We have piled into our beautiful yellow and white Holden EK and driven the five miles to my
grandfather’s house. On this occasion, we park around the corner out of sight. My father has
snuck out of the car to the red phone box on the corner right outside his parents’ house and
rung them up, asking if we can drop around for afternoon tea. As soon as he hangs up, we all
march up the back path and into my Pa and Nanna’s kitchen. How amazed were they? Nearly
fell off their chairs with laughing.
Pa is a retired primary school headmaster, and co-author of those dreadful Betty and Jim
Arithmetic books that plagued our primary years. If a train leaves Bendigo at 6:34am, travelling
at 40 miles an hour, at what time will it pass the train coming from Albury, 185 miles away, if
that train departed on time at 6:13am and travels at 35 miles an hour. Mary buys 6lbs of
potatoes at 2/11d a pound. What change will she get from a ￡5 note. And so on.
But he is also a kind of Victorian era Renaissance man, actively engaged in the pursuit of
music, art and science. He likes to grow strawberries and daffodils, on lines so scientific they
are almost military. No daffodils roam free in his garden. Instead they must wave their lovely
single and double yellow, orange and cream-coloured blooms way down the back in the veggie
garden. It was their infinite variety that tickled his fancy, more than their simple beauty.
Strangely, though, Pa was a fine artist, whose beautiful little watercolour and ink pictures
decorated all our birthday cards. His singing was enthusiastic but ghastly. All we kids could do
excellent imitations of it, so it must have been pretty peculiar.
God knows where my father got his musicality. Maybe it was from his much quieter mother,
my Nanna. There was not much room for anyone else to talk when Pa was in the room, and
as he always seemed to be in the room, we never heard much from Nanna. Her inner life, her
inner talents remained hidden. Maybe she wanted it that way. There is family speculation that
she never got over the death of her brother in WWI, and spent the remaining 56 years of her
life in a state of subdued mourning. That seems a little farfetched, even though my mother
reports that every time she advised Nanna to expect another grandchild, her response was,
“Oh, no” or “Oh, dear”. But the fact remains that she was the silent partner in my grandparents’
marriage. I will never know whether she was musical. I certainly never heard her sing.
Usually, when we arrived to visit, the two of them would be sitting outside their back door on
tiny wooden chairs divided by a tiny wooden table. They’d just be sitting there in the sun with
a cup of tea, not really doing anything. Maybe reading. We never arrived via the front gate or
the front door. Nor did we spend any time in the good front room, the room apparently reserved
for formal occasions of which there were none. So their house seemed to consist only of the
kitchen, the dining room, the study and the master bedroom. And of course, that little seat
outside the back steps.
Pa’s study was full of books. He collected them on the same scientific principles that he applied
to his daffodils and strawberries. With books, he collected series and editions. He had so many
copies of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, that each of his 10 grandchildren
received a copy on his death. Or at least I did, and I still have it. I’ve even read the first half
several times. It’s marvelous. I often wonder if the second half might be worth a read. He
collected the Everyman Series. I guess my whole family can chant the motto printed on the
inside cover of each volume, “Everyman: I will go with Thee and be thy Guide; at thy most
Need to go by thy Side”. The Evs, as we call them, now line the walls of my ageing parents’
study, in bookcases built especially to hold them. We children are all rather dreading our
inheritance. Actually, my brother is quite possibly rubbing his hands in anticipation. Every time
I am missing a book it seems to be on his bookshelf. To be fair, he might occasionally find one
of his on my bookshelf. Book collecting must an inherited trait.
Pa also collected the Traveller series and many others that I can’t remember. I have no idea
how many of them he read, but he loved to have them, loved to track the missing ones down
to their hidden lairs, enticing them out with small outlays of money. He kept extraordinary lists
in his hyper-neat teacher’s handwriting of the books he had collected, and those published but
not yet in his collection. I bet he kept a record of what he paid for each one, too. I think I’d
rather inherit this ledger than the books, but I would be surprised if the ledger survived him.
He kept equally neat ledgers written in red and black ink, to track his share portfolio, which he
apparently handled rather well, presumably well enough to enjoy the high life in that empty
front room from time to time. They eventually did get a TV and set it up in that room, now I
come to think of it. Pa and Nanna were in their early thirties during the Great Depression, and
no doubt the notion of thrift would have rubbed off on them. During my life they did not own a
car, always walking the 20 minutes to the station. We often picked them up in our car to join
us in our spendthrift weekend entertainment – the Sunday Afternoon Drive.
Perhaps these outings were our side of the bargain. We seemed to see them most weekends,
either for the Sunday Drive or for Afternoon Tea over at their place. Sometimes it was a Sunday
Roast at their place, and sometimes a special Birthday Dinner. I loved going to stay overnight
mostly because Nanna always made us crumbed cutlets, still a great favourite of mine. Rarely
do I taste any as good as those Nanna made. I reckon they were hogget (older lamb), and
everyone knows you can’t get hogget any more.
But there was always a price to pay. Whenever we were in range, Pa would make some
outrageous statement, like, “We will have boiled owl for dinner tonight,” and as we were making
a beeline for someone else’s dinner table, he would conclude by saying, “Parse that sentence!”
We were always parsing around Pa. By the time we were teenagers, we had more or less
escaped his instruction, thank heavens. Nanna had had a huge stroke and was in nursing
care, unable to speak or walk, for the last few years of my schooling, and Pa had to learn to
cook and manage the household on his own. Unsurprisingly he became one of the world’s
leading experts on cooking. He counted calories and collected recipes, putting them in a neat
little folder, and presumably categorising them systematically. He had no sense about
grandmothers and sucking eggs, and would happily instruct my mother, who had of course
been cooking very well for most of her life, on how to go about preparing a meal.
But the parsing stayed with me, pretty well. I almost wish it had gone further, so I would now
have a better grasp of some odd forms of verbs, like the future pluperfect, whatever that is,
and could separate my conjunctions from my prepositions a little more confidently. I am never
challenged, these days, on my parsing, or my pronouncements about syntax and grammar.
My children just assume I know it all. This is not so much down to my Pa’s careful tutoring, as
to the overall slackness of recent educational standards in this area. These days (yes, showing
my age) you don’t need to go through the lists and rules and exact calculations before running
off, as we did back then, into the wonderful freedoms of the 60s and 70s. Maybe all that parsing
made the freedom that much sweeter.