To catch and keep

To catch and keep

The young women wore frangipanis in their hair. But the scent of Peninsula youth in the evening was a different order of magnitude than the delicate perfume of a flower. Instead, we inhaled that heady mix of sweet green apple shampoo and muscular Blue Stratos aftershave. A powerful cocktail. Hormonal. Intoxicating.

Beneath the rumbling cacophony of the Friday night crowd – the occasional shouts and cockatoo screeches of laughter – ran a percussive undertow. Clang, clang, clang. Metal stays clashed against yacht masts, out of sight and down the hill from the terraces of the pub. From the dark water, the boats sang out as a pealing of celebratory bells. It was Friday night at The Arms and the possibilities were endless.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, we newly minted adults tried to catch the eye of the bar staff. I stood balanced on the footrest rail, knowing that an unusually tall young woman may be more noticeable in the crowd. A barman took the bait, leaned towards me and cupped his ear and the youth at my side gestured for me to order first. Just as I opened my mouth, I began to weep.

“What is wrong?” asked the boy-man at my side.

“I think my grandfather just died.”

I did not know where that knowledge had come from, but the salty tears on my cheeks made it real. One moment I was happy. The next, I was stricken.

That afternoon, my parents had driven to Manly to see Grandad, who had been complaining of a bad cold. Knowing that I was going out that night, my mother asked me to make up a spare bed in case he came home with them.

I loved my grandfather. He was mysterious, uncommunicative, and dashingly handsome in a Clark Gable movie star kind of way. For those unfamiliar with Gable, think distinguished, square-jawed, neat moustache, pale blue eyes and a pipe – more for fiddling with, than puffing. My mother once said that, as a young girl walking with her widowed father, she used to turn her head to see all the women giving her Dad the glad-eye. He was not a cuddly kind of man and I don’t think he was particularly interested in children, but every time he took his leave, he would hold my hand for longer than necessary and look intently into my eyes. I knew he was thinking of his first wife, my grandmother, who I resemble. Each time he paused to say goodbye, my heart swelled. He made me feel special with that one little gesture.

So, following my mother’s request and hoping he would come to stay the night (something that had never happened before), I made the bed with the newest sheets I could find in the cupboard. I picked what flowers I could find in Mum’s no-fuss garden and put them in a glass by the pillow. I chose a book and a magazine for Grandad’s enjoyment. And then I applied my makeup and caught a bus to the pub.

That night, the night Grandad might have come to stay, I asked a friend to drive me home early. I had pushed to the back of my mind that strange and sudden certainty that had come upon me at the bar but, still, the knowledge lurked uneasily on the border of consciousness.

Our driveway was steep and rough concrete and I took off my shoes to make it down safely under starlight. Through the sliding glass doors, I could see my parents sitting together on the couch in the living room, some papers spread across the table in front of them. It was such an ordinary scene that relief flooded my body. It meant that Grandad was here. Everything was going to be all right. I pushed open the door and stepped through. 

My parents looked up at me and their faces told the story. Grandad had died of a heart attack in his apartment, as my father tried to resuscitate him.

I don’t know if his heart stopped at the same time I’d had the premonition at the bar. It is a long time ago now. But I do know that I failed to console my mother, who had just lost her father. Instead, as I remember it, I walked into my bedroom and shut the door. It must have been the shock of it. I remember being mystified that I didn’t seem to be feeling anything and wondered what an appropriate feeling should be. I remember trying to kickstart some emotion, conjuring up images of Grandad to try to make myself cry. 

Only recently, in a moment of familial symmetry, my 91-year-old father was brought to tears at my dinner table as he also recalled not comforting his mother when his grandmother died. I could relate. Emotional immaturity + shock = a thread of regret that can last a lifetime. 

Of course I missed my grandfather and I did grieve. It just took a little time. Loss crept up like a poltergeist, with a waft of his tobacco where there was none, or a whispered touch of his tweed jacket against my cheek. These sensations could ambush me at any time and place, and then I longed for him. I keened for him.

Some months later, perhaps at Christmas, during a long break from my studies, I began painting Grandad’s portrait from an old black and white photo. He sat proudly in his suit, a businessman behind his desk. As I always do, I lost myself in the process of painting. I become action. Energy. And I disappear for hours. But this time, as my brushes discovered his face, I found myself conversing with him in my head. An observer would have seen me murmuring at the canvas, smiling and occasionally laughing.

I had never come to know my grandfather as a person. We shared few stories. He was the diffident, dapper grandfather we saw several times a year. I was the girl who was the spitting image of her grandmother. Now, however, the painting opened him up to me. The activity became a way to know him through examining the structure of his skull, his contours, the twinkle in his eyes and the set of his mouth. We communed. I would never have been able to surmount his reserve in real life but here, in my head, we spoke freely and with affection. The act of recreating his image was my way of embedding him, sewing him into the fibres of my being, absorbing him. Not forgetting. Not letting go.

And this is what I do. This is how I hold on. My painting helps me catch and keep my memories – to hold them close.



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