I have been so overcome by the present in the last couple of days, that I have to distract myself from the obsession with the past and my attempt to make readers who did not live it, try to understand why so many catholics, free ranged, prolapsed and otherwise are so connected to their “formation” – willingly or not!
November the 2nd is the feast of All Souls. On this day, traditionally, we remember and pray for those who have died and who are perhaps languishing in purgatory (“a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before the go to heaven” – Green Catechism circa 1950’s and something I remember because of the alliteration I think). November 2nd is the birth date to my beloved brother Paul and our beloved grandson Darcy and I learned today that it was also the day the a beautiful Aunt of an extended member of the family died, peacefully and gently, just as she had lived her life.
I am a firm believer that connections with loved ones are eternal. I am a firm believer too, that it is the story that lives forever. Treasuring our story, sharing it with love, sometimes,indeed often, with challenge and always with hope is what makes us eternal. While the story remains told, through the story tellers, we remain!
Only one of the people in the oldest image in the collection I have used remains alive. My only, dearest Sister. But looking at the picture I can tell you of Mary Kathleen, my Grandmother who lived till she was 99, who changed her name from Mary Anne to Mary Kathleen because she thought her given name was too plain, who was severely admonished by Newcastle City library because she ripped pages which contained improper language out of books she borrowed , who had one eye removed at the age of 92, who was the first person to refer to me as a “good woman” when at the age of 19, my Mother (also in the picture) had to inform her of the impending birth of my first child – conceived long before the sacrament of marriage was administered.
I can tell you of the other woman in the picture, Mary Patricia, who was always known as Pat and who, upon the arrival of her first grandchild, the one mentioned in the previous paragraph, decided she was too young to be known as Grandma and became “GrandPat” forever after. A staunch Catholic she, together with Dad, prayed every night that they would be gifted with vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Four of the six of their children received”the call”, something that gave my parents mega star status in the parish. I was the first one NOT to get the call. Other things were destined for me! But Mum (and Dad) stoically and lovingly “let go” of their children at the ages of 16 – 18 as they embarked on their own journeys and they became loving Matriarch and Patriarch to the two generations who have come after their children.
The little curly headed, coat wearing child ,breaking free while his mother was perhaps trying to hold him back is my brother Peter who grew up to be brilliant in every aspect of his life. Academically he could do anything, a brilliant musician, composer,conductor, singer, pianist, organist, writer and priest. His image features elsewhere in the collection of photos. Brain cancer robbed him of his sight, his intellect and took him away in such a painful manner leaving behind wounds which I do not believe will ever heal. He baptised my children,he married two of them, he encouraged them to be the best people they could be – and they are. There is a thick cloud of melancholic silence that surrounds this story but the children will tell it to theirs and truth rather that evil will prevail.Peter died on September 11th 2014, 7 years to the day since that terrible cloud descended on him and all of us.
My Dad is there too – the dapper fellow posing for Mum on the beach – Jimmy’s Beach I believe. The story teller, the newspaper bloke, the music lover, the disciplinarian, the one who encouraged all his kids to reach for the highest goal and who became the most beloved GrandKen to his Grandchildren. He is there with his oldest Grandson Ken and his youngest grandson Joe – our sons each one of whom loved him, as did all his grand children.
Alzheimers got him and took him away from us to the point where he remembered nothing of his own life. He lived to see his first great grandchild , Gabrielle Grace. Dad was a newspaper editor and on the day her mother took the beautiful Gabbi, aged about 4 months up to see him in the nursing home he said,
“And who is this?” I replied “This is your first great grandchild, Gabrielle.”
“Oh, Gabrielle. G -A-B-R-I-E-L-L-E” spelling it out like he was back at work “is that right?”
“Yes, Dad, that’s right!” He repeated the exercise three or four times more and then came the last version,”G-A-B-R-I-E-L-L-E” and looking at the bundle of pink frills smiling on on his lap in the bed he took our breath away by adding “B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L”!
And I am there too in those grainy black and white images. Sheltered under the arm of my big brother Paul. A surly, curly headed about 3 year old, wearing my emotions all over my face, a trait which has continued into my dotage and sporting a “Dad’s haircut” up a tree while Dad, who was a wonderful photographer encouraged me to smile. Mum would have spent an hour and a half getting what was left of the ends of my hair to flip and to shine, after washing it over the laundry sink having previously “conditioned it” with her special recipe of olive oil and kerosene, a mixture which made me hesitant to be near naked flames for many years!
Paul was the oldest of the tribe and he was the protector, Leaving school he became a Marist Brother. He left. He married the magnificent Jackie and their two daughters Sophie and Millie are inspirational, intelligent, beautiful young women. Paul lived with motor neurone disease for 19 years. He died on March 25th 2016, the feast of the Annunciation which coincided with Good Friday. A brilliant educator, committed to public education, he achieved an inspirational level of respect across a wide range of people. His memorial at the Great Hall at Sydney University was attended by luminaries from every walk of life. Both he and Peter were awarded the Order of Australia. To be asked to speak at his memorial has been one of the greatest honours of my life.
And at the piano is my mentor and great friend Sharon who died in January 2016. She was Peter’s soul mate and his greatest and best critic. In her autobiography “Blood on the keys” she describes him as the great platonic love of her life and it was a reciprocal arrangement! Sharon had the capacity to shoot from the hip and hit right between the eyes every time. She definitely did not suffer fools gladly! She railed against the Catholic Church being more totally out of range than free range and in the end, in her inimitable form, insisted on receiving the last rites from a priest and being buried from the local Catholic Cathedral. She had a list of celebrants who were absolutely NOT to be invited to preside and her choice of celebrant, a wonderful , dear good friend of Peter’s came to Newcastle from Moree to do the gig!
And then there are the living! Our children, Patricia Grace, Kenneth Charles, Megan Elizabeth and Joseph Charles. Not only have they brought us joy in their childhood but they continue to bring us love and wonder through the choices they have made as adults. Patricia, married to Jeff is Mother to Gabrielle, Eliza and Darcy and her marriage to Jeff brought us the gift of our bonus grandchild Joshua. Patricia, known to all as Trish, spoke with such heartfelt dignity of her beloved Uncle Paul in the Great Hall of Sydney University, holding the assembled throng of “luminaries” spell bound! Ken,brought us the astounding Carrie! Beautiful, talented, dancer and mother of our grandson Oscar who is so much like his Father it is often like watching a re-run. Of course he is also like his Mum, much more comfortable with singing and dancing than his Dad ever was. Kenneth, known to all as Ken,carried his beloved Uncle Paul into and out of the Great Hall having been unable to attend his Uncle Peter’s funeral. Megan Elizabeth brought us Chris and their little boy, Jacob, our youngest grandchild is something else! Talking before he was three, he reminds me of the stories Mum would tell of her first born Paul who was talking at birth (almost) who was inquisitive, adventurous and full of energy. The gene continues. In addition to his mother’s Irish, German, English heritage, his Father’s connection to the Wiradjuri people makes him a truly unique addition to the family tree!
And then there is Joseph Charles. Freshly graduated from uni. A writer with the skills of his grandfather. Patient, gentle, who spoke the acknowledgement of Country at his Uncles Paul’s funeral and who, with his two sisters, helped carry Peter to his place of rest, remains attentive to his “ageing parents” making all the connections of history and spirit which are so much a part of what makes each of us “eternal”.
When Mum and Dad were married on Boxing Day 1942, Mum’s bouquet was like a waterfall of frangipanis. Every Boxing Day there would be sprays of frangis around the house, having been picked from the big tree in the front garden. Most of us have managed, at one time or another to have at least one frangipani tree in our gardens. I have included the picture of the flower in my own front garden because to me it represents all the words I have written here and what I believe life and death are about. The stunning, simple beauty of the flower, the subtlety of the changes in colour from the centre to the starkness of the white majority are like life’s changes to me resting as they do on the truth of the blackness of the onlooker’s experience of the loss of a deeply loved on in death. I find comfort in this image.
Even though much of this wordy, wordy post has focussed on the past it is the living who will keep the story alive. It is the genetic connection but more than that it is the spiritual connection that enables this. It is the noticing of the traces of those who have gone before us, a piece of music, a flower, a moment of silence, a flickering flame, a passing shadow, the sound of birds, the timing of same,the smile on a young face, the colour of sparkling eyes and stillness that moves us to wholeness and gratitude.
I’m not sure if that is God, and many of those who have come after me would say, without fear, it absolutely isn’t but it is something!