My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.
The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.
By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the…
This weekend we’re attending a family reunion in Anglesea. Just before lunch was served, we sat in a room full of relatives and listened as one of our cousins shared a reflection on relationships among family.
He said, “Think about tthe friendships and relationships you have. Consider the negative, the strained, and the unhealthy…”
“Never mind about the unhealthy,” I muttered. The cousin sitting beside me laughed.
“Can you imagine if they all went Marie Kondo on me?” I continued.
“Does she bring me joy?”
“No, she brings sarcasm, snark, inappropriate humour and painful honesty.”
Just for context, the world was still in the grip of the Great Depression, Hitler had not yet risen to power in Germany, Thomas Edison had just passed away, and Al Capone had just been sent to prison for tax evasion. Don Bradman was playing cricket for Australia and Phar Lap had won
My father grew up in Rotterdam in The Netherlands before moving to Australia with his parents and sisters. Life was certainly different after WWII, and even more different on the other side of the world where the seasons were back to front, everyone spoke English, and water swirled down the drain in the opposite direction.
If someone had told Dad in 1951 that those were not the biggest changes he would encounter in his life, he probably wouldn’t have believed them. There was, however, so much more to come, such as:
Marriage. Dad and Mum married in 1953 and enjoyed almost 58 years together.
Four amazing and incredibly talented kids.
A change of career from industrial chemistry to bookstore owner.
Digital books and music.
Dad has taken it all in his stride. He hasn’t let new things scare him off or make him feel obsolete. Time after time, he has shown his willingness and aptitude to give something new a red hot shot.
He hasn’t always found new technology easy, but once he’s got the hang of it, he’s proven that he can send a text or an email, make a call, and waste time on Facebook and Instagram as effectively as anyone can. He has been studying Biblical Hebrew online. He has the Kindle app on his iPad, on which he reads the books his daughter has written, which he has purchased online from Amazon. He also uses the iPad to listen to his son’s sermons and keep in touch with his relatives around the world. His grandchildren send him pictures of their kids via instant message, and he saves them on his phone to look at them again later.
I’m proud of my dad. Things aren’t always easy for him now, especially health-wise, but he’s still going and he’s still doing his best to enjoy all those things that make his life interesting and entertaining.
At the age of 87, he is not only the father of four but also grandfather of seven and great-grandfather to six.
He’s had a quiet day today, but he has been spoilt with a few special treats and received some phone calls from friends and family that he has really enjoyed. We’ve enjoyed some time together, too, and I treasure the moments where we can still just hang out and enjoy each other’s company.
I know it won’t last forever. Nothing does.
But my dad is still on the wicket with a score of 87, not out. Howzat?
Today is celebrated as Mother’s’ Day in Australia and many other places around the world. My mother passed away in 2011, but today I want to pay tribute to her as the most influential person in my development and career as a bookworm.
I inherited my love of books and reading from both my parents, but it was Mum who put the consistent effort in to enabling my reading habit.
I surprised my mother – and probably everyone else, now that I think of it – by being able to read when I was three years old. In a manner entirely consistent with how I would behave for the rest of my life, I picked her up on skipping words and sentences when she was reading to me. I can understand her doing that – I’ve read the same book to kids a bazillion times, too, and it does wear a little thin. Back then, though, I was probably morally outraged as only a three year old can be when they’re getting shortchanged on a favourite story. When I read back to her the story as it was written on the page, Mum thought I had merely memorised the whole thing. So she chose a new book for me, and I read that one to her, too.
From that time on, Mum was always enthusiastic and active in encouraging me to read widely, and spent many Saturday afternoons driving me to the library so that I could borrow enough books to keep me going for two weeks.
By the time I was ten, I had read all of her Agatha Christie books and many of my grandgather’s Perry Mason and James Bond books, and I had well-loved copies of the Narnia Chronicles and the “Little House” books on my own shelf.
It was then that Mum let me read the old copy of Anne of Green Gables that her own parents had given her. I clearly remember reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island sand saying to her, “I’m going to go there one day.”
“You have no idea how far away that is!” she replied.
“I don’t care. I’m going!” was my response.
I finally did go to PEI and visited Green Gables in 2015, and I wished that I could have told Mum and shown her my photos. I believe she would have been genuinely happy for me, and proud that I had achieved something I had wanted to do since that young age.
I know my mother was proud of me for following her into teaching, and I know she would have been proud as punch of the fact that I became a writer, too.
My career as a poet and author, though, would have been far less likely to happen without the love for books and reading that Mum and Dad modelled and mentored for me, and for that I will always be thankful.
My first book was not born until almost five years after Mum graduated to heaven. I couldn’t write about her passing for several years afterwards, because it was too raw. When I did finish the poem that I wrote for her, I shared it with my father and siblings so that they could share my memory. If they hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t have published it. They did, though, and it enabled me to share part of that last day of her life to which they were not witnesses.
Since ‘July 19, 2011’ was published in ‘Nova’, it has touched and encouraged many people who have lost their mums – and dads, and others close to them. When people tell me that my poetry has touched their heart or affected the way they think about something, that’s when I feel the most fulfilled as a poet. I’m really proud today that Mum’s poem can have that effect on someone else. Although she is gone, her legacy lives on, not just in my memory and my heart, but also in my writing.
It’s impossible to not miss my mother on days like today, and not a day passes that I don’t think of her. So, for Mothers’ Day 2018, I want to share the poem I wrote for her with you. I hope you enjoy it and find it meaningful.
Writing about family can be fraught with danger. The last thing you want to do as a writer is offend or alienate your family, especially if things are already fragile in some way.
That poses a challenge: what happens when there’s something you desperately want to write about? For starters, writers should know to always, always change names and details. If possible, don’t mention names at all. Even when writing about positive feelings or experiences, people who aren’t used to putting themselves out into the public eye might hesitate to have something written about them and published. A great idea for a story or poem should never be pursued at the cost of an important relationship.
When I do write something about friends or family, I make sure they’ve seen it first, and I tell them I’m going to publish it. That way, they can’t say they didn’t know.
For example, I recently wrote a poem after two completely separate events: one was the wedding of my nephew, the other was a conversation with a friend who had recently lost her own nephew in tragic circumstances. The poem, titled My Child, does not mention anyone by name, nor does it mention those particular situations. It is an expression of my feelings – and my friend’s feelings – for those whom we have loved, held, and helped to raise. This is what I sent to “my children” and to my friend, well over a week before I posted it. That same text is what I posted on my writing blog where I published the poem today.
The other alternative, of course, if you feel you must write about something or someone, is to disguise the situation and details enough so they don’t know it’s about them. I’ve written plenty of poems about broken friendships, people in my life who have been determined to cause me trouble, and others who really deserve some special treatment from Karma, but it’s always been presented as me facing an invisible, unnamed challenger or enemy… or a certain black cat named Friday who metes out justice to people who really deserve it. It is not possible for anyone to identify who I was writing about at the time, and that’s a very good thing.
As a writer, it’s important to protect oneself. The last thing you want is something coming back to haunt you.
And if you’re a friend or family member of a writer, remember that age old piece of advice: Never annoy a writer, or they might put you in a book and kill you. It’s true.
I spent some time in the car with my father today, and as we travelled the presenter on the radio was asking people to call in and talk about family memories and traditions at Christmas time. This was a great opportunity to ask Dad what Christmas was like for him when he was young, so that’s exactly what I did!
My father grew up in Holland during the Depression and World War II. His family were not really poor, but neither were they rich. My grandfather worked very hard to provide for his family, and both he and my grandmother managed their resources carefully.
The house was usually not decorated much for Christmas, but they did have a Christmas tree lit with candles. Dad also remembers the large fir trees that were put up in the churches, almost as tall as the roof. Some were lit with electric lights, but most were lit with candles. As many churches were built of wood, this was a cause of many fires. I can understand how the sight of such a big tree, lit and decorated, in a church would imprint itself on the memory of a young lad.
Christmas was a time when family would visit and often put on Christmas plays for one another. It was usually the children, but sometimes grownups too, who would act out the story of the first Christmas or plays about Sinterklaas and his companion, Swarte Piet. A play like this was usually the only observance of the St Nicholas tradition in my father’s family, although for some Dutch families, Sinterklaas is almost as big a celebration as Christmas itself. By the time Dad was a teenager, it was more common for people to listen to stories or plays on the radio than to perform them at home for their relatives.
Gifts were generally not exchanged by adults, but the children received a book as a gift. Dad also remembers that this was the time of year when children of a certain age – probably 11 or 12 years old – were presented with a Bible of their own by the Sunday School of their church.
I can’t imagine how strange their first Christmas in Australia must have seemed to them in 1951. Even then, it would have been such a world away from how we celebrate Christmas now. Commercialism and materialism have seen to that.
Having just turned 86, Dad celebrates Christmas on the other side of the world in the heat of summer, with trees illuminated by LED lights, a plethora of Christmas movies and ‘Carols by Candlelight’ concerts on TV . Family is still a focal point for all of us – my grandparents’ values have been firmly imprinted on us in that way, even if we do indulge in giving and receiving gifts that are generally luxuries. Dad, his sisters, and their families are spread across this enormous continent, so visiting happens via Skype and phone calls, while photos and news are shared on social media.
I do like to think, though, that there is still a sense of wonder at a pretty Christmas tree being lit up at night, and I hope that people stop to hear and reflect on the story of Christmas that goes beyond reindeer, presents and “being good”.
I spent most of today with family, welcoming my new great-nephew to the family. It was a day full of love, laughter and baby cuddles… and lots of photos.
Holding my beautiful baby boy made me overflow with all sort of love. Seeing my 86 year old dad holding him made us all more than a little emotional. Another picture of four generations – my dad, my brother, a niece and a baby boy – is a wonderful blessing that many families don’t see.
I have also observed multiple times today how awful I look. That has been my first reaction to every photo I am in.
In addition to chronic pain and depression, too many months of anguish, stress and anxiety have taken their toll. I have cried every day for at least 250 days. I have feared and I have despaired. And it shows.
BUT I have also survived. It doesn’t really matter how crapful I end up looking. I’m stronger than everything that has tried and still tries to bring me down.
My heart and soul have bled onto pages and screens, but my words have touched, encouraged and inspired people on the way. My writing have been praised, and my books have won awards.
So when you look at me or see pictures and think I don’t look so great, you just remember that I’ve earned it.
I have a friend that I love a lot. We live thousands of kilometres apart, but we spend part of every day talking with each other. It’s a beautiful friendship that has grown out of a chance meeting, a random response to a random tweet.
When I visited Canada last year, I spent some time at Sean’s house.
I remember we were both nervous about finally meeting each other after talking online for so long, but that first hug was just incredible. The next few days were proof that our friendship was real. Even our partners commented on how it seemed like Sean and I had known each other forever.
On the morning that we left, the mood was sombre. Goodbyes were tearful. As I was about to go, he said, “Please don’t leave.”
My response was immediate and honest. “I’ll never completely be gone. You’re my brother now. I’ll be back.”
When I do go back in September this year, Sean and I are going to have our own little adoption ceremony. What we have is a friendship more valuable than we ever realised it would be when we started joking with one another on Twitter way back when.
Today, when I signed into the instant messenger that we both use, I found these words from him.
He may have known how timely his words were, but I don’t think he realises just how healing and restoring it was to read these words after a tough week in which I had confronted some tough challenges, both professionally and personally.
It’s so incredibly good to know you have someone who has your back, no matter what critics and problems life might throw at you. Sean is by no means the only one of my friends who does that, but I wouldn’t want to be without him. He has his own very special place in my heart, and nobody could replace him.
Thank you, Sean, from the bottom of my heart, for your words and for being an amazing friend and brother.