Nailing the Cupboard Doors Shut

Bang….bang…bang bang bang.  The rhythm of Dad’s hammering vibrated throughout the house.  He was intent on driving nails into the cupboard doors.   More rooms, more doors, and even more nails.  The thumping of the hammer kept ringing in our ears as Dad worked his way around Grandma’s house.  The year was 1980.  Uncle Bill had just moved into a nursing home and my sister Delys along with her two friends were about to rent the house.  As Dad drove the last nail into the last door, he announced “that should keep out any prying eyes.”

Following Grandma’s death, my family continued to visit the house at 10 Redpath Street, although it took a few years for our minds to comfortably make the transition from it being “Grandma’s house” to being “Uncle Bill’s house”.  Our cart rides continued until we outgrew the cart.  Grandma’s bedroom remained the same as she had left it; her old brass bed still wore the vintage blue eiderdown that waited to be folded back in readiness for sleep.  Her wide brimmed hat still sat on the bedside chair awaiting the cooler hours of the afternoon.  The antique wardrobe with the mirrored door still housed her petite dresses that awaited her caress.  The room became a memorial awaiting the return of its mistress, which of course she never did.

The rest of the house remained unchanged also.  The two children’s bentwood chairs still held pride of place on the back kitchen wall, as did the scrubbed pine hutch that housed Grandma’s vintage china.  The oval timber dining room table and chairs, along with a couple of occasional chairs sat where Grandma had placed them, decades before.  Uncle Bill did not embrace change.  He continued to preserve his Mother’s presence; that protective arm to comfort him throughout the following years of living alone.

Time continued to march by and I still knew very little about my Great Grandfather, The Military Man.  His life had been encapsulated in one statement: “He was a military man, he fought in the Boer War and in World War One.” These words were bandied around by various family members.  They were well rehearsed; there were no elaborations.

On that night in 1980, before Dad drove nails into the last cupboard, we found ourselves seated on Grandma’s old brass bed, for the first time since my childhood.  I sat and watched my father as he was about to close the cupboard doors indefinitely.  It was a task he took upon himself, to prevent any unwelcomed scrutiny of his Grandparents’ precious possessions. Before he did, however, he turned the key in the door of one of the dark timber cupboards that sat against the wall.  As the doors swung apart, the heaviness of old books and camphor consumed the air. Standing before an assortment of small boxes, books and papers, Dad’s eyes were scanning, searching, as they moved from shelf to shelf.

“Ah, here it is.” He exclaimed as he pulled out a long thin object wrapped in a plain blue sheet.

He placed the object beside me on the bed and unwound the folds of cloth, with the care of a father unwrapping the swaddling that protects a new born child.

“This is my Grandfather’s dress sword,” Dad said, as he pulled the sword out of its leather sheath and we spent the next few minutes admiring its magnificence against the dimness of the single light bulb that hung from the ceiling.

Immediately, mesmerized as the light bounced off the engraved chrome handle and blade, I knew that this object was indeed very special although I still had no grasp of its real significance.  Dad rewrapped the sword and placed it on the bed.  He then returned his attention to the open cupboard and pulled out a few more objects.  Each item aroused our curiosity more than the one before; each item told us a little more of the story that formed the military life of my Great Grandfather.  One of the items retrieved was a small engraved brass tin.  Upon lifting the lid we found what looked like a silver bullet and a card marked “Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas from Princess Mary and Friends at home”.  This was a gift to my Great Grandfather and his comrades from the daughter of the King in 1914.

These little tins, gifts from Princess Mary, each contained different objects.  The one we found in the cupboard contained a pencil inside a casing like that of a bullet. (as in the photo above)

The cupboard was a memorial to a time long ago; to a life we knew little about.  We only had time to peruse a fraction of the contents before Dad replaced each item in its rightful place.  He then closed the doors and began hammering nails once more.  Along with the smell of old books and camphor that lingered in the air, thoughts of my Great Grandfather lingered with me.  That was the night my family gained a new appreciation for the “Military Man”.

 

 

 

Bombs In The Cupboard!

During our numerous visits to 10 Redpath Street, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations, none of which I understood.  On one such occasion, it would take a few years before the meaning of the words became clear.

Dad leaned against the thickness of the timber stump that supported the outer wall of his Grandmother’s old Queenslander.  As he casually chatted to his Uncle, his eyes surveyed the nether regions of the house.  Nothing had changed since the many weekends and holidays he had spent there during his childhood. He peered across the compacted earth floor around Uncle Bill’s blue Morris car, the old cracked paint that twisted and curled on the rippled iron laundry walls, and as his attention wove in and out of the gaps between stumps, suddenly, his gaze fell upon something that sat in the far reaching shadows.  Although he couldn’t clearly define the object from where he stood, there was no need for a closer inspection.   Memories of his Childhood flashed before his eyes; of the times he and his cousins had spent exploring; of the great discoveries they had made.  Turning to face his Uncle, Dad spoke with an urgency to his tone.

“Hey Bill, you need to do something about that ice chest!”

Uncle Bill didn’t answer straight away, then in his usual unperturbed way, he nodded.

 “Yeah… I should one day.”

Dad shook his head and grinned sideways at his uncle, knowing that day wouldn’t come soon, if at all. Uncle Bill wasn’t one to make quick decisions, even if it was a matter of life or death.

Nothing more was said about Uncle Bill’s ice chest until a few years later, in 1979.   In December of the previous year, Uncle Bill suffered a severe stroke which resulted in the permanent loss of speech and paralysis down one side.  Initially, following treatment in hospital, he lived with my Grandfather on the farm.  It was during this period that I overheard a conversation between my parents which aroused my curiosity.  All I understood from the fragments I had heard was that there had been an announcement on the radio involving the Army.  And that it also concerned that old ice chest that stood beneath Uncle Bill’s house.

“So Dad, what’s in that old ice chest?” I had to ask, my curiosity  got the better of me.

“It’s full of ammunition,” Dad replied.  “Old wartime shells.”

“Really” I asked incredulously, “So, it is full of bullets?”

“No, shells…all are about yay big,” Dad held his hands about a foot apart.

“One, in particular, would be at least double that in size.” he adds.

By now my attention clung to Dad’s every word as the story grew in magnitude.

“My Grandfather souvenired them from either the Boer War or World War One…not sure which.”

“So, your Grandfather was a soldier?”  I was now intrigued. I knew nothing about the man.  This was the first I had even heard of his existence.

“Yes, he was a Military Man.” Dad said.  “Apparently, after world war one, the family were hoping for another war, so they could send him away again.”

Dad grinned as he read my puzzled face and explained.

“Well, he wasn’t much of a farmer. He was a soldier,”

So, that was my introduction to my Great Grandfather.  Up until then, he never had a reason to be in my thoughts. After-all, he didn’t exist.  According to my mind, the Redpath Street house was Grandma’s home alone.  Discovering one’s ancestors is usually an organic process. As we follow our roots, we often find them gently sprouting from the many tangled branches of the family tree. Not my Great Grandfather!  Even Hollywood couldn’t invent an entrance as grand as his.  He came crashing into my life on the wings of a bombshell!  I was certainly impressed.

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The Army, as it turned out, were calling for anyone who possessed old wartime explosives to contact them.  They would dispose of the goods, no questions asked.  So, Mum arranged for the disposal experts to meet Dad at the Redpath Street house.  When they arrived in an Army green Datsun Bluebird station wagon, instead of the specialized bomb disposal vehicle that he expected, Dad was shocked. Although he wasn’t as shocked as the experts when they opened the ice chest door.

“You should’ve seen the face of the disposal guy when he opened the door.” Dad laughed.  “His eyes lit up like a night owl’s when he took a look inside!”

“As he loaded the stash into the back of the car, he said I hope no-one drives up my behind!”

“I asked him, ‘what would happen if they did?” Dad continued the story. “To that he replied, ‘Well if that load gets a big enough bump, it could blow up the entire block!”

In all of my eight years of Sundays, I had no idea what sat beneath the house.  Near my precious old cart, beneath that gloomy room where we celebrated Grandma’s ninetieth Birthday, beneath the dining room table where we enjoyed scones and tea; and beneath me as I sat with Grandma on her beautiful old brass bed!  Had a fire ignited “The Military Man’s” wartime souvenirs, many of these precious memories would not be.  History, my very own history, would have vaporized before it could even be discovered.  I would be sitting here at my computer, speechless, with no story to tell.  I am forever thankful that fate saw things differently to what might have been.

Now, despite being nameless and without a face, he became known as “The Military Man”.  The Army may not have asked any questions when they disposed of the contents of the ice chest, however, I am left with many of my own.  What sort of man stores old wartime shells under his house for 60 years?   What sort of man exposes his children, his grandchildren and then his great grandchildren to such danger?  And why would he want to bring all that stuff home with him anyway– reminders of events that he would best want to forget?” The questions go on and on, to which the only answer has been, “He was a Military Man.”

“The Military Man” is like a title of an empty book.  The pages, his life story, have torn and crumbled, and the words faded with time.  His is a story that is worthy of telling. I tell myself that patience is the key, as I await that tap on the shoulder; that whisper in my ear saying “come with me” as a weathered old hand takes my own.  He will then lead me through the door and together we will explore his past battlefields and more.

Our Cart Rides

 

Kim, Delys & Noeleen Lyons

Kim, Delys and Noeleen Lyons

 

A vapour trail of girly giggles follows the old wooden cart as Dad pushes it down the slope of Grandma’s yard.  Our tiny hands grip the rough weathered sides of our carriage, in readiness for another round.

“Go again Dad!  I squeal.

Yeah, go again!” my sister yells as we slow down along the back of the house.

“Okay,” Dad replies. “Hold on tight.”

With all my might, I grip the sides of the cart, bracing myself for the uphill run.  Wrapping his hands around the long timber handles, Dad’s legs run fast and hard, as he embarks on another round of Grandma’s yard. The iron wheels creak as they jerk around the front corner of the house onto level ground, inertia forces our small frames to bounce from right to left and back again.

Straightening up, we brace ourselves as the far corner of the house looms near.  Dad drops speed as he carefully steers the cart around the corner stump and we once again squeal with joy, as we roll downhill, whizzing past the big green mango tree that shades the side fence and screeches to a stop just short of the old chicken coop in the back of Grandma’s yard. 

Our cart rides were our favourite part of our Sunday visits to Grandma Lyons’ house.  We knew to behave during our visits as we daren’t be deprived of our joyous rides in what was really an old wheelbarrow. Once the tea and scones had been devoured, and the heat of the sun had subsided into the coolness of late afternoon, we would follow Grandma out into the garden.  She’d water her plants whilst we toured her yard in the back of the cart.  I am forever thankful that Dad captured my memories of those afternoons in Grandma’s garden on his movie camera.

Like a movie star, Grandma slowly descends the grand front staircase of her house.  Her wispy white hair tucked up under that elegant wide-brimmed hat she kept on her bedside chair.  Stepping off the bottom tread, she strikes a pose and looks at the camera for a brief moment.  Then she turns to pick up a garden hose and proceeds to shower her flowers with water before fading into movie land oblivion.  Little did we know that those few scratchy frames of film would be the last captured moments of Grandma, the living moving person.

One Sunday in 1967, my two sisters and I waved goodbye to our Great Grandmother from the back seat of the car.  Our bellies were full of scones and jam; our heads still spinning from the exhilaration of our cart ride fun.  We were blissfully unaware that the door to Grandma’s long life was about to close forever. That day came in August of that year, when Mum and Dad received a phone call to say that Grandma had passed away.

Although the door closed to our visits to Grandma, our Sunday visits to her house continued.  Grandma’s passing would bring the closure of only one chapter of my family story.  With age comes curiosity and so our continued visits would, over the years, breathe life into a story that for most part had been hidden away behind closed doors.  As those old doors parted, they released chapters of her life that perhaps Grandma was happy to suppress.

 

The Last Gathering

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Back L-R:  Phoebe Lyons, Mrs Church, John Lyons, Harriet Lyons, Kevin Lyons, Ron Lyons and Bill Lyons. Front: Norma White & Johnnie O’Brien.

I was proud of my Grandma, for no other reason than her great achievement in years.  Moreover, I was proud of myself for possessing a Great Grandmother as old as she.  Standing in front of my second grade class one day, I announced the ages of all my nearest and dearest.  When I reached my Great Grandmother, my chest puffed with pride as I revealed the age of the Queen of my family tree.  None of my classmates could compete, except Jennifer Renwick, because she shared the same Grandma as me.

The day that saw the dawning of my childish pride was a Sunday like all my other Grandma visits.

Dressed in our matching blue frocks, shoes and socks, and ribbons tied to our hair, my two sisters and I follow Mum and Dad up the high back stairs.  Although it is Sunday, we realize it is no ordinary visit to Grandma’s house. The kitchen and dining areas are bursting at the seams as familiar family faces, young and old fill the space, spilling out onto the front verandah. The house echoes with the vibration of people chatting and crockery clattering.  There is a busy to-ing and fro-ing of elderly relatives carrying plates of food between the kitchen and the front room where tables and chairs are arranged for lunch.  The central figures of this group of relatives are Grandma’s three daughters in law who incessantly fuss over the matriarch of the family.

“Grandma, you sit in front of the window,” Phoebe, (my Grandmother) guides her Mother in law with a protective arm into the front room.

Angie and Vivian are already in the room putting the final touches to the table settings.  They are placing the last of the folded serviettes in glasses, filling small bowls with lollies and straightening the cutlery. Once satisfied, Vivian scuttles out of the room to find her husband and his brothers.

“Kevin!” she calls out above the deafening din.   

“Out here,” a familiar voice yells from the back landing.  Kevin, Jack and Bill are all leaning against the rails of the back stairs and landing…avoiding the congestion within.

Vivian pushes through to the back doorway and announces,

 “Lunch is ready you three.  Come and sit at the table with your Mother.”

“Where is Ron?” she turns and scans the dining room for her older brother-in-law. 

“He’s gone to see a Doctor,” quips Jack. The others laugh.

“What? ”  Vivian spins around, wondering what could be so funny.

“Yeah,” Kev elaborates, his face dead serious. “He’s got his nose stuck in a book!”

Vivian shakes her head.  Kev’s face breaks into a grin. His brothers join in too.  From when they were children, Ron’s love of books has been the subject of their jokes.

“Seriously, where is he?” Vivian asks before turning back into the house in search of her husband’s oldest brother….

Finally, the four brothers take up the chairs that flank their Mother. The tantalizing aroma of roast chicken and potatoes beckons the remainder of the hungry gathering to file into the room.  Space is tight. The air is alight with a sense of festivity as all eyes rest upon the careful arrangement of cutlery;  the placement of beer and soft drink bottles at each place setting ; the platters of meats and vegetables that laden the tables.  There is no question on anyone’s mind that this is a momentous event.  Harriet Jane, the matriarch of the Lyons family, has victoriously crossed the dateline into her ninetieth year.

Grandma’s ninetieth birthday was the last major gathering at 10 Redpath Street.  I remember the house as a place of gatherings; of cousins and second cousins, Aunts and Great Aunts, Uncles and Great Uncles, Grandparents and Great Grandparents.  There were gatherings of clattering teacups and plates of home baked cakes.  That old house was a gathering place for family memories that had been built on and expanded since the family purchased the property in 1933. Even today, my memories beckon me to drive by; to stop and peer up at the old French doors and scan the breadth of the open verandah, hoping to catch a glimpse of times gone by.  And, each time I feel compelled to take yet another photo, a snapshot of the past to add to my own gathering of memories.

I scan a snapshot taken at Grandma’s 90th Birthday lunch.  Looking at the image, I search for clues, for something to revive my faded memories of the day.  Of course, I cannot remember the exact events and conversations that played out on that day.  My imagination runs off with what might have been. The smiling faces of cousins Norma White and Johnny O’Brien look back over their shoulders towards the back corner of the room. My Grandmother stands to the left of the photo with Mrs Church seated to her left, both are gazing blankly in the same direction.  Meanwhile, my Grandfather, his Mother and brothers are suspended mid-thought, waiting, listening in silence.  Jack’s eyes glint with a hint of devilment, whilst Kev wears a face of thoughtful intent.  Ron looks down at the table considering the moment or perhaps he is secretly reading a book, whilst Bill, the youngest of the boys breaks into an impish grin.  Who or what had grabbed their attention?  It was so long ago, I remember so little. They are all oblivious to being captured on film, except, the guest of honour, who looks straight at the camera.  She politely obliges, softening her pressed lips ever so slightly.  It was more a sign of resignation than of joy.

Kim 1965

My six year old self

No-one can know that the little 6 year old girl seated at the back of the room would, in fifty years, be holding that captured moment in her hand trying to decipher the scene.  As all eyes in the photograph are focused on the back corner of the room, my attention is drawn to a dark shadow at the far right hand side of the frame.  A tall dark cupboard with glass doors watches on in silence, unnoticed by the guests in the room.    I see that there is an empty space at that table to my Grandfather’s right. The family group is incomplete. If only I could revisit the scene and tell that little girl to open those cupboard doors.  And if she asks why, I would reply “the man who belongs in that empty space at the table, well… his spirit lives inside.”