Yesterday afternoon, your favourite son-in-law (because he is your only son-in-law) was mowing the lawn of our backyard. I went outside to tell him I was taking the dog for a walk. The smell of the freshly cut grass in the warm afternoon air hit me as soon as I walked out the back door. And it instantly took me back in time. Back to the days when you, Dad, would cut the front lawn of our family home on those hot summers days, while all us kids hung out in the pool around the back. The nostalgia wrapped around me like a big blanket. I miss you Dad.
You’ve been gone, in the physical sense, for nine long years. And although I know you are here with us in other ways, hanging out, watching over us, I miss being able to give you a big hug. I miss feeling the stubble on your cheek as I would kiss you hello or goodbye, miss that sparkle in your eyes you would get, when you would be saying something mischievous, knowing it was about to get a reaction out of someone, usually me.
Miss your sarcasm. Miss you laughing and patting your beer belly and telling everyone it was ‘no laughing matter’ and it ‘cost a lot of money’. Which it did. Took a lot of beer to get that belly to what it was. Miss watching you with your grandchildren. You, their GrandJoe, which was the most perfect name for you, from them. It makes me laugh to think about how it came about. Mum all those years ago, with her first grandchild in the pram, running from the swarm of bees shouting ‘Joe! Joe!’ so you would come out of the house and save them, which you did. And from then on you were called ‘Joe’, until it morphed into a more appropriate ‘GrandJoe’. And you were so grand, so physically grand. So tall, with wide shoulders and enormous hands. Those enormous hands that would gently hold your grandchildren’s tiny little ones. Pat their heads. Lift their tiny bodies high into the sky. Those hands, fixing your Santa hat at Christmas time as you handed out the Christmas presents while they watched on with anticipation and delight, waiting for their turn, for their gift. Only to run to you and place their tiny arms around your neck as they reached up to kiss you on your cheek.
Miss your stories. Of your time as a child growing up in Lithuania, during the war. The story which stays with me more than any other, is the one about the time you were playing on the frozen lake and you fell into the water, through the ice, as it broke under your feet. How you were pulled out. Survived, you thought, only to be scolded. But to your great surprise you were hugged and kissed by your mum. She was so relieved you were OK, you weren’t in trouble for being on the lake. You weren’t in trouble for falling through. For being all wet. For ruining your clothes.
The story of when you arrived in Australia, at age 16, with your parents but without your sister, and how you thought you had arrived in hell. Because of the heat. The dryness. How you described travelling by train from Melbourne to the camp at Bonegilla, as you looked out at the vast dry land, and felt heat like you had never felt before. You arrived in Australia by boat, the Protea, at the start of summer, just before Christmas, 22 December 1948. It would have been hot. You departed Genoa, Italy on 16 November 1948, the journey took 36 days. There were 782 passengers. From Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and what was known then as Czechoslovakia.
I wonder if your trip was as bad as the trip which took place three years later in 1951, the details shared in a newspaper article I found. Journalist, Colin Prosser, reported in The Argus, a morning daily newspaper in Melbourne, in its 25 June edition, that the ‘Trip was a nightmare’ and described over 1000 migrants swarming the Protea’s decks, where they were, according to one passenger ‘forced to live like animals’. With filthy conditions, lack of sanitation, cage-like dormitories crammed with people, and a grossly insignificant number of toilets and showers for the amount of passengers and the length of the trip, particularly given rough seas and sea-sick passengers for the majority of the voyage.
I will never know if it was like this for you, as you never spoke to us about the boat trip. You did speak about other trips though, of the night as a young boy you had to flee your home with your family, in horse and cart; and the time you had to carry a bag of salt on your back across Lithuania, through Poland to Germany, some 1300kms. Showing us on a map, the Atlas open on our dining table, as you traced the journey with your finger.
Despite the hardships in your life, you managed to have a wonderful outlook and brought great joy to ours with your wisdom and humour. For this I will always be grateful. You taught me, that tomorrow is always a new day. That no matter what happens today, tomorrow is a fresh start. You reminded me of this often when I was a young child, you always said it with great tenderness as you wiped the tears from my young face. You taught me that a person is a universe. Something you often said. Similar words I heard from Ekhart Tolle recently in a podcast. And I laughed, you were always a philosopher. And you were right, a person is a universe, and as you always said, ‘when that person dies, their universe dies too’. I wish I had spent more time with you to hear more of your stories. I wish I had recorded more of them, to have a more detailed memory of your universe to share.
You were a great thinker. A great reader. A wonderful mathematician, who I have missed many times when I have been helping my children with their maths homework. Wished you were nearby. Just a phone call away to ask how to work out the sum. Wished you could enjoy with us the pickled cucumbers we make, the instructions from the video of you making them, the one your favourite son-in-law recorded, so we would have your recipe forever. Or when we renovated our house and chose the stonework for our fireplace, in honour of the beautiful fireplace of stone you put together in my childhood home. Wished you were there to build our fireplace too. To give it your personal touch. To have it made by your hands.
Thank you Dad for teaching us to be kind to people, to be gentle to animals, to use our imagination, for introducing us to some of the greatest thinkers of our time, and some of the funniest TV shows I have watched. Thank you Dad for giving us our love of nature. For calling us all outside to watch a wasp drag a huntsman spider across the lawn. Explaining this is why we should never walk outside at night in bare feet. Other times you called us outside to watch the night sky, to see a comet, or work out the constellations. Thank you for taking us to the channel to go yabbying and fishing, and to the paddocks of surrounding farms to go mushrooming. Thank you for your beautiful bedtime stories, the ones you made up about the owl, the fish and the turtle. A family fable. With a beautiful life lesson for us to think about as we closed our eyes to sleep. Thank you for the beautiful water colours you made for me for my year 5 camp booklet. Thank you for fixing our bikes. Thank you for setting up the pool. Thank you for taking us canoeing and on picnics. Thank you for teaching us all to drive. Thank you for our love of music. For playing the piano accordion and the piano to us. Thank you for our love of memories, for the family film nights to watch those Super 8s. Thank you for building the best cubby house for us. Thank you for the evening snacks you would surprise us with for us to enjoy with our movie. Thank you Dad for being you and helping us become who we all are today.
We miss you Dad.