My Pop was a Light Horseman in the Royal Australian Army during the war. I didn’t find that out until a year after he died.
I didn’t really know what he did in the war, but when he came home, he was a Crop Duster Pilot and blew up stumps in people’s paddocks so they could plough the fields properly.
He was my Dad’s dad. I guess he could have been considered a “True Blue Aussie” back in the day. He wore blue wife-beater singlets, slicked his hair with poppy-seed oil (hence Nan’s obsession with crocheting doilies for the headrests of her chairs), and was highly suspicious of anything foreign. The mere mention of Fried Rice or pasta sent him into involuntary twitches. Strictly a meat and three veg man, my Pop – and those vegies didn’t include “poof vegetables” like eggplant – or any lettuce but iceberg.
Nan and Pop lived in a large rendered brick farmhouse with an orchard full of fruit and walnut trees, as well as chicken pens and a huge shed for Pop’s tinkering. He was a pretty good mechanic and did odd jobs for people for spare cash once he retired in the late 70’s. He also blew the shit out of the odd pesky stump.
My grandparents were traditional. Very traditional. It was like 1954 hit and they just never realised we’d moved on. Their home was like a museum dedicated to embossed wall paper and pastel coloured shagpile rugs. Each bed had one of those quilts that came up under the pillows and tucked up over the top, like in hotels. I always thought that was a bit posh.
They didn’t have an indoor bathroom when we were little.They had an outdoor dunny in the laundry hut, which was located at the end of an OH&S unfriendly path about 20m from the house. As if the house wasn’t scary enough; dusty high ceilings, creaky floorboards, stuffed Mountain ducks on the piano…..Terrifying.
After walking the gauntlet through Nan’s orchid garden, which was a splendour, especially with the concrete Aboriginal standing on one leg and concrete kangaroo that was missing an eye garden ornaments, you had to enter the dunny. No lights – just a crappy He-Man torch that you nicked from your brother. I’d sit out there shitting myself. Sometimes literally.
An 11 year old’s mind goes into overdrive in situations like that. “What if there’s Redback Spiders? I’ve heard they like dunnies….Oh God”, or, “There’s a hole in that board. What the hell is that? It’s an eye! It’s a fucking eye! Aaaaaargh!!!”. It was torturous.
Going to the toilet was an absolute nightmare for us kids. Didn’t worry Pop. He’d take a 2 litre Cottee’s Cordial bottle to bed with him. we’d see him coming out the next morning at breakfast when he’d walk past us with his bottle so he could empty the wee into their laundry sink. I tried that when I was about twelve – pissing in a cordial bottle. Untidy, to say the least. I ruined almost my entire collection of Dolly Magazines in the process.
So, after Nan died of breast cancer in 87, Pop was by himself. It was pretty hard for him, now that I’m old enough to think about it through anything but a kid’s eyes. Nan did everything for him. She was the “perfect housewife” – up at 0530am to make a breakfast banquet that could feed a team of shearers (all in a combustion stove), cleaning Nazi and doting wife. I never saw my Nan wearing anything but a floral dress, sensible shoes, multipocketed apron and blue-tinged set-permed hair.
He didn’t know how to cook, how to clean, how to do laundry, how to shop….any of that wifely stuff.
Once Nan was gone, my parents and Dad’s sisters helped out where they could. They cleaned his house and did his laundry and ran him around whenever he wanted to go out. We all visited every couple of days. He wouldn’t let us cook, though. He prided himself on being able to cook because he reckoned he’d “seen enough camp cooks do it when we used to shear”. I don’t think he’d ever watched Nan cook. It must have been like magic walking into that kitchen three times a day. Pop’s culinary skills were terrifying. We’d find food in his cupboards and fridge that had expired months, sometimes years ago. He didn’t “believe” in used by labels. According to him it was all a ploy by the manufacturers to make you use it all up and therefore have to buy more. It’s amazing he never got botulism.
For some reason that I have a hard time recalling (it must have been an emergency), I was at Pop’s one day and he was “babysitting me”. I think I was about 13.
Around morning tea time, he called me into the kitchen and asked if I was hungry. Damn straight I was hungry, I’d been running around all morning. Pop looks at me and he goes; “Hey Katie, D’ya want a Wagon Wheel?”. For those unfamiliar with Wagon Wheels – they’re flat, round biscuits that have marshmallow and jam in the middle and are covered in chocolate. A kid’s equivalent to a blow job. So, of course, I said I would love one.
Pop ambled over to the cupboard and pulls out a packet of Marie biscuits. It was looking good so far. Then he walked over to the fridge and grabbed a long strasburg sausage and the mayonnaise. He then proceeded to chop a thick slice of strasburg off the sausage and chucks it in a frying pan. Whilst it was frying up, he slathered mayonnaise all over the flat side of the Marie biscuits. When the strasburg was cooked, he whacked it in the middle of the biscuits like a sandwich. He looked at me with a big grin on his face and said “There you go, darlin. That’s a POPPY Wagon Wheel”.
Yeah. Cheers. Thanks Pop.