| I will always have a clear picture of his face etched in my mind. As clear as a bright spring day in Geelong, the city in south eastern Australia where may father (Stan) and mother (Elsie) raised myself and my twelve brothers and sisters. |
Our home (lovingly referred to as “55”) was the envy of hordes of friends we kids accumulated. “55” was always full of activity, it was the meeting place for the whole neighborhood and it was also full of genuine family love, largely because of Dad.
I recall his high forehead with the shock of strong, thick gray hair atop his smiling face, so full of character. That nerve shattering, stern look; the infamous querying glance over the top of his dark rimmed glasses; the easy smile and quick wit. The sheer presence of a man so many people had a great respect for. He was without doubt the most profound influence on my life. If I live to be half the man he was I will have achieved much. A formidable man in so many respects, and yet, a simple man with simple tastes.
I remember Dads’ work as a “wharfie”, a stevedore in the Port of Geelong where he worked hard and was admired by his peers as a man with great integrity and genuine humility. After several years “on the wharf” he became Secretary, and later President of the WWF (waterside workers federation). He served his members’ interests well, to the point that many considered him their guardian, and in fact he ended up retrieving several from jail in the wee small hours. They nicknamed him “The Mirror” because Dad always said “I’ll look into it” when one of his charges raised an issue. He could easily have been “Father” Stan. He had that sort of sincere quality to him, though he was no saint.
Dad was almost always a fair man, with a genuine concern for his fellow man. Some of his surreptitious acts of kindness over the years only surfaced after he passed away in ’81 with colon cancer at the age of sixty one. One time he partially mortgaged our family home, packed to the rafters with kids, to help a struggling wharfie and his family. There were also many times when he instinctively did the simple but caring and thoughtful thing for people he hardly knew.
I remember Dads’ justice as clearly as I remember his face. He had an uncanny way of knowing who was in the wrong, despite the outright lies and preposterous exaggerations we heaped on him in explanation of our frequent sins. Of course he saw through the bumph, and dispensed his justice accordingly. No “trial” or denial was tolerated when he knew he was right. The amazing thing was, he was almost always right!
Dad and Mum had other rebels to contend with as well as me. We were by no means perfect children. We had inherited his spunk. Some of us had mischievous natures sufficient to test any parent, even one with the wisdom of Solomon. He somehow allowed our spirits to thrive while steering us through those formative years, and he did that with all thirteen of us.
He was justifiably a very proud man and he made sure we knew he was very proud of us all, as he would often tell us so. His was a family which revolved around him, and he was the strong center of the family unit. Still, how he and Mum managed to feed, house, educate, guide, correct and advise us, and keep us all on the “straight and narrow”, I will never know.
Of course we had our chores, from washing and drying dishes to cleaning school shoes and collecting eggs from the chook-pen in the yard, to chopping great piles of wood and building the fires to warm our bones on those cold Victorian winter mornings. There were many times when Dad would drag my brothers and I out of bed early on Saturday mornings to hitch up the trailer and head for his mates’ place in the bush to collect that firewood.
This wood collection ritual scared the living daylights out of me. I wasn’t too keen on spiders and the wood we collected was riddled with them. It was even hairier when one such hairy monster ran frantically down a log hanging out of the open fireplace to escape immolation. My younger sisters, Carol and Christine used to shriek fit to pierce our eardrums, as only little girls can.
One time, after we had collected enough wood to sag the old wooden trailers’ axle, Dad decided we should collect mushrooms for dinner in the surrounding paddocks. Mum did wonderful things with fresh mushrooms and we didn’t mind the chore. It was a beautiful day and I was glad to be clear of the tarantulas’ I knew were itching to crawl into the back seat of the car to get at me, so off I set into a paddock among the sheep.
I was about ten at the time, in the middle of a huge paddock covered in lush, green grass. I had been bending to pick a fine specimen of a mushroom when Dad called me loudly from the fence, “Ronald”.
I merely turned my head in his direction without standing, and was promptly head-butted by a charging ram!
I was laid flat out flat on my stomach, with my face in a still warm “cow pattie” when he came running over to make sure I had survived the onslaught. When I came to and he saw I would survive, his concern was over-ridden by tears of laughter as he hugged me hard. Eventually my tears dried and my head stopped aching. I was more peeved at the apparent fact that the ram hadn’t felt a thing.
To my embarrassment I heard him relate that story many times to his mates, but it was worth the embarrassment because it always brought on more of his infectious laughter.
Dads’ relationships with various Catholic priests was over the years was always a source of great fun for us. Various priests used to call at our modest house at “55”, usually on Friday nights, with a packet of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper under one arm, and a few bottles of beer under the other. They would spend the evening joking with Dad & Mum and teasing us kids, telling jokes and laughing a lot.
Of course, the inevitable Irish singalong would ensue. Dads’ rendition of “Irish Eyes” kept us enthralled and had the priests reminiscing about Eyre. We were so proud that our Dad had such a great voice and with priests as friends to boot. We were in awe that he was held in such respect by these men of the cloth, and we were always entertained with the humorous stories and friendly banter.
We also leaned priests were very human. I sometimes thought that perhaps they envied Dad his family, and I know they respected the man for the way he conducted himself and his life. The night one of the priests told Mum (a converted Methodist) that there was a place reserved for her in heaven because she had borne so many wonderful children “into Gods’ church” (we were all christened Catholics) she laughed and said “right, you won’t be seeing me at church anymore then” Dad laughed fit to cry. Mum, true to her word, didn’t turn up at church much after that, only for weddings and funerals.
I also recall Dads’ close relationship with, and reliance on, his good mates. Often, late on Saturday mornings after taking Mum into town for her weekly shopping with a few of us kids in tow, Dad would slip into the Corio Hotel. Our sole mission on these outings was to try to con Mum into buying sweets and other such luxuries. We usually failed. She couldn’t afford it and as it was we used to accumulate three trolleys of groceries that seemed to take forever to get through the checkouts.
After the chore of shopping was finally over Dad would stride into the bar of the Corio Hotel to cheery calls of “G’Day Stan” It was his custom to have a beer with his mates and discuss how the “Cats” (Geelong Football Club) might fare that afternoon. Sometimes he would read up on the latest betting on the horses, a mild hobby for a man who could hardly afford such luxuries. Five bob each way was a big bet for him.
Dad loved his footy and I loved going with him, standing in the outer side of Kardinia Park (the Cats’ home ground) cheering, cursing mildly at the umpires, laughing lots and admiring the great skills in the fast moving game of Aussie rules footy.
Through rain, hail or shine, he’d be there on the wing and we’d be there with him, it was great. That feeling of comradiere, especially when the Cats won, was just plain magic. We watched the TV replays that night and then again on Sunday morning. We couldn’t get enough of it. It was after a match that he “lost” me (or did I lose myself?) in Melbourne at the mighty MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). When the game was over and thousands of fans streamed from the “G”, he thought I had left the stadium for the 45 mile trip home to Geelong with my brother-in-law, who was equally sure I was with Dad.
I had been so distracted with the Cats’ win than I had wandered nonchalantly from the ground without a thought about who I was to go home with. When I realized I was alone, albeit among thousands of footy fans scurrying to their cars, I froze.
I frantically searched for the car in the huge car-parks and when I couldn’t find dad or my brother-in-law I waited until the car parks were almost empty before I realized they had gone.
I wandered the streets of Melbourne, lost and lonely in the “big smoke” at the age of eleven. I ended up walking into a police station to shyly announce my situation. I was scared. The police called home and told mum what had happened. When dad finally arrived home, ready to put his feet up after the long drive and have a beer, mum told him he had to turn around to come back to Melbourne and get me.
Three hours later Dad arrived to collect me. He was grateful I was safe. He hugged me hard and tossed my blond hair with a gruff “don’t do that again, son, you had us worried for a while”. He then bundled me into the back of the car to sleep soundly after my adventure, while he drove all the way home again and carried me to my bed.
Dads’ cars were also well worth remembering They were never new, or anywhere near new, but he drove them with care as a means to move “the mob” around. We really could have done with a bus, but cars had to do. The first one I recall was an old, rust-red Ford “ute”. It had a cabin with a rear tray attachment over which Dad crafted a plywood cover. In the tray on either side was a hard board seat where us kids would cling uncomfortably on those early outings. On longer trips, he would throw a mattress and rug in the back and we could snuggle down while the wind whistled around our ears as we rattled along.
This was how we used to travel to those great footy matches in Melbourne, stopping at Werribee (half way) on the way home for fish, chips and huge potato-cakes on bitterly cold winter Saturday nights. If the Cats had won, we’d be in great spirits, singing and laughing until our cheeks ached. Playing “Dutch ovens” and blaming each other for the amazingly horrible odors trapped in the back of that little van. When we arrived home we would all be asleep and Dad would carry us all, one by one, to our beds. We usually doubled up with a brother or sister as there were only three bedrooms in the house, but we were always warm and safe in that house.
His unshakable belief in God and the Catholic Church, and his demands that we attend church every Sunday are also etched in my mind. He never did forget though, that we were kids after all, and that we strayed from time to time.
Christmas at home was always something special. I recall Dad up late re-painting my brother Graemes’ red bike so they could give it to me as my “new” blue one for Christmas. The dozens of gifts covering the whole (albeit small) lounge room floor on Christmas Day and the look of sheer joy on Dad and Mums’ faces as they shared our delight.
Material things meant something to us. We were kids. We had peers who received many more new “things” than we did, but we never felt deprived in that home. There never was such a thing as a disappointing Christmas, Dad and Mum saw to that. How they did it will remain a mystery to me.
Our house was always alive with activity, with friends coming and going, pets who just loved all the attention they received, music of all types almost constantly playing, chores to be done and lots of laughter. A great place to grow up. Dad used to enjoy the inter-action with our mates too and they respected him as someone to look up to, both physically and as a man.
I still marvel at Dads’ strength and utter faith that things would always work out for the best. Though he never showed it, there must have been so many times when there was little or no money to pay the bills. When the school accounts came due, when we kids just had to have the latest gizmos’ that were pushed at us via the ads on the black and white TV we loved. When we needed clothing and all the sporting gear growing kids must have, or when the baker used to deliver (literally) dozens of loaves of bread on long weekends. They always came up with the money, somehow. His strength was our strength, his solid belief was our rock, his unfailing human spirit was totally infectious.
Though I would rather not, I also remember his suffering with that cruel disease. His dignity and concern for Mum and us, and the sad look on his face as he lay for months in hospital beds with a fading twinkle in his eyes.
I don’t remember too much about his funeral. I walked in a stupor ahead of his hearse with Les, Graeme, Kevin, David, Darren and Paul, my brothers, all the way from the church to his final resting place in the cemetery. Hundreds of people came to pay their respects. I knew then that the great legacy he left behind was not just for us. We had an Irish wake after his funeral, of course. It was an irreverent celebration of his life and the peace he was now in, as well as a release valve for us after weeks of watching him fade away from us.
He was gone, though never from our hearts and our lives, which are so very much the richer because he was such a huge part of it.
Mum lived for several years after but she was never the same. Dad was her rock more than he was ours. She now shares his love again.
Though the thirteen of us kids never lived at “55” at one time, due to age differences and the fact that Joan, our eldest sister, had left home long before the younger ones were born, we remain a close family today, no doubt because Dad and Mum taught us to share everything. That sharing continues.
As Charles Swindoll once wrote "Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children." Dad and Mum left so many wonderful deposits in our minds, our souls and on our lives, we will never ever forget.
About the Author
About the Author
Ron Welsh, Brisbane, Australia based freelance commercial writer specializes in international marketing and the oilfield in particular. Ron is the 6th of 13 children born and raised in Southern Australia. He has lived in 10 countries and conducted business in over 50. His articles have been published in Freebird, www.freebird-zine.com Contact:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org Visit: www.rawpowerwriting.com
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