Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bill turns 80

I have just started back at work after a two week break, and its no coincidence that the blog also went on holiday.

We had a couple of days of regular school holidays at home, then set off for five days in Melbourne, to attend Elf's father's 80th birthday celebrations. We drove up to Devonport and went over on the ferry, so that we could get around the massive eastern suburban sprawl to the various functions.

Mum and Dad were just returning home at the same time from their own van/ferry adventure up into NSW, and we had a strange rendezvous with them under cover of darkness in an East Devonport side street, before driving on to the boat.

The crossing was very flat, but none of us slept well all the same. Sometimes the cabins are just very hot. The ferries were originally built in Greece, and the thermostat offered a choice of krio or zenith. I set it to to krio in the hope that it would not literally freeze our heads. It didn't seem to affect the temperature in any way.

We arrived very early and found our way to Scott and Sally's house at Brighton. I lived about 2 minutes down the Nepean Hwy from there in my Melbourne era, and allowed myself a few brief draughts of nostalgia over the coming days. Scott and Sally have a place close to the enormous highway, with quite a bit of traffic noise, and also close to Gardenvale Train Station, source of periodic clatters and honks. After we had dumped some gear and freshened up we set off again for the 90 minute drive down to Point Lonsdale, where Elf's grandparents live. This took us though Geelong. Michael, the Geelong Football Club fan in our family, has only just twigged that Geelong is a place. He was over the moon, surrounded by signs he could read that all said "Geelong". I was startled by the futuristic shell that has been grafted onto the old Kardinia Park footy ground.

Elf's family's thing about names should be pretty well known by now. Her grandparents are Marki and Dwantwa, although I find that so hard to say I usually go with "Dr Ware" - he's a retired dentist. They are both very sharp, in full command, with plenty of firm views they like to bring out for discussion. Dr Ware thinks we are all going to hell in a handbasket, and we need to bring back Latin and Greek. He smokes a pipe, and the boys were wide-eyed at the pipe, the blue smoke, the matches, the coughing - the whole performance. I like them both very much. Marki (92) is practically blind and Dr Ware (90) little better - the day we were there they had just sold their car after hanging on to it for years. Elf's Auntie Bud lives with them now and looks after them a little, but she works elsewhere 3 days a week and they seem to manage OK. The boys drew beautifully when we were there. All through our trip they were great about settling in a corner with pencils and paper when required.

On Friday we abandoned the car for a trip to the Botanical Gardens, to visit the Childrens Garden there. This was something Elf had been looking forward to since Susan and Cameron tipped her off about it. It was pretty good, and the kids and I especially enjoyed the bamboo forest. We caught a train and tram each way, and for the boys the travel possibly outweighed the destination in excitement value.

That evening we took the car out to Doncaster to see Elf's old friend Di and her family. The thing about the vast eastern tracts of Melbourne is that every car trip is just long enough [across five pages of the Melways] for the kids to fall asleep three minutes before arrival. Driving directions were generally "Turn left here, then right at these lights, then go straight through the next twenty two sets of lights, then left and you're there." Di and Craig have just sold their house, and are soon moving into a rental nearby while they ponder what to do next. The beautiful old golf course behind their house is up for development into McMansions, and they are getting out while the going is good. Presumably on account of the upheavals, we had Domino pizza and Paddle Pops for dinner, and there were not enough chairs. People who have sat on a park bench or piano stool at our dinner table will wonder if we are really in a position to carp. Di has seen Richo and little Nathan Brown shopping together at the supermarket. I worry about those two sometimes. They get a fuzzy look in their eyes when they have a cuddle after one of them kicks a goal. Di laughs with a genuine country cackle and I like her. Their boys Max and Tom grapple and whine and grizzle similarly to ours. The four of them played together fairly well.

On Saturday we had another public transport day. We caught two trains to get out to Canterbury to see Auntie Val - Marki's younger sister who lives in a "supported apartment" - recently moved from another one at Camberwell. She fends for herself and generally regards the management with scorn. We always seem to have trouble getting through the doors when we visit her. She has scads of great-nieces and -nephews but only a few favourites, which includes Elf. Luckily, having married her I too can do no wrong, and she is highly indulgent with our boys. She has supported Hawthorn for about 80 years, and thinks they just might be Back In Town now. She laid on the biscuits and cake, and we dug in, as we were heading somewhere next where the food is famously expensive.

From Val's we caught a train to Richmond and joined the crowd flowing into the MCG to see Richmond v Adelaide. I had originally thought I would just take Marcus, but Elf thought we should all go, and I'm glad we did, although perhaps we should all have left at half time. Here are some photos of us looking happy, taken before the Crows kicked six goals in a row and blew us away. I had tried to dampen down Marcus's high hopes of Tiger victory, but it wasn't enough to prepare him for the disappointment. We had been 14 points up at half time, and it all turned bad so quickly and brutally (we were sitting behind the Adelaide goalsquare as the goals rained down on us) that the tears welled up and he sobbed. Some would say it's mental cruelty to let a child adopt Richmond as their team - I can only plead in my defence that I gave Marcus every chance to go elsewhere. We gave him a lecture on keeping things in proportion etc and by the end of the match he was in good enough shape to enjoy the train ride home again.

Scott and Sally were excellent hosts over 6 days. They love good food, and provided us lots of it. Of course we love good food too, we are just not so good at getting it on the table. One thing that took me time to get used to is their shower - they have no soap. There were about a dozen bottles lined up containing various unguents. There was some kind of bodywash stuff, and Sorbolene, but neither actually left me feeling clean. I like the feeling of being "robbed of essential oils". I just need plain old soap, especially for my face. I ended up using the "facial scrub with exfoliating beads" (not much Sally, honest). The tube advertises its' "Stubborn Imperfection Action". I love the whole concept of Stubborn Imperfection. The beads were blue.

On Sunday we once again took to the long straight roads that march eastwards from the sea to the great leafy suburbs. There is a sort of invisible cordon centered around Camberwell and Kew that Elf's broader family inhabits. Her Mum and Dad in Canberra are generally considered to be lost souls. Her family are not snobby, or generally super-wealthy, but they have breeding, they are solid, they are well and expensively educated, they have impeccable vowels, and they would no sooner live in St Kilda or Cranbourne than fly to the moon.

Bill's brother Dick ( a Victorian Supreme Court judge, like their father before them) died only two years ago. His widow June turned 80 the same week as Bill, so June's children organised a joint party. It was at a vast house in Kew with a Porsche and a Merc beside the front door, and a tennis court out back, beyond the pool. The tennis court is actually shared with the people at number 83, but there is another pool and tennis court next door at number 79. They have a wonderful view over Melbourne. Imp and Ed were there with the girls. Soon after we arrived Chonk and Irma appeared (all the way from Switzerland) with their 9-month old Bea, and Fred, who has relinquished Sweden to take up a less exciting job at Monash in Melbourne. Bill and Felicity were there looking well. Bill is not a man who likes the limelight, but he was delighted to have all four of his children around him and made a fine short speech in response to some fairly windy tributes from others. I felt smug to be in such fine surroundings wearing a 3rd hand shirt Nick had given me that he bought at St Vincent de Paul (it's too "square" for him now that he's carving out a niche as the "cool" tech teacher at Sacred Heart).

Back at Brighton after the kids were abed we played Scrabble. I used all my tiles on my first turn, and made a word that I now can't recall, taking what we all assumed was an unassailable lead. Sally assailed it successfully, as I followed up with words such as "go" and "it". Sally and Scott are both in the business of Risk Assessment, and are very smart cookies. They gave me cause to once again ponder my lack of drive and ambition. Should I have a string of investment properties by now? Should I be a 7th dan black belt snowboarder? Should I know something (anything) about wine? Should I be erasing my stubborn imperfections?

On Monday (Queen's birthday holiday) we had another party for Bill, this time organised by Felicity, at the Victorian CWA headquarters in Toorak. Bill is a royalist and he's always liked sharing his birthday with the monarch. She was there too in various guises, with royal portraits, porcelain, framed citations and the odd Union Jack featuring in the decorations. As the eldest son, Fred made a lovely speech extolling Bill's virtues. I sat next to one of his old shipmates, and a couple of widows of other old friends. It was strangely more relaxed than the house party, probably because more of the guests knew each other since there was only one guest of honour. Lunch featured nine different types of CWA quiche. Auntie Val was there again and sympathised with us over our hopeless footy team. She had been at the Dome to see her Hawks romp it in against Essendon.

The party meandered on pleasantly as more people wandered in, late as you like, and the familar feeling of a Fullagar event lacking any actual plan manifested itself. Eventually about a dozen of us set off for a visit to the nearby (only about seventeen blocks away) cemetery where Bill's mother Marion lies. She died when he was about thirteen, and he has never really had the full picture of how. Her memorial tablet is very simple, stark even. Marion was unwell for some time before she died, and was attended by a nursing sister, called Sister by everyone. Soon after her death Bill's father married Sister.

After the cemetery we retraced the seventeen blocks to the CWA to collect stuff, then regrouped just down the street at the home of Grace and Tony. Grace is Elf's favourite girl-cousin. They have a six-month old named Allegra who is very beautiful. Her hairless head reminded me of Sinead O'Connor. They live in an amazing art deco house that is in the messy throes of renovation. Unfortunately Tony has just been laid off at the stockbroking house. I met Tony, was apprised of his situation, and then saw his unfinished house all within about half an hour, so I felt very awkward about it. Some of the houses in their street are hotel-sized. I had seen Toorak before but I hadn't really seen Toorak, if you know what I mean.

We went back to slightly more humble Brighton, packed and farewelled Sally and Scott for the short drive back onto the boat. It always impresses me that Our Tassie Boat is the biggest thing in the harbour. It looms over the St Kilda foreshore. The getting onboard business is always fussier at the Melbourne end. You drive out onto a long, long pier, then back onto the land, around a little loop right past the gate you first came in, and then onto the ship. Imp, Ed, Karri, Miah and Fred were all on board as well. Chonk and Irma had flown to Hobart and were already settling in at our house. Fred was on his way to stay with Imp and Ed down at Kingston. We had another six days of sibling-ing around to come.

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