Essay

All their families

IN JUNE 1988, my mother became younger than my youngest child. It was night-time when the phone call came. I was in the middle of the dinner chaos and children's homework mixed with the usual evening competition over television programs. The voice on the line said that Mum had been run over in the street. It was serious.

On the way to the hospital I cracked the usual jokes about Mum and her resilience. "I hope the car's all right," I said to the children. "Grandma's never liked cars and she could do some real damage."

The casualty clerk put us into the quiet room that hospitals keep for telling bad news. I'd left my glasses at home and could not read so for the next hour or so I thought about my mother and the way she would simultaneously express supreme self-control while acting to outrage those around her.

In the 1970s, after Dad died, Mum worked for some years as a stenographer in the Department of Taxation. She wore elegant pants suits and rubber thongs. For more than 30 years, until the night she was run down by a careless driver, Mum only ever wore thongs on her feet. At work, her office supervisors circulated memos about "inappropriate footwear", but Mum ignored the complaints, claiming they could not refer to her. She felt immune to her colleagues' stares and comments, and angry at their intolerance. When Mum was a child, shoes had been a luxury; bare feet were the norm. Later, she realised that thongs gave some protection but kept the feeling of freedom. She enjoyed her eccentricity. She said everyone gossiped about her anyway, so she may as well give them something to gossip about. Nevertheless she was relieved to retire on medical grounds after suffering a mild stroke.

Mum's habit of wearing thongs was not the main reason she was unwelcome at the local RSL bowling club. That was her choice. Dad did try to bring her into his social life. Once she even offered to help out for a charity day. As she later told the story, the members would buy their beer by the jug and the profits for the day went to Legacy. However, when the drinkers went to play the poker machines, Mum, who hated both gambling and drinking, would empty the jugs. She claimed it was because they were abandoned and she was just tidying up, but she was not asked back. Dad did all his drinking at the club because, except for rum for the Christmas cake, there was no alcohol allowed in our house.

Dad spent most of his time down at the club. He became bowls secretary, organising the draw for the games. He was there all weekends and many evenings, except when he was at the main RSL club. The companionship of mates was a fair substitute for marriage. Mum's connections came from her church and various voluntary women's groups. After Dad died, she became close to a young couple at the church who had bought a house up the street. She'd spend much of her time there and looked after their two children with rather more affection than she had shown to my sister or me. Even so, Paul and Jan didn't call her by her first name, and the children called her "Coleman". Mum never had the gift of intimacy.

 

A YOUNG DOCTOR finally came to the quiet room and told of broken bones, massive trauma and a poor prognosis. She asked if they could take risks. Mum always took risks. I signed the papers. In the next few days, when we visited her in intensive care, she lay as remote as she had been through most of my childhood. But then, one day, as I held her hand, a once almost impermissible intrusion into her space, she stirred, and in that movement our relationship changed. Mum was suddenly so vulnerable, so helpless. I knew I was responsible for her and her care.

Families are like this. Their dynamics change without warning. The composition of a family changes by birth, death, accident. People join or leave with or without fanfare. The politicians' beloved mantra of "family values" seems predicated on mother-father-children in white-picket-fence-land, but even here nothing is as it seems. Connections are made and broken behind lace curtains; only the participants know the real stories.

When Mum regained consciousness her personality had changed. The family doctor said the accident had broken her carapace. It was a striking image. From being distant, remote and self-contained, my mother was suddenly vulnerable, needy and hungry for affection; her shell had been broken. She had always been repelled by physical contact but now she needed to be touched, held, kissed. She cried at her helplessness and was pathetically grateful for our presence. For some weeks morphia gave her hallucinations. She lived in a brightly coloured delirium where strangers with telephones and trolleys had taken over her house and she was trapped in the garden unable to move. She cried for me to bring her grapes from the fridge. She was not allowed to swallow, so we wet her mouth with a cloth. One day, when she was not expected to live, Mum whimpered that she was cold and was on a coastal steamer with grey fog blocking her vision. She asked to see Nick, my son. When he came to sit by her bed, she lay staring at his face until she fell asleep. It was in the weeks after she finally came back to life that my mother spoke to me in the voice of a little girl and said, "I wish you were my Mummy."

 

SO MY MOTHER became my child. After a year in hospital, then a failed attempt to return to her own home, she moved into my house with four children; and we all cared for her. This is hardly an unusual family model. In Australia, just over two per cent of the population describe themselves as "primary carers", and a further ten per cent say that they assist in care. Of these, almost all of them (89 per cent) are caring for a close family member. The numbers seem small, especially as many of the carers are partners, not children. It could be that in our increasingly individualised society we are losing old communities and connections. Throughout the world, across all civilisations and all times, the extended family is the norm. The old live with the young; sometimes to care for them and sometimes to be cared for. Mutual care is at the very core of what it means to be human. Retirement villages where the old stay segregated only became popular in the second half of the 20th century, and even then only in the West. Compartmentalising parents and infant children into neat suburban blocks may be a developer's dream and make good business for the real estate industry, but people are more complicated than that. The only constant in any family is change.

The household I established with children, mother and dog, bore little resemblance to the tense fibro cottage of my 1950s childhood. I work full-time, but because my employer is a university I was able to do much of my work at home, using a broadband connection. I was able to work in the small hours of the morning, the best time for writing. The children brought Mum into their lives. They read Harry Potter aloud after her glaucoma made it hard to read. They played their music at the usual volume and she found unexpected enjoyment in the heavy beat of All Torn Down by The Living End. She liked going to the cinema, something she hadn't done for years, but preferred the fantasy adventure of The Mummy Returns to the realism of The Dish. For her, the tension as the scientists tried to record the moon landing was too much high anxiety. When she watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding she laughed so much that her incontinence pad was soaked through.

Mum had always enjoyed shopping but now, without the carapace of her earlier life, all shopping excursions were major events. After a few unfortunate occasions, like the time she insisted on pink hotpants and a leopard-skin top, I realised it was easier to take her to our Italian greengrocer where she adored the abundance of food. He flirted with her outrageously and beamed when the bill tipped $200. I think it is fair to say that Mum found our inner-city lifestyle exotic. This may be why she was no longer shocked when I served wine with dinner, although she did not drink it. To help her memories of times past we installed cable television and she had spent many happy hours watching the black and white movies of her youth. Our dog became "my puppy". She gave him her food and held him in her lap. When she lay in bed, looking out at the garden or the children playing on the swings in the park, he would come inside to lie under her bed, lick her fingers and make her giggle. Such indulgence from someone who would never allow animals in her house. Later, as she became even more fragile, the children would change her nappies at night when I was teaching; feed her, give her night-time medication and put her to bed.

One day, when I entered the house, the sound of visiting children, the smell of dog and the sight of clutter took me aback. I realised why my life seemed oddly familiar. I had unconsciously modelled the management of my family on that of the family of my childhood friend, Anne. My house even had something of the ambience of her gloriously untidy girlhood home. She was the eldest of six tumbling children whose parents were able to relax with them, who treated material possessions as things to be used. There was no scandal if a toy was broken.

The family of my childhood home was so fraught there was a special liberation for me in crossing the road to adopt Anne's family and its casual comfort. Looking back, I can see that one reason for this relaxation is that they were (relatively) affluent and, even more important, young. In my memory, all the other families in our street were survivors of the Great Depression with fathers touched by war. Their histories could be seen in the brittle tidiness of the gardens; the slow shuffle and the absent stare of the man up the street with shellshock; the man at the back with his glass eye who had been left for dead by the Japanese; my father's bleak moods. The little-spoken stories were a part of the legacy of World War II. The Great Depression that preceded it had hit Australia hard. My parents and most of our neighbours had known poverty. They appreciated the comforts of the postwar age of affluence but were worried that the past might return.

But Anne lived in a brick house. Her parents had no memory of schooldays without shoes, of bread and dripping for dinner, and none of their friends died young. Their careless generosity was mingled with a sense of collaboration within the extended family. Games could be won (and lost) without screaming. Meals were eaten with good cheer, followed by communal washing up. Television was permitted.

 

WITH THE CURRENT nostalgia for the 1950s and its clean-scrubbed families in neat houses, it is surprising that so little has been made of the realities of the great divide between the returned soldiers of World War II and their families. In 1960, Alan Seymour's play The One Day of the Year (Angus & Robertson, 1976) was banned because of the way it showed the beer-fuelled culture of the old soldiers and its rejection by the next generation. In recent years, only John Doyle's Changi on ABC television begins to deal with the camaraderie of the survivors of war, their ghost memories and uncomprehending families.

The reality of Australian suburban life in the postwar years was of a culture divided. Returned soldiers had open contempt for those who had sat out the war in safety and excluded the "shirkers" from membership of the RSL; only fellow servicemen could understand the depth of their experience. They needed their club with its friendly cacophony of poker machines and daily pause to remember the dead. They needed mates who could understand why they would sometimes cry and would ignore eyes that on occasion stared into distant memories of death and mutilation. In a real sense, the RSL club became an all-embracing family for my father and his mates. It offered acceptance without judgement or the need for explanation.

During the war, when austerity seemed almost an extension of the bleak years of the Depression, young women like my mother had lived almost in a dream. Their fantasy lives had been inhabited by the young handsome soldiers who courted them before sailing to the other side of the world. These dream men became more perfect the longer they were away. Meanwhile, in their daily lives, they were given real responsibility in senior positions. Because the men were away, at the age of 20 my mother, the daughter of a tram driver, who had left school without her intermediate certificate, was a buyer in a York Street warehouse. She also worked as a stenographer for the Department of War Organisation of Industry. Then Dad returned home from Tobruk, bitter and hurt at the reality of war. He went to New Guinea as a biscuit bomber and came back within months with malaria. He was a broken man. Marriage under these circumstances was an act of gallantry rather than an affirmation of partnership.

In the postwar years, it was easy to airbrush the reality of the daily lives of the ex-soldiers and their newly domesticated wives. There was enormous cultural pressure to have families. This came not just from the "populate or perish" doctrine of government, but also from those who had survived the war. Families – nesting and nurturing the young with hope for the future – was a natural part of the healing of a world that had been too long at war. But the constraints placed on these families, the way women were returned to the house to fit a standard domestic template, had a terrible cost. Some tried to cope with the artificiality of their constructed lives by denying their own personalities. They tried to keep perfect houses in the officially sanctioned style, heavily promoted by women's magazines and health department pamphlets. In retrospect, 1950s and early '60s publications on marriage read like I Dream of Jeannie without the irony. Housekeeping Monthly in May 1955 published "The good wife's guide" and told its readers to run their households for their husbands as though they were living in five-star hotels and to recreate themselves as submissively as callgirls: "A good wife always knows her place," it admonished. It was hardly surprising that many women felt trapped and many who remembered independent lives during the war fell into depression.

My parents built a fibro house on what was once a dairy farm in Hurstville. It was on a bus route, about three kilometres from the main shopping centre. They could not afford a phone or a car. They planted fruit trees and grew vegetables. They had a prickly relationship with my father's family, precipitated when my sister was born and his mother placed her on the Cradle Roll of the local Baptist church. My parents were united against the Baptists. Dad's family were devout Baptists. He was the third of seven children and the only one who went away to fight, although three of his sisters nursed soldiers at home. He joined the army almost as an act of rebellion against their pacifist tradition. When I look at the photograph albums my father kept as the record of his war, I can trace the changes in his understanding of how the world worked and what was happening to him. First there is the camp at Dubbo, a big shed with the men's gear neatly stacked. Then a group photo of 16 men, including Dad, captioned "section which transferred over to 9th Div Supply Col November 1940". By the time he wrote those words, Dad would have known that his old division, the 8th, went to Singapore where they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. He knew his luck and, I think, felt guilty for his escape. The albums show the troopship stopped at Kandy, where Dad rode in a rickshaw, then sailed through Suez where he marvelled at the pyramids. Then they landed in Palestine for more training. Like a good Baptist boy, he sent photographs of Biblical sites back to his mother. No one in his family had travelled since they came out to Australia in the early 19th century. This was adventure.

With the arrival of the troopship at Tobruk Harbour, the photographs change from adventure to violence. The dominant images are of ships being sunk, bomb craters and ruined buildings. My father dealt with the new reality of war by concentrating his camera on memorials and war graves. They gave some meaning at least to everything that was happening. He photographed the 1941 Tobruk War Memorial built by Australian soldiers in the War Cemetery; he photographed graves and the places where friends were killed. He kept photographs of mates who had died. At Tobruk, my father finally lost his Baptist faith and found a lifelong contempt for the Church of England when chaplains were the first to run for shelter in air raids. My aunt, Dad's baby sister, told me that at the end of the war he was listening to a radio broadcast of one of the victory marches. The commentator described the returned soldiers as "heroes". Dad got angry and started yelling that there were no heroes marching because all the heroes were dead. He found it easier to talk to ghosts – or to other old soldiers.

Before the war, Dad had been a mattress maker for Dominoes. He was a good tradesman and often made the samples. But he damaged his back and lost his nerve in Tobruk, so by the time I was aware of life he was working in a furnishing shop by day and going to tech at night. Money was tight, so Mum went back to work as a temporary stenographer, which he found humiliating as it meant he was not a "good provider". She relished the freedom of returning to work and the escape from the house. She bought a new watch and an elegant gold propelling pencil for her shorthand. Then, the year I was six, Dad returned to Dominoes with a well-paying white-collar job as a company representative, selling what he used to make. Suddenly we had a car and a telephone. Mum returned home, crushed, but tried to console herself by planting a native garden. Shortly afterwards, she had what was described as a "nervous breakdown".

 

THE DAY OF MUM'S breakdown is one of my most distinct memories. I'd been playing with some neighbouring children up the street and when I returned home there was an ambulance parked at our new double gates at the back of the house. It was a dull yellow and Mum was walking calmly towards it. She wore a clear yellow chenille dressing gown, a lighter tone than the ambulance, and I remember them contrasting with the hot pink that Mum had insisted on using when Dad painted the house. She only half acknowledged me as she was helped into the ambulance and taken away. Mum did not return for what seemed like weeks, but was more likely days. We had an emergency housekeeper while she was away, and another one to help her when she came back. The first housekeeper was kind. She gave my sister and me port-wine jelly and ice-cream, and Dad slept on the back veranda while she slept in his and Mum's bed. The housekeeper who came after Mum returned from the hospital was cross (especially with my father). She encouraged Mum to lock us out of the house, to give her a rest.

It was all very puzzling. I still played at my friend Anne's house, but people didn't come to our house anymore. Mum never visited the neighbours and refused to ever see Granny, her mother, again. At the very end of the year, Granny came upon us in the hairdresser's shop at Hurstville and gave me a Christmas book, but Mum turned her back on her mother. After this we had little to do with other relatives on her side of the family, and as Dad had a tricky relationship with his family, we became socially isolated.

For many years after her breakdown, Mum would go to see a psychiatrist at Sydney Hospital once a week. She was given Largactil, which meant that she slept through most of the rest of my schooldays. She would not join the Mothers' Club or any other school activity. I left home as soon as I decently could.

Many years later, shortly before the accident that brought her to live with us, Mum told me the real story. It wasn't a nervous breakdown. At about the time that Dad finally got a good job, she found she was pregnant again. She could not cope with the two children she already had. She contrived several times to miscarry, by doing all the things that pregnant women were told not to do. She lifted heavy loads of washing. She took hot baths. Previously, this had worked. But this pregnancy would not move. Her body refused to reject the intruder. I have a very distinct memory of about this time of Mum fainting and then crying, helplessly. Dad looked lost, but kept telling her it was all going to be "all right". All around me, people – aunts, grandmothers, grown-ups – were talking babies. They would look down at me indulgently and ask if I would like a brother. When I told Mum I wouldn't mind one, she simply said "No". She told her doctor that she could not go on. She could not have this child. But in the fibro suburbs of the 1950s, women were expected to endure. She had no contacts, had no idea of where to go, and certainly had no money to pay for an abortionist. She considered suicide. From her father, who had been a medical orderly in the navy during World War I, Mum had books on first aid and a reasonable working knowledge of anatomy. She sterilised the tool she used, and when she knew she had miscarried, she called the doctor. She was over seven months' pregnant.

Because she was honest, Mum was condemned by the doctors, her relatives, the neighbours. My father was simply non-comprehending. Her actions were an attack on his manhood. He retreated to the garage, where he would listen to sport on the radio. The man who lived behind us and had a glass eye through an encounter with the Japanese, told him about a new bowling club started by the RSL, and Dad joined. Granny, Mum's mother, could not cope with the truth so told everyone that as her daughter had had a breakdown, the baby had been adopted. Even in her drug-induced state Mum never could handle hypocrisy, which is why she cut herself loose.

Mum stopped wearing make-up and shoes. She made a new will in which she indicated that her body was to be given to the anatomy department of the University of Sydney, as a way of denying the value of flesh. Some years later, she began to write poetry. None of her poems was published, but she used her new-found literacy as a weapon against my father. The psychiatrist prescribed religion, so she went to his Presbyterian church. Then a new neighbour, who did not know the gossip, invited Mum to go with her to the local Church of England. When Mum was baptised Anglican it deepened the rift with Dad. In their world, divorce was not an option.

There were some advantages in being a child of the baby boom. I completed high school on a Menzies scholarship, the departing prime minister's gift to senior secondary education. Then a Commonwealth Scholarship took me to Sydney University where I enrolled in B.A. with a major in Fine Arts. Sydney University is only a 30 minute train ride from Hurstville, but its physical beauty and intellectual values were so different that it could have been on a different planet. Bernard Smith, whose book on Australian art had been a revelation to me, was the professor. Because the department had just opened to undergraduate students and numbers were small, Bernard and his wife Kate opened their Glebe house to students at Christmas. Sometimes we met artists and were drawn into a world where people made art as well as writing about it. At the end of my honours year, when Bernard was completing his revision of Australian Painting, I met Richard Larter. I didn't know his work, but the next year, when I was working at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I remembered this English-born artist when I saw a painting that was about to enter the collection. The subject was his wife, Pat.

 

THE POST-WORLD WAR ii desire for nesting that led to the baby boom was repeated in a slightly different form in every country that had participated in the war. In London, the rebellious young Richard Larter realised that, with the war won, he would not have to fight and die for his country. He could have a life. His parents were middle-class on an upwardly mobile trajectory. He rode a motorbike and took classes at the Institute of Contemporary Art. One of his acts of defiance was to adopt the cockney accent of his grandfather, who had worked on the London wharves, instead of the rounded vowels of his parents. Because he refused to go to university and wanted to be an artist, the 22-year-old Richard Larter was working for an insurance company when he fell in love with Patricia Holmes, who was just fifteen.

Pat's mother was a widow who ran a boarding house at Canvey Island at the mouth of the Thames. The family was poor, buoyed by a residual memory of a grandmother who had been a music-hall star. They married on February 18, 1953, when she was sixteen. Their marriage was not precipitated by the usual teenage pregnancy, but by the disastrous floods that swept in from the North Sea on the evening of January 31. The floods spread over 150,000 acres of Eastern England – more than 300 people died 59 of them on Canvey Island. All 13,000 people who lived on the island were evacuated.

Homeless, and without any possessions except each other, their marriage was an affirmation of the value of life. It was the English class system, even more than age or education, that nurtured hostility between the Larter family and the young couple. Nine years later, their decision to emigrate was, in part, a rejection of rigid social stratification and its connections with property and wealth. They were not alone in this. Ever since Charles Dickens gave the Micawber family a fresh start in the Antipodes, Australia has been a preferred destination for those wanting to jettison uncomfortable origins.

The cultural connections of English immigrants in Australia, even in the 1960s, were different from other newly arrived groups. The country still assumed a British heritage. There was a belief that the English were essentially the same as the locals. This suited the Larters and their five children as they moved to Luddenham on the far-western fringe of Sydney. Here Richard taught art, first at Liverpool Boys and then Penrith High. The bonds the Larters formed were with students, fellow artists and others in the arts community. These were stronger links than shared DNA. When Richard Larter held his first one-man exhibition in 1965, it was with the newly opened Watters Gallery, a partnership of Frank Watters, Geoffrey Legge and his wife, Alex.

The first letter Frank Watters wrote to him in July 1965 is in the archive of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Dear Richard Larter, Like your work..." it begins. He still exhibits with Watters Gallery. Frank Watters's flat on the top floor of the Riley Street gallery is overflowing with works by some of Australia's greatest artists, but the works of Richard have pride of place in the living room and kitchen, while Pat Larter's powerful self-portrait, Pat's Anger, hangs in the intimacy of his bedroom. One of the great advantages of being an artist is that there is a certain tolerance of eccentricity not given to those who lead more suburban lives.

The evolution of the circle of artists, collectors and others around Watters Gallery joined to connect the Larters to the grand family of art. Their archive in the Art Gallery of New South Wales maps connections through postcards, birthday cards, exhibition invitations and letters. Well-known curators, artists, collectors and unknown art students all trekked to Luddenham, and later to Yass, for good companionship and art. Later, Pat Larter established her own postal network in the international underground of mail-art. This gave the Larters access to a worldwide community supporting acts of subversion.

Frank Watters's name is woven into the narratives of the Larters' lives through correspondence with children, artists and distant English relatives. The details of Frank's life, from his dogs to the bush retreat he built in rural NSW, were seen by the Larters as an extension of their own lives. When teenage children went to concerts in distant Sydney, they stayed with Frank, of course. He was one of their most constant correspondents. His letters cover love and life, problems with solar heating, the visits of friends and the gossip of the Sydney art scene. They reminded the Larters that despite their geographical remoteness, they were a part of a tight-knit community: a new family. Frank's letters nurtured and encouraged the Larters' art and achievement. When Pat Larter emerged as a painter in her own right in the early 1990s, she exhibited with Legge Gallery, run by Geoffrey and Alex Legge's children. When she died, too soon, of cancer in 1996, Frank comforted Richard but he, too, needed comforting. They were the closest of friends. He was the executor of her will, named in it as "my friend Frank Watters". The intimacy of this relationship is not business, it is family.

Frank Watters, Geoffrey, Alex, Jasper, Zoe and Sonia Legge, their colleagues, their artists and their clients are effectively the core of a large and extended family joined by the kinship of art. Some of their relationships go back decades; others are more recent. In this family, everyone is defined by their relationship to creativity. They may be artists or lovers of art. Curators can turn into artists; artists are also collectors; critics can be simultaneously friend and enemy. The fluid nature of this family and the way it adapts to change, reminds me of the way Ken Watson, the assistant curator of indigenous art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, describes connections in traditional Aboriginal communities. "Outsiders – including teachers, health workers, researchers, missionaries or anyone who spends an extended time in the community – are given 'skin' names so that everyone knows how to relate to them. The 'skins' define who they are (or would be) related to and who in the community has ultimate responsibility for them. A 'skin', therefore, also defines what obligatory relationships the person will be expected to fulfil – who they can marry for instance. A person's 'skin' defines the ceremonies they 'own' or are expected to 'manage'. As I understand, it all living things including land belong to one or other of the 'skins' or moieties. Therefore, by extension, everything and everyone is drawn into this network of relationships and consequently we are all related, closely and distantly as the case may be."

Those who live within the system of tribal moieties always know their connections with kin, no matter how distant. This is what made the crime of white people stealing indigenous children especially cruel – they lost any sense of belonging to the world. But the consequence of Aboriginal approaches to family, the sense that people ultimately belong to each other, extends way beyond traditional communities. As Watson says: "Kinship provides a form of individual and group security that goes beyond biological relationships. The system is also flexible enough to incorporate outsiders. I think it's possible to conclude that the extended family is the norm for most Aboriginal people. Perhaps it is an ideal state, especially for those of us living in urban environments under the Western system where this inclusive system of extended family competes with the exclusive ideal of the nuclear family."

Kinship may explain connections but the relationship between kin does not remain the same. The relationship I have with my children has evolved: I once took responsibility for their needs, now those who still live in my house do so in partnership rather than dependency. The tyranny of patriarchy, of assuming that father knows best, and will always know best, simply does not work. The relationship parents have with older children is a bit like the relationship I have with my students. I know I have succeeded as a teacher when they join me as intellectual equals, potential colleagues who can teach me. The university, too, can be another family. There is a standing joke at my faculty that although staff may retire, no one leaves. Emeritus scholars continually return, to see old friends and former students. They are also there for funerals.

 

IT COULD BE argued that funerals are the ultimate family occasion, more so than weddings, christenings or graduations. Perhaps the best definition of the modern family is that it consists of those who will feel both obliged and entitled to attend someone's funeral. The links of kinship at funerals are either of blood or such a close connection that it would be a lack of respect not to be there. Funerals are also where the dividing lines between cultures and families are blurred in a tribute to the dead.

Last year, my friend and colleague, the artist Alan Oldfield, died and all his families came to honour him. As with many artists, Alan had come from an apparently ordinary background. His father had been a fitter and turner; art was not on the official family agenda. Because he had gone to a comprehensive government high school, East Hills Boys High, in the 1950s, Alan had learnt Latin and ancient history, which introduced him to a world of beauty. A talent for painting took him to the National Art School and then to Sydney's bohemian cultures of the 1960s. His partner, CSIRO scientist Jim Davenport, took him to Oxford, then Italy, where he found a lifelong love of medieval and Renaissance traditions in art. The golden boy of abstract art returned to Sydney to teach painting on a human scale at an art school that was eventually renamed College of Fine Arts, a part of the University of New South Wales. He became a wise and witty exponent of the splendours of the Renaissance; his love of the great traditions of art was reflected in his work. He was a great gossip over "a glass of wine, or five", and in meetings would make sotto voce comments with devastating effect to undermine any attempt at pomposity. In another life, away from art, Alan was the erudite member of the parish council of his church, St James King Street in Sydney. When he visited his sister, her husband and their children, he was the beloved brother and uncle. But he was also very much a part of the families not joined by blood.

Alan died of cancer so he was able to plan his funeral. In Francis Greenway's church, a full choir sang the Solemn Eucharist, with music in Latin and air thick with the incense he loved. Spoken tributes came from his skin family, his art family and his church family. All came together in this passing and most appreciated the elements in the funeral that would tease them: the atheists bowing in prayer; those whose taste was limited to pop obliged to listen to the best of the baroque; the iconoclasts constrained by elaborate ceremony; the way the extended prayers around the hearse stopped Sydney traffic. It was easy to imagine Alan chuckling away in his coffin.

Choosing your own funeral is a luxury most people don't have. When my father died, it was sudden. He had been ill and unhappy for a long time. It was the first funeral I had ever attended or even seen and, many years later, I realised how large it was, and how strange. I was 20. My father's death came without notice. I only had one clean dress. So I wore pink and white voile, and no hat. The lack of a hat caused some comment among my aunts, but not the colour. In 1970 in Hurstville, the wearing of black by women indicated a Mediterranean origin. My aunts all wore pastel suits – pink, blue, green. I remember the colours and the cut, their bodies dappled among the greys of my uncles' suits. And, of course, the suits of all the other men, most of whom I did not know.

It was years before I realised that Dad's funeral was exceptionally large. When my father-in-law died eleven years later, only five people were at the funeral in the Woronora Crematorium. But Dad's funeral filled the church to overflowing. It was as crowded as Alan Oldfield's. Dad's funeral service was at Mum's church, the Church of England, even though she knew he would never voluntarily enter it. His relatives also felt uncomfortable outside their Baptist comfort zone, but they were pleased that their wayward brother's death was given a religious context. My sister was there, with her new husband, although Dad had not been invited to their wedding only months before.

After the service, the procession wound its way to the crematorium and men, strangers, took over. This was when I began to realise the web of families that had supported my father's life. I knew he had not been alone. The unknown men spoke the tired words of Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen and made them sound fresh. They produced rosemary and honoured his memory and the young man he had once been. Then one of our neighbours placed a square apron on the coffin with a sprig of wattle. He and some others who stepped forward also wore aprons and I heard someone say: "The memory of his virtues lingers in our memory, and reflects its shining lustre beyond the portals of the tomb." Dad had another semi-secret life as a Mason and his brothers were there to see him at the end, to make sure that his funeral was in some way connected to his life. In the end, my father's family was there for him.

Mum's funeral, at the end of 2003, was a quiet celebration of a life that came to a peaceful end. Relatives had come to see her after the car accident and there had been a reconciliation of sorts. In the long months in hospital, she had talked of what she had wanted when she died. "I want a party," she had said and got me to write it down, then signed the declaration in case she would be denied her desire:

When I die I do not want a funeral, as I have willed my body to the anatomy department of the University of Sydney.

I would, however, like a memorial service, and after the service a party to be held at the house of my daughter, Joanna Mendelssohn. The cost for this shall be borne by my estate.

The guests at the party should include relatives, friends and neighbours, including their children.

After she moved to my house, Mum had enjoyed the care and support of the local church. Even in the last months when she had needed 24-hour care and had gone to a nursing home, the church people came. I visited every day with one or more children to feed her and to bring the dog to play. Sometimes she forgot the children's names but did not forget who they were. Her last three days of life were spent with my twins caring for her and other patients as a part of their school's community service program.

In accordance with Mum's wishes, the Anglo Catholic Church of St Luke stripped the service back to her beloved Book of Common Prayer. Neighbours and carers joined with relatives, including my childhood friend, Anne, who travelled down from the North Coast. The lesson was read by Mary, the church visitor; the psalm by Mum's youngest sister, Ruth, who is interested in theosophy. Lucy, my eldest daughter, read one of Mum's poems and Arthur, her eldest brother, gave a brief official account of her life. My sister did not attend the church but remained at my house while three of her sons, all Orthodox Jews, came from Melbourne to pay homage to their grandmother.

Back at my house, different groups mingled in harmony. The food was from a kosher caterer. Soft drinks and tea were served as well as champagne and beer. Aged aunts, my father's sisters, did not know whether to be more amazed that my son bears such a close physical resemblance to their memories of his grandfather or that I did not stop him drinking beer in his grandmother's honour. My children in turn were fascinated to see resemblances in distant cousins, elderly aunts and a surviving uncle. We had a sheet of cardboard displayed with photographs of Mum's distant past – images from her early childhood, her confident years in her twenties and the last photos taken by my daughter, Lucy. This was a life complete. Modern families defy rigid definition. Maybe they have always been like that. 

References

David de Vaus http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/afrcpapers/devaus.html Children's responsibilities to elderly parents 1996 Accessed 4/8/05

David de Vaus Diversity and Change in Australian families: Statistical profiles Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2004, ISBN 0 642 395115 2

http://www.abc.net.au/changi/about/default.htm Accessed 4/8/05

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/1/newsid_3749000/3749771.stm. Accessed 4/8/05

http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/news/january/canvey_flood.shtml Accessed 20/8/05

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