Families surround us with symmetry. Echoes. Half-understood parallels. You realise it more and more as you get older. Like when you rebuke your child for some appalling piece of behaviour, and suddenly realise you’re using the same words and tone your own parents employed when you did exactly the same thing as a kid. But it happens on lots of levels.
Last Sunday I spent half the day painstakingly digging up sods of lawn at our place, so I could build a paved path to our new poolside Balinese pavilion, and then replant the grass in the mudheap created by earlier construction work. It occurred to me that I was the third successive generation of my bloodline to embark on large-scale transplanting of lawn sods. Big thrill, you’re probably thinking, and you’d be quite right. But there’s a reason for the observation. Don’t rush me.
My parents met and married just after World War 2. They both worked at the Repatriation Department at Grace Building in York Street in Sydney. Dad got a job there after he was discharged from the army in 1946 aged 23, and Mum had started work there when she left school at 15.
After they married, Mum and Dad scraped and saved for a deposit for a house, like most young couples. They lived in assorted dingy rental flats around Sydney’s inner western suburbs. But they were luckier than many. Dad’s Uncle Tom had given them half an acre of land at Harbord on the northern beaches, as a wedding present. Uncle Tom owned the entire hill, and his own big ramshackle home was at the very top, with views from Sydney Harbour up to the central coast. Today it’s a fairly ritzy private hospital. My Mum spent a couple of weeks there as a patient earlier this year, after Dad ran the car door into her in a reversing mishap and she broke her shoulder and hand.
Mum and Dad’s block is high on the steep, rocky hillside overlooking the Brookvale valley and north towards Collaroy. It was worth bugger-all when they got married, but that eventually changed. By 1953 they had managed to save a large enough deposit to build a tiny two bedroom house with the help of a low interest War Service loan. They moved in just two weeks before I was born, the first of the Parish brood of four kids.
Dad set about carving a garden out of the rocky hillside. He quarried tons of sandstone with basic stonemason’s tools that he taught himself to use, and created four successive levels of terraced lawns cascading down the hillside towards Brookvale. Each level was held back by a huge, dry-laid stone wall, with vast quantities of backfill barrowed in to create flat terraces where previously there had been just steep rocky cliffsides. There were sandstone stairways leading down to each level, not to mention beautifully constructed flagstone pathways. The amount of work that went into it was almost unimaginable, and Dad did it by hand and all by himself, with occasional help from my grandfather (Mum’s father).
Grandad’s main contribution was to import the lawn from Bondi where he and Nanna lived. He came over on the Manly ferry every weekend for years, each time carrying a heavy backpack full of lawn sods, which he progressively liberated from public waste land near Bondi beach.
Every few weeks we made the trip in the reverse direction, catching the ferry to Circular Quay and then the tram out to Bondi, where we would invariably find Grandad down at one of the beachside pavilions playing cards with his mates. We’d round him up and all walk up the hill together to their house, where Nanna would make us lunch.
Grandad was a TPI pensioner (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated). He had a large metal plate in his head from a huge shrapnel wound sustained in the trenches in France in World War 1. It made him a bad epileptic and he was never able to hold down a job for the rest of his life, even though he was strong as an ox and had a mind like a steel trap until the day he died. Grandad managed to run an SP bookmaking business from home for a few years, until he went broke from extending excessively generous credit to the punters. But that was about all he ever did in terms of remunerative labour.
The failed SP business was probably one of numerous reasons why, as I was informed much later, Nanna and Grandad’s marriage eventually became something of a facade. Nanna had a succession of lovers who would openly squire her to restaurants and movies at Bondi Junction every Saturday night, whether Grandad liked it or not. It must have been wildly scandalous behaviour in the conservative suburban Sydney of the 40s and early 50s. No doubt that was a prime reason why Grandad chose to load his backpack with grass sods every Saturday and catch the Manly ferry across to our place.
By 1962 Dad’s mammoth terraced garden project was complete, and so was our family of four kids, after the birth of my youngest sister Sue. With three of us crammed into a single bedroom and Sue in a cot in Mum and Dad’s room, it was obvious that a plan for more space was badly needed. In those days young mothers generally didn’t go out to work, at least among the aspirational middle classes. And quite apart from the social status angle, there was a distinct lack of available creches to take care of two children under 5. So a two stage plan was hatched. Mum and Dad subdivided and sold the rear quarter acre of their land. They cleared enough money to build an extension to the house which added a third bedroom and a bit more living-room space. They also bought our very first car, an old black Standard Vanguard.
The aspirations of the aspirational middle class were much harder realised in those days. It had only been shortly before then that we had acquired our first television set. We were the last kids in the street to get one. But we never felt deprived, because our backyard below the terraces was a huge bushland adventure playground, with stony caves where you could build fortifications for neighbourhood battles, mysterious hidden jungle pathways and huge eucalypt trees just perfect for building treehouses from scrap timber. Best of all were the mulberry trees on the other side of the gully. In season we would stuff ourselves with mulberries until we felt sick, and then use them for mulberry fights which got us into terrible trouble with our parents because they created clothing stains that even strong bleach struggled to remove.
The second stage of our parents’ plan to create a house big enough for four kids was for Dad to start quarrying again, this time under the house with a view to creating a second storey containing another bedroom, second bathroom, a kitchenette and a slightly larger area they called the “rumpus” room. It all involved another seven years of digging and jackhammering and intricate drainage works that absorbed all dad’s time just about every weekend, between driving us kids to assorted sporting commitments. I still wonder where he found the reserves of energy and stubborn determination. I’m sure it was partly a deep need for stability and security instilled by growing up through the Great Depression and World War 2. Dad was never one for taking a risk if it could be avoided.
Towards the latter stages of the building project I was old enough to help him (a bit anyway, in a slack teenager’s way). We jacked up the entire house using “Acrow” props, then knocked out the brick piers holding the house up, and lifted large steel RSJ beams into place instead (with help from several friendly neighbours). Then Dad got tradesmen in to render the walls, and install the plumbing and electrical work. None of it ever had any building approval. They were freer and easier days in a regulatory sense, and we couldn’t have got approval as living space anyway, because the ceiling wasn’t quite high enough.
For most people, 1969 was the year man landed on the moon. For me, it was the year I got my very own bedroom all to myself at the age of 16, when Dad finally finished the downstairs part of the House that Cecil Parish Built.
By that stage Mum had gone back to work and Dad had advanced steadily through the ranks of the public service. They had arrived. They built a huge, expensive swimming pool in the backyard, the first in our street, three metres deep at one end, where they even installed a diving board! Just before the bulldozers and jackhammers arrived, Dad and I carefully removed all the grass he and Grandad had laid years before, cutting it into square sods and putting it aside for relaying after the pool was finished. The beautiful stone walls were all bulldozed or buried, apart from a few remnants still protruding from under the massive pool structure.
But by then I had gone to uni and moved away from home, living in a sharehouse with mates. I never really experienced the House and Pool that Cecil Parish Built in its full completed glory, except on rare comeback sojourns in my 20s when the money ran out. Parents are useful that way. Then I moved to Darwin never to return, but we still visit most years at Christmas.
Matter of fact, Jen and Jess and I are going down to Sydney this Christmas too. But we’ll be staying at the House and Pool that Cecil Parish Built for the very last time. Dad is 82 and Mum nearly 80, and neither is very well. Dad has to bath Mum each day and do the cooking and washing. My brother-in-law Ray, a contract cleaner, cleans the house for them every week on top of his 60 hours or so of paid cleaning work. And my brother-in-law Adam, a carpenter on perpetual compo, cooks them elaborate meals a couple of times a week. They’re managing after a fashion, but it’s time to move on.
Mum and Dad have finally put the house on the market, and placed a deposit on a unit at Dee Why Gardens retirement village. They’ll be moving some time in February, after a little under 53 years at Harbord.
Dad’s older brother Dick is already at Dee Why Gardens. He’s almost 90. He was a short-tempered, taciturn man the way I remember him. I was frightened of him. One of the family’s favourite stories tells of the time when my dad asked him “Have you got a piece of string on you, Dick?” and he shot back “What do ya think it is, a bloody yoyo or something?”
Dick isn’t quite as sharp these days. He’s rapidly losing his memory by all accounts. We’ll probably visit him when we go to see the new Dee Why Gardens unit at Christmas. I wonder whether he’ll remember who I am? Nanna certainly didn’t towards the end. Eventually she didn’t even recognise Grandad when we would take him to visit her at the Alzheimers’ nursing home where she spent the last 5 years of her life. Then we’d drive him back to his own nursing home, his old eyes brimming with tears of love, regret and resignation, just as I imagine they must have been all those years before as he carried grass sods across the harbour every Saturday on the Manly ferry. Families surround us with symmetry.