My father had the most beautiful hands.
Not so very long ago, I watched him take a pulse and wrap a bandage (with my Mum) and I was struck by it. I’ll never forget watching him. You could almost see the whole of him right there. The tender, competent and decisive way he did that, showed a lifetime of caring and of learning and of doing.
He was a big man, in many ways. He could be gruff and acerbic and the children called him Grumps instead of Gramps sometimes (only when he wasn’t listening). But it didn’t fool anyone. Under that thin crust lay the heart of a very warm, sweet and generously spirited person. He would do anything for any of us. He would drop anything to come to my aid, or my friend’s or family’s aid.
Or to the aid of strangers.
And he cried for those he couldn’t save.
I always felt proud and internally probably obnoxiously smug about how clever he was. For the whole of my primary school years, Dad was either Secretary or Captain at Wandin Fire Brigade. I imagined my initials RFA, could be construed to be Rural Fire Association. I felt terribly proud and important by association, and not just of Dad but because of the whole scrum of people that frequented our home and all the marvelous things they did.
We grew up within a hive of activity. All you lot (here at the funeral), Mum and Dad’s friends, all of our friends, stray dogs and cats. Grandma. Grandma (my darling) his mother in law (in the true sense of the joke), who was never convinced Dad was good enough for Mum, was not only welcome but he bought her holidays and continued to help out for her whole life. And he cried at her funeral.
When Glenn and I were quite small, Aunty Diane Young invited a lad from a foster home to stay at hers. She asked around if anyone could take in his siblings. Mum and Dad said we'd have two, and they became part of our family. For years we brought them home for holidays, and other children. At Christmas or on travelling holidays, when we were ridiculously spoiled, so were they.
We had the warmth and inclusion he had yearned for as a child.
As Harley has mentioned, my father had spent his childhood largely as a boarder at school. This was something he hated. Uncle Ian was a keen sportsman and fit into the school community, but Dad did not. In those days you weren’t allowed to hang out with other age levels so he couldn’t play with Ian and you can see in his school photo’s, he was terribly lonely. He found solace in the choir where he sang as a boy soprano. They performed on ABC radio during the war from Launceston, with him singing the solo. One of his his fellow choristers is here today.
I never heard him sing, but he would whistle sonata’s all around the house and in the car. After his health drop 3½ years ago, when he’d sleep a lot on his chair in the lounge room, Dad will have seemed well asleep but of music was playing, his fingers would be tapping and he’d have a lovely look on his face. Even though his memory was fragmenting, he was a whole person in the music.
Dad’s time at boarding school set him apart from his family in some ways, I think. He had a taste of what life could be, and not the means to attain it. But it gave him a voracious appetite for learning.
Actually, he used to tell one story (well, heaps of stories) about school. One day he walked past the bike shed when a group of prefects were putting their bikes in, and he quietly closed the gate and snibbed the lock. One of the teachers saw him and said “Well done Armstrong! But come and see me in my office at lunch time”. For the strap. A born smart-alec, and always one to denigrate dodgy authority.
So, Dad’s appetite for learning not only led him to pursue the highest standards of knowledge he could manage in the Fire Brigade, or St. John’s Ambulance, or the Army Reserve, or as a mechanic, but he also read everything he could on Australian history, for example. Our travelling holidays, which were many, we all tumbled into the back of one of his surprisingly few cars (with a couple of extra kids of course, and a caravan on the back), were also very informative.
Along Victoria’s southern coast, say, we not only were shown where ships had been wrecked, but, naturally, were informed of the specific ship, told what happened to the survivors (and how many there were and possibly their occupations, ages and feats of daring). We probably then stayed at what was now (he'd read) a survivor’s great grandchildren’s hotel. And you’d walk in and they’d say G’day Bob!
I’m exaggerating, but not much!
We went to every historic marker known to man, to the cemeteries to read the stories and ages of early settlers, and to every town this side of the Black Stump. Even now, whenever we drive around, I’ll say, “Oh, I’ve been here”.
I used to try and out-do him with history books. I would find obscure volumes written back in the day or something… but no, it might add to his knowledge, but he’d always tell you something else about the story. And this would be Boxing Day, even though you gave him the book for Christmas.
Going up to Yackandandah, over the Black Spur, there’s Ronan’s Well on the top of the hill. Every single time both up and on the way back, he’d say “Didn’t know he was sick”! We kids would try to say it before he did. Now I just pull a face and Ross says “Yes I know!” My friend worked over that way so twice a day she’d think of Dad.
On our travels, Glenn and I would sing the whole way, without being told to shut up. So you can see the picture of the life Dad lived and created for us. It was a robust life. He would say, just in these last years, “I’ve led a very interesting life!”
And he did. He created it by his own effort.
I’m his daughter so I can say it, that I think he was a true Renaissance man. I looked up the definition and it says, a man who has performed brilliantly in many, varied areas. He loved Glenn and I, and adored and was so proud of his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. Nothing made him happier than his family. I never drew breath without knowing he loved me.
Dad was a shy person who deflected adulation and overt displays of affection with jokes. But not with the little ones! They crawled all over him and dressed him up and teased him without end.
But generally, Dad’s affection was in his hands and feet, in his actions. Yet his heart was ever on his sleeve.
My Dad told a friend, to paraphrase, that he was blown away that Glenn and I would look after him through his illness, but that is all he had ever done with his life. Look after people.
My father died as a gracious, lovely man. A soft-hearted, sweet, beautiful man. He gave us the gift of trust in allowing us to grow close and dear and I will always be amazed that I have had such a man for my Dad.