I started writing this weeks story about the importance of passing on the oral history of your family to your kids, but then realized that this story, which I published back in 2016 was a perfect illustration of the richness of the stories from my dad.
In February 2011 as I was gathering my thoughts to give the eulogy at my fathers funeral, my siblings and I all began to realize that it was difficult to get material as he’d so rarely talked about himself or his life that I didn’t have much material to work with. Collectively it seemed to boil down to just a small handful of stories and times that he shared with anyone…
So this week I want to share with you a story from dad’s life but also a few lessons that will help you learn more about your parents or grandparents while they are still healthy and with it enough to share themselves with you, but also what that impact has on you and your kids far into the future.
To give you a little context my father was born during the Great Depression, and to say life was tough was more than an understatement not only for him and his family but for millions of people on an unprecedented global scale. Most of the western democracies had been decimated by the financial crash of 1929 with much of the wealth and confidence in financial institutions being completely wiped out. Global unemployment was running at inconceivable rates, which was exacerbated by widespread hunger, famine and destitution on scale rarely seen.
When dad was born prematurely during this time the doctors took one look at him and said “do what you can, but he’s not going to survive”, as he weighed in at a very small 3.5 pounds.
So his mum took him home and clearly survived. He was always going to be the smallest of his siblings but also the toughest – both in physical strength but also his mental strength and capacity to take on incredible levels of pain without flinching.
Upon reflection of dad and his life here are a few lessons that I gleaned:
Spend time talking – this is especially true with your parents and grandparents if you’re blessed with their presence. Invest the time to just talk…one of Sam’s favorite memories from our time in Australia was when we all just sat around and talked and told stories with no distractions or devices – regular conversations. Simplicity can often mean so much, and a lot more than we realize!
There is no question that dad had a tough start in life, and even as a kid he was a fighter, and although considerably smaller than his peers who towered over him he wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything, often using his fists to settle differences of opinion – his motto was to strike first and ask questions later. Even in later life people around our little town always had a healthy respect for dad, primarily stemming from his rough and tumble childhood.
Dad had to take on the role of breadwinner for the family (his mother and three younger siblings) at the ripe old age of 12 after his father died of miner’s lung in late 1944. The unfortunate impact was that he had to leave school with virtually zero education, he could read haltingly and had uneven writing skills. As well, throughout the depression and into the late 1940’s there was no social insurance or social assistance, and as such you had to look after your own and so he took to laboring, mostly working on farms, hunting and in his late teens eventually heading to Queensland to work on the sugar cane fields where he could make “big” money.
Role models – it’s so important to have good role models in your life, and the lives of our children. Learning life’s lessons from a parent or grandparent can have a truly lasting effect, and although you may not know it at the time your kids are observing you everyday. They learn from you how best to deal with situations, and so not only are you responsible for your own behavior but also for the behavior of future generation – you reap what you sow…just sayin! 🙂
Dad was built for working in the cane fields, firstly he was “built like a brick shithouse” from all the manual labor he’d endured during his formative years, plus the heat seemed to have no effect on him so he could toil away for hours at a stretch without the need for a break. In addition, he didn’t care about snakes, rats or any manner of creepy crawly that inhabited the cane fields of which there were a fair few, but would merely either dispatch them with a blow from his cane knife (machete) or push them aside and keep right on going.
One of my dad’s favorite sayings was if you had a tough, crappy job to do, “if that’s the worst you have to do in your life, then you’re ahead of the game, now get on with it”.
Your legacy – have you ever wondered what your legacy will be for your kids? And what indelible stories will they have of you to pass down to their kids? I always believed I was a good parent and role model, so when we got back from Australia and Sam said to me that I was different in Australia I must admit I was a little surprised… “You were more outgoing in Australia dad”, and on reflection I guess I was – being back within the bosom of family and friends can be a liberating experience and especially good for your kids to observe. It’s so important to let your kids see the real you!
Another of dad’s stories he shared with me during his last six months was when he fronted for his first day of work on the sugar cane farm just outside Mackay in North Queensland, he didn’t even own a pair of boots, yes, he was that poor. The owner of the farm, George, felt sorry for him and offered to loan him an old pair, but dad respectfully declined saying that when he earned enough money he would buy a pair of his own.
Not giving up on the young and inexperienced lad George tried to convince him otherwise, by telling him about all the perils that lay ahead of him – from razor sharp cane stalks to the many poisonous snakes and spiders that inhabited the fields but dad was unfazed and went to work anyway…
Over the course of that first year he worked hard, learning on the job and by seasons end was the number one cutter in George’s crew. That meant that he had cut more tonnage of cane than any other cutter over the course of the season, which worked out pretty well considering that he was paid £1 per ton. Most days dad could cut anywhere between 4 – 6 ton of cane by himself which he then had to hand load onto rail cars for shipping to the mill. Each rail car was then tagged and tallied by the boss as it was rolled into the siding to ensure each cutter received the credit. George would just shake his head at this kid from the bush who was to put more rail cars in that siding on a regular basis that anyone he’d seen before.
He was incredibly fit and although this work was heavy duty, he seemed to get stronger and enjoy it more as the season progressed…youth is clearly wasted on the young!
Throughout his time working on the cane farm dad religiously saved his money plus sent money home to his mother each week to keep her and his siblings above the poverty line. Not surprisingly, after his third season on the cane farm dad had saved enough money to buy the house and one acre block in which I grew up on for the princely sum of £600.
Not too shabby for a kid from the bush, and yes, he did eventually buy himself that pair of boots!
I feel truly blessed that dad was able to share these small vignettes from his life before he passed. Until his illness, I knew little of his life and was stunned by some of his stories.
However, as he shared these stories more and more of his life began to take shape and make sense to me.
Perhaps it’s time to sit down with your parents and grandparents and see if they’ll share some of their stories with you…you’ll be so thankful they did!
Until next week…