Sketch of a Man

Last year I wrote a piece about the few ‘memories’ I have of my dad, who we lost many years ago; this year for his anniversary I entered the piece in the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve writing competition. It was difficult to write and harder to share, but that’s what this writing lark is all about, right? So here it is:

Tellingly, there are few photos including both Dad and me. My baptism. A group shot at the beach where I’m a rudie-nudie sitting on the sand and Dad’s in budgie smugglers — not our finest hour. The picnic where we both rock our best seventies hair. A couple form a series: Baby Drinks Dad’s Beer.

He exists in outline. In photos. In objects, symbols of a life — his architectural plans, pencils, his books, his drawings, ties, dressing gown. In stories told to keep his memory — or my memories of him — alive. My scant memories, which may only stem from other people’s: half-remembered dream fragments. From this distance it’s hard to discern their truth.

I remember Mum taking me upstairs to the den to say goodnight. Dad lifted me to touch the ceiling — that giddy feeling of being raised by big hands while my little ones reach high. Sometimes he spun me around on his stool at his drafting table, or maybe drew pictures on my hand. There is the faint wisp of smoke, rough whiskers as he nuzzles my cheek or blows raspberries on my belly.

I remember sitting at the dining table, most siblings present, air heavy with tension. Someone wouldn’t eat their dinner or was naughty and got in trouble off Dad, and it was scary. But there are special baked dinner memories, and birthdays with cake that had a ballerina on top. Picnics at Cordeaux dam, going to Dad’s work Christmas parties, long car rides to family gatherings, running around parks. Pretending to be a princess and living in a castle with my family, happily ever after.

Our last shared photos are at my eldest sister’s wedding, group shots of our big family — the happy couple, my sisters a row of real-life princesses in Laura Ashley lace. Mum smiling, Dad gaunt but proud, his suit too big. A few people look down at me, the grumpy four-year-old flower girl chewing her fingernails.

In my mind the house quickly got quieter. Dad was in bed a lot and sometimes we were allowed to see him. Standing in the doorway to Mum and Dad’s bedroom, not sure what to do; you have to be quiet. Visitors came and I was shy.

Then I have a glimpse of me at home, sitting on the brown carpet in our dining room, my white-stockinged legs tucked under me, and I smooth my good black and white checked dress over my knees. I’m in a patch of warm sun; light streams through the window and catches on dust motes floating through the air. Sitting primly, basking in the feeling of a nice dress and polished shoes, being a big girl . . . though kind of uncomfortable. There’s a buzz of activity around me and I’m trying not to be in the way, not to be noticed by these strangers. I sit there waiting for my family to come home from church. I’m told it was overflowing with people wanting to say goodbye.

This piece was published in the Hunter Writers Centre 2016 Grieve anthology, which was launched in August as part of Grief Awareness Month — visit the Hunter Writers Centre website for more details.