I've been absent from this blog for a few weeks, totally unintentionally. Uni has engulfed me, as it always does, and I'm back at work and trying to make more time to spend with my family, so something had to give I guess! Uni has been stressful and time consuming but I am getting a lot out of it. My Studio Project A subject takes up a lot of time and due to it being a self-directed kind of unit, I get to determine the parameters of my project and set myself tasks. At the moment it is mostly drawing based and my subject matter revolves largely around memories and childhood. I thought I'd tell you a little about that and share some photos from my recent whirlwind trip back to NSW (where I grew up).
I grew up in the country about 4kms away from the nearest town. We lived in a ramshackle old house in the middle of the bush, my mum, sister and I (and in the early days, my brother and later my mum's partner too). We had chickens, dogs, a huge garden, a dam, a creek we'd play in, neighbours far enough away that you could make all the noise you wanted to and we were often visited by the local pythons (we found one in my mum's bed on her pillow once, enjoying the afternoon sun). My mum sold that house about a fortnight ago and I was able to go back and help her to clean it up a bit and say a bit of a goodbye. It was a lovely place to grow up in in many ways, but also a burden as it was always in need of so much work (always being renovated) and a lot of maintenance (a termite's delight!). There are some lovely photos of that house from our wedding picnic.
Growing up, every second weekend my mum would pick my sister and I up from school and we'd drive the hour trip to the city to stay with my dad. He lived in a housing commission flat in a suburb of Newcastle called Stockton. Stockton is technically a CBD suburb, because across the harbour on the ferry, it is only about 600m from the inner city, but it is about 15kms to drive, so it can have a weird isolated feeling to it. It was one of the first suburbs in Newcastle to be founded and was always a very industrial, working class suburb. There are many housing commission flats there, a minute or so from the beach. Visiting my dad there was exciting and fun and I looked forward to it very much - it was a whole different world.
My dad's flat had three tiny rooms - a kitchen, a bathroom and a small general purpose room for eating, recreating and sleeping in. We would sleep on mattresses on the floor and watch The Simpsons on the old portable TV. My dad would take us on the ferry across to Newcastle and we'd go window shopping (we didn't have much money but we didn't care). We would play with the neighbourhood kids (who lived permanently in the housing commission flats) and go to the beach and the swimming pool a lot. We'd draw lots and lots of pictures which he'd sticky tape all over the walls of his flat. He let us eat all of the food my mum never let us have (white bread, fishfingers, 2-minute noodles, Milo, Nutella). He, on the other hand, was very healthy, eating good food, surfing and always sitting on the floor with his back to a wall. He was always reading to us, playing games with us and teaching us about things. He had a lot of time for us and never seemed bored or annoyed and never got angry. It wasn't until later on that it occurred to me that we were probably the only thing in his life that brought him any joy (he didn't work, didn't really have possessions or speak to many people).
My dad liked crosswords and The Rolling Stones and had a little gap between his teeth. Sometimes he had a beard and sometimes he grew his fair hair long. He always wore thongs (flip flops) regardless of the weather. He almost never smiled, except for at my sister and I. He was terrible at singing and spelling but excellent at maths. He had one laugh he did when he was laughing with you and one when he was laughing at you. He liked coffee and pea and ham soup and his favourite colour was green.
When I was ten my dad died. Since I can remember I was always aware of my dad's substance abuse issues, but I always assumed he'd be around. It was obviously very upsetting and grief is an ongoing process, but I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about memories of that time and how formative and positive they were. As you can imagine, there is lots of fodder within those memories for interpreting through art. I am really enjoying revisiting those memories and remembering things long forgotten. When he died, we went back to Stockton briefly to collect some of his things, but he didn't own much and I guess my mum didn't really see much point in us taking things that weren't of any value and so we basically left it as it was and I suppose the landlord cleared it out. I do remember the landlord letting us in and saying that that my dad "must have loved his kids" because his house was covered with our pictures and besides his clothes and food, most of the things in his flat were our books, toys, boogie boards and the like.
When my mum asked me last month if I'd be able to make a quick trip up to my childhood home to help her out, I jumped at the chance to visit both places. I went to Stockton first, straight off the plane. My sister picked me up from the airport with our brother (who is ten years older than us and has a different father) and we all went back to Stockton and wandered around, taking it all in. Being there was pretty weird. The place was the same but different and it gave us lots of time to talk through our memories. We walked along the breakwall and through many familiar streets. Our dad's old flat was derelict with smashed windows and full of junk and the back door had been kicked in. It looked like someone might have been squatting there and that many people had lived there after my dad. I suppose I had always assumed that someone would be living there much like my dad had been (living simply, getting by), so it was confronting to see it in such a state. Otherwise, it was an interesting and important time being there. My brother and sister and I ate fish and chips by the water and then we left.
There was one encounter while we were in Stockton that kind of summarised the visit perfectly - a shirtless, beer-bellied man with only a few teeth standing at the entrance to the breakwall asked us where we were from (I guess we looked out of place) and we said we spent some time growing up in Stockton and were just visiting and he said "It's beautiful isn't it?! I don't know why anyone would leave!" to which I told him about our dad having passed away when we were kids and he said, "Well... we all die occasionally", which was kind of perfect and beautiful.