Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Photos of mum with fire hydrants

The other day when I was going through a bag of old photos that usually sits in the spare room in my apartment where my library is, I came across one of those envelopes that photo development shops used to put photos they produced into before giving them to paying customers. Not the flimsy wallets with a flap that the photos and the negatives themselves went into, but the envelopes that the wallets went into. On the outside of these envelopes the office staff wrote customer details, including the name of the customer and whether there were to be any doubles made. On this particular envelope, which was issued by Soc. De Fotografia de Cascais Lda in Rua Afonso Sanchez in the southern Portuguese town of Cascais, the staff of the shop wrote the customer name as “Silva”. (This is because that’s how you write the family name in Portugal.) In the middle of the envelope, dad had written in all-caps in his distinctive handwriting, “Judy at the Keys a la Matt.”

The photos show my mother aged in her fifties posing with a number of fire hydrants installed at different locations in the Florida Keys, where my parents had stayed in that particular year – I don’t know what year it was – during their annual sojourn in the US. After dad retired from Honeywell and mum had closed down the gift shop where she and granny worked, mum and dad would spend up to six months in the US each year. They limited the amount of time they remained in the country to conform with the tax laws.

The reason mum was posing with fire hydrants might not be completely obvious to people at first blush. It goes back to 1978 when mum, dad and my brother and I visited the US with the aim of finding a university for my brother to enrol in. In the preceding five years or so he had shown a talent and predilection for technology. He owned a Texas Instruments programmable calculator in the 70s that came with little punched cards that you used to feed instructions to the device. Because of this particular disposition toward electronics dad thought he might be better off enrolled at a US tertiary institution. So he loaded the family into a series of rental cars during the northern summer and we drove down the US east coast from Boston to Virginia visiting universities and talking with people there to see if any of them were interested in taking my brother on. After secondary school ended he started studying at the University of Sydney but he only stayed there a short while before moving to Oakland. He ended up at the University of California, Berkeley.

But while we were in cities like Boston and New York I took an interest in the street plumbing. We also did other things, like going to the newly-opened Museum of Holography in New York, something my brother had earmarked to do while we were in town. But in Australia, you don’t see fire hydrants in the street or built into the exteriors of buildings like you do in the US, so they were as much a novelty for me as holograms were for him. Mum later recalled for me how she had one day found Picasso’s enormous ‘Guernica’ at MOMA and admired it.

I eventually ended up putting together an entire photo album – which has since gone missing – full of photos of fire hydrants. So mum posing with these utilitarian pieces of infrastructure and dad writing “a la Matt” on the Portuguese photo envelope was perfectly understandable to me, who received the photos at some point during later years. I had gone to Japan to live with my family, so dad was alone with mum during those years before they finally moved back to Australia to live and before he developed the memory problems that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of dementia and eventually to his death in 2011.

Dad kept himself busy during the years of travel, just as I had kept myself busy while the family was in the US looking for a university for my brother. While I had taken photos of fire hydrants, dad would get busy researching the family tree and writing his memoir. For the latter document, he had a laptop PC where the files were kept. He would write during the day while mum went shopping, cleaned whichever apartment they happened to be staying in at the time – in Hawaii, Florida, Cascais, or the Bahamas – and cooked the meals that sustained both of them. At the end of each day he would print out onto sheets of paper the text he had just finished writing and carry them to the living room where mum was, give her the printed sheets, and ask her to proof-read them. (Dad had left secondary school when he was 14 so his spelling and punctuation were not crash hot.) Mum would mark up the sheets of printed text with a pen then give them back to dad, who would return to his temporary office and add her changes to the text file on the computer, before saving them to the hard disc.

Dad and mum had gone to Portugal to meet with family members who had grown up there after their family had been forced to leave what became Mozambique after the revolution came in 1975. Some of the family had gone to live in South Africa and other members of it had gone to Portugal. There were also parts of the family living in a small town in the north of Portugal inland from Oporto who had never left to go to the colonies. Dad met with all of these far-flung family members while the two of them were in the country. My grandfather had migrated from Lourenco Marques, the capital of Portuguese East Africa, in the 1920s, getting off the boat in Melbourne and never getting back on. So for dad meeting family members was a tonic since he had grown up without his father’s parents in his life.

Some years, I would travel from my own home in Tokyo to a place like Hawaii with my family to meet with mum and dad. There used to be photos of us enjoying the holidays while we were there, and also some taken in Florida, where we went one year when the children were small. But a lot of those photos have gone missing now.

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