Champagne bubbles and sunscreen Waterloos
I posted this earlier in week with a paywall. and now here it is without. It's from a book 'Father Figures' edited by Paul Connolly, published in 2017. Some things have changed a bit. Some haven't.
Sixteen limbs, twenty if you count my own. Sixteen limbs, four noses, eight cheeks, four of that little bit of neck that’s not covered by the rashie, eight ridgy, uncooperative kicking feet —just the bony bits that point up towards the sun. I draw a line at the eyelids. I say they need to blink quickly enough so that their eyelids won’t get burned, but my wife Tamsin, their mother, is an inveterate eyelid creamer. She’s also has a painting background, so after I make my pass, having emptied what seems like litres of SPF 50+ across acres of pale Wilson skin, she assumes position for the finer brushstrokes. Eventually, maybe five hours after the first slap of cream hit the first reluctant leg, four distraught, strung out kids are sun-ready and raring for the beach! If we can just find Harry’s fucking goggles …
I remember my own father’s sunscreen Waterloos. We were also Wilsons, also four in number, also girl, boy, boy, girl —luminously pale. Back then, SPF 50+ was the stuff of science fiction, and Ray Wilson made do with SPF 15+, roping us, his reluctant progeny, against beach house furniture like it was the Calgary Stampede. Mum was not trusted with suncream. Dad always whispered about SPF sins in Mum’s past. She was too much of a dauber, not enough of a slapper. Whole limbs had been left off the itinerary. She was occasionally cavalier with SPF 8. ‘You see your mother has olive skin. She doesn’t understand any of this. You can’t make mistakes out there. You’ll be cooked red raw. Red raw!’
I never say ‘red raw’. Nor do I say ‘burnt to buggery’ which was another of Dad’s infamous alliterations. Instead, I wail my way through these slippery ordeals like a screaming fighter jet. ‘Do you realise what the sun can do? It can cook your skin right off. You could end up in hospital! None of you have even been properly burnt! Polly, get off your brother! Harry, where are your freaking goggles!’
Dad was calmer, I’m almost certain. My own theory is that parenting was easier in the era of the permissible smack. My parents didn’t do it often, but the threat hung there in the air, not to be scoffed at like my own feeble ‘we’ll take away the iPad! I’m serious this time! No screens for a week! No, seriously! I could not be more serious this time!’
The truth is that I’m guilty of the very occasional smack. But guilty is the right word. We live in Northcote, the beating heart of Melbourne’s gluten-free belt, and to smack in these parts is akin to sewing poppets in 16th century Salem. I always try to aim below the knees, open hand, and I know I’m in more trouble than the kids if I leave a mark. Tamsin’s rule is, never smack when you’re angry, and I’ve obeyed this rule exactly zero times. ‘She kicked me in the nuts, Tam! What am I supposed to do, just take it?’ To think my parents had The Wooden Spoon! It’s decades now since wooden spoons have been allowed to have capital letters. You can find The Wooden Spoon on Wikipedia listed amongst medieval torture devices like The Cat o Nine Tails and the Judas Cradle. This is a good thing, I know. It just means that I shout a lot.
I wonder if it’s the same for most fathers. That the word ‘fatherhood’ is a contrapuntal melody played out in two parts, the first being that of being fathered, the second that of doing the fathering oneself. For me, the melody being played by the first hand is a sweet one. It was wonderful, and still is, to have Ray Wilson for a dad. I was born when he was drawing stumps on two careers, one as a high school teacher, the other as a VFL footballer with Hawthorn. He was starting a new financial services business in the early to mid seventies, one which would eventually succeed in spectacular ways, but I know now that these were tough times for Mum and Dad. Dad worked in the city, he commuted at least an hour each way. He couldn’t have had enormous amounts of time for parenting. Mum held the fort at home with two pre-schoolers. Certainly, my own creative arts career has allowed more flexibility. My kids have seen more than me than I did of my father.
And yet my early memories of Dad rise like champagne bubbles. He was a physical dad who played with us constantly. He gave us piggybacks, tickles and what we called ‘whizzies’, which are those round-and-round spinny things you do at the cost of feeling sick yourself, just to hear the music of your toddler’s laugh. He read us nightly stories. I remember walking Wilsons Promontory on summer holidays, recoiling in fear at the dried-out banksia cones that dotted the tracks around Tidal River — because the Big Bad Banksia Men were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’s nemeses in Dad’s bedtime reading. I remember squeaking the sand with him, swimming on his back, and rolling down the dunes. He sang us songs at night, ‘You’re always going to be my little baby’, which I haven’t googled but I believe may be an original composition. I remember him making billy carts, actually buying wheels and ballbearings and constructing a box racer like some sort of American TV dad, which is all the more impressive given what I now know about Dad’s handiness or lack thereof. A general feeling of unease walking through the doors at Bunnings is something we still share as father and son. I remember Rafael, our pet rabbit, dying on his lap after a dog attack. I remember marathon tennis matches, which I regularly won 7-5 in the fifth, despite having half his height and half his talent. I never suspected a thing.
But what we really shared was football. Dad’s status in my childhood universe as an ex-VFL footballer was immense — he was a Best and Fairest winner at Hawthorn, a premiership player in the club’s second flag. During my childhood, he volunteered as coach of the under 17s Peter Crimmins Squad. On Sundays, we’d venture to the glorious, liniment scented bunker at Glenferrie Oval, where we’d be welcomed into corridors other kids couldn’t go. Leigh Matthews, Don Scott, Peter Knights, these gods that I worshipped on TV actually knew my dad! Were friends with him! I’d eat sausages in the trainers’ room and play with the kids of footballers, even luckier kids whose dads still played. The boot studder called me Snowy. I helped Andy clean the boots in exchange for barley sugars. On Saturdays, we could go to our seats via the rooms and watch the Hawks warm up. ‘One two three four five six seven eight nine ten!’ they’d roar, and then smash into each other’s enormous oiled-up arms. I knew what I wanted to be. I never had any trouble knowing what I wanted to be.
Dad encouraged me the whole way, and it almost went the whole way. I wasn’t allowed to play until I was ten, that was one of his rules, but after that it was a shared obsession. Endless hours were spent playing kick-to-kick, practising footy, talking footy, talking generally. At dinner time, Dad would discuss exactly where I should run to make good position. The salt and pepper shakers were usually drawn into the analysis.
I was drafted, a father and son pick for Hawthorn in 1991. The AFL Media Guide was brutal in its single sentence assessment - ‘perhaps a touch slow’.
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Dad had seen this with his own eyes, and tried to help find me a yard. I had a sprint coach that summer, working on the knee lift that would later win me the nickname ‘Hymie’, in honour of the low knee-lifting robot in ‘Get Smart’. He encouraged me to join an athletics club, striving to counter that curse of the modern footballer —slow twitch fibres.
It was high-octane, super-involved parenting. I’ve since heard less flattering assessments from others who were on the outside looking in. Some people observed that Dad was pushy, or over-involved. I never felt any of that. I inhaled it all, grateful that somebody else had woven himself into this endeavour. That my dream had become our dream.
I was delisted without playing a senior game. In a shattered haze, I disappeared overseas to Quebec for a semester of university, to get away from footy, from Australia. Dad wrote to me frequently during those months, and I kept a lot of the letters. One was a beautiful half page saying simply that he couldn’t have been prouder of me for my footballing efforts.
He said something similar on the night before my VCE English exam. We were out running on Mont Albert Road at eleven pm, because I’d been too nervous to sleep. ‘It doesn’t matter how you go —I’ve seen the effort you put in. You made your decision about tomorrow in January.’
When he saw I was miserable as a commercial lawyer, he took me out to lunch to ask me what career might make me happier. ‘I think I want to be a writer,’ I said. ‘Well for somebody who wants to be a writer, you don’t seem to actually do any writing,’ was his useful reply. A year later, a failed travel manuscript had morphed into my big media break, a place as one of the eight young travelling filmmakers on the ABC documentary making show, Race Around the World.
When I had my idea for a footy media satire in 1999, I told Dad. For four years, he bugged me to write it. ‘Write it. Somebody else will have the same idea. The Footy Show surely can’t stay on air forever. Write it!’ Eventually I did write ‘Players’ and it was a bestselling and award winning novel. Would I have written it without him? Possibly. Will The Footy Show actually ever die? Never. [update: this sentence might have single-handedly done it in]
Even last year, when my eighth picture book ‘The Cow Tripped Over the Moon’ was honoured by the Children’s Book Council, Dad sent me a text: ‘Fantastic effort. I have never doubted your talent. Congrats. I am very proud of you. Dad’.
Champagne bubbles rising over forty-four years [update: 50!!]. It’s undeniably rose-coloured champagne too, because the wash of years has rinsed away the fights, the nagging, the endless scroll of mornings and bedtimes, all lost as part of the unremarkable beige of suburban history.
For me, the experience of being a father couldn’t be more present or demanding. Tam and I have four kids under eleven, Polly, Harry, Jack and Alice. My brain currently swims with moments that will no doubt be lost as part of my own children’s unremarkable beige. Polly, 10, dropping frozen raspberries on the kitchen floor every time she makes a smoothie. Right, no more smoothies until you learn to clean up! Harry, 7, still playing Roblox when his swimming lesson starts in five minutes. Where are your bathers! Harry! HARRY! You must be able to hear me! Alice, 2, refusing to sit on the potty but not liking to wear a dirty nappy either. Oh my god, she’s slid all the way down the stairs! Tam! Code Brown here! Tam! Jack, 5, asking for a new Bruce Springsteen track on his iPad every two minutes. Please Jack, just listen to the whole song! We just changed it. Why can’t you listen to the whole song?
Our situation with Jack makes the hire wire act of juggling four children even more difficult. He has cerebral palsy, which means he can’t sit, stand, crawl, or walk unassisted. Every activity we involve him in has to involve us too. If Jack’s going to do colouring, we help him grip the pen and move his arm. If Jack wants to slide at the park, we place him at the top, guide him down, bend knees, pick him up, and lift him to the top again. If he wants to go on the trampoline, we grab him around the waist and chest and give him the physical sensation of movement that he craves. I’ve even found a technique for doing a ‘back’ with Jack in my arms. He shrieks with excitement as we fall backwards, squint into the sun, and then bounce back to an upright position. That might be one of the champagne bubbles of his life. It certainly will be one of mine. One day he will be too heavy. I can feel it approaching every time we bounce.
I never realised that fatherhood would turn up the volume on my inner being, like some emotional foghorn. On the day Polly was born, I literally twirled in a field, in the rain, with my arms out, singing a song —a bald, thirty five year old, Julie Andrews. The song was The Killers, ‘All The Things That I’ve Done’. I was wearing headphones and though I had my eyes closed, had some sense that my peers in the Edinburgh Gardens dog club were staring at me. I didn’t care. I’d spent six hours that day nursing the feather that was my first born daughter, and I was blown away by the force of this new love, this whole-body tsunami that every dad in my friendship group had tried to warn me about, but failed to find the perfect words. Just as I am failing now.
Four days after the birth, I wrote a letter to Polly:
When I finished making the calls, I had another chance to stare at your beautiful puffy pink face some more, and smell you, and kiss you. I didn’t know what your name was, because we were still choosing between Polly and Lara, but I did know that you were the most important person in my life from this second forward. I tried to imagine how it would all unfold. How you would learn, to walk, to talk and have a first day at school. How you would probably reject me through adolescence. How hopefully, you’d play sport and have an interest in books. How one day you’d go out on a first date, get married, maybe have children of your own. How hopefully, in the long distant future, you would be there on the day that I died. It’s all corny, meaning of life stuff. The sort of hackneyed material that most new parents think about and which fills up the personals columns in the Herald Sun. But this time, it wasn’t hackneyed. It was just you and me, and it was the most incredible, magical cuddle of my life.
Harry, our second, has the world’s greatest laugh, and the knack of saying strange, hilarious things that send me scrabbling for my notebook:
“When you die, are you actually dead?” (We worked out that this was related to having many lives in computer games)
“That car looks like our cars dad, but it’s got bigger cheeks”
“I’m never going to die, Mum, because I’m going to invent a gun so that when you shoot it, it makes you twenty again.”
‘The thing is, every baby starts with ‘Mum’ so the second word they say is actually the first.”
The sports obsession that fuelled my childhood is almost completely absent. Instead it’s imaginary play, Lego, action figurines, nerf battles and computer games. He does participate in Auskick, and plays the footy game at the end with a dreamy relaxation. He sometimes gets a kick, but then I’m usually the umpire. I remember my own ferocity, my desperation to get every ball I could. My school friends still laugh about the lunchtime I turned up to kick to kick with a mouthguard.
It’s Jack who has inherited the footy love. Imprisoned by a body that will never let him participate, he absorbs hours and hours of football on TV and iPad. For a period, he called himself ‘Cyril’ after his Hawthorn hero, ‘Cyril Rioli’. ‘Has Cyril got kinder tomorrow?’ ‘Is Cyril’s Gran here?’ ‘Cyril doesn’t want to go to bed now’. Jack loves to ‘play’ football, which involves him holding a football in his walker while we commentate. He lets it drop to the ground when we scream ‘gooooooal’. Grandfather Ray called in a favour as a life member of the Hawks and took Jack to the club for an audience with Cyril Rioli. It was beautiful. Jack beamed, Cyril asked him quiet questions. ‘Are you cold Jack, it’s a cold day.’ I watched as what was surely one of life’s champagne bubbles rise to the surface. ‘Who’s your favourite player?’ I asked, having heard the answer a thousand times, video camera at the ready. Jack didn’t hesitate, “Puopolo’ he said, to the howls of his grandfather.
Alice is now two, a ridiculously cute, tottering party caboose attached to the noisy, rattling train of our six person family. She does those heart warming things that two year olds do, like jumping up in the air a few centimetres while trying to grab the moon, and playing hide and seek by covering her eyes in the middle of a room. Every day ends with what I call ‘the big hug’, a squeeze she finds both hilarious and terrifying, and then a bottle of ‘gulk’ aka milk. She sleeps in our bed, and turns into Mr Hyde if she stirs between one and seven. But during the day she’s placid, as independent and resourceful as a two year old can be, and her arrival has been a salve to some of the pain we were feeling.
There has been pain, and just as the happiness is amplified, so is the pain. I’m conscious that Jack may one day read this, and may he never question how much joy and value he brings to our family. He’s cheeky, funny and enthusiastic. I asked him the other day, ‘are you ever naughty, Jack?’ and he answered, ‘No, I’m a fliendly boy.’ He really is. He’s constantly asking us about ourselves, which is a rare quality in a child. ‘Did you do a good speech, Daddy?’, ‘Have you liked your dinner Polly?’ He started prep just a few weeks ago. In his first ‘literacy one-on-one’, he distinguished himself by asking the teacher three questions about what he’d been up to over the weekend. Jack is, and always has been, lovely.
I tried to sum it up in a piece for the newspaper a few years ago.
We have had so many good signs, particularly with communication and intellectual development, but overall, his condition has been such a sad thing, such a draining thing.
I probably don’t ask ”why him?” quite as much as I did two years ago, but the question is still wedged somewhere, rising to choke me whenever I see kids 18 months his junior toddling across the park.
I even feel it when I see photos of our other two when they were Jack’s age. And there is some ”why me?” wedged there too. Why us? Why did Tam and I get sentenced to the endless medical appointments, the unrelenting, abnormal worry? Will he have friends, a job, a family of his own? Will he be able to read? Live independently?
Why did we have to be dropped into a world in which listening comprehension updates on Grandad Dog’s place of work are family news? I don’t wish it happened to your child, I promise, but I’d do anything for it not to have happened to ours.
Of course, ultimately, it’s not about us. Tam and I feel the pain so acutely, because we possess the curse of foresight and the double-edged sword that is pure, boundless, parental love. But in the end, it’s Jack’s life, Jack’s struggles, and one day he may ask: ”Why me, dad? Why did I have to have this?” And that’s going to be a difficult day. Because I won’t know what to say.
The Jack situation is so visibly difficult that I get bombarded with compliments for my parenting. In actual fact, I often feel like a Petri dish mouldering with parental guilt. Why are the kids on screens again? I need to organise an activity. I don’t have the energy. Why can’t I get them to read more? I’m an author for heaven’s sake! Yes that’s right, Harry. Daddy did just use the F-word. I’ve got to stop yelling. I know it doesn’t work. Jack needs to do some time in his walker. Why am I spooning food for him? He has to learn how to spoon himself. Harry, get off the iPad and come and have a kick. Why can’t I get him to love footy? Harry! Harry!!!
For the purpose of this piece, I asked the three older kids whether I am a good father. This, of itself, is not necessarily something a good father does. Polly said I was. Good girl. As usual, eager to please.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Harry.
‘Am I a good father? As in, what sort of job do you think I do? As your dad?’
Harry looked me up and down, like a wizened farmer assessing his cattle. I had just yelled at him to get in the bath.
‘Medium, he said, finally.
‘Medium!’ I said. It stung a bit. In the bacterial culture of my parental guilt, my inability to invest the same amount of time with Harry as I do with Jack (that my own father did with me?) swirls front and centre.
Harry just nodded and went back to playing with his bath toys.
I asked Jack, who was propped up in his bath chair. ‘What do you think, Jack?’ Am I a good dad?’
Harry leaned forward and whispered in Jack’s ear. He has a seven year old’s subtlety when it comes to whispering.
‘Medium,’ Jack said, obediently, which made me laugh.
Hopefully, it was in-the-moment assessment, and the forty year scorecard will contain plenty of champagne bubbles to rival my own.
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