Sunday 17 May 2009

That Ordinary House 10 Open House

After months of research, conversations, phone calls to the public trustee, mail-boxfuls of real estate agents glossy offerings we bit the bullet and made a decision.

We’d sell the house and we’d do it ourselves. Capelin and Capelin Real Estate Rookies - Come see us and if we like you, we might sell the family home to you for a song.

We put a notice in the Courier Mail advertising an open house for the following Sunday (1-3pm). With our extensive experience we chose to ignore the fact that everyone else was having their open days on the Saturday. We’ll have ours on a Sunday we decided. We figured that the market would be less crowded and we’d be able to spend the Saturday doing what we loved – sailing our 14 foot dingy on the Brisbane River at South Brisbane. It was February after all. No point in wasting the best month of the year.

Sunday reminded me of the drives we used to take as a family in the 1960s, when a great afternoon out was driving around the city visiting the Mater Prize Home and staring at brand new houses in suburbs we never knew existed. We were not inconspicuous in Dad’s latest toy, a brand new canary yellow Vdub.

Surely people still did that.

On the Sunday we agreed to meet at 12:00. We needed to put a sign on the fence and check that all the little repair jobs we’d made were still holding together. They were only minor. We weren’t going to try and fleece anyone. We didn’t want to be real real estate agents.

My brother was late. I was nervous. He had the sign, newly printed from his work computer. A3 and wrapped in a storm proof plastic sleeve. Inside in the kitchen I’d blutacked some information about the house to the feature wall – the flimsy masonite wall behind which lurked the bedroom my brother and I had shared for sixteen years. This wall had always elicited the liveliest debate between my parents when kitchen repainting time came around. Unfortunately my mother always won and had a terrible sense of colour. Today one of her worst design decisions stared at me and challenged my imagination as to how I was going to put a positive ‘real estate’ spin on a tiny cream kitchen with a dozen out of proportion orange door knobs which screamed HELLLLP! LOOK AT ME! ‘Original condition’, ‘renovate to your tast’ were the best I would be able to do.

Today the wall featured a display of maps and property details, recent sales in the area and a description of the house inviting offers around the $400 000 mark.

I’d opened all the blinds and windows. Light flooded into the living room where the Grundig stereo and minimalist record collection had held pride of place for twenty years. My parents had reaped the benefits of the post-war economic boom in terms of full employment and rising living conditions but they still lived as if they were in the thirties. There were no frivolous purchases in that house. The record collection was a symbol of that. It was all of ten records. About one purchase every two years. The Beatles and Tijuana Brass sat beside Paul Robertson and blues singer Juanita Hall, a little known but original Bloody Mary character from the musical South Pacific. My father’s fascination with ‘Bloody Mary” totally flummoxed me. What he saw in this raging version of Gimme A Pig Foot which he played at every opportunity I could never understand.

Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beerSend me a gate I don't carefeel just like I wanna clownGive the piano player a drinkBecause he's bringing me downHe's got rhythm yeah, when he stomps his feet.

Despite my father’s love of opera and southern American 1930s blues he never owned more than one record in any genre.

Back in the kitchen I tried to relax. I became acutely aware of how small this room was. I could almost stretch out my arms and span the room from wall to wall in either direction. Apart from the orange orbs staring at me it was original. Every element was in the identical position they had been in 1949 when my parents moved in. The fridge, the predecessor of which was an ice chest, was tucked into a tiny space between the sink (original single stainless steel model) and the pantry.

The pantry I assessed, had been made by my father, judging by the old unpainted unsealed tongue and groove off cuts which constituted the flooring of each shelf. The latches were intact – cute sprung devices which clasped and unclasped the mechanism behind the door on pressing the metal button. The pantry was located in a tiny alcove which also housed the stand alone gas cooker and stove. This housed a relatively new appliance, being a late 1960s replacement for the wonderful cream enamel Kooka stove which would be an heirloom if it had survived.

Somehow we had eaten meals every night for over twenty years in this tiny room on this tiny table while mum had dished up Sunday roasts and a moderate range of traditional English meals. Sausage casserole being one of my favourites but which, with its sickly pale casseroled sausages, was true to my mother’s preference for practical over aesthetic. Later, the 3m by 3m room had accommodated families and grandchildren totalling up to 11 people. On those nights we ate in shifts.

My father’s Italian heritage combined with the austerity of the thirties was also a feature of this room. The sight of the snout of a pig’s head poking above the rim of a giant cooking pot was not uncommon and the ensuing stripping of the meat and the savouring of the delicacies which I rarely tried but which my father swore were food from heaven (tongue, cheek, eye) was part of the ritual. The stink was overwhelming, and for dad intoxicating, and the resulting brawn his favourite meat. He never ventured down the path of cured meats which his father, the failed farmer but brilliant smallgoods man, was renowned for. We had so smoking room, no curing room for fat Italian salamis. Sad how quickly these crafts get lost.

So there I was in the kitchen. My brother had secured the sign to the front fence and, with me dreaming at the back of the house, him keeping guard in the front sunroom, peering through the half opened louvres in a pose reminiscent of my mother, we waited.

We hadn’t baked a cake nor taken to baking a loaf of bread in the oven. We were going for the real homespun feel. No frills.

Saturday 16 May 2009

ABC Radio - The Family Home

I had my one minute of fame on the ABC Radio 'Life Matters" program yesterday. And I blew it.
It's a very strange experience being the last in a queue of callers talking to a radio host you've never met. There's no time to warm up. And therin lay my downfall. I expected a conversation but what I now realise is that I needed my story ready to roll and it needed to be short and punchy. I can do that in a live studio setting but over the phone! Ah well. that's why I have a blog.
The other reason my minute of fame was cut to 30 seconds is that I was on another track. Richard Aedy and the other guests were focusing on the nostalgia and deep connections with family homes and I said to Richard something to the effect that I'd moved on and that the memories were more important that the house. Once it was empty and the 'life' no longer present it was just a shell. More of a trigger for memories. Which is what the "Ordinary House" stories are about.
Then as I was swimming my 20 laps in the local heated pool this morning it occurred to me that I have a stronger association to my father's family home at Wardell on the Richmond River in Northern NSW. Strange I thought. Why would that be?
On reflection I figured that this is where the nostalgia lies. Even though I only ever visited that house a few times as a young child and never even stayed overnight it's the place that holds the story, the big story of my past. Or more acurately the story of my father's family's Italian heritage. The New Italy story of an ill fated voyage and a villanous French Marquis who fleeced the gullible Italian peasants of their life savings with a promise of paradise and a reality of a tropical nightmare in New Ireland (New Guinea) . The story told and researched and retold over many years has an iconic place in the Capelin family. (see previous blog - Frenchman's Beach poem )
That house at Wardell, which was sold in 1965, over forty years ago, still draws me back. I take the detour and drive by every time I'm in that part of the world. There are relatives scattered throughout the area; there are cane fields which were the scene of my fathers youth and it's beautiful country. (see previous stories - Journey 1-16)
It's much easier to feel conections to that rich story than to a war service home in a singularly unattractive suburb in Brisbane's eastern suburbs. Which is not to deny the significance of that house in my life. Fifty seven years as the family home is a long time.
Which is why my stories are about the ordinary. There is beauty in the ordinary and that is something I value strongly. The ordinary sometimes carries stories and details which are every bit as rich and life affirming as any grand narrative associated with BIG stories.
Who knows, perhaps the Moolabar Street house will have the same resonance for my children when they reach my age.

Sunday 3 May 2009

That Ordinary House 9 Onions

Onions. The classic layered metaphor. On the outside the brown skin protects, flakes, peels, layer by layer the flesh falling away to reveal another and then another skin, working towards the centre until finally revealing, not a Chinese fortune message or a pearl but a void.

This house was like that. It was my home for over twenty years but there was a strange feeling of disassociation. The physical structure was as familiar as my own onion peel skin and triggered stories from the past but it had no value in itself. My parents had lived here for over fifty years and yet all that seemed to be left were memories. The spirits had fled. They existed only in my head.

My parents lived with very simple expectations. There was an austerity to their lives. They were working class, uncomplicated people with little ambition for worldly possessions or status. One was the daughter of a Sydney public servant, the other the son of an Italian immigrant fruit and vegetable merchant and failed farmer. They were content. Content with what they had, which in turn was all they needed.

Except. Except for my father’s love affair with driving and cars. And the occasional investment in something which, in retrospect seems odd, but which, at the time was about making life even more secure and content.

They decided to wrap this lovely little post war weather board cottage in aluminium.

As a sailor I myself have a fascination with this metal. A metal which is the most abundant in the earth’s crust. When in its industrialised form it is lighter than timber, impervious to weather, rust, water and decay. And it shines. It’s a magic product. Could it be related to uranium with a half life of thousands of years? Archaeologists in post apocryphal millenniums digging in coastal regions will unearth forests of aluminium masts, intact fishing tinnies and miles of salt resistant balustrading. And my parent’s house.

It could have been a wonderful experiment. Behold this shimmering vision in sensible brushed silver. Such a house would have made the family name notorious in Morningside circles. It would have been a brave statement about the glory of extruded metals and the place of the reflective war service cottage in the annals of architecture. My life would have become unbearably public as the son of this oversized silver cigarette box. Only in my confident middle years and in my eccentric dotage would I have reaped the rewards of this event. Infamy would have been my glorious inheritance and my father’s contribution to the world.

Sadly my father missed this opportunity and chose cream over silver. At that time aluminium cladding came in at least four colours – grey, blue, brick red and cream and was guaranteed for a lifetime. My father, who was committed to DIY projects, single handedly mixed and poured the concrete which created the mismatched patchwork under the house on which we chalked our hand tennis courts and was also the house painter.

Every five years he would spend his precious four weeks annual leave balancing and bouncing on five metre long timber planks stretched between cast iron trestles stalking the sides of the stilted house. This was all before power tools. Sanding a house was a manual task. I can still see him in his army shorts and navy singlet, a long cleaning rag hanging from his waist and on his head his trusty slouch hat – a remnant of the war.

After twenty years of painting he had succumbed to the door to door sales pitch of the man from Alcan. The idea of never having to paint the house again overwhelmed his better judgement.

Now twenty years later (as per the guarantee) this dusty cream aluminium mock weatherboard house sat defying time and the elements. The temptation to remove the wraps and expose the original weatherboards was tempting but my brother and I resisted. At one point we considered the price of aluminium on the stock market and dreamed of the wealth we might acquire by trading in this layer of the inheritance as scrap metal. But as with many of our good ideas it was discarded as impractical and ultimately a waste of time.