Legends of Myself 11

Posted on March 18, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 10

13. A Port Essington Parlour

Roly Poly. Oh, incongruence will do well enough.  The “Essington” zeppelined into my early memory like a space ship hovering over the hockey rink.

Otherwise, though, it is the heart which sees the most intensely.

I know there was something like a crowd down at the float when I went there with my grandmother to see the (aeronautical) snag scow.  But in memory I experience the crowd at adjusted eye-level, as a four year old standing on a wooden float, green water lapping at edges of things, grasping my grandmother’s hand.  The crowd is an impression, a photograph out of focus, and it is my grandmother who is real.

In Pop and Granny Alice’s home in Port Essington, strangely, I don’t remember Pop at all.  Perhaps he wasn’t always present.

I recollect an anecdote where he worked as an officer for the Fisheries, staying in a little government cabin for most of a week.  (“Boys, don’t come here during the week,” he said to two would-be poachers as he shooed them off, “I’ll have to arrest you. – But I don’t work on the weekend….”)

Old Pop was turning 67 in 1954, past any reasonable retirement age for that era’s double-tough fishing industry, so maybe an ironic turn as a law officer was a good pre-retirement job for the erstwhile outlaw and Wobbly anarcho-syndicalist.  If so, then much of the week he would not have been around home.

For whatever reason, he remains a ghost in Essington.

Still I know he must have been there in the parlour, and my father too—although I don’t remember him at that time either—with the Roly Poly.  The Roly Poly was a blow-up plastic clown with a panel on the bottom filled with sand.  Because of that panel, no matter what you did to the clown it always popped upright again.  Rocking a little.  Happy about it.  Push it down and up it gets.  Happy as a Roly Poly.  Push it down again and again, and it does the same thing.  Again and again.

Now the reason I know Pop was there is that there is a story about me from that time of which Pop is a part.  My Dad was trying to teach me to box, and I’m there not hitting the bag, not boxing at all, just pushing the bag not swatting it.  Pop is shaking his head and saying, “I don’t think you’ll ever make a fighter out of him, George.”

Thus do stereotypes get born.

It took me most of my lifetime to realize why I was so interested, way back in the elbow parlour, in knocking down Mr. Roly Poly.  In my memory I went up against the Finnegan begin-again clown alone, and I didn’t even realize the clown was the self-same boxing bag of story and fame.

Pop and Dad had read it wrong.  It may be that I was already non-violent at four and pacifism was built into my character, but my particular reason for pushing and not whacking Mr. Roly Poly that day was that I had misunderstood the instructions.  I suppose my father had told me to hit the bag and knock it down, and what I heard was that Roly Poly must fall.  I didn’t know the hitting part was important.  Pushing just seemed more efficient.

And even that didn’t work.

Anyway, I may have been sufficiently violent at age four to fulfill any father’s pride, I don’t know.  I was just on the wrong page of the script so to speak.

Irene, goodnight. In the same parlour mocked by Roly Poly, my father makes his first actual entry into memory.  His voice is the first voice I hear.  The first voice in the movie.  And, like Chaplin’s Modern Times where the dialogue is mimed but the songs are sung, my father debuts playing his guitar and singing, “Irene, Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Irene” is a Leadbelly song which, in a version by the Weavers, made the hit parade the year I was born.  But I knew nothing about Leadbelly.  I had never heard a radio or a record player or the Weavers.  All I knew was that I had a sister named Irene who was sitting in that room also, and I was wondering why it was that my father didn’t sing a song saying goodnight to me.

Marylou, who was then five years old, remembers that moment quite well (it was the first shared memory for the three of us) and she was thinking much the same thought.  Marylou, Goodnight would sound good in waltz time, the key of G.

And Irene, eight years old and elected queen of the world in that very front room, accepted serenade and compliment with grinning delight.

The only person apparently unaware of the emotional sturm und drang of the room was my father.  He was not, as he probably imagined as he sang in the parlour, merely a fellow singing in the parlour.  He was our father, mine, Marylou’s, Irene’s, a powerful centre of our emotional gravity.  His effect on us was tidal.

I remembered and applied that moment to my own daughter growing up.  I made sure that when Dear Henry, my dear, found himself with a hole in the bucket, it was Dear Haisla he told.  And if I’s the bye who built the boat, and I’s the bye who sails her, and I’s the bye who catches the fish, then I brought them home to Haisla.

Yes, my daughter eventually learned that on our country’s other coast Liza got all the fish, but it was already too late to faze her.

When my father died in 2002, I made a compilation of music for his funeral.  For reasons quite obvious I started it off with Leadbelly.  When I played it and Irene heard the words, “Irene, Goodni-i-ight,” she smiled as widely as an eight-year old and said:  “It sounds just like Dad.”


Hear Leadbelly here:  Goodnight, Irene 


Continued at Legends of Myself 12

Posted in: autobiography