Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eulogy for Angela Hepperlin

Earlier this year when I spent the day with Nan, I told her she was my grandmother. She laughed her familiar, cheeky laugh and asked whether she had roused on me a lot. I told her with absolute honesty that she was the best possible grandmother.

Nanna taught me a lot (or attempted to) - good manners, considering others, speaking quietly and the correct order for washing the dishes - but never by rousing. Nan taught by example. She was ever calm, ever graceful and always alive with a vibrant joyfulness.

Nanna was cheeky. One time she took Teresa and I to mass in Springwood and a terrible smell wafted by. Teresa looked at me accusingly and whispered, "Was that you?" Nanna shooshed her with a twinkle in her eye and said, "No. If it were Greg it would be much worse."

Nanna played favourites with her grandchildren. Every single one of us knew we were Nanna's favourite and every single one of us was right. We all felt her special interest, her special connection to us. Her heart was big enough to love every one of her twenty nine grandchildren best of all.

Nanna was the quiet member of one of the great comedy double acts. Whenever Grandfather Jack was on one of his bouncy, rambunctious teasing sprees, the ones that started with, "Your father is an old fox. He has a bushy tail." Nanna would be standing nearby giving the look of silent assurance that said, "I'm on your side."

When Teresa was learning to drive, she drove with Nanna and Grandfather to Scone. After an hour of Jack's corrections and interference she insisted she couldn't bear it any more. He should take over the driving himself. Nanna gave Grandfather one of her special looks and said. "No dear. You're doing very well. Please keep driving." Grandfather was silent the rest of the way.

The grandchildren have always included Nanna as one of our generation. She was always on our side, even when she was tricking you into believing she was backing you up. Her children are a lovely bunch but all of them could learn from her example of calmness, grace and the power of silence. When ever any of you were misbehaving or teaching by rousing, Nanna would be there with that twinkle in her eye and the look that said, "I remember when your Mum/Dad was your age and was naughtier than you."

When Brenna was born, I asked Nanna's advice about parenting. She told me not to worry, "You love them and you feed them. After that how they turn out is pretty much up to them." Nanna was piercingly intelligent, with great insight into people but she was never judgemental. Her philosophy shown in her calm and quiet example was that simple. You love them and you feed them. I will miss her food, but never stop feeling her love.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Today we will eat lunch at a café. It will be Kell’s first re-introduction to civilization from the wilderness of hospital food and personnel. Not that Berlin café food truly ranks as civilization, and as the for the coffee, I wake having dreamt of Latteria to the nightmare of over-watered swill made with UHT milk. A macciato in Berlin is served in a very tall glass. I shudder as a write.

My apartment is opposite Hasenheide Volkspark, a huge rolling parkland with forests and sports fields and playgrounds. On my first morning I went running and saw one red squirrel, one dog being walked, no joggers, no boxercise class, no tai-chi and about twenty five groundsmen raking leaves and trimming edges. It was a surreal comparison to Rushcutters Bay park where they are considering putting in lane ropes for the joggers. I guess Berliners don’t need to jog when they cycle everywhere, on real cycle lanes.

I chose Kreuzberg only because it was close to the hospital, but it is a fortunate choice. It’s a very cosmopolitan part of town with a very strong Turkish flavour. Lots of students, lots of music, lots of cheap food and life on the streets. However, now Kell has been moved to the Auguste-Victoria Klinikum which specializes in infectious diseases and is more appropriate for step-down care. It took me over an hour to get there by public transport yesterday. Admittedly there were a few backtracks and some unnecessary walks, but it is no longer an easy stroll through Kreuzberg to the Klinikum Am Urban.

I have discovered where all the joggers went. They have been tapering for the Berlin marathon. As I write the marathon is pouring along the road in front of my apartment building. If I have actually sent this, I must been able to make a break. The marathon runs between me and the internet café and it is a fast flowing stream. There is a breakfast café on this side of the marathon, but it serves only ice-cream and cake so I am having one of the more disgusting breakfasts of my life. And my breakfast habits are pretty disgusting at the best of times.

It is not my most disgusting culinary experience in Berlin. Last night, a beautiful couple, Florian and Tini, took me to Curry 36, a Kreuzberg institution for the locals as yet undiscovered by tourists. It was the type of food that should only be eaten after midnight, fortunately it was 2am. Currywurst is a Berlin specialty. A wurst sausage sliced up and smothered in a processed ketchup-like sauce and sprinkled with powdered spices. It is served with pommes rot-weiss – chips completely hidden beneath a mound of mayonnaise and another of tomato sauce. In defence of curry wurst at Curry 36, it was accompanied by a lecture in Dinglish (Deutsch/English) about Bauhaus, given by a very drunk Berliner whose front teeth grew sideways and whose beard started at his eyebrows. It was surprisingly informative.

My Bauhaus lecurer was definitely the most incongruous person to perform the traditional Berlin response to meeting an Australian. The custom is to put two hands in front like a kangaroo and do a Skippy impersonation. It does make it difficult to shake hands, and had a known in advance I would have brought along some gum-leaf whistles.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Primary School

Brenna spent Saturday night at a sleepover for a friends birthday. Of course, they didn’t sleep at all. For one of them at least, that might be normal, when I picked up Brenna, Jackie told me how she had taken Brenna and friends to a café to get hot chocolates. After the girls had taken their cups away Jackie went to the counter to pay and discovered one of Brenna’s friends had ordered and was drinking a latte - at age eleven.

Not Brenna’s drink of choice yet. However, she did have written on her hand “I love Jack” in large flourescent letters. I asked her whether one of her friends had written it. She agreed and showed me where another girl had written the same thing in even larger letters on her leg. I dreaded to ask, but couldn’t stop myself, “So. Who is Jack?”

She was completely nonchalant, “He’s a guy in my class.” I would have stopped there, but Bruce rushed in where angels fear to tread. “And do you love him?” Brenna played coy, “I can’t really answer that question.” Bruce didn’t see the danger signs and plunged right in. “Why can’t you answer it?”

Brenna fixed him with her cool blue eyes, “Because I’m in frickin’ primary school.”

As true as I sit here typing. I’m scared for the future.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Samson shared my desk in kindergarten. It was actually two desks pushed together in a square. I shared with my best buddy, Andrew Whitiken, who was American and taught me what the word buddy meant and Samson who was neither buddy nor mate. Andrew and I despised Samson, because Samson ate flies. He plucked them from the air, crushed them between thumb and forefinger and ate them at our desk.

He did not look like a kid with fast moving fingers, he reminded me more of a grub than a insectivore. His eyes were tiny and waterish. His hair was a pale fuzz cropped close to even paler skin. He wasn't exactly fat, but had the sort of squidgy, softness that might well have indicated emergence from a coccoon or beneath some tree bark. He had a loud and croaky voice and a constantly running nose - but I had no objection to that being a snot machine myself. I was unhappy about being sat next to a venus fly-trap in human shape.

Looking back, I suspect Mrs Peasley sat Samson with Andrew and I because we were the good boys, the quiet ones who were always obedient and didn't play rough games. She was trying to link him up with boys who would happily play games inside at lunchtime or read books in the library. Samson did not go outside to play.

I know I was obedient. I clearly remember the one and only time I was punished by Mrs Peasley and it burned the way only injustice can. Andrew and I were dutifully working with our cuisinaire rods, filling in our work-sheets as we went, when we heard a blowfly buzzing around the desk. We looked at each other. It was one of those fat blowies, the size of a European bumble bee, that would arrive early before the summer swarms of little, black bush flies. Samson noticed too. We held our collective breaths, a blowfly snack was surely too horrible even for Samson. Faster than my eye could follow, his fingers shot out. I could see a little squirt of yellow innards pinched out from the crushed insect. We stared at him, willing him not to eat it. He did.

I decided, good boy or not, that I was going to subject Samson to the full force of my disapproval. I wrinkled my nose up at him. It was a manoeuvre I'd been practicing at home and I let him have it both barrels. Just at that moment, Mrs Peasley walked by the desk, saw my wrinkled nose and did a double take that would have made Cary Grant proud. My face froze in place, hers was animated with surprise and anger. She clearly thought I had directed my nose wrinkling at her. Explanations were bootless, I was made to stand in the corner and with every hot, fat tear, I wished misery and destruction on Samson and all his insectivorous works.

A year or so later, Andrew and I were at the local hospital. I assume one of our mothers was dropping another baby, that was the standard reason for hospital. We were playing in the gardens outside when we saw Samson in his pyjamas and dressing gown sitting on a plastic lounge chair on the verandah. We asked where he was going to school. He wasn't. He hadn't been to school since those few months with us in kindy. He lived here in the hospital. He wore his pyjamas all day. 

Samson was as pale as ever. He didn't appear to have grown at all in a year and his softness was sort of slack and pouchy, like gravity was pulling him towards the earth.

I told my daughter this story when she started kindergarten. She immediately asked why Samson was at the hospital. I couldn't answer, because I hadn't found out at the time when someone might have known. Andrew and I discussed the fact that Samson was sick and would probably die and went back to rolling down the lawn of the hospital grounds. I told her that he must have had a long term disease. 

"Did he get it from eating flies?" She asked and I realised that I had always secretly hoped so.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Madmen, my new TV crush, peppers its opening episodes with scenes of behaviour commonplace in the fifties that we now consider completely beyond the pale. A gynaecologist lights a cigarette as he enters his consulting room and puffs away as he tells Zoe Bartlett from the West Wing that if she uses the pill as an excuse to become the town pump, he’ll take away her prescription. Heavily pregnant suburban mothers knock back cocktails and smoke. Everyone smokes all the time in cinemas, in train carriages, in offices, in restaurants between mouthfulls and before, during and after sex. It is glorious.

My favourite moment by far is when Mrs Donald Draper is on the telephone and her children run through the room. Her five year old boy is in a cowboy suit and carrying two colt pistols. Her seven year old daughter is swathed from head-to-toe in one of those plastic bags from the dry cleaners, the ones that in 2008 are covered in large print warning that the product is a choking hazard and should be kept away from children. The appalled Betty puts down her cigarette and shouts at her daughter, “Sally Draper, come over here right now…if I find that dry cleaning on the floor of the closet, you will be in big trouble, Miss. Now go and play with your brother.”

Sally makes a face by sucking in a good lungful of plastic then runs off.

When I was a child growing up in a farming town, it was not so unusual for kids in my class or in my school or even in my extended family to die at regular intervals. Children drowned in dams, were run over by tractors, fell off horses and every few months or so shot each other with rifles – sometimes by accident.

Rather than being shielded from the gruesome details of child death, the descriptions of tiny bodies plummeting into abandoned wells or sinking beneath the golden quicksand of a grain silo were dutifully retold as a bald warning about what could be expected from life. It didn’t even come with a suggestion to play where adults could see you, because that would have been ridiculous.

It was only when I became an adult when hearing of a child’s death was shocking and immediately brought thought of all the lives irrecoverably wrecked that I realised how completely cavalier I children can be about things that adults consider so important. I was utterly relaxed about the second cousin who drowned in a dam. He had six brothers and sisters, I might not have to top and tail in the bed next time I stayed at the farm.

Every cracker night some kid I knew or knew about lost a finger or an eye or a significant percentage of their hearing. Seatbelts were unthinkable, even if you were sitting up front on the bench seat and especially not when your twelve year old cousin who could barely see over the dashboard was screaming around the paddocks in a Valiant.

My mother was one of twelve kids, all of whom survived to adulthood. This is despite the fact that the family vehicle was a Bedford truck. So when my grandfather had to take the kids any distance, he would grab a bit of fencing wire and use it to attach a wooden cage made from plywood scavenged from the side of the road to the tray of the Bedford. He would toss in as many kids as he could catch and they would head off like the Beverly Hillbillies with children, dogs and luggage tumbling and bumping, open to the elements, in a plywood box. Now my mother would panic if someone suggested her eight year old grandchild may have outgrown the booster seat.

The massive shift in attitudes came to mind this week when I read this article in The Australian
Mothers urge action on child-against-child sex abuse. Apparently the South Australian Department of Education did not act appropriately when a five-year-old boy witnessed some form of sexualized behaviour by another five-year-old boy in the school toilets.

Although my first reaction is to think that everyone concerned, especially the journalist and sub-editor, should take a bex and a good hard look at themselves. What if I’m wrong? What if this kind of rudie nudie behaviour among five-year-olds is the 2008 equivalent of the double bunger? One day people will look back in horror and say, “Remember back when we allowed five-year-old kids to pull each other’s pants down behind the tractor."

Now I didn’t just pluck that example from the air. I have only hazy memories of pre-school, apart from my absolute indignation that my previously reliable mother had left me among strangers. I didn’t know these people. What was she thinking? That memory is shockingly close to the surface. Just below that is the memory of being told by another child that boys and girls went behind the tractor near the sand-pit and pulled each others pants down. For me that was right up there with maternal abandonment on the scale of dismay. The strange child, whose name I never discovered because I didn’t speak to people who weren’t relatives until half-way through kindergarten, may have been lying. She may have been exaggerating. She may have been retelling as present fact some pants pulling down incident lost in the mist of time but handed down from pre-school kid to pre-school kid in an unbroken oral tradition dating back to the first ‘Do you want a lolly? Go to bed and kiss your dolly’ joke. Or maybe, in 1971, some five-year-olds were engaged in what the Australian would describe as child-against-child sex abuse. I am unable to confirm or deny the veracity of pre-school pantsgate because I avoided the tractor, the sandpit and the path leading to it as if they were a cold dam, by a wheat silo in a rifle range.

Ironically my third great horror at pre-school were the toilets which were small and all in a row with no cublicles. If any child was actually keen on some pants pulled down action all they had to do was use the toilet. I never did.

Obviously this behaviour wasn’t caused by DVD’s or internet porn. It would be a year before a child could be exposed to Barry MacKenzie and two years before Alvin Purple made pants pulling down an Aussie tradition. It is more likely it was straightforward child behaviour, perhaps even normal and healthy. At the same time, it deeply traumatised me and made me scared of pre-school. I hope no teacher would have allowed it to go on if they’d known about it. But what should they have done? Counselled the children? Informed the parents? Called DOCS? Sent in the Army?

A year later, in infants school, I remember standing on a bench in the boys toilets at the local swimming pool with six or seven other boys chanting “We won the war in 1944. We lost our guns so we used our bums. We won the war.” All accompanied by waggling of relevant body parts. It wasn't quite pole dancing but it was ballpark. It is quite possible some other little boy was as traumatised by the display as I had been by the pre-school tractor. However, I don’t think it would have been appropriate to call this child-against-child sex abuse, nor to complain to the Department of Education. In fact, what happened was Sister Monica burst into the male change rooms and laid about left and right smacking as many bare bots as she could get a hand to. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the punishment seems appropriate to the crime.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Six days ... again

Six days.

My resolution to write every day has not quite slipped to writing every week, and I might even finish the wedding story.

The brothers return from the North Bank road. They tell us it is fine to drive on. We may need to put a few signs up directing people, and there are one or two places where water is lapping over the road, but it is not impassable. The locals all smile reassurance, but Bruce and I take Nerine aside and suggest that we should start establishing a plan B just in case. 

Easier said than done. We are in a strange town, we need a wedding venue and a reception venue to accommodate eighty people in five hours time. The Gleniffer Minister can get access to the Bellingen Uniting Church with no difficulty, and is happy to arrange it. We drive around to check it out - St Stevens Methodist Church is one of those delightful rural churches. It is a tiny red-brick jewel of gorgeous proportions with a high pitched roof and steeple all timber and tradition inside and of course some time during the seventies, some long-haired, guitar playing pastor who thought we should get 'with it' convinced the parishioners that rather than repair the roof on their old church they should build a squat, blond-brick 'worship centre' with stackable plastic chairs and carpet that looks like spewed creme de cacao. You'd imagine that country christians, of all people, would be fond of tradition and history and the places where previous  generations had been christened and married and sent to the grave. As beggars cannot be choosers we thank the reverend sincerely for access to the worship centre.

We have better luck with the reception venue - the manager of the Butter Factory, a Dutch woman named Guus, greets Nerine with open arms, and promises her that everything will be fine. It is true, everyone in Bellingen has been promising that all morning with no discernible slowing in the rate that the river has risen, but somehow with Guus, we believe it. She suggests that we set a deadline and decide at that point whether the wedding will be in Gleniffer or Bellingen. if it is to be Bellingen she will have everything ready by 5 O'clock.

We are completely relieved, even slightly triumphant, when we return to the beauty  salon with Plan B in place. Fortunately the locals don't let Nerine hear the news that the butter Factory is always the first place in town to be cut off during a flood.

The SES are managing a major disaster in several parts of NSW including the Richmond River valley which is a declared natural disaster area and in which people have died. Nevertheless, they are unfailingly polite and helpful when we call for information. "And which wedding are you?" - it turns out there are three flood affected weddings in the area, but they make time for all of us, give us updated weather and tide reports and tell us what the river levels look like further up the valley. They also close North Bank Road, but tell us that it may re-open. If it were me down the end of the phone I would be hyperventilating and suggesting that the wedding should be cancelled while life and property are under threat, but instead they ask us what the deadline for deciding the venue is, and promise we can call for a full update at 1pm.

The rain is not falling. The tide is going out. The river begins to drop. We ring the SES at dead-line time, full of hope. A storm has hit Dorrigo, the water is already rising in the creeks below the plateau. We are spared an agonising, six of one half a dozen of the other, decision. Nobody is going to the Promised Lands that afternoon and even if they did, there would be no way back, and weirdly enough that's okay. A few phone calls and everything is in place for the change of venue. Nerine looks at us is despair - "it has taken me a year of stress and hard work to organise this wedding, and it runs out I could have done it in an afternoon.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Sportswriter

Okay. It's not a full week since I swore - publicly - to write every day like a true professional. It is six days. The wedding is already receding in my memory. Worse, I've discussed one of my favourite wedding stories with my sister and discovered my memory of it is inaccurate. Bugger. I've traded that one around. Regardless of these set-backs, I am at my computer writing, substantially inspired by Richard Ford, the wonderful US writer whose novel The Lay of The Land last sent me down the blog track. I'm reading his first Frank Bascombe book - The Sportswriter, and spending time in silent wonder blown away by his creation of a truthful universal story out of the detailed minutiae of one man's weekend.

Having already - by dint of laziness - blown the fiction that I am writing a real time story I continue ...

It is Saturday morning, wedding day, well possibly wedding day. If the river has risen over the road at Marx Hill then the groom will be in Urunga and the bride in Bellingen and there won't be a wedding until the floodwaters recede. Or perhaps it could be a proxy wedding like in the Middle Ages when kings married off their children in utero. The owner of the guest house promises us that the river will go down and we will make it to the Promised Lands. This is very reassuring. She has lived in Bellingen for many years. The river always goes down quickly. The tide is going out etc.

We have breakfast with the other guests. Two German ladies with thick hiking boots and bumfluffy moustaches are uninterested in the wedding and consider the weather personal attack on their plans. The other couple are fascinated, which is good because they are the most fascinatingly unlikely couple. The older woman is the central casting version of a  school librarian, buttoned up blouse, calf length skirt in a sensible print she looks at us all in nervous silence. If she hadn't emerged from a bedroom with another woman, I would be convinced she is uncomfortable about breakfasting with same sex couples. The younger woman is the opposite, bright and bubbly, with platinum blonde hair that looks entirely natural, she is dressed like a young Australian who has spent a year in Italy and spent judiciously rather than extravagantly. She asks about every detail of the wedding. She also appears to confirm her couplehood, by constantly referring to 'we' and 'our' and possessively touching the older woman's hand.

Later, I almost mention to Bruce, how interesting it is that the only guests of a rural bed and breakfast are same sex couples. I'm glad I don't because the next morning we hear the younger woman calling, "Mum, it's breakfast time." And the age disparity and the discomfort suddenly become crystal clear.

We meet Nerine and her friends for coffee in town. Everyone is able to bring their own piece of local knowledge gleaned from the people they are staying with or the waiter who has served them. Unfortunately, all the local knowledge is identical - I have lived in Bellingen for years, the River goes down quickly, the tide is going out etc. And yet the river steadfastly rises in defiance of the local prognosticators. It is now over the bridge and lapping muddily at the edges of town. Nobody wants to be the one who says it, but we will need to prepare a back-up plan. Just in case.

The Coach company call. They have been hired to do a run from Coffs, through Urunga and Bellingen out to the church, so no-one will be forced to drive a winding country road at night. They have spoken to the SES who say that, at this stage, they will not be able to take a coach into the area. They aren't giving up hope. The river could go down. It is wait and see.

Nerine's hair and make-up is being done by a local girl who has driven down from the Promised Lands that morning. The night before, people had been trapped by the rising creeks. Visitors were forced to stay the nights with their hosts. Some tourists in the area had to rely on the kindness of strangers. But when she passed the Gleniffer church that morning it was high and dry, only the grass all around it had been flattened by floodwaters from the Never-Never Creek. "It's okay," she tells us breezily, "The North Bank Road is open".

A couple of family members are sent to explore the North Bank Rd. The hair-dresser's father is a Gleniffer Real Estate agent. He knows everyone who has ever lived in the town and has their mobile number in his phone. He stands on the street and calls a back up coach, a couple of back up reception venues and a back up priest and leaves messages for all of them. If your wedding is to be rained out, it is certainly better for it to happen in Bellingen where the locals rally around and offer all the support and assistance they can, than in Sydney where it would be seen as an opportunity for price gouging.

More to come ...