This Old House …

Photo by Vince Gx on Unsplash

My youngest child, my daughter, finished school last week.
She also declared she was leaving home next summer to go on a work-travel adventure. Suddenly the theoretical concept of being an empty-nester was a lot less academic and a lot more realistic.

I looked around our family home.
This old house.
It’s huge. Lot’s of bedrooms. Lot’s of family photos all over the walls.
Lots of memories. Soon to be empty except for my wife and I rambling around in its empty halls and living spaces. It’s a big house and needs lots of maintenance and care. It has a large garden too. Lots to do.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to hang on to it? Maybe we should down-size and let another young family use it and enjoy it? I love this home. The view over the mountains are spectacular. Today I look out at snow on the mountains. The neighbours are great but, like us, are also getting on with their children who are also leaving home.

Should we down-size? Where would we go? What should we do?

Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

My Nan and Pop also had a huge home in the country. They lived through the depression years and like most had huge chicken runs, vegetable gardens and an orchard. I have great memories as a four year old of running though Pop’s endless veggie beds — tomato vines towering over me and pumpkin vines running for days along the ground. He had a lot of fruit trees — all sorts. Stone fruits, apple trees, grape vines. Potatoes. Cucumbers. Everything. Chickens scratching around sometimes startled by the neighbours tom cat which was always prowling around looking for a game. They were lots of fun. A walnut tree so huge my brother and I build a fort up there one summer and gorged ourselves senseless on fruit from the trees below. Nan and Pop’s place was a rural adventure park.

Year’s later I visited Pop during a summer break at uni. Nan had died years earlier. It was different. I was shocked to discover he had poisoned the entire garden.
Literally poisoned everything.
Everything.
Nan’s flowers and bushes.
The grass.
The fruit trees all dug out.
The beautiful veggie garden.
The huge walnut tree chopped up for firewood and stacked in a pile he would never get through.
It was all just dirt.
It was all gone.

“Pop, why???!!!” I asked.
“I’m too old to keep up with it and I’ll be buggered if I watch it go to shit”, he replied.
“Jesus…” I thought.
I could only sit down and wonder.
And for years I've wondered.
Is this what you do when you get old and live alone? When things get hard or perhaps more difficult?
Pop could have got someone in to help with garden — he had plenty of money (he won the lottery twice — another story). But no — he’d rather look at dirt than watch some young buck care for his garden.
He’d rather sit on his veranda shake his fist with a great “Fuck You!” at getting old.
He became bitter and angry.
And he raged against getting old.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas — 1914–1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My home, this home, has great memories. Years ago I built a huge wood fired pizza oven with the boys. I didn’t know what I was doing but reckoned I’d work it out. Besides it was never about having the oven — it was about sharing the experience with my kids. We’d learn how to lay bricks and mortar.
We learned about concreting and rendering. We understood the fire bricks and mortar that were required to lay the hearth. And we had huge goofy grins on our faces when we pulled this thing up out of the ground, us covered in cement, mud and sweat. This thing was built to outlast religion!
At the first true firing we reckoned we could have forged steel in that beast and we fist-pumped the air with triumphant cries at what we had done!
I still remember Leanne and Sonya laughing at our unbounded glee.
And pizza never tasted so good as what when it comes out of our wood oven!
Beautiful!
Our oven. Our home. My family.

Photo by Tyler Finck on Unsplash

Visiting my mum and dad is hard now. Not physically hard but emotionally hard. They’re nearly 80 and their health this last decade has been terrible. Frankly that my father is still alive is beyond the miracle of modern medical science. He’s on his third pace-maker. His diabetes has killed his kidneys.
His heart only pumps 20% of the volume it should from a terrible heart attack he had years ago. He just had cataracts recently removed. His liver is a mess.
They still live at home but I really wish they wouldn’t.

The house is full of rubbish. They can’t keep up with the cleaning. The ceiling is covered in mould, the curtains have literally rotted off the hanger. The veranda stair rail has fallen into the garden waiting for someone to fall with it. You can’t see it anymore because the vines have consumed it.
I tried to organise cleaners for them when it became clear that they were going down with the ship.
“You can stick that up your arse!”, my mum cried.
“I’ll be buggered if anyone is going to clean this house except me!”, she exclaimed.

Yep — Pop’s daughter all right.
So. Bloody. Stubborn.
That drive home I wondered. And wondered. I don’t know what to do about them. How do you help your parents when they don’t want it? Surely a Good Son would work out how to give them the help they need without causing a schism. The guilt you carry!
Later, an older work colleague made a quiet observation to me. He had faced the exact same problem.
He simply said “Who is suffering here? You or them?”
Hmmm. Good question.

My daughter didn’t come home last night. She stayed at a friends place.
She prefers to stay there than at home these days. Apparently we aren’t the Fun Parents anymore. Leanne and I watched the Olympics with the dog. We went to bed early because it’s cold. I suppose I could have pottered around for a bit but didn’t really feel the need. There’s some new pictures I wanted to hang on the wall but… maybe some other time.
I should invite the boys around and we can fire up the pizza oven, invite some friends around. Have a laugh and a beer or two. They’re busy kids so I’ll need to coordinate calendars but it will be great with Spring just around the corner.

The house behind us just sold for a fortune. I hadn’t being paying attention to the property market. I was hanging out the washing and just happened to over-hear the auction in their back yard.
Sold for just shy of a million dollars!
Wow — what could we do with a million dollars?
Some big adventure somewhere!

I’ve been learning to sail and am obsessed with the idea of beating up and down the Australian coast for a few years.
Fishing. Catching mud crabs. Swinging on a mooring. Watching sunsets on a beautiful sloop …
“Yes dear…” says Leanne over her knitting as I show her yet another YouTube video of someone somewhere doing that same thing. Leanne is a bit of a white-picket-fences-nice-cottage kind of person. That’s lovely. She’s very much a home-maker.

But Man! I need some adventure, something a bit wild!
I don’t want to rot to the bilges swinging on a mooring. I don’t want to go down with the ship like Mum and Dad unless it’s me on a sloop in the Caribbean screaming into a hurricane with the wind between my teeth like Captain Dobbin.
I want to rage, rage against the dying of the light!
I want to shake my fist with a “Fuck you!” like Pop!
But I want to do it with dignity and joy and not swigging the bitter dregs of a rancid pride, a pride which kills slowly and eats the soul.

Getting old doesn’t need to be terrible — it can be beautiful if you think about it differently which I’ve though a fair bit about.

This old house is full of happy memories.
But it is just a house.
Our home is me, Leanne and the kids — wherever that is.
We don’t need to go down with this ship.
Will we sell up and let go?
Probably.
But not yet.

Captain Dobbin

Kenneth Slessor

CAPTAIN Dobbin, having retired from the South Seas
In the dumb tides of 1900, with a handful of shells,
A few poisoned arrows, a cask of pearls,
And five thousand pounds in the colonial funds,
Now sails the street in a brick villa, ‘Laburnum Villa’,
In whose blank windows the harbour hangs
Like a fog against the glass,
Golden and smoky, or stoned with a white glitter,
And boats go by, suspended in the pane,
Blue Funnel, Red Funnel, Messageries Maritimes,

Lugged down the port like sea-beasts taken alive
That scrape their bellies on sharp sands,
Of which particulars Captain Dobbin keeps
A ledger sticky with ink,
Entries of time and weather, state of the moon,
Nature of cargo and captain’s name,
For some mysterious and awful purpose
Never divulged.
For at night, when the stars mock themselves with lanterns,
So late the chimes blow loud and faint

Like a hand shutting and unshutting over the bells,
Captain Dobbin, having observed from bed
The lights, like a great fiery snake, of the Comorin
Going to sea, will note the hour
For subsequent recording in his gazette.
But the sea is really closer to him than this,
Closer to him than a dead, lovely woman,
For he keeps bits of it, like old letters,
Salt tied up in bundles
Or pressed flat,
What you might call a lock of the sea’s hair,
So Captain Dobbin keeps his dwarfed memento,
His urn-burial, a chest of mummied waves,
Gales fixed in print, and the sweet dangerous countries
Of shark and casuarina-tree,
Stolen and put in coloured maps,
Like a flask of seawater, or a bottled ship,
A schooner caught in a glass bottle;
But Captain Dobbin keeps them in books,
Crags of varnished leather
Pimply with gilt, by learned mariners
And masters of hydrostatics, or the childish tales
Of simple heroes, taken by Turks or dropsy.
So nightly he sails from shelf to shelf
Or to the quadrants, dangling with rusty screws,
Or the hanging-gardens of old charts,
So old they bear the authentic protractor-lines,
Traced in faint ink, as fine as Chinese hairs.

Over the flat and painted atlas-leaves
His reading-glass would tremble,
Over the fathoms, pricked in tiny rows,
Water shelving to the coast.
Quietly the bone-rimmed lens would float
Till, through the glass, he felt the barbèd rush
Of bubbles foaming, spied the albicores,
The blue-fined admirals, heard the wind-swallowed cries
Of planters running on the beach
Who filched their swags of yams and ambergris,
Birds’ nests and sandalwood, from pastures numbed
By the sun’s yellow, too meek for honest theft;
But he, less delicate robber, climbed the walls,
Broke into dozing houses
Crammed with black bottles, marish wine
Crusty and salt-corroded, fading prints,
Sparkle-daubed almanacs and playing cards,
With rusty cannon, left by the French outside,
Half-buried in sand,
Even to the castle of Queen Pomaree
In the Yankee’s footsteps, and found her throne-room piled
With golden candelabras, mildewed swords,
Guitars and fowling-pieces, tossed in heaps
With greasy cakes and flung-down calabashes.

Then Captain Dobbin’s eye,
That eye of wild and wispy scudding blue,
Voluptuously prying, would light up
Like mica scratched by gully-suns,
And he would be fearful to look upon
And shattering in his conversation;
Nor would he tolerate the harmless chanty,
No ‘Shenandoah’, or the dainty mew
That landsmen offer in a silver dish
To Neptune, sung to pianos in candlelight.
Of these he spoke in scorn,
For there was but one way of singing ‘Stormalong’,
He said, and that was not really singing,
But howling, rather — shrieked in the wind’s jaws
By furious men; not tinkled in drawing-rooms
By lap-dogs in clean shirts.
And, at these words,
The galleries of photographs, men with rich beards,
Pea-jackets and brass buttons, with folded arms,
Would scowl approval, for they were shipmates, too,
Companions of no cruise by reading-glass,
But fellows of storm and honey from the past —
‘The Charlotte, Java, ‘,’
‘Knuckle and Fred at Port au Prince,’
‘William in his New Rig,’
Even that notorious scoundrel, Captain Baggs,
Who, as all knew, owed Dobbin Twenty Pounds
Lost at fair cribbage, but he never paid,
Or paid ‘with the slack of the tops’l sheets’
As Captain Dobbin frequently expressed it.
There were their faces, grilled a trifle now,
Cigar-hued in various spots
By the brown breath of sodium-eating years,
On quarter-decks long burnt to the water’s edge,
A resurrection of the dead by chemicals.
And the voyages they had made,
Their labours in a country of water,
Were they not marked by inadequate lines
On charts tied up like skins in a rack?
Or his own Odysseys, his lonely travels,
His trading days, an autobiography
Of angles and triangles and lozenges
Ruled tack by tack across the sheet,
That with a single scratch expressed the stars,
Merak and Alamak and Alpherat,
The wind, the moon, the sun, the clambering sea,

Sails bleached with light, salt in the eyes,
Bamboos and Tahiti oranges,
From some forgotten countless day,
One foundered day from a forgotten month,
A year sucked quietly from the blood,
Dead with the rest, remembered by no more
Than a scratch on a dry chart —
Or when the return grew too choking bitter-sweet
And laburnum-berries manifestly tossed
Beyond the window, not the fabulous leaves
Of Hotoo or canoe-tree or palmetto,
There were the wanderings of other keels,
Magellan, Bougainville and Cook,
Who found no greater a memorial
Than footprints over a lithograph.

For Cook he worshipped, that captain with the sad
And fine white face, who never lost a man
Or flinched a peril; and of Bougainville
He spoke with graceful courtesy, as a rival
To whom the honours of the hunting-field
Must be accorded. Not so with the Spaniard,
Sebastian Juan del Cano, at whom he sneered
Openly, calling him a fool of fortune
Blown to a sailors’ abbey by chance winds
And blindfold currents, who slept in a fine cabin,
Blundered through five degrees of latitude,
Was bullied by mutineers a hundred more,
And woke and found himself across the world.

Coldly in the window,
Like a fog rubbed up and down the glass
The harbour, bony with mist
And ropes of water, glittered; and the blind tide
That crawls it knows not where, nor for what gain,
Pushed its drowned shoulders against the wheel,
Against the wheel of the mill.
Flowers rocked far down
And white, dead bodies that were anchored there
In marshes of spent light.
Blue Funnel, Red Funnel,
The ships went over them, and bells in engine-rooms
Cried to their bowels of flaring oil,
And stokers groaned and sweated with burnt skins,
Clawed to their shovels.
But quietly in his room,
In his little cemetery of sweet essences
With fond memorial-stones and lines of grace,
Captain Dobbin went on reading about the sea.

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Someone who seems to know less as he gets older and needs to read and think more. Needs to write to think. And understand.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire

Someone who seems to know less as he gets older and needs to read and think more. Needs to write to think. And understand.

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