Back in the summer, when Mum and Dad were over helping us get settled in the new place, planting trees and watching the kids, Pa took his tumble while trying to deliver his wife to her doctor’s appointment. 97 years old, stubborn as the proverbial mule, insistent on being his wife’s caretaker and chauffeur as he stared down a century. The fall put him into hospital and ultimately them both into a home, where Pa spent his final few months. At the time, I was doing an online writing course with the Uni of Iowa, looking at how we write about identity and social issues. My first assignment was to write a profile and examine the identity of the person I had chosen to write about. Pa was forefront on my mind – for the second time since moving to Germany, I had done the ‘just in case’ goodbye call; he was adamant we’d see each other at Christmas. So I chose him to profile, especially the German part of him that he inhabited with such pride I always assumed he was as German as the classical music he loved to listen to.
Pa was always supportive of my writing, reading it, asking after it, pushing me along with his crisp, patented ‘terrific m’ girl’. I realise, now that I am in possession of his doorstop memoirs, that he loved it too, and my goodness, could he tell a story.
So here it is.
A part of my Pa is German, perhaps a bigger part than is on paper, certainly a bigger part than is on his passport. Even though he signed up to sail to North Africa and join the fight against Rommel, a man he has often said was an extraordinary strategist (he tells an excellent story about being the first person to undergo a surgical procedure on board the Queen Elizabeth). Even though his surname no longer belies its German roots, changed by his mother during a nasty divorce or because of post-war anti-German sentiment, no one really knows. Even though he has spent his 97 years in Australia and has never, now never will, set foot on German soil. A part of my Pa is German, so much so that as a child I assumed he was, assumed he had the language tucked up somewhere in a practical, capable, flighty mind. Assumed a bigger part of myself was German, more than the 1/8 my father would routinely, proudly, tongue in cheek – although I missed that, as a child – remind me of.
Pa was born and grew up in Sydney, in the north-western suburbs, in an Australia different to the one I was born in sixty-five years later. He was curious, capable. He still is. And stubborn as hell, stubborn to a fault. He tells the story of how, as a three-year-old, he took himself off to inspect the train-tracks that ran near his home. He planned on climbing a post but was thwarted by a concerned neighbour; ‘I just wanted to see how they worked, my girl,’ he told me. (He tells stories like an Australian, leaning back and into the yarn, adding colour where perhaps there wasn’t much before, but that doesn’t matter because what’s a good yarn without a bit of colour?) He still wants to know how things work. He got onto the internet when he was 90, emailing, joining social media. At 97, his workshop has not long been left behind, full of old clocks he has taken apart and put back together, huge pieces of handmade furniture. His 500-page memoir is complete, bound and published, sent out to family members and full of long-forgotten names and faces. He used to drive my mother crazy by finding all sorts of things to fix when he visited, things she was quietly certain weren’t broken.
Like so many other Australians, Pa’s mother was of English stock, but it was his father’s German side that he laced into his very self. He identified with being German the way descendants of immigrants identify with a motherland they know of only from stories; proudly, passionately, absolutely. He still thinks Germans do everything the right way. When my now-husband, a German, met Pa for the first time, he peppered him with questions about why Germany is so successful, and soliloquised at length about what Australia could learn from Germany. My great-great-grandfather was a first generation Australian. He didn’t pass the language onto his own children; I don’t even know what he passed onto his children, but something about the romance of coming from a village in a country on the other side of the world, lit a fire in my Pa for a country he would never see, a language he would never speak, a people he would forever see himself as one of.
My Pa navigated life with a sort of slipshod certainty and a tendency to disappear. Sometimes I see him as a figure with dancing feet, the same way I see his great-grandfather, whose dancing feet carried him onto a boat and into the new world. I wonder if that curiosity about the world and the way it works and that ability to simply leave, is genetic. I wonder if I inherited it too. Pa disappeared into army service, too young but too stubborn to be told no, and nearly lost the engagement of my Nana, his first wife. He disappeared from that marriage, too, leaving behind two sons and a rift that, like all of that kind, became a kind of traversable scar tissue, helped by grandchildren and that genetic stubbornness threaded through his sons who wanted those grandchildren to know their Pa. And know him we did. One of my earliest memories of Christmas, is running into the guest room to show Pa my new ballet doll from Santa. As kids, we would sit on his lap and write ‘stop smoking’ all over his arms and legs with biro. We told him he would die if he kept going, and I can hear him now saying, ‘is that right?’. It worked, he did stop smoking. He gave up the habit in his mid-seventies, when most people wouldn’t care anymore, couldn’t rustle up the willpower. A couple of summers, we made the drive north, and visited him in the beach town in northern New South Wales that he and his second wife settled in, where a koala lived in a back garden that always smelt of mint and gardenia. Pa would make us milkshakes, taking our orders like he was behind the bar. He had a milkshake maker we were all pretty sure was the coolest thing you could have in the kitchen. Whenever we went swimming down at Flynn’s Beach, where the surf was big and rough, he would float backwards over the huge swells as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Licking the salt from my lips, fresh from being dumped by a crashing wave, I’d scream, ‘Pa! Behind you!’, certain the wave he was cresting, prone, would break on him. It never did. He always emerged the other side grinning, his bristly moustache and neat hair glinting in the saltwater.
When my parents travelled, Pa would drive the five hours down to Sydney to look after us. He made our school lunches, all three of them, drove us to and from school every day, and looked after the menagerie of animals we had; guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, a couple of horses, budgies. He used to drive at a flat 50 km/h, rumbling down the street in my Mum’s Volvo station wagon. He wore white knee-high socks every day, and was up each morning well before any of us, moving around the kitchen like a spring. As far back as I can remember, I always snuck a look into his little black toiletry bag, to see his old shaving brush and hair cream and Brut cologne, or was it Old Spice? Maybe both. But he was always loyal to Imperial Leather soap; I think he still is. He combed his hair every morning. Sometimes, as a young girl, he’d let me comb it. I had forgotten that until now.
A few weeks ago, I got a call. Pa had fallen and hurt his leg badly. He his back in hospital now, pissed off at himself; being still, being waited on, being told what to do, all which he hates. The last time he was in hospital everyone was sure he wouldn’t come out. I called him from our apartment in Bavaria, where we were living at the time – coincidentally, just two hours from the village his ancestors came from – and he told me he loved me. I was certain, then, he would go, certain he had accepted his century goal was one he would not reach. He had never before told me so explicitly, had never before stepped so far out of the taciturn, emotion-less times and family from which he came. But he didn’t die. He left hospital and threw himself into caring for his wife who had been diagnosed with dementia. He turned 94, 95, 96. We visited them both in the beach town of northern NSW where they both still live, when I was pregnant, to tell them face to face of an impending great grandchild. Pa slapped his thigh and said, ‘how about that!’ and has not missed one birthday or Christmas since becoming a Great Pa. Not one. He is yet to meet his great grandson, but on the phone the other day, when I called because, again, I was certain it might be the last time we would speak, he told me he can’t wait to see us at Christmas. It will be by the beach, the kids will love it, and Pa will pepper my husband with questions about Germany, say ‘wie geht’s’ and ‘danke’ to my children.
My children are like him; half German, half Australian, and our family lives between the two countries, the two languages, the two cultures. It is too soon to tell which country will fill their heart, which language they will favour, which culture they will feel more at home within. Too soon to tell in which direction they will be pulled. It is unlikely they will remember their Great Pa, or know what they have in common with a man who has lived his nearly 100 years in two countries without ever setting foot in one.