by Stephen Sewell
My mother was the storyteller in our family. My mother and her sisters. They knew the truth and the secrets, as all women do, of births and deaths and the mystery in between. They knew the histories and could weave them into something that made sense, even when it didn’t. Not necessarily with a moral or a lesson, but conveying the peculiar contingency and strangeness of it all, the coincidences and odd juxtapositions that make us pause and wonder and grieve. I suppose that’s the overwhelming sense I have, what I got from them, the sadness and improbability of life, the longing. My mother came from an Irish background, full of magic and pain, when driven by hunger her people ventured out across the seas to find something better for themselves than the bitterness of poor, naked Ireland. There was a family memory, like something deep and dark in our restless dreams, of my grandmother’s mother – my great grandmother – watching when she was a little girl onboard a sailing ship as another ship nearby was struck by lightning and foundered off the coast of Africa , with the loss of everyone aboard as they rounded Cape Horn. She was twelve years old, travelling on her own to a new world and a new life and clinging to what little she had with all her might. They grew up fast then, because they knew they didn’t have much time. She arrived in Australia and found what she found, the rat-infested slums of the Rocks and whatever work she could get, and soon she had her own children, and those children grew, and soon the little girl who was to be my own mother was sitting on the front door step blowing bubbles and blinking at the sun in a Chippendale laneway surrounded by her sisters and brother and a world of delight. Soon, fate and chance swept them away again like leaves before the storm and they moved West, to Liverpool, where a new city was rising amidst the dairy farms just like new cities were rising right across this land. And it was there that my mother grew up amidst laughter and hard times and went to school, where she learnt nothing from the nuns who themselves knew nothing but how to say the Rosary, and dated American soldiers and met my father, who pretended to my grandfather that he was a communist so he could get to meet the beauty he’d heard about from his friends, in the years when he had friends. When you look at their pictures together, you can see their love before the years took their toll, both of them bold and confident at the beginning of lives they hoped would burn. She wasn’t a political person, my mother, but she knew poverty and had a keen sense of justice and wasn’t frightened of standing up for what she believed or to protect the people she loved. When we were babies, she’d sing The Wearing of the Green as a lullaby, and between her and our Irish teachers we were given souls of steel. We played it for her at her funeral when we laid her to rest. A rest she deserved, just like they all did, all our Aunts and Uncles, whose lives we’d seen play out in the theatre of christenings and anniversaries and birthday parties and Christmases that spilt like an everlasting outpouring of grace where they’d cuddle and scold us and tell us how to live with virtue and pride because this life is a gift, this breath, these moments, are rain and joy. And when she was dying, she said to me without fear I’m going to see my mother and father, and my Uncle said the same, Uncle Doug, the carpenter and builder who never finished his own house, that he was going to see his wife, my aunt, who’d died twenty five years before, but whom he still loved with everything inside him, because that’s what they were like, that side of the family, people of faith and courage. And coming back to the house afterwards, looking for something I’d left behind when I’d last seen her there, I crept in to its spooky interior, wondering where it might be, and her voice snapped clear and sharp through the darkness, It’s in the drawer! where she’d put it in one of her last acts, still caring for her wayward, dullard sons even after her death. And that faith and devotion, that toughness of spirit, shook me, and made me wonder if there was anything I believed that would give me that strength, that would allow me to walk that way, the way they did toward their end.
My father doesn’t believe in anything anymore, not God, not politics. The sky, perhaps, the air; us, me and my brothers, our children. Perhaps he believes in those things, and that might be enough. And it might be enough for me, too, to believe in the world. He told us what he wants us to do with his ashes. He wants us to take them to the only place he ever seemed to have been happy, to Sewell’s Creek, to where the ruins are, almost erased now, of a hut where he spent a year with his father, my grandfather, free and roaming the hills as a boy when wracked with asthma he’d been sent away to recover in the dryer climate of the Western plains, and my grandfather had mined silver and gold in narrow tunnels dug through the hard quartz beneath the land they’d once owned, and my father had caught rabbits and trout and dreamt of the past and the future before his dreams became the sad ones he has now, of being forgotten and left behind. They were bigger then, he said, and though he was talking about the hills, he might have meant something else. He wants us to take his ashes there, to the bank beside the creek, and scratching three lines in the ground with a stick, he showed us where he wants us to pour him, into the ground, and there to leave him; there beneath an old stump of a tree that looks like nothing, but is everything to him. And we will. We will take him there, and do as he asked, and cover his ashes with the dry dust of the earth. And we’ll take our children with us and say, this is where your ancestors came. This place, here. It was not their land, but they came; they came as prisoners and as people fleeing poverty and persecution, in ships that broke up in storms or just limped through, and they struggled and they lived and they worked and they died. They did good and they did bad, they prayed to God and they blasphemed; they showed kindness and they inflicted terrible cruelty, they reached and they fell. This is who we are, and that is the sound of the storm blowing through you.