My father was a bit of a raconteur so there were very few stories that we
hadn’t heard before. If anything, we had heard the same stories over and
over so many times that we would have known them verbatim, except that
he was also such an exaggerator, that with each repetition the stories
became bigger and more colourful. Still, we didn’t really mind, as he filled
in a lot of family history and we knew him well enough to sort out the
black and white version of his colourful tales.
A few years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was told
that, “He should get his house in order”. We were very fortunate to be
given this warning as it prepared us all for what was to come.
In his final year I spent most weekends sitting or lying on his bed and we
would talk. He had reached a point where he had accepted the
inevitable, and as a Christian his beliefs had him well prepared. I also
think that his age, and the fact that his body was so frail, had him feeling
quite comfortable with it all. He had time to do the things he needed or
wanted to do and the opportunity to say what needed to be said. He was
at peace with himself.
An interesting thing that I noticed was that his childhood memories
became crystal clear. In the past when he referred to his childhood, he
focused on what had happened, which is to say, he described events
that happened. The difference now I noticed was that his stories involved
how he felt about those events. During this time my father was not in
control, he was not big and he did not speak with authority. His stories
did not have a moral or some hidden advice. These were just the
memories of a small boy, in a big world, trying to make sense of
My father’s stories used to imply how much he knew, how brave and
masculine he was, how proud he was of his ability to work and support
his family. Things were always right or wrong, and he was the Patriarch
and that made him ‘King of the Castle’. I always thought that he was sure
of himself and I believed that he always felt that he was in control.
In his final year, through listening to his stories, I vicariously relived my
father’s childhood with him as the child and me as his best friend.
I won’t go into his personal life stories here, but I do wish to share some
of the things I learned about him during that year.
My father had never felt connected to his own father. He respected him
and learned a lot from him, but his father had never hugged him and had
never told him that he was loved.
Dad did badly in school and left at the age of fourteen to find work. His
father had told him that, “He was too old to be supported and it was time
to make his own way in the world”. He was frightened and alone as he
made his way to a sheep station to work twelve hours a day, for not much
more than room and board.
As a child he was humiliated and often picked on because he was much
shorter than the other boys his age. He tried to use humour to gain
acceptance and later took up music hoping that it would earn him some
credibility or popularity with his peers.
As a young man, he became fed up with being bullied and learned how to
fight. He found a job with a travelling carnival and became a boxer. He
found, ‘Being a man’ very demanding, and learned at an early age that to
survive in a man’s world he would need to be tough. He needed to
compete and was always trying to do better, have better and be better.
Eventually he learned to hide his insecurities and became an expert at
being what he thought the world wanted him to be.
He was always very close to his mother. He loved her dearly. I also
learned that year that his mother had come to Australia as a single
woman of forty (that was probably scandalous in itself, as she would have
been considered to be an old spinster) and pregnant with my father.
My father recalled all that he could remember of his mother’s early
years. They were dirt poor and uneducated. The shame that she carried
and the contempt that she had endured from those around her may have
explained her protectiveness towards my father. His father was actually
his stepfather. He was an older man that his mother had worked for and
later married to give her son a name.
I remember her as having a lot of attitude herself especially towards
‘Class’. She despised snobbery as much as she despised the fact that
she was treated as low class. In her later years she was a feisty woman.
At eighty, she could still tear you to shreds if you offended her or looked
down on her. She was a women’s libber long before anyone had
challenged the inequality between the sexes.
Through these discussions with my father I found myself wondering about
‘The gene pool’. I guess that I had always believed that we all start out
equal and then do the best that we can. I had always thought of our
genetic makeup as influencing physical characteristics such as the
appearance and health of our bodies. I really started to see the threads
that link us all together and just how much our parents and ancestors
create a personal template for who, what and how we are.
I’m sure that our genes influence our personality and psychological make-
up as much as they influence out physical bodies. Perhaps emotional
memory is also passed on genetically. Maybe things like phobias, past
life recall and de-ja-vu are the emotional memories of our ancestors. I
used to believe that our emotional make-up, personality and behavioural
patterns were pre-determined by our childhood conditioning,
environment, experiences and personal choices. All of these things and
probably so much more make and shape us, but I now believe that who
you are, how you are and what you are, initially come to you via your
What I learned from these discussions is that our lives are really like a
When you watch a relay race the first runner starts out with a baton and
races to the next person. That person takes the baton and races to the
next and so it goes. If one person falls behind, then the next person will
need to make up for lost time or the relay team will fall further behind.
Ideally, there will be members within the team who will make up all of the
lost time and lead the team to victory.
In life, we need to take the best of what we are given, we need to change
what needs to be changed, and we need to improve all that we can. We
all start out with advantages and handicaps. It’s not about how you
started out, it is only about how you play the game and where you finish.
Too often, we get caught up in resentment. We blame our parents for
what we consider to be our personal baggage. Too many people get so
locked into their parent issues or victim histories that they never realize
that what they start out with is not what they have to finish with. This
game of life is about what each one of us adds or subtracts, and
ultimately what we carry forward.
I thought about my grandmother and wondered how many generations
before her had struggled. They must have had enormous obstacles and
handicaps, as it seems to me that she started out with so few
advantages. She probably gave the best of herself and all that she had
to my father. I realize that she couldn’t give him anything that she didn’t
know nor could she give him what she didn’t have. He could only take
from her what she was. His challenge in life was to do better than his
predecessors. He could do the things that his mother had done and learn
through imitation, or he could add to the knowledge passed down to him
and improve himself. Like the relay runner, he could pick up speed and
give me a better chance.
When I wanted to know why my father did something in a way that
seemed to me to be totally unacceptable, he would often respond with,
“That’s just the way things are done”. I never found this an acceptable
explanation. I noticed that many of his generation used that phrase. It
seems to me that my father’s generation and all of the generations
before him had a very strong mind set about continuing to follow the old
ways, regardless of whether or not they thought them correct.
My father’s father used to strap him as a way of teaching him good
behaviour. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” he would say. Strapping
was also the punishment for bad behaviour when I attended school. We
called it ‘Caning’ back then, but the principle was the same. These days
we refer to it as ‘Child Abuse’ and it is punishable by law.
My father’s generation did not appear to question or challenge. My
generation is probably the first to really challenge the old ways of doing
things. The generation coming behind me has really turned things up-
side down. The generation coming through now are asking all the right
questions and demanding better solutions. If we all do away with blame,
focus on our own input and take care with our choices, things can only
get better and better. If we can’t forgive, let us try at least to understand
and accept what went before.
For a long time, I resented many of the things that my parents did or didn’
t do. I am now able to see that my father fought long and hard to pull
himself out of the poverty cycle. For many years he must have been
extremely tired and stressed as he worked three jobs to support his
family. He was not only driven to be a provider but also pushed us to
educate ourselves. We went on to become self-employed and financially
self-reliant. Our children have all gone on to higher education. He
instilled in us strong ethical beliefs and reinforced the importance of self-
My grandmother had to overcome social status issues. I believe that this
made my father an excellent communicator. We have no tolerance for
class or race discrimination. My father’s controlling and domineering
traits taught us to stand up for ourselves, think for ourselves and fight a
good fight. If my grandmother was too far to the left, my father may have
swung too far to the right. I believe that we have found balance.
I also believe that everything that I am today is a result of everything that
Life’s relay is about understanding and accepting our parents. Like my
father and yours, and all of the fathers and mothers before them, our
parents gave us all that they had. It is up to us to use that and do well
with it. Most importantly, we should not condemn the actions of our
parents, but accept that all that we are comes from a long chain of
learning, loving, hurting, trying and experiencing. Our task is to take the
best of what they had to give and to add to it. Life is not about what your
parents start you out with, but what you do with it, what qualities and
advantages you add to your own life and pass on to the generations to
Copyright Sonya Green
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