May 1, 2013

Remembering Pa

A phone call at 7am is rarely a good sign.

When the night before there had been another phone call that said "things didn't look good", you know what the conversation will be before it occurs. You mind knows what is going to be said before you pick up the phone.

I called him Pa. We all did. All the grand kids, and he had many. To the great grand kids he was 'Old Pa'. To many others, he was simply Ralph.
He was the figure head of the family. In the 10 years since we lost Nana, he was always there. No matter how many times his health faulted, he was still always there.

I don't want to remember him as he was the last time I saw him. So thin, his clothes were hanging off him. Hearing so gone he didn't even try to pretend he heard you. The bony cheek when I kissed him. I don't want to remember how scared I was when I saw him sitting, in a daze while our crazy family laughed and talked around him.

Instead I remember . . .

The video of me when I was less than 2, and stuck under the dinning room table. I was crying and trying to get out. Nana was all encouragement and coaxing, 'Come on sweetie, come on.' and in the background you can hear Pa proclaiming sarcastically "Well, don't go in there!"

The night Josh and I spent in the caravan on their property, Ralda, before the house was built. Pa complaining that we kicked and he couldn't sleep. Then in the morning he would pretend to steal our breakfast, laughing that we were too slow so he deserved to eat it.

It was Pa who taught us how to make a chippie sandwich. White bread with lots of butter, plain potato chips. Yum, greasy and salty, soft and crunchy and so, so bad for you.
He use to steal those as well.

Pa teaching me how to ride. Bindy, the grey overweight pony. And Bronze the large gelding. I have no actual memory of him riding, though I know he did. But he put up with my crazy mixture of overconfidence and fearfulness with horse riding. He taught me that you should always learn how to ride without a saddle, as it means you can keep your balance even if your feet fall out of the stirrups. So for a long time I rode bareback, learning how to grip with my legs and nudge with my heels.
I remember how that came in handy years later when I went on a trail ride with a friend, and they put me on a horse who took off, how amazed the instructors were when I kept my seat, though the stirrups went flying.
He taught me how to tack up, how to hide the halter when you are trying to catch the horse, how to stand you ground even when they come charging at you.

I remember coming home on the bus from the local school when we lived with them for a few months. Pa waiting on the side of the highway to let the driver know where to drop us off. Pa taught scripture at the local school, and so many of the big kids were hanging out the windows calling "Hello, Mr Fowler!" and asked me with an impressed voice "Is that your granddad?!" And I stood proudly and corrected them "That's my Pa."

I remember how he and Nana would always walk arm in arm everywhere they went, he would keep her steady. And how I hoped that someday, when I was old, I would have a relationship like that - where you still walked arm in arm even after 50 years of marriage.

I remember, after Nana died, when Pa came to live with our family. He would take himself all over the place, to visit friends and to different appointments. Mum had to be careful what she said when he was around, because Pa would get ideas about things he could do to help us. Like the time that she mentioned we should prune the tree overhanging the washing line then came home the next day to find half of the tree gone. "Well you said you wanted the sun to get to the clothes." Pa reminded her. Or when she was concerned about backing out of the driveway because the fence opening was so narrow, so he found the sledge hammer and knocked a few bricks out.

I remember creeping out into the hallway when I heard him praying. Pa would pray out loud for hours at night. The teenage me, who wasn't ashamed of eavesdropping would sit and listen. I liked to hear him pray, he always had such certainty that God was there and He was listening. Often he would pray thank you for something that hadn't happened yet. How amazed I was at the audacity Pa had to assume that God would answer his prayers, to not even ask, just say thank you that God would do it.

Going with Pa into the city on Anzac day. With his coat, his hat and row of medals. I never saw him march, but to walk alongside him in the city, with strangers holding doors for him, saying hello, offering him seats. Oh how proud I was to walk alongside him!

The phone conversations, that were never private. Even if you hid away in your room, I always had to yell everything down the phone 3 or 4 times before he heard. Coming out into the lounge room where friends were killing themselves laughing because they had heard every repeated sentence.

Pa would stay with us when it was just Joshua and I, after Mum and Dad moved away. He would ring up and organise it, telling me "Don't tell your mother, because she'll worry" but he always told her before we did anyway.
Joshua and I taking it in turns to drive him different places.
Being sure that he must have built half of Sydney, because no matter where we were he would point to a building and say "Oh, yes, I worked on that one."
Freaking out that something would happen 'on our watch'.
Walking alongside but one step behind, as he grew more and more frail and hoping I would be able to catch him if he fell.
Hearing all the family goss while he stayed with us, and wondering what exactly he said about us to the rest of the family.
Listening to stories I had heard 100 times before.
Knowing that each time Pa visited at least one night he would say after I came home from work; "You don't really feel like cooking, do you?" and we would either get Chinese or go to the Blacktown RSL because it was his favourite.
Coming home from said RSL, and the next day finding all the food in the fridge that he had pocketed; tiny packets of butter, jam, sugar and bread rolls.

Feeling so scared when Pa was staying with us and had a 'turn' and I took him to my doctor. Mum made me go in with him because he probably wouldn't hear half of what the Doctor told him. I remember almost dying of embarrassment when the Doctor mentioned that his blood pressure was high, and Pa just calmly told her "Well, just sitting next to you gets my heart rate up." He got away with so much flirting, because he was old and gentlemanly with a tip of his hat and a smile. I just now realised I will dread the next time I see my doctor, because she will ask smiling 'How's Ralph?' and I'll dissolve into tears.

Pa pressing money into my hand whenever he would see me, after he became too frail to stay with us, and I saw him when he stayed at Mum and Dad or my Aunts and Uncles. He would always call me into a room privately and slip it to me with a grasp of the hand (as if we all didn't know he was handing out cash), with a kiss and a "Buy yourself an ice-cream."

Pa looking with wonder at something I had sewn, pretending to be interested in the construction of a dress or skirt. Then pulling me into a sideways hug, and say with tears in his eyes, "Your Nana would be so proud of you."

All these ways, this is how I will remember Pa.

90 years, not a bad innings.


Katie Lindsay said...

I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like you have lots of wonderful memories stored away.
My Pa too used to slip money into my hand, usually when I was going on camp/a holiday. He too, made it to 90, and probably would have continued longer, but he stopped eating when he realised Nan was dying and lasted exactly 4 weeks after her death

Erin said...

:) it must be something about that generation.
Pa was devastated when Nana died, I was so amazed he continued and lived a full life moving between his children.

Margaret Thatcher said...

Beautiful memories, Erin. So sorry to hear about Ralph's death. You are all in my thoughts and prayers.