Sunday, 3 October 2010

This is a picture of my paternal grandfather, Joao Luis da Silva, a key participant in my father's memoir, which he completed in 2002 and chose to title Growing. A wilful child, my father was in the habit of "wandering off" (his term for those rambles, undertaken from a very early age) and part of the reason he had so much freedom to do so was that his parents both worked at jobs that kept them out of the house for most of the daylight hours.

Joao Luis was often unemployed. But he was a good gardner. The memoir isn't too specific with dates that far back (the 1930s, during the Depression, were a challenging time for many), but it's certain that Joao Luis worked hard at what work he could find, which frequently was in the nature of looking after the gardens of the well-to-do residents of Brighton, the suburb of Melbourne the family lived in.

He also spoke with a strong accent and was sometimes moody and depressed - hardly surprising when you consider the circumstances of his life after arriving in Australia in 1924. My father's older sister was born in 1926 and dad in 1930. Until the war, when Joao Luis got a job at a munitions factory in Melbourne, the family's income was frankly unstable. His strangeness, his marked accent and his Portuguese bosom buddies, and his occasional rages, made my father dislike him.

I know this because I have just spent more than a day editing dad's memoir and converting it into HTML, and publishing it on my website.

Dad wanted, more than anything else, to be a part of the establishment. He wanted to be like his maternal grandfather, William Caldicott. Will was a sturdy pillar of society, ran his own fruit-wholesale business, and was the kind of man who listened to your problems (I think Joao Luis could have done a bit more of this type of thing with his kids). He was also the kind of man who could stand around in the local fruit shop and chat with the proprietor in an easy, confident way.

When dad broke his neck during a visit to Sydney, where Will lived in a house bordering the Parramatta River, Will would visit him in hospital every day. More talking no doubt took place on these occasions. It's certain that Joao Luis was a distant father. But as a migrant he faced unique and possibly sometimes seemingly-insurmountable problems. Dad didn't empathise with Joao Luis and this lack of a shared bond is evident in the memoir that I have just finished reading in minute detail.

Poverty was grinding, but the family always had food to eat even if treats were sometimes missed on a Sunday evening after the dishes had been cleared away. The plates would have been heaped with fesh vegetables grown in the garden behind the house. And there would probably have been plenty of fresh fish that Joao Luis had caught that afternoon on Port Philip Bay, using fishing rods that me made, himself, at home.

After dad recovered from the almost-fatal injury sustained during that trip north, he reentered society with a vengeance, and took a job as a clerk. He switched to draughting, which was a profession more in line with his interest in mechanical things. Dad went back to school, having left one day aged 14 because he didn't enjoy it, and studied engineering. He would go on to attain a master's in mechanical engienering from the University of Melbourne - something his mother never would have anticipated when he left school to become a carpenter's apprentice.

But dad was driven, in a way that Joao Luis was not. Trained for nothing, Joao Luis floundered from wage to wage, finally setting up in a milk bar (but that venture floundered when TV began to eat away at cinema business; the customers leaving the movie houses no longer needed a meal at 1am because now they were at home watching the box on the couch). Dad couldn't let Joao Luis and this lifestyle of want stymie an aspiration to belong to the establishment: the world of cars, property and a rewarding professional life.

The memoir is disappointing in some ways but it makes you think. It's actually a good read, despite the many grammatical and structural flaws. For example, dad always struggled with the concept of a sentence. A fully-crafted sentence was a bit too much trouble. Serial commas without fussy conjunctions more suited his thrusting temperament. But the prose and the language are compelling and interesting. There's a bit of self-pity in among the chronicles of victories won against the odds, but the unfailing will abides above all. Dad never gave up, even though he often lacked fellow-feeling. He wanted to be understood but often failed to understand others, even those closest to him.

This makes him seem, at times, rapacious and cold. He wasn't either, but having lacked so much for so long he didn't think he could afford all of the finer characteristics of the well-rounded persona. Tolerance fell by the wayside because he was busy looking for ways to attain the goal he coveted so hard and so long. Compassion, too, was often absent. And consideration, and empathy, and a lot of other things we like to see in ourselves and, when we don't, prefer that the slip goes unnoticed by others apart from ourselves. In dad's case, it was easy to slip because the slope stretching out in front of him was steep and he needed to remain agile and focused, and not fail.

In the end, though, his sins caught up with him. Mum and I still visit him in the nursing home, but I don't go along as often as I perhaps should. I'm pretty busy making a career out of writing.

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