Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Stir Of Echoes.

My grandfather owned a Gladstone bag - a robust, leather hand held case with stainless steel locks and rings for a shoulder strap. In the 21 years I knew him, this Gladstone bag was a recognizable fixture - a mark of the man if you will - which he took to work with him every night of his 40+ year career with the State Electricity Commission in Victoria, Australia. 

Whenever I went to visit Nana and Pa, this Gladstone bag would always be in the same place - by the fridge in the kitchen of their Langford Street home - ready and waiting. And on the nights he was on duty, it would be duly packed - a meal placed inside for him by my Nana along with his toiletries, tooth brush and paste, a stainless steel comb, his wallet and keys. Off he would go to work as a night watchman.

For years, I thought this Gladstone bag had been lost in the moves my grandparents made after Pa retired from the Commission in 1983. 

Their first move was from the Langford Street home to a newly built unit in Saxsons Drive in the mid 80's. As often happens, there is a tendency to down scale to save space or because things are no longer needed. 

My Nana further down scaled after my Pa died in  1993 as she sought to de-clutter. She did so again just a couple of years ago when Nana decided her health and well being would be best served by moving into a independent living unit. The Saxsons Drive unit was sold. 

It wasn't until my Nana asked me, very recently, if I would like to have it that I realized the Gladstone bag remained very much in her treasured possessions and, of course, I was honoured to accept her offer. 

For me, the Gladstone bag was such a tangible reminder of who my grandfather was and I reassured Nana that I would treasure it as much as she had for all those years after Pa died. 

Dad delivered to me during a visit home in October 2012 and, right away, I felt the impact of now being a custodian of Pa's Gladstone bag. It was then, and is now, a little worse for wear. The interior has a lining which has torn a little from the seams and the leather needs attention. But as is the case with all things that were made back in the day, it remains sturdy and functional. 

When I got it, inside I found an old stainless steel comb - the same one that Pa always took to work with him. It still has the faint whiff of bryll cream though I am sure that my mind is conjuring up much of that scent. There were some old keys that I assume fit locks in the old Langford Street home. There was an old school bottle opener which I have proudly attached to my keyring and now use proudly with my own beers and, perhaps most significantly, the last wallet Pa ever owned remained inside the bag.

The leather wallet is a veritable time capsule containing ephemera that corresponds with a period in the early 90's when Pa was told he had cancer. There's a card from the Latrobe Valley Hospital showing his blood type, dated 1991. This corresponds to the initial medical work up Pa went through in preparation for the rigorous treatment he would undergo later in an effort to stave off the cancer. There's a scrap of paper with the name and contact details of the Veteran Affairs Liaison at the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne written in Pa's own hand writing. This piece in particular is significant as I hardly saw much of Pa's handwriting. 

Whenever Nana and Pa went away on their yearly grey ghost migration, the post cards I got from them were always written in Nana's handwriting. I think there is one post card (which I still have) that's written in Pa's handwriting. That is why things like this are so precious - both as a tangible sample of Pa's own hand but also his state of mind at the time this was written.  

And there's his Returned Servicemen's League Membership Card - which, ironically, was valid until the end of '93 - 10 months after he died. 

Curiously, there's also a receipt for accommodation for 2 adults at the Cardwell Marine Hotel, dated July 1973 - 2 months before I was born. How that survived in Pa's possession for so long is not surprising because Pa was always keeping receipts like that.

But among all these things that have survived the two decades since his passing, one piece of paper carries something more precious to me than any jewel. 

By the middle of 1992, the writing was on the wall for my Pa. The cancer - having metastasised into his right shoulder when it was first discovered - made the inexorable march through his body. We all knew how the situation was going to play itself out but I don't think I ever understood what was going on in Pa's mind. Deep inside a pocket of the wallet, separate from all the other bits and pieces, cards and reminders was this scrap of paper. 

Written in Pa's own handwriting, it is a passage which I can't determine is original or borrowed. Regardless, its impact is powerful. I can only guess that it was written some time in 1992, at what was undoubtedly a dark hour in the life of my Pa. Faced with the brutal reality of his own mortality, knowing that his remaining time on this earth was short, his focus remained on that which was most important to him. His wife of 48 years...

...and possibly the Butcher.

Having met during the worst days of WW2, George and Dorothy Mayes experienced the full spectrum of the human experience. They raised three good children of whom they lost one far too early. They built a home and a life in a proud working class town and revelled in the lives of their children's children. They travelled together, looked after each other, laughed, cried and and encouraged each other. And in the end, there was this...a small devotional script, a message of feeling from the inner most thoughts of my grandfather's mind. 

These are the stir of echoes that continue in me...


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