Thursday, April 29, 2010

Country road, take me home

Possibly my favourite photo of the siblings:
Aunty Muriel (2yrs) seated on the knee of her big brother, my Grandfather Edward Kennett (aged 15), then standing is Uncle Tony (about 7) and Uncle Ron (aged 13).

My brother and I were jovial as we set off for the airport. The conversation was saturated with our hopes and aims of meeting up with family who had actually known our grandfather! (Our mother's father, he died two months after our older brother was born so we never met him ourselves)

We parked the car in the longterm parking "hotel for cars" just outside the airport terminal and were driven to our carrier. All good so far. The plane was delayed by half an hour, but being one of the budget airlines, there were no announcements to keep us informed as to why, or whether we were even lining up at the right gate. Funny thing about being around my brother; I always have this nagging suspicion that we're either a) doing something wrong, b) at the wrong place or c) going to be late. It's just how it's always been. It makes me nervous.

We were finally called aboard. And no one stopped us at the gate so we had obviously been lining up for the right plane. He read the paper the whole way and I continued separating my book into those sections I mentioned a week or so ago. We arrived in Adelaide, collected the car (don't you love how you hire a car for $29 a day and it ends up costing you over $200 for three days, after insurance, some sort of tax and the petrol?) and headed straight for Magill, the place where our granddad and his parents are buried.

I have been here before. With Tim. And Mum. But last time, I was a teenager and I didn't care much. I was bored. Mum hadn't been half as generous about him in her recollections so I also assumed I didn't have the connection to him that I thought I did with her mother.

We stood at the grave, we cleaned it up a bit, we left respectfully early as there was the end of a burial happening nearby.

The road to their town took surprisingly ages to get onto, given it was "sleepy" Adelaide. Man, what a lot of traffic we didn't expect to find! Roadworks were apparently funnelling everyone through the top of the city and it took us over an hour to get out onto the 110km/h road. So really, we set off at about 4 o'clock.

We drove without stopping and arrived at 8.30pm, eating at the local pub before making our way north again to the property.
Downtown on a Friday night. Where the street life almost blew me *yawwwwn* away

When we headed out of town, the scenery got suddenly black. Not a house or light or car to be seen. This was true farming country. We chatted a bit, Tim prepared me for some of the "delights" and smells that may await me at the house, which was apparently in some disrepair inside. Shame, I thought, given the history of the place for the family at large.

Suddenly, in mid conversation, he braked sharply and turned the wheel into a dirt track that was signposted.

"I think this is it," he hesitated, certainly not instilling much confidence in me.
"You sure about that, Tim?" I asked. "Heh heh...."

We were in the middle of nowhere and the only thought as we left the sealed road was There's no way of knowing where the road is if we get lost in this sheeps paddock. We started up the road and after a few minutes, Tim leaned forward over the wheel and squinted through the dust.

"Nahh, I don't think this is it."

Fuck. I thought. A little rising panic never hurt anyone, though. I shook it off. We're ok, I don't see a fecking THING, but we're ok.

"Maybe it's down here." And with that, he turned left down some diagonal track and zoomed along that for a time before we got to another cross road and he "just decided", seemingly on some whim and not through any accuracy at all, that it could be down that one.

My bearings were quite jumbled by this point. I mean, it sounds fairly straightforward enough now that I write it down. But at the time, the stars were as bright as our headlights (just about, minor exaggeration) we were so far out in the country, and we were just touring around in a bloody sheep paddock, on dirt roads, with dry grass zooming through our vision as the headlights sailed past it. That's all we could see.

Suddenly, Tim stopped. There was a gate to my left. He backed up, turned the car to face it and peered at the gate. Which had nothing on it at all. Just a gate.

"Is that a house up there?"

I couldn't be sure. The flickering light was just so small, so far away, that it was impossible to tell either where it was, what it was or whether it was moving or still. It could have been headlights as far as we knew. After a few moments, it hadn't disappeared or moved. We deduced it must be a house.

"What if it's a light from the town?" I offered, rather dumbly now I think about it. We'd left town about half an hour before. It couldn't have been.

"Open the gate," he said. "This is it...... Yeah...... This... is it."

"You're sure about that? You don't sound sure about that," I said, unbuckling my belt. And then to myself, Ah, to heck with it, what's the worst that could happen? We head through this gate and find ourselves at someone else's house. And they'll be happy, jovial country people who invite us in to warm ourselves by their kitchen fire and give us baked apple pie and turn on all the floodlights down their driveway that lead straight to the place we're supposed to be visiting! It'll be fine if this is the wrong house!

"Oh, hey," my brother called after me right as my foot touched the earth outside the car, "watch out for the guy with the pitchfork."


"And cover your face with your hands if he tries to hit your head against the windscreen."

I kid you not. My evil little brother actually said that to me.

The thought that crept into my mind as I opened the gate and let him drive through - and wondered if he was going to play that age-old joke of creeping forward every time I tried for the door handle to get back in - was..... Wolf Creek (and I swear, if you haven't already, please don't see this movie!), which was, coincidentally, filmed almost entirely in South Australia in kind of country we were now in. I shuddered and tried not to look at the darkness behind our car and the now closed gate. If there was a psycho in an F-100 pickup, waiting in the tall grass with his lights off, he'd better want to hope that it started up well, cos I couldn't hear it idling. Not over our car, anyway. I got back in the car. There was mention of John Jarratt. I will never look at that actor the same ever again, just as an aside.

We headed off up the driveway. This was it, Tim confirmed decisively. The house eventually came into view, rising up out of literally nowhere. My first impressions of this house, which I don't remember, save for a lightning fast snippet of memory stored in my mind from our first and last visit as a family of six was from the 70's sometime, was that it was more stately than I had imagined. The driver next to me had been in nappies then. Hey, I probably had been too. I was young, three or under. I was keen to see if I could find the image that matched this photo in my memory.

"Oh, it's gorgeous," I said, a flood of emotion melting into me. This was where my great-grandfather had lived for the last seven years of his life after his wife died. It was where his daughter, the youngest of his four children, had raised her two children with her husband the farmer - a city girl, opting for life on the land after meeting the love of her life at the end of her 30's. Her second child was born when she was 41, something not exactly commonplace back in the 60's.

We were greeted by a back porch light, a soft gentle breeze that had been partially thermally heated as it skipped across the empty, uninterrupted land around the house and a sheep called Izzy. The "pet" of the family, who had been a twin but had been separated from her sibling and mother and had had to be reared by bottle. Rather ironic that this one special sheep had endeared herself to the same family who ended up killing and selling the meat of her relatives and, indeed, probably the twin itself.... Something I find odd, but hey. We weren't in Kansas anymore.

Our cousin was bearing up well. She is now the sole occupier of the family home. I can only hope that our extensive family continue to visit and watch out for her - it's not exactly anywhere you can just "swing past" or get to easily, you have to really deliberately go there - because she is the type of character who has the potential to live out her spinster days on her own. Quite happily. A life I am not so sure I would be able to cope with.

The house was large and, well, would have been sort of inviting to any regular guest. To me, it screamed WELCOME BACK! I felt so incredibly comfortable there, despite the clutter, despite how rundown it was. I looked around the home keenly, gagging at the endless potential of the place. A lick of paint here, patching of the cracks in the cornices there. Decluttering aplenty. The ceilings were 12' high. The front hall was commanding. I kept imagining my great granddad walking from his room at the front of the house and down to dinner in the family room. Every single inch of the floor creaked. It was impossible to tread lightly. The heirlooms were gathering dust on every spare wall and shelf. An amazing house with a rich family history. I was rendered speechless that first night.

We talked for a couple of hours and headed to bed after midnight. The following day would be the funeral of our great aunt.

In the guest room, we were shown two beds. "That one was your great grandfather's." Tim chose that one. And I proceeded to spend the rest of the night giggling until sleep found me because my brother was not shy of being vocal about "how the old guy did it", sleeping in this bed that was probably a good few inches shorter than he. Great Granddad (ELB, they all called him) was a very tall man, well over 6 foot, even in old age.

"Oh... GAH.... How did ELB do this!?" Tim grumbled comically. I heard him wrestling with his sleeping bag and there were a few knocks and bumps to be heard. He had chosen that bed without giving me an option. After our cousin had left the room, he had snootily said to me that the double bed I had been left with was "really uncomfortable" - he had slept there on it with his wife only the week before when they had been visiting after hearing Aunty Mu was in hospital. So I had had to take the "awful" bed, which was quite fine when it was just one person.

"My bed feels like I'm lying in a cloud," I said, as drippily and cosily as I could. Mooo-ha-ha-ha, serves him right for not flipping a coin with me. Hey, I am always going to be his big sister, I can't help sinking the boot in at any opportunity.

When I turned out the light, I struggled with the blackness of the dark. Oh my god. So dark. So quiet!! Tim fixed that - not so thankfully - by snoring. Like a helicopter. Both nights.

The whole trip was emotion charged and I think I paced myself quite well, in all. We learned a great deal more about both our grandfather and his father. The family are full of brainiac boffins, which appears to have been rather diluted in this generation.... aherm..... gifted both in the sciences and the arts. Among their decendants (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are an opera singer, a concert pianist with a leading place in the NY philharmonic, an engineer, a neuro psychologist, a few doctors... and so forth.

They themselves were:

A pastor (ELB, their dad), a CSIRO scientist, a gifted musician and specialist in x-ray machinery (my grandfather), and an electrics engineer.

Sadly, my grandfather (he's the one smiling!) and his brother to his right contracted cancers resulting from their pioneering work with their trades. My granddad ailed quickly and succumbed to Hodgkins within a few short months. His brother, Tony, had a similar fate, a decade later, and his demise was confirmed by phone calls he received during his final months (or was it years?) from a fellow scientist - of their team that worked on some project, they were the only surviving members.

His other brother - the one on the end there - built radar equipment for the war effort. Talking to his son and grandson, who were staying for the funeral as well, Uncle Ron was always tinkering. Making something. They told how he devised a catapult style slingshot to shoot a rope into the air so it would wrap over a tree branch to lop it down. Why didn't he just throw the rope over? Tim asked them. But where's the fun in THAT?! they both replied.

The amount of anecdotes my brain absorbed are far too many to divulge here. My diary is brimming, though, and on the first spectacular morning, I woke just before the sun. I still haven't the words to describe how beautiful it looked. How imposing, by its sheer vastness, the land and how much of it they own up there.

The garden path that leads to.....

The top of the hill, with more endless countryside....
(see the road? It goes down the middle of their property! They own either side of that road!!)

Heading onto the front porch for a family photo before the sun went down, after the funeral

Some driveway, huh! And to think, incredibly, this has only been "sealed" like this for three years - every year, since 1962, they have been housebound for certain parts of the year when the drive was impassible (the red dirt in this area - closest to the Red Centre of Australia that I've been so far in my life - clogs in wheels and bogs cars and farming equipment). Can you imagine, being this remote already and THEN getting stuck in your house!? Unfathomable to me, the life these relatives of ours have led.

A funeral procession with a difference....
(arty farty shot looking through the rear vision mirror at the cars behind us with their headlights on)

We drove at 110km/h (the speed limit) for half an hour to get to the cemetery....

Aunty Mu turned up in true country classic Aussie style: in a Valiant.

I'm only sorry I didn't get to meet not only my granddad now, but his exceptional father as well (who actually died after his son, something the elderly gent apparently never got over and, in fact, sped up his own death). Uncle Ron and Aunty Muriel are the only two I have any recollection of (Uncle Tony I probably met but don't recall). I loved my Uncle Ron, he was a character. And Aunty Muriel was so warm, the few times I remember seeing her and her family. Mostly, we stayed in contact by letter, which she and mum (and Uncle Ron's wife, Phyllis) would diligently do throughout the years to keep everyone up to date. There's not much of that going on anymore. At best, we get a Facebook shout out or "like" occasionally. How times certainly have changed.

I could bore you, dear reader, for days on this subject matter. Perhaps little anecdotes over time might slip out. In short, I have had an awesome, important, enriching and confirming journey. I am so glad to have spent it with Tim. There are few in my family I could travel with, I think, and he is one of those few. From my notes and my photos and my recollections, I know I have committed to memory a most wonderful event.

Oh! And one little bit of trivia before I go.... They're on dial-up there for their internet - 33kb a second. That's, like, 1994 speed, people! We get 1.5mb/sec here at home and think it's feeling a bit slow. My brother, in Japan, gets 1000mb (1Gb!!!) a second. A second!? And here they are, coping with 33kb/s. Unbelievable.

Back to our regular programming (and mindless musings) sometime soon.

More later...

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