This afternoon we were discussing needing a photo of a rough surface, and I suddenly remembered a polished quartz stone I’ve had for years with the rough stony surface still intact. It didn’t suit the purpose of what we needed, but it caused a flood of memories.
I never knew my maternal grandfather – he died of a coronary in 1974, when I was just a year old. I never knew my paternal grandfather, either – I can’t remember the exact details, but he may very well have died before I was born.
I do however remember my father’s father – my biological paternal grandfather. He was never that when I was growing up, just a friend of the family. (Not even always that.) My paternal grandmother had three children while her husband was away at war, and my father was one of them.
I never really liked ‘Old Alec’, as he was known in the family. My earliest memory of Old Alec was of him savagely hitting me when he babysat once – the sole of a slipper to the face. Yet, because my father knew or at least strongly suspected the truth of his relationship with Old Alec for as long as I remember, he remained a semi-regular fixture at Sunday lunches and periodic visits.
The man I knew was a cruel, scrooge of a man who begrudged spending any money, even on himself. When he bought a house in Parkes, his first act was to salt the grounds – he poured so much salt onto and into the earth that it was only a quarter century later that the dusty brown yard started showing the first signs of green again. In later years he’d turn his electricity off at the mains when he went down the street to sit at waypoints and accost people to talk their ears off until they found an excuse to move on. He only begrudgingly stopped doing that when he suffered weeks of food poisoning from tainted meat that had been repeatedly defrosted and refrozen. Once when my father offered to drive him to visit relatives halfway across New South Wales, it was on the one condition that Old Alec paid for food. When dad turned up, Old Alec presented three dozen eggs he’d boiled for the trip.
When dad was young, still in his teens, Old Alec took him away to work on fences and windmill bores, and they’d subsist on stale damper, black tea and apricot jam. To this day, my father still can’t stomach damper or apricot jam.
I can close my eyes and distinctly remember the dusty, dirty squalor of his house. He bathed at most once a month – usually at my father’s insistence after my mother would refuse to have him visit without a semblance of cleanliness. Since he didn’t clean around his house, his bathtub was deep, dark brown to the three-quarter level. In later years, when his vision was almost completely gone, every 6 months or so we’d descend on his house and scrub it for a day, but I remember the bathtub was never wholly salvageable.
Even when I was young his eyesight was failing. When I was finishing up primary school, and up until I was in year 11 and too preoccupied with studying, my father and I would visit Alec and I’d read him letters various friends he’d met along his life’s road would write him – people who kept in touch with him for decades. He’d then dictate the reply letters and I’d studiously write them out and we’d post them. Towards the end of my time on that project, when Alec had lost eyesight to the point where he was no longer interested in letters to friends he’d never see again, my father had me keep up the pretence and for years I’d write letters, filling them with details of Alec’s life, as if he’d been dictating them to me.
He spent years mining opals in Lightning Ridge, which is where my quartz stone came from. He gave it to me when I was 14 or so as thanks for the sometimes weekly letter writing. It was probably the only act of gratitude he ever showed me.
He loved poetry, particularly Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. So for years after his eyesight had failed, I’d read entire poetry books onto cassette tape for him. Maybe that’s why I struggle so much now with liking poetry – I probably read more poetry in high school than most people do in their lives. I filled tape, after tape, after tape, with poems. The Man from Snowy River, A Prouder Man than You, The Dingo Pup – you name it, if it was written by those two men, I’d have read it out onto tape for Alec. Usually more than once. Some tapes he’d wear out, and others would expire from dust.
After I went to university, Alec had to go into a retirement home, and around a decade or so ago, he finally passed away. No-one (including him) was particularly sure of his age, but he’d have been in his mid to late 90s.
It was only in his last year or so that my father was finally able to wring a confession from him that the old man was indeed his dad. For whatever reason, he finally gave in, relented, and admitted the truth well known in the family by that point.
It gave my father some peace at least he’d been seeking for as long as I remembered.
So much memory, springing from a single piece of stone.
The irony of course is the only physical reminder I have of any of my grandfathers is actually from the one who never admitted it until his very end.