There's a track winding back to an old fashioned shack
Along the road to Gundagai.
Where the blue gums are growin' and the Murrumbidgee's flowin'
Beneath that sunny sky,
Where my mother and daddy are waitin' for me,
And the pals of my childhood once more I shall see.
Then no more will I roam when I'm headin' straight for home
Along the road to Gundagai.
It was a long time before I could visit. I missed Granny and I felt guilty about not seeing her. It was such a little thing. I talked to my counsellor. I wrote it down. I played it out in my head, again and again, but I could not bring myself to face that moment.
In a way, I had already faced it. He was already gone when I arrived. I was the last. Even his youngest son, living eight hours away, had arrived before me. But then, I was the only one with a four year old. When all his children and grandchildren were grabbing their car keys and setting off through the night, I sat silent in the dark. I waited until the next morning. I packed a bag, clean clothes, Where Is the Green Sheep?, stuffed fox, stuffed red panda. I rang the preschool. I drove sedately, singing Wiggles songs, stopping halfway because four year olds get bored driving two hours without a break.
But in that moment I didn’t realise. I just drove, and then I was there, in the middle of everything, arguing about whether a four year old can visit the funeral home. Visit the body.
“Don’t worry, darling,” I whispered in his ear. “I’ll take a photo for you and show you afterwards.”
My uncle was four when I was born. We were the only ones who didn’t get to say goodbye in time. It was just the two of us. The funeral director gave us some privacy. We held hands walking into the room, just like we did when we snuck out to see the ghost at the old gaol. We crept forwards and saw him there, and then we were crying and clinging to each other, and there was nothing safe in the world, not ever again.
“It isn’t fair,” he sobbed, over and over. “It isn’t fair that I’m the youngest. It isn’t fair that you had him for nearly as long as I did.”
I have his hat. Granny was mortified, and tried to give me the nice, new hat he got last year. I kept her distracted while my second uncle snuck in and got the real hat, the one that’s held together with pins and fishing hooks, the one he actually wears. Wore. Wears. I put it on his head, carefully.
My uncle had the salt shaker. One of my aunts palmed it during the argument about the hats. She filled it up before she gave it to us. It has one hole, like a regular salt shaker, but the hole is enormous. You could fit a knitting needle through it. We suspect that it was in fact Granny’s knitting needles he used to enlarge the hole. We put it in his hand, made sure it didn't spill.
It took both of us to wiggle off his good dress shoes and put his slippers on.
“When Anubis weighs his heart, he will have salt for his afterlife,” I said, solemnly. We left him there, neatly arranged but comfortable now in his hat and slippers.
“It’s okay, I’ll take care of it.”
It might be the thirtieth time I’d said that. It might be the hundredth. I hung up the phone and checked my list. I still had to call the florist, and the club, and my cousin, but right now the priest was puffing his way up the path to the front door. I had never seen so many people come through the front door. It felt wrong. I only ever used the front door on a warm evening, when my grandfather would sit on the front step and watch the trucks rattling along the highway on the other side of the valley. They were always busy, the trucks. A train or a bus keeps to a schedule, empty or full, and a car might simply be a local driving home from the pub, but a truck is always busy. It has a purpose. It is going somewhere. I knew, somehow, that he didn’t want to go anywhere. He was happy right there, in the moment, enjoying the soft yellow light of dusk, the screaming cicadas, the one lopsided tree on the edge of the hill overlooking the town, and a grandchild for company. I could never sit still. I slapped mosquitos and craned my neck to see over the verandah wall and tried to climb up to reach Granny’s maidenhair fern. I didn’t want to watch the trucks. I wanted to be driving them, like my big uncles, who were always away from home, or sleeping in the daytime and mustn’t be disturbed.
I led the priest down the hall to the kitchen. He pretended not to see me wiping my eyes. The two ministers were already drinking tea at the kitchen table. They stood up and there were handshakes all around. They had already talked to each other, and Old Rev – the retired Anglican minister – had explained. In this town, in the 1950s, a young Catholic girl had courted scandal and disapproval when she married a young Anglican man. It didn’t matter that the young Anglican had never darkened the door of an Anglican church since his schooldays. The hurt was still there, half a century later.
The assembled clergy of the town got straight to the point. My grandfather was an Anglican. He was christened an Anglican, and had never converted to anything else. He did not attend the church, despite living next door to it for forty years and counting both Old Rev and Young Rev as close personal friends, but the bare fact remained. He was an Anglican.
His wife and all eight of their children were Catholic. They were baptised as Catholics, and raised as Catholics, and it was Granny who even in her eighties still delivered communion to sick parishioners and baked for the church cake stall. She had never attended a service at St. John’s Anglican Church in her life, even though on a Sunday morning you could sit on the verandah and hear the singing.
“St. John’s is very small, really,” said Young Rev, tactfully. Father J nodded agreement and Old Rev nodded approval. “And your dear husband has such a large family and so many friends,” he continued.
“St. Patrick’s would hold everyone,” put in Father J. “And I would be honoured if the Reverend –“ he bowed his head to Young Rev “- would join me to conduct a combined funeral service with both Catholic and Anglican parts.”
Granny closed her eyes and sagged a little as some of the tension lifted from her shoulders. Old Rev beamed. “Well, then. I shall tell my colleagues which texts they ought to use, and you can tell me who will do the readings, and select the hymns, and so on,” he said, with all the confidence of someone whose plan worked out nicely.
“It’s okay,” I said yet again. “I’ll take care of it.
Every day for five days I chewed my pen and stared at blank paper. I talked to everyone – my grandmother, the Old Rev, my mother and every one of my aunts and uncles. I took notes. I checked dates and names.
In between, I conferred about hymns, scanned photos for the printer, sent notices to the newspaper, and estimated the number of sandwiches. I bullied and cajoled my aunts, uncles, cousins and various in-laws into either doing a reading or not being offended that they had not been asked to do a reading.
In the end, as always, it was an adrenalin fuelled rush to meet the deadline. My mother was to read the eulogy, and she wanted it the night before. I kept getting stuck on one problem: how could I convey the importance of this very unimportant man? My grandfather had never travelled. He had never worked in a glamorous or highly paid job. His career was ended early by an injury that left him at home, in chronic pain, when his youngest son was still a baby. I threw together my thoughts, and hoped they were good enough. At the last moment I scrawled a theme across the top of the pages and circled it.
Mum didn't change much from my draft. What she did was to take the theme, the unifying thread of his life, and put it through all my – her – my - words. My grandfather’s legacy was there in the church. At the end of a week of grieving we all sat together. Eight children, ten grandchildren, one great grandchild, assorted inlaws and exlaws and outlaws, half a dozen brothers- and sisters-in-law, forty-odd nieces and nephews and their families. Through the raw and undignified process of grieving, we moved closer. During that week, every time someone said they didn’t want THAT inlaw to do the reading, or they didn’t like the font, or they didn’t see why it should go like that, they would take a breath, and hug instead. When someone snapped at the dinner table, we all took a deep breath, and didn’t snap back. When there was a disagreement about what kind of flowers were best, we all went out to his shed and spent an hour with bits of wire and pliers, shaping dozens of little metal hearts to throw onto his coffin – and then got both kinds of flowers. You can’t have too many flowers. We had made it through the worst week of our lives, and we would keep going, together.
I planned my trip carefully. I drove down by myself, and arrived at five past ten on Thursday. Granny would be down the street, having her hair done, and the house would be empty. Up the hill, past the hotel, past the too-small St. John’s Anglican church. Up the long, steep driveway, the loose gravel scraping and slipping under my tyres, throwing dust onto the camellias.
The dog, on its chain, wagged and barked between two potted geraniums. I turned off the engine and stared at the hole in the verandah, the empty step, the space where he had waited for me every time I had ever come up that driveway, and I put my head down and cried.