Today would have been my dad’s 82nd birthday.It’s been 21 years since I was able to celebrate his birthday with him in person, and even then, on his 61st birthday, I would have been away at uni. I hope I remembered to call him, I think I did, even at that stage I knew his health was bad and I feared losing him. Every time the phone rang early or late at night my heart skipped a beat, desperately hoping it wasn’t the call I feared. When that call did come, at 8.30 am on 9 February 1993, I had been deeply asleep, and my only thought was crankiness that I’d overslept and would be late for my meeting with my honours-degree supervisor. I never made that meeting.
I miss my dad every single day but I can tell you that my god he would have been a grumpy old bastard by now. We may not even have been talking any more. Our politics certainly would have diverged about 15 years ago. I once had a stand up argument with a farmer acquaintance of dad’s, I’d hired a holiday cottage back on his property for mum, my dog and I when we were back in our home town for another funeral. There I was taking my tiny terrier for a walk down a dusty lane one morning, bright floral PJ pants and a tshirt, when he came up to talk.
I’d already endured the grimaces when I said we were down from Canberra, and although I was vague about my job, it came out that my line of work was in the environmental field. I’ve never heard the words “Bloody Greenies!” uttered with such disgust in such a short space of time as on that visit. “What would your father think?” the outraged farmer demanded, although at first I wasn’t sure if he was referring to my attire, my lap dog or my job. There were many things for a conservative farmer to be outraged about, although it became clear he meant my job. “I’m sure he’d think ‘Good on her for being smart enough to get an indoor job that pays her mortgage and lets her rent holiday homes’,” I retorted. That was when we went our separate ways.
I won’t say my dad always encouraged me to voice my opinion, the truth was I didn’t challenge him so I don’t know how he would have taken it. I do remember though how he smirked and egged me on in a debate against my favourite uncle when I was about 17. My uncle’s favourite type of a conversation is one held with vehemence and at top volume. It terrified me as a kid but this time I held my own, I don’t know if I won but that wasn’t the point.
It was my dad who discovered I was left handed. I don’t know now if I remember the moment as it was or if I’ve remembered and embellished a story of the moment that I’ve part imagined. The way it plays in my head though is this: four-year old Heather, sitting on her daddy’s knee at the tres chic laminex 70s kitchen table. He is teaching her to write her name. He carefully spells it out on the paper in front of them in big capitals.
H. E. A. T. H. E. R.Solemn, golden-haired Heather—quiet and serious, concentrating hard—picks up the pencil in her tiny fist and grips it like grim death. She traces over each letter written and then slowly and carefully writes each letter underneath. The father, pride swelling in his chest, realises this tiny tot, is not only writing but is writing with her left-hand. As a child who was himself left handed in the 1930s, he remembered being punished for this transgression, not sure why a cane was being brought down on his knuckles, and only knew it stopped when he placed the pen in his other hand. “You’re left-handed,” he tells her in wonder, and she looks up at him, not knowing there is any other way, this is how she’s always drawn her pictures of mermaids and dolphins. In that moment he vows never to let anyone try to change this small girl, his little girl.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the relationship between us was always close, there were fiery times and as a sickly kid I tended to be a bit of a mummy’s girl. But by my teenage years I developed a strong friendship with my dad, particularly as my interest in history grew. What’s that quote by Mark Twain? “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
I’ve written before that 21 was the age I lost him and it’s been 21 years without him. Every year now is one longer without him than with him.
Last night, completely forgetting the date, I was at the premier of About Time, a Richard Curtis time-travelling romcom that is less romantic and more about wishing you could spend extra time with the people you love.I won’t give away the story, but there was a moment two-thirds in that I started crying. If it was me, if I could travel in time, I’d go back to the day in December 1992 when dad and I spontaneously decided to go wine tasting to buy some bottles for the family’s Christmas lunch. By this stage, dad’s health problems meant he couldn’t drink much anymore, but with a willing protégé to hand he happily drove around the local wineries (and we lived in an area that has A LOT of wineries) and let me do the tasting. I hope my beautiful sisters have memories of their own day with dad, but that’s my day, just mine and his, and if I ever uncover the secret of time-travel that’s where I’m heading to. A hot, summer day in an old white ute where the occupants never stop laughing.
Happy birthday daddy, I’ll be raising a glass of red wine to you tonight.