Last year I had a mission put forward to me by my boyfriend, who wanted pictures of me as a kid and teenager for a slideshow for my thirtieth birthday back in February 2014. He wanted me to go get as many images of me as I could find.
Which of course proved to be somewhat difficult, as I’m part of a family where the term ‘family’ is a basic and somewhat ill-defined construct to describe what we are. I love my sister and parents, but a more loose-knit, independent ‘family’ couldn’t be found anywhere. It’s almost like we all just got lumped together by fate. Maybe it’s because my parents divorced in my early 20’s and before that were constantly feuding; maybe it’s because we all ended up becoming such fiercely independent people who had less and less need for close familial relationships. I’m not sure.
So in the end, nary a picture of me was to be found anywhere. It seems like the era before Facebook and smartphones has become some new ersatz pre-historic epoch without pictures, as a single image of me from the ages of 2 to 16 proved to be quite elusive to track down. Add to the fact that my mum left our family home when my parents divorced with essentially whatever she could carry, as well as the fact that my dad is quite possibly the messiest, chaotic and unorganised fellow I know means that there is a giant gaping maw of a black hole that’s swallowed any and all visual representation of us as a family. I look to my boyfriends family with pangs of jealousy and envy, as they have recorded so much of their lives together. Pictures inhabit dozens of photo albums, shoeboxes and tidy frames upon lintels or walls. Videos of recorded adventures and family gatherings lay neatly stacked in drawers and shelves. They love nothing more than taking pictures of each other, recording holidays and special events and sharing their lives. Why was my family so different, and so riven by secrecy, distance and division?
D-Day arrived as I took the train from Urbane Inner-City Redfern to Mundane Suburban Rhodes, a little slither of a suburb on a peninsula on the very edge of Sydney’s Inner West. This is the almost Stepfordish pleasant suburb where I spent my formative teenage years and early twenties, back in the golden heyday of the late nineties and early noughties. I stepped off the train, to the much improved train station compared to those heady days, walked up the quiet road, and through the forlorn looking iron gates of my dad’s large unkempt and rambling home, and dove right into the back ‘shed’, which resembles more a Italianiate granny flat in the back yard than an actual shed. What can I say, the Tuscan look was big in the late nineties. There I found photo album after photo album squirrelled away in this shed, the interior of which resembled a possible future archeological dig. Cobwebs, dust, dirt and a general patina of age clung to every single thing. EVERY SINGLE THING. It was like a macro version of a time capsule. Here were the remnants of my former life as part of a Nuclear Family. The leftovers and artefacts of a different time. It’s interesting how in life some of us have these distinct phases and eras, yet others have a long and continual link to the past. It was like a bomb had scattered us all into oblivion, leaving behind the detritus and remains of what once was: familial bonds, stability, a once positive vision of the future. All turned to junk and miasma.
I spent some time trawling through this wreckage, scouring the Mount Everest-sized mountains of junk to find every shred of visual records my family had. I repaired back to the house’s expansive lounge room, dumped the albums on the ridiculously ornate mahogany dining table that my dad insisted on buying when I was a kid and took a little sojourn into the past.
What I found in short is that my parents had a secret life. Like me they were once young. Like me they went on trips, went out, had jobs and careers, and generally had adventures. I feel like my dad especially led this elusively cool life before my sister and I came along. It felt like the images I discovered had become a portal that is indecipherably impossible to open and peer through, and the only way to have a peek is through the broken shards in the shape of the photographs, dockets, old airline tickets from now defunct airlines and general miscellanea that this guy kept.
I found pictures of my dad in what had to have been Papua New Guinea in the 1970’s where he worked in the copper mines. Pictures of him in London in 1969 with a cinema behind him, signs promoting ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ helping create a zeitgeist of an image. Kids with shaggy hair, thongs and wearing bell-bottom jeans smoking cigarettes on the step of an old corner shop in what had to have been the now otherworldy Sydney of the 1970’s. Pictures of my dad’s friends in Papua swimming and enjoying themselves on the beach; a pre ‘globalised’, much simpler skyline of Sydney with no Centrepoint Tower or few skyscrapers in sight. My mum in a full beehive do and gorgeously retro white mini-shift dress at her first job at a pharmacist where my parents first met. Was that the first day they met? I’ll never know.
In the vantage point of what I always thought of as ‘The Future’, [being anytime after the year 2000], the past and almost secret lives of my parents are akin to a Tolkien-like history steeped in a localised mythology abound in stories, parables and tales. That old film ‘Big Fish’ with Ewan McGregor springs to mind, as like Ewan McGregor’s character, my dad always had these grand tales that stuck in my mind. Always colourful and vivid, these tales were a part of my childhood, and my sister and I would always want to hear more. He had so many stories and fables to share with us about his life as well as his family, and a mythology grew up around these stories, much like in Big Fish.
Some stories that spring to my mind include the time when he was in the Italian Army as a Paratrooper, and once almost died when he jumped out of the plane on training exercises, only to land in a swamp outside Naples, to which a Neaopolitan fisherman just happened by and found him.
The story about him as a kid being bundled off to a rather third-rate church-run Summer Camp, only to have one pair of underwear and set of clothes the whole time due to his family being so miserably poor.
Or the story about how my grandmother used to have to hide relatives who were members of the Communist underground in her house from the Germans during World War 2.
The stories about his adventures in Papua New Guinea and Bouganville, where he worked as a young lad in the copper mines. Recounting this he would conjure up images of a younger moustachio’d shag-haired version of himself in PNG on the run from native tribes because he mistranslated a word wrongly in Pigin, or about life in Port Moresby.
Or the stories about his early days after arriving in Sydney in the early 1970’s, and how the place was so very different to what it would become. An instant classic is his tale about him having just arrived, [replete with his uber-mod Italian sensibilities and wardrobe], and literally being picked up off the street by two Australian girls who saw this young guy on the street when they were driving past and decided to simply get him in their car for God knows what.
He always left this lasting impression to us about the past being a colourful, vibrant place of nostalgia and naive innocence, as well as the ills and woes of life for an Italian in early 1970’s Australia. I’ll go meet dad out and his friends at a cafe and share espresso after espresso and listen to them recount stories of life in the early 1970’s, and how easy and great it was back then. One of them recently stated with a gleam in his eye that life was good and simple back then. There is so much nostalgia and romanticism bound in these stories of past times. These stories and pictures tie in with that ‘Australia-that-once-was’, as I call it; an almost mythical place inhabited by larger than life people, led by larger-than-life politicians [Gough Whitlam for one], a world filled with corner shops selling ice blocks and cigarettes to kids on a searingly hot Summer day where the roads would literally melt in the sun, a world with pubs filled with larrikins at every corner, of the sun beating down on the empty streets in Summer heat and no-where to escape. A place where these kind of adventures occur. A city and country on the tipping point of great change seeps through the fibres of these pictures that I found, as well as for my part a strange sense of longing and loss. All these images and stories transport me to those places in another time and place for a split second. A part of me is melancholic for not being a part of that world, or for experiencing life as it was then, tasting the food, speaking to the people, being out in the sun. I wish I could have met my parents back then, to see the people they were, and the lives they led.
Dad has made it that way, with his recounting of that time and place being akin to another world. A world that somehow exists at right-angles to the one we live in now, only visible in a few places for a fraction of a fraction of a moment. I wish I could step into these pictures and immerse myself into this past world which I feel still exists.