This blog is over five years old now and I reckon if you do something for the second time, it’s a tradition. So on that basis, it is a tradition to offer you a reflection from the year just past that describes a moment of realisation that something has changed, you’ve entered a new stage. I know it is the 8th of January and the new year is in its second week but I’ve held off till today for sentimental reasons. I’ll explain later.
Whilst a school I know is looking at running a Time & Space camp for mums and daughters, up until now it has been a father and son thing. The one-to-one conversation that happens at all Time & Space events has a few added questions at the camp where the son asks his dad “When did you become an adult?”
Dads often remark, “that question was a bit of a head scratcher… I’ve never thought about when I actually became a man.” At the risk of making a generalisation, I reckon mums are at a bit of an advantage with this question because well, mums give birth. That’s a pretty significant adult responsibility. Of course a good dad is right in there helping raise their child but the recognition of being an adult is not quite as visceral for blokes. It is probably more a set of responsibilities that accumulate and creep up on us fellas that tells us that we have reached another stage in life. One poignant experience from last year I think confirms that it might now be official – that somewhere between the technically legal age of adulthood 18 and the age I am now – 47, I must have became an adult. The moment was pretty visceral. It involved getting my hands dirty in the ground of my mum’s childhood home.
Mum grew up in a place called Gruyere in the Yarra Valley with her mum, dad and younger brother. Her dad was an orchardist and grew cherries, apples, peaches and plums. Uncle Kevin took over after Grandpa retired and he and Aunty Ros own the place now. These days it is a berry farm.
Grandpa and Grandma lived until 2002 and 2007 respectively… long enough for my own kids to have memories of their great grandparents on visits up to Gruyere. My grandpa lived on the property from the time he was 18 months old. So it has now been in the family for over 100 years. It holds a lot of memories and we’ve built up a few traditions across four generations.
A somewhat quirky tradition at Gruyere (that found me with my hands in the soil) prompted a chat with mum about a story she tells from her school days. It’s not something we often imagine – what our parents’ childhood, their adolescent years might have been like but it was extraordinary to hear how clear mum’s memory was of a specific Religious Instruction lesson.
Mum travelled to high school from Gruyere to the Mount Lilydale Convent every day.
We worked out it was probably 1955 when mum was in Form One – she would have been 12 rising 13. Sister de Sales taught sixty Form One and Two girls in the one classroom. Religious Instruction was taught in Catholic schools with a system called the Catechism. It was rote learning and resonates of such a different time. Religious concepts almost had mathematical type solutions to them.
Teacher: “Who made the world?”
Class Response: “God made the World”
The topic on this particular day was the human soul.
I did a bit of research and found the two questions they might have been memorising.
Teacher: “Is this likeness to God in the body or in the soul?”
Class Response: “This likeness to God is chiefly in the soul.
All creatures bear some resemblance to God in as much as they exist. Plants and animals resemble Him insofar as they have life, but none of these creatures is made to the image and likeness of God. Plants and animals do not have a rational soul, such as man has, by which they might know and love God.”
Teacher: “How is the soul like God?”
Class Response: “The soul is like God because it is a spirit having understanding and free will, and is destined to live forever…
… Human souls live forever because they are spirits.
… The never-ending life of the soul is called immortality.”
Mum still remembers the girl in the next row who raised her hand. Her name was Carla Sullivan. This part of the catechism caused a troubled look to appear on Carla Sullivan’s face. Mum saw Carla put her hand up.
“Sister – did that part just say that animals don’t have souls?” Carla asked.
“Yes Carla, that’s right,” Sister de Sales replied.
“Then sister, how do animals get into heaven when they die?”
“I am afraid they don’t Carla,” answered Sister.
Carla blurted out, “Well if my horse can’t go to heaven then I’m not going either.”
Mum told me that for some reason that moment has always stayed with her. She may or may not have talked about it with her dad but she watched the way Grandpa deeply lived in harmony with his own family, the seasons, his dogs, cats and horses.
It was a bold question and statement, for those days, by her classmate. The mathematical certainty of the catechism just didn’t match the experience mum had of the land, the country she lived in.
I rang mum to check on that story because I had thought about that Religious Instruction lesson a lot since the 10th of July last year. That was the day of the revelatory moment where I might finally be able to say I’d reached adulthood now and where my I got my hands into the Gruyere soil.
The reason for our visit was our little Westie, Sno-Joe. He had been sick all year. He was 12 years, six months and two days old. Lisa and me had thought that it was time to take him to get the big needle and on the day we were going to do it, he simply took the need out of our hands. He died pretty peacefully in our back yard.
There had been so many moments packed into those twelve years. Sno-Joe nearly made it through our youngest Jack’s entire time at primary and secondary school. He died four days before Jack’s eighteenth birthday. He had sat at my feet for nearly every word I typed for my Masters thesis out in the shed. Countless walks along the Merri Creek. Dogs have this uncanny knack of finding the person in the house most in need of some unconditional attention… when one of the kids was in trouble for something, Sno-Joe would find his way into their room and simply snuggle up beside them.
It might seem macabre but most of the pets in our family have their final resting place somewhere in the twenty acres at Gruyere. Lisa and I buried Sno-Joe under a native magnolia – a spot Aunty Ros had picked out.
It made me think that up until now, this was something mum and dad did with our family dogs… Pepe, Bono and Sandy. Grandpa’s and Grandma’s dogs and cats are in spots around Gruyere. Sno-Joe was our first and so it was a first for me, as a dad to pick Sno-Joe up, wash him clean, wrap him up in his blanket and secure him in a box in the car for the hour long drive up to Gruyere. I’m sure there have been other moments but at 47, having to look after Sno-Joe at the end of his life kind of confirmed I might have become an adult somewhere along the way.
On more than one occasion since July, I’ve arrived home and thought I’ve seen Sno-Joe looking through the glass of our back door. It’s like he walks past in the corner of my eye. When I sit down by the Strettle wetland at the Merri Creek, I can close my eyes and it’s like he’s there.
That’s why, like mum, Carla Sullivan’s question has kind of got into me.
And why wait to the 8th of January for the traditional New Year post? Well, today would have been Sno-Joe’s 13th birthday.
Have a great 2015 and may it have at least one moment that creeps up on you and tells you that you’ve arrived at another stage of life.