise - owe fate a debt of gratitude. I can't speak for the other members of my family, who feel or may have felt very different. Perhaps, within their often troublesome trajectories, they never considered their lives had any deeper or lasting significance.

 

I suppose the journey through life for any poet or writer of substance, is to record what it means to be human and to demonstrate that to others, so the world - which is above all, very forgetful - for a while at least, will remember.

 

My mother, father, sister, brother and I, were touched, or perhaps chosen by fate, to endure more than our share of loss and tragedy, which makes our stories, in some instances inspiring, and often, profoundly sad.

 

The other families within our extended family: the Clarkes and Pattersons on my mother's side, and the Sardis, Vendraminis and Morettis on my father's, have their own stories to tell, along, no doubt, with a few skeletons in the closet. Perhaps one day someone will bother to write them down. But most, have all, to my limited knowledge, lived comfortable and secure lives which often lead to complacency, not always in a bad way, but nevertheless, not particularly interesting.

 

A few exceptions to the rule were my Uncle Peter, on my mother's side, who, during World War II, following the fall of Singapore in February 1942, was a prisoner in Changi, which was originally built to house only 3000 prisoners, but after the Japanese takeover, was modified to accommodate up to 50,000 Allied soldiers, predominantly British and Australian. After his liberation and return to Australia, Peter became an apolitical anti-war advocate. Una, the wife of my mother's older brother, Telly, was an excellent musician and the daughter of a concert pianist, who had eight children. Jan Sardi, the son of my father's youngest sister, Diva, is one of Australia's most celebrated screenwriters.

 

As for me, I was born on the 1st of August 1947, in the Western Australian town of Kalgoorlie, where my parents rented and operated a small kiosk on the station. My father also worked in a gold mine. Weeks after I was born in the Kalgoorlie General Hospital, my mother's father became gravely ill, causing my family to move back to Melbourne. Soon after their arrival, my grandfather passed away and our family decided to settle in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood.

 

My mother's family were originally from Glenrowan, where Ned Kelly the Australian bush ranger made his last stand against the constabulary on Sunday the 27th of June 1880. I have not had much success maintaining contact with my mother's family over the years.

 

My mother gave birth to two more children (Esther and Rodney) and for several years, our family lived a normal, happy life until tragedy struck in the mid-60s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and following a course of radiation therapy, contracted leukaemia and soon after, died, leaving my father to care for three children. But fate again was to deal my family another terrible blow, when my father was diagnosed with emphysema, and after struggling with the disease for some time, also died.

 

It was just prior to my father's death that our family started to fall apart. Unable to cope with the death of my mother and my father's illness, I ran away from home several times and fell in with bad company, which came to a sudden end after I was arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for armed bank robbery.

When in prison, my life slowly changed after I developed an interest in literature - particularly poetry - and Australian history. In the years that followed I undertook a series of studies and attained a number of tertiary and other qualifications.

 

After my release from prison in 1980, I wrote for Nation Review and hosted a radio program on 3CR called From the Inside, both of which dealt with prison-related issues. Since then, I have continued to develop my skills as a writer, having completed four books of poetry, a book of essays, and an anthology of short stories, several of which have been published, with one recently receiving an award.

 

I eventually married and re-established my relationship with my brother and sister. My sister, Esther, passed away in 2013. I have not seen my brother for almost a decade.

 

Today, at the beginning of 2022, I live a quiet and productive life as a poet, writer, and musician in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Northcote. After many years of learning how to write, whilst also dealing with my own emotional scars and turmoil (which sometimes impacted adversely on friends and those closest to me) I have finally reached a point in my life where I am now at peace with myself.

 

I suppose if not for this memorial of sorts my mother would not be remembered for anything in particular. Apart from myself, I doubt that there is anyone who remembers, who, from time to time, visits her grave - as I have done consistently over the years - to spend an hour or so sitting quietly above her and my father. Visits always accompanied by a degree of sadness and tears, mixed with an acute awareness of the fragility and fleeting nature of memory and life.

 

This is where my life began: inside this woman, who I love, but odd as it may seem, remains a mystery. I have memories, like beacons, as the years pass, that are fuelled by my life, and with it, fade, each day, a little more into the dark...

 

I remember the gentle polish

of your words, the scent of your flesh.

I remember your face,

aged with suffering and grace.

Although gone, you have never

left the cradle of my soul,

and every day, I love you for my life (2).

 

For some reason the memories of my father are more vivid and plentiful than those of my mother, although my love for both is of equal weight. I remember him playing his piano accordion at family gatherings, propped on a chair in a singlet, his bushy, black hair, his ear to the bellows, a cigarette dangling from the side of his lips and a glass of red beside him. I remember people dancing as he played Torna a Surriento, O Sole Mio and other Italian standards.

 

Working ten-hour shifts

down the road at Hoffman’s Bricks,

feeding furnaces and ,

cutting back rock.

I can still see you now

in that old blue singlet,

winding down each day

with a bottle of red,

your face peppered

with brick dust

over a gossamer

of sweat, your black,

Tuscan hair, splintered

with silver wisps,

a Temple Bar burning down

between your lips (3).

 

When I discovered, during my late preteen years, that my father had previously been married and had children by another woman, I felt extremely unsettled. That he and our extended family would keep this secret from my sister, brother and I, was stressful to contemplate. There must have been reasons for his divorce. A man doesn't just walk away from his family for nothing. He didn't do that with us. He was a kind and gentle person, who showed nothing but love and devotion for his wife - my mother - and their children.

 

I have never been one for extended family histories, as I find most to be boring, superficial, and focused on the same trite details about births, deaths, marriages, migrations and occupations. It seems that if one were to remove the names, places and nationalities, these histories would tell the same story, but few about the people, their temperaments, their heroism, their sins and their successes and failures.

 

However, after everything that transpired, what relieved the stress I felt about my father, was that before he died, he requested to be buried in the same plot as my mother. For me, there was something quite beautiful and healing about this arrangement, which brings to mind the opening couplet of Richard Crashaw's 16th century poem Epitaph Upon a Husband and Wife:

 

To these whom death again did wed

This grave's the second marriage-bed.

 

My sister was one of the most selfless, caring and courageous human beings I have known. I'm not just saying this because she was my sister, but because it is true. She was also, like most of us, not without her flaws. But unlike many, seemed to see past the flaws in others to the goodness tangled-up and trapped inside.

Although I have never spoken of it before, her life, from after the time our mother died was one of deprivation and unearned suffering. When our mother contracted cancer, it was my sister, around the age of 13, who took on most of her home duties, who looked after her father and two brothers. When our father died a short time later, my sister, at a relatively young age, married the first decent bloke she met, and literally stepped from one household into another. She once told me that she had never experienced growing up as a normal teenager.

 

For a while she lived a run-of-the-mill married life, until several years later, when she was involved in a dreadful car accident that took the life of her best friend (decapitating her) and left my sister's face permanently disfigured.

 

But none of these events embittered her or made her cynical about life. Instead, inspired by the nursing treatment she'd received in hospital after the accident, she went on to study, and from a cleaner in a Nursing Home, became a registered nurse who was eventually put in charge of a ward at the Footscray General Hospital.

 

After that. there were some bright, happy moments in her life, until the day she was diagnosed with cancer, and after a long and courageous struggle against metastasis, died in the Werribee Hospital surrounded by her family on the 13th of July, 2013.

 

Soon after I was released from prison, she knitted me a beautiful Merino jumper. I still wear it on cold and windy days, and each time I do, I feel close to her, as if part of her is alive and entwined into the fibre:

 

The pattern

was a fisherman's rib

of the softest Merino fibre,

aqua-blue and white.

Every night

you'd sit by that old

Broad-ford firelight,

your eyes,

brimming with sisterly care,

compassionate and bright,

gracing with warmth

the drop and pearl

of every stitch.

"Is it too loose? Too tight?"

And me replying,

with a hug and a kiss,

"No Est', it feels just right."

And now, against the evening frost,

a cold morning's bite

and the nip

of a noon-day chill,

eight years in your grave,

and your fisherman-ribbed jumper

warms me still (4).

 

One of the most beautifully defiant acts I remember her performing, was during my time as her carer, after she was sent home from the Palliative Care Unit - because she hadn't died within the prescribed time - (two weeks) - something that happened three times! On this particular occasion, a few weeks before she died, she was sent home with a list of exercise instructions from the Occupational Therapist, which, in the greater scheme of things, were at that stage, practically pointless. She could hardly walk, but was intent on not giving up.

I remember watching her one morning through the kitchen window, as she staggered up and down the driveway on her walking frame. It brought tears to my eyes. She couldn't quite complete the final lap, so I had to assist her back into the kitchen. When she sat down, she looked exhausted but pleased with herself, marking down her progress on the chart the OT had given her.

 

"I'm feeling better already," she said, looking up with a smile: "What's for breakfast, UE?" She always called me "UE."

 

On the night my sister died, I was standing with three of her four children, Rachelle, Samantha and Julia around her bedside. Daniel was not present. He was living in London and was unable, due to circumstances beyond his control, to share his mother's last moments. Although he had visited her earlier on several occasions. In some ways his situation was similar to my brothers.

 

Esther kept asking for him. None of us knew what to do. It was Julia, who eventually took the photograph of Daniel and his mother from the mantelpiece and held it in front of Esther. Who looked at Julia and at the photograph, then, peacefully passed away.

 

The premature deaths of our parents, left my little brother, sister and I, deeply scared. I don't think those scars, in any of us, completely healed. In my case it has taken several decades to reach a resolution about the past and to learn how to live at peace with myself in the present. For my sister, it wasn't quite that easy. I suspect she went to her grave still unresolved about many things. In my brother's case, the wounds, I believe, went even deeper. He was the closest to our father almost up until the day he died. When our mother died, Rodney would sometimes sneak off and hide in his wardrobe or under his bed, where we would often discover him in tears. While I chose to run away, my brother chose to hide, which may still be the case today.

 

After our mother died, my sister once told me that Rodney would often sleep in our father's bed. At the time, he was the only love and support my brother had. When he died, I can only imagine that the grief and loss he felt would have been almost unbearable, particularly, when suddenly, as a child, he found himself alone in the world, with his older brother in prison and his sister gone and married.

 

Instead of being given the love, support and nurturing he so desperately needed from his immediate and extended family, he was not only prevented from attending his father's funeral, but was hurriedly whisked away and placed in a boarding school, from where he eventually absconded and hitch-hiked across to Western Australia, where he lived for many years, married twice, had three children. The last I heard he'd married a third time and was living and working somewhere in Tasmania.

 

Although he visited my sister during her illness, he failed to attend her funeral. My sister's children - aggrieved by the loss of their mother - took my brother's absence as a sign that he didn't care about his sister. None of them, at the time, knew anything about of my brother's history and couldn't, understandably, reason past the limitations their grief had imposed on their capacity for forgiveness, empathy and clear thinking.

 

Shortly after my sister was buried, my brother telephoned me in a state of anger and distress. He told me the death of his sister brought back a flood of old memories and that he couldn't face it all again. He said he was sorry. We promised to keep in touch after that, to ring each other once a fortnight.I telephoned him on several occasions at our appointed time. But he would never ring me. On the last occasion I rang, which was over seven years ago, he promised to keep in touch. But on the day he was supposed to ring, he didn't. At the time he was working and living in Tasmania with his wife. Since then I have tried to trace him via Google and by other means. But to no avail. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

 

We have never been close, particularly following the tragedies that plagued our family. But I have loving memories - before the darkness entered our lives - of he and I playing “cowboys and Indians” on our front lawn, laughing, joking, hugging. I miss my little brother. Sometimes at night, I think about him and am touched by a profound sense of sadness and loss. Is he alive? Is he dead? Who knows. But if by some chance he reads this, I want him to know that I love him dearly, and all I would ask is that he stop hiding and come home.

 

                                                                                               ***

The funny thing about life, is that it can change in a second and you never know what's coming. Prior to which you thought you knew what kind of a world it was, and after, everything is different. Not always bad. Not always good, but different. I didn't know any of this until it happened to my family and I. I didn't know there could be such a thing as after, that for us, before was already over.

 

Perhaps fate is just another word for God: a divine intervention about which we are given a choice as to how we respond. Perhaps God leads us through these valleys of tears and suffering for a reason, so we can learn to give our circumstances their proper value and weight; to understand the meaning of loss, compassion, forgiveness and love; to find what is truly beautiful in ourselves and others. So how we live our lives can be a lesson and inspiration, and thereby create a path to our own redemption.

 

                                                                                    ….....................

 

From my poems Bridge (1) Mother (2) Poem for my Father and (3) The Jumper my Sister Knit (4).

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