Remembrance of things past

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

A FEW months ago I was in the car with my parents when my Dad started telling me a story from his adolescence that I hadn’t heard before.

I thought I knew all of his stories, but that day I discovered there are some tales not so easily told, even some 50 years after they happened.

Even my Mum, who’s known him her whole life, had only learned about it the year before.

If you flew a helicopter over the landscape of my Dad’s teenage years, it would look a bit like a war zone in the aftermath of a most terrible battle.

Smoke rising from shattered structures once recognisable as buildings. Emptiness. Despair.

He grew up in a corner terrace house facing Windy Hill in Essendon, with his loving grandparents, parents and two siblings. By the time he was 14 years old, nearly everybody was gone. Dead, dying, disappeared, lost.

The disintegration of his family unit was startlingly rapid, most of it vanishing quickly in the space of only two years.

By the summer of 1965, my Dad and his younger brother were alone in that big terrace house once filled with the sounds of familiar voices and adult footsteps on the stairs.


Dad surrounded by his grandparents and father (1951)

Within a few weeks they would be turned out of this home, but for a short time it was still theirs. An anchor to a simple family life already past, never to return.

Around this time, my Dad remembers a family friend would visit most days, drink beer and chat to him. He was an Army man like my grandfather and Dad began to regard this man as a father figure in the absence of all others who might fit the bill.

Dad told me that his family had a dog then who had become pregnant and had given birth to three tiny pups.

My Dad has a tough exterior but he’s actually a massive softy when it comes to animals. I’ve seen him hand-feeding magpies and worrying over the welfare of their young.

He watched over his little canine family too, taking special care of them. I can see him now, his sweet face hovering over their sleeping spot out the back of the house. He would have treasured them and wanted to make sure they were alright.

But they weren’t going to be alright. Not in this story, pulled from the wreckage of his teenage years. I couldn’t see his face as he told it but there was something in the tone of his voice that made me sit up straight.

I leaned in despite myself. I didn’t want to hear anymore but it wasn’t for me to stop him in the telling.

The family friend was visiting late one night. He went out to use the outdoor loo and came back with a story of his own.

He’d killed the pups, he told my Dad roughly. With the back of an axe. They had distemper, he said.

I’d known something bad was coming but hearing the worst thing is different to merely imagining it. Hearing makes it real and you can’t wash it away no matter how hard you might wish it.

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My Dad can still remember reeling in shock and horror as he took in this news. That this man who he’d begun to trust and rely on should commit such an act of senseless violence was shattering.

He didn’t think that his pups were sick at all. Killing them was about something else. Something darker inside the man’s mind.

Looking back, Dad can see that during this period he was trying in small ways to survive the things that were happening to him. Going to school. Playing footy and cricket. Tending to the newborn animals.

But stripped of the protective forces of his family, he was as vulnerable to the impact of an axe-blow as those poor, defenseless pups. Who could he tell anyway? There was no one left to listen.

And we can’t ask the man why he did it, no matter how often my Dad has tried to understand; the dead take their secrets to the grave with them. Let them stay there.

Not for the first time, I wanted to reach across time and rescue that lonely, young boy. Take all of his pain away. I can’t fathom it, what his life must have been like then.

I wish that I’d been there to protect him, to help him somehow. But the past is the past and Dad knows and accepts that better than anyone.

Dad in 1961.

Dad in 1961

I’ve asked him so many times why he isn’t more sad or angry about this time and he shrugs enigmatically as though the movement could cast off all the hurt he experienced as a boy.

I project my own pain for the boy he was onto the man he is today. But it’s not my story to shape, I’m just passing it on with his blessing.

My Dad is passionate about family history now, collecting and cataloguing hundreds of wonderful ‘lost’ images for all the family to see. They’re a joy to him and a gift to us, so we can remember his people as they were and connect with his life before and after the reckoning of 1963-65.

It’s a more recent project for him, starting only in the last few years. I think he uses the pictures to reconstruct the life he once had and make it whole again.

The happy times, when all of the people he loved were still together and he could just be a boy who loved aeroplanes and playing sport and had his beautiful family wrapped around him, holding him tight.

* For my brave, wonderful Dad, thank you for trusting me to write about your life. I love you.


11 thoughts on “Remembrance of things past

  1. My mum, grandparents and great grandparents all grew up and lived in the Essendon area, and owned a shoe shop in Rose St. My grandparents still live there now, so I know the area well.
    The loving words you used and the way you told the story truly describe what a strong and courageous man he must be. x

    • Hi Alice, so great to hear from you! My parents and their families all hail from there too. I think of it as my spiritual home. We have some family still there and I live fairly close. Great history. Thanks for the kind words – my Dad is a true survivor. I hope I did justice to his courage here xx
      p.s. Was it Landgren’s Shoes?

      • Definitely did it justice! Been following the blog for a while now (been meaning to comment for a while!), but was still surprised when you mentioned Windy Hill!
        Absolutely love the way you write, and stumbled across the blog somehow, after reading soemthing my aunty sent me. My cousin is deaf and a lot of what you write really resonates with me and our experiences being around his bubbly personality. Unfortunately he lives in England so I don’t get to see him much, but will see him for Christmas this year. Can’t wait!
        Yes, landgren’s shoes 🙂

      • Hi Alice, thanks again! I see that you and Dad have swapped some stories too. I’m so glad that some of what I write here resonates for you, especially as you have personal experience of deafness. It’s so great you’re seeing your cousin later this year. Please keep following and commenting, I love hearing from you. Made me smile to read your comments x

      • Hi there Alice.
        What a coincidence. Yes our family always used the Landgren’s shop for our shoes. We lived in Napier Street across from the football ground and mum Shirley would take me down (starting in 1956) to the shop in Rose street to be fitted up with my school shoes (hopefully for the year). The fun for me used to be having the shoe size took used to show my size that I was just before the school year started. That was high technology and one of the features that made the shop so famous in the area and even to people who by word of mouth came from even further away. It was a ritual that later included my brother when he started at Essendon Primary in 1961 and continued even when I went to Essendon Tech in 1963.
        Mum loved her visit to the shop and chatted with other parents and the family staff that buzzed around. When in Rose street I always recognise the store and say “that was my shoe shop”.
        Although Melinda does not remember, when we became parents and were living in Gladstone Park, we would troop down to the shop for our own kids for a number of years.
        On the way back from Rose Street we would stop into another store maybe Beards and buy a school bag (satchel with shoulder strap) and then gran would take it to a shoe repair man to have my initials RJH embossed in gold so I would not lose it at school because there were so many of them.
        A few years back I noticed one of the Landgren brothers was in the Sunday paper celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary I think.
        Great days and great memories.

      • Hi Robert,
        Thanks very much for your message. How lovely that you have such fond memories of my grandparent’s shoe shop. I too have wonderful memories of going there for my school shoes. I read your message to my Grandfather and Nan this evening, and both were overjoyed listening to what you wrote about their shop. They were very sad when they closed it in 2007 after 58 years, but are always so happy when they hear from their regular customers over the years. Unfortunately my grandfather’s brother (the other Landgren brother who worked at the shop) passed away last week, so your message certainly cheered my grandfather up after a sad week. It was my Grandpa and Nan who you saw in the Herald Sun as well! I actually sent that article and picture in to be published.
        Thank you so much for sharing that Robert.

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