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Sunday, 1 July 2018

A social fabric made from many threads

The old fishing village sits placidly at the far end of the harbour’s southern headland, on a tethered isle that had long before been joined to the mainland by alluvial deposits brought down by the river from the hinterland. The range of mountains sits in the distance, to the west of the city, stretching north and south for thousands of kilometres across territory spanning three states. Once upon a time, the village had supplied fish to the people of the city but the place is now just another one of its suburbs.

Perched there on a level shelf on a hillside that gives panoramic views of the city lying to the west, sits a small sandstone church with camellias growing by its southern side. Even though it is winter when we visit, some of the trees have flowers. One tree has white flowers. On another tree the flowers are pink. On another one, hundreds of buds sit waiting at the ends of the branches, preparing to bloom. Down a path near the church is a place where the ashes of thousands of dead men and women are encased in walls constructed for the purpose. Deep within this maze of brick and mortar, along a winding path, lies a secluded pond fed by water that drips from the grey rock out of which the tethered isle was formed aeons ago.

In one of the brick walls you can see the niches where the ashes of my grandmother and mother are ensconced. Granny died in 1996 aged just on 90. Born in Sydney in 1906, she had spent a large portion of her childhood living with her grandmother in Adelaide after her mother died in childbirth. Once she had grown up, she started working as a governess in the city but then she went missing one day and a report was made to the police about her disappearance. She ended up living in a boarding house in Melbourne with an infant and no husband. It is thought that there she met my father’s father, Joao Luis, who had recently arrived by boat from Africa. He wanted to stay in the country, she needed a father for her child. They married and my grandfather put his name down on the child’s birth certificate as her father. The married couple would go on to have two sons as well.

One of them was killed by a hit-and-run driver when he was aged about 11 years. Joao Luis was inconsolable, and granny afterward found it difficult to live with him. And they were also very poor, the two of them operating a hamburger bar in a Melbourne suburb. My father had graduated from university by this time and gotten a good job in Sydney, so he made the decision, to all intents and purposes without asking his wife what she thought about it, to bring granny up to live with the family in their new house on the tethered isle. The gift shop, which granny and mum had operated in Melbourne and which had been established to help granny get over the tragedy of her youngest son’s death, was restarted in new quarters not far from the new house they built on a hillside overlooking a park that lies behind a beach on the harbour.

Granny and mum took turns looking after the shop, week-on, week-off. When mum was in the shop doing the work there, granny would cook dinner for the family, which included me and my brother. The two of us sat in our beanbags in front of the TV in the front room downstairs watching such American staples as ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and ‘McHale’s Navy’. My beanbag was yellow to match the colour of the walls in my bedroom, my brother’s beanbag was orange to match the colour of the walls in his room. Mum and dad lived upstairs where there was another kitchen, as well as a living room and a study and bedroom that were all made of one space, that could be sectioned off using wooden concertinaed partitions that were suspended from the ceiling and that ran on wheels on the cork floor. I’ve already written about the business of running the shop and dad’s practice of buying and selling real estate on the blog.

After dad retired from his company, where he had been involved in the sale of industrial and building automation products, systems  and services to Australian companies and government entities, he and mum decided to go travelling around the world. They had favourite spots in different countries in a narrow band that kept them living in warm climates such as the Caribbean and Hawaii. They also took up residence one year in southern Portugal, where dad got in touch with members of his extended family he had never met. Joao Luis had been prescient leaving Lourenco Marques in 1925 (or thereabouts, there is some questions as to the exact year he settled in Australia) because the revolution came in 1975, just a few years before he died. (Dad had bought him a small residence in Melbourne after the family moved to Sydney, and would go down to the southern capital from time to time to meet with him.)

It was mum who was supposed to write the novel. Her own father, Harry Dean, had loved literature and had the habit of putting books under his daughter’s pillow so that she would have something to read before going to bed. Harry had wanted to be a journalist but his father had made him go to university and study chemistry; eventually he became a pharmacist. But in the end it was dad who did the writing, completing the largest part of a memoir that over 150 A4 pages recounts his life up to the point where the family relocated to Sydney. Dad would write on his laptop during the day while mum did the shopping, cleaning, washing, and cooking, and then print out sheets of the book which he would give to her to check. She would correct his dodgy grammar and spelling with a pen on paper. He would then take her corrections back to the computer to make the required changes in the word processing file, which were then saved to the hard disc in the machine.

Eventually, their peripatetic life ended and mum and dad settled permanently in southeast Queensland (still within that narrow geographical band with its congenial climate). When granny had died I was living in Tokyo and I came home for the memorial service, which was held in the little church on the hill on the tethered isle, during which I gave the lesson from the Bible to the congregation. It brought me to very public tears. My own family had stayed in our house in Yokohama.

Dad died from pneumonia, a complication stemming from the dementia that had overcome him, in a nursing home, two days after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck coastal towns in Japan, during which almost 16,000 people were killed. Mum died in her nursing home in Sydney exactly two years ago from complications stemming from a blood disease called myelodysplastic syndrome. The drug that her haematologist prescribed to combat the effects of the disease weakened her immune system and in the end she developed sores on her legs due to the cellulitis she had there, that were resistant to antibiotics.

With me on the trip to the tethered isle is my daughter, who is now a writer. As we come back to my place on the light rail I find myself sitting opposite a woman who has a white plastic bag with lettering on it sitting on her lap. In her right hand she holds a large knitting needle, her fingers holding it like an artist holds a paintbrush, with the tip pointing diagonally up towards her left. Her left hand manipulates the thread of thick wool the bag contains. She uses the fingers of her left hand to make knots on the knitting needle that is held in the fingers of her right hand. Each knot is slipped along the grey plastic of the needle, the bright pastel stuff alternating between blue and pink and a range of other colours. Once the knitting needle is completely encased in colourful knots, she takes another knitting needle in her left hand and starts to form the fabric of the garment she has in mind to make. As I sit there on my seat in in the gently rocking carriage I wonder who she is making it for.

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