I was embarrassed. Being an adolescent was uncomfortable enough at times but having a father who liked to make a spectacle of himself made it worse. It was Christmas time and Dad and I were on the train from the suburbs of Brisbane, headed for the city. Dad wore a red Christmas hat, complete with pom-pom. Some teenaged boys in the carriage looked at Dad and sniggered, while I, feeing self-conscious, wished maybe Dad could tone things down a bit. Why couldn’t he be serious, a little less conspicuous, like other people’s Dads?
Dad was often in ‘party mode’, with always some occasion to celebrate. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, ANZAC day… whatever it was, Dad could find an excuse to enjoy it somehow.
My father Gerry grew up in an orphanage in England in the 1940s. It was World War II and his parents were occupied with serving their country. As can be imagined, life in an orphanage, especially during war times, was pretty bleak, with a controlled daily regime and food rations. We’ve all heard the stories of “When I was a boy… I had to walk 10 miles in the snow in bare feet to get to church!” Some melodramatic tales abound, but in Dad’s case his ‘when I was a boy’ stories had no exaggeration. There were no nightly bedtime stories or cuddles to soften the harshness of Gerry’s existence.
Perhaps this was the motivation for Dad’s determination to enjoy life once he became an adult. Migrating to Australia in the 60s he wooed my mother Nancy. She was smitten with Gerry’s blue eyes, strong jaw and muscular build. They married and had two girls, Wendy first and then me three years later.
When I was little, I delighted in Dad’s enthusiasm. Ever since I can remember Dad had never let us sit still and be bored. Holidays, explorations, fishing, swimming, making go-carts from bits of wood and old pram wheels, buying treats at the bakery, playing family games, thinking of silly pranks – these were all activities Dad prodded us to do with him. This was part of being a kid, and I think Dad had his childhood all over again, but reinvented to the way he wanted it. Most of all, he continually found special events to be a highlight.
Christmases of course, as children were times to decorate the house, buy fruit-mince pies, let off streamer poppers, and wear those ridiculous paper hats from inside the crackers. The streamers and tinsel didn’t end at the tree but spilled out in an exuberant profusion of colour throughout the house.
Our collection of cards which family and friends gave us were proudly displayed on strings along the wall, starting a tradition which meant the Christmas cards couldn’t be taken down until the next lot of special event cards came. So Christmas cards gave way to Easter cards, Easter cards gave way to birthday cards, and on throughout the family anniversaries until Christmas came around again, bringing a new bundle of Season’s greetings.
When Dad and Mum split up, I was in my early teens, but the sadness of this change was tempered by Dad’s efforts to do special things with us. With Mum and Dad living about 7 kilometres apart, we still were able to see Dad often. I remember the Datsun pulling up in the driveway and Dad racing into our kitchen with his freshly baked hot apple pie, which had to be eaten straight away!
As I became older and tried to assert my independence, I played it cool and didn’t like to get excited at what I perceived as childish occasions. I was a cynic, and thought sentimentalism was for deluded people. But the unique way Dad created memories softened my attitude, bit by bit.
Dad’s specialty was presents, and it appears you don’t really love someone unless you have spent the time to wrap the gift in 20 or more layers like a one-person Pass the Parcel game. With eyes rolling and patience wearing thin as each layer reveals yet another, seeing Dad’s delight made it all worthwhile. On my 16th birthday I received such a parcel, the contents getting smaller and smaller, as I wondered what could possibly be inside something so rapidly shrinking in size. Too small for a book or even a cassette, I was left with a match-box sized container. I opened it and inside was a toy car – a black Porsche. Dad’s note with it said, “Sorry I couldn’t get you the real thing – hope this makes up for it.” I was delighted to tell friends I had been given a Porsche for my birthday, and it travelled with me for years to come.
Looking back at some embarrassing moments with Dad, I remember how my friends surprised me. Far from being one of the ‘old folk’ they had thought my father was cool. Wow, what an eye-opener for me. Comparing him to some men who were too busy for their children, I began to appreciate Dad again and realise that the effort he made was special.
In my first year away from home I had a job as a live-in carer in a different town. I felt isolated, geographically and socially. My friends from school were having fun at uni while I was ‘house-bound’. Although the commercialism of Valentine’s Day was not something I participated in, I was encouraged to receive a card from Dad addressed to ‘the girl I love with all my heart’. His remembrance of me at that time was the pick-me-up I needed.
Even though my childhood is behind me and other commitments distract us from the amount of celebrations we used to share, some family customs continue as strong as ever. Most people buy cards at the newsagent and let the wordsmith at the greeting card company do the honours, adding just a mere ‘Dear So-and-so’ at the top and ‘love…’ at the bottom. Not Dad. The card is just the starting point. Blue or black pen will never suffice – coloured felt-pens are the way to write a message to catch your attention. And there are no wishes for a simple ‘happy birthday’ either –Dad’s wishes are for a ‘great, fantastic, exciting, fun-filled birthday!’ (And may there be 100 more, he adds.)
On ANZAC day it has been a tradition to bake some biscuits especially for the day. Years after I’d left home and was living on the other side of Australia on an extremely tight budget I was touched to get a parcel from Dad. Along with a newsy letter were some fresh Anzac biscuits wrapped in foil! What a treat! They tasted good, but more importantly, the sentiment warmed my heart.
Others looking on might think that maybe Dad is out of touch with reality to be so chirpy and effusive. He’s had his share of tedious jobs, health problems and personal dramas. But his decision to make each moment a cause to celebrate has infused my life with optimism. Now that Dad is remarried with two more children to raise, I hope they appreciate the importance to make special moments with family… because life really is worth getting excited about.