From when I was a toddler till well into my teenage years, my father (like the dad in The Running Man) worked away from home, mainly in the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but later, up in the Bougainville mines in PNG. Mum raised my brother, my two sisters and me pretty much entirely by herself. Dad would only be part of the family for a month or two at Christmas each year.
I was never bitter about this situation growing up. It was all I knew. At the time, I never felt like I didn’t have a father or was missing out on anything, and I never doubted for a second that he would return to us at the end of every year. I think this is why I have always loved, and been excited about Christmas.
Father’s come in many shapes and sizes and they fulfil their role in many different ways – some more successfully than others it must be said.
Below is an edited version of what I wrote for my father when he died. It was included in the funeral booklet.
As a child, my strongest memory of Christmas Eve, was not gazing into the night sky looking out for Santa Claus, but rather sitting on the front steps of our family home in Brisbane, waiting for my father.
Throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, Dad worked down in New South Wales on the Snowy Mountains Scheme operating cranes and bulldozers. This meant we didn’t see him all year. But each Christmas he would drive non-stop from the Snowy to Brisbane in order to spend his annual leave with us.
Each year my father would arrive home late on Christmas Eve where there would usually be a party at our house full of friends and relatives waiting for him. I spent most of those nights sitting on the front steps watching the car headlights turning into our street. As each car came down the hill towards our house, I remember holding my breath, hoping that this would be the one.
Eventually, one car would approach and begin to slow down and I would feel my heart beating harder as a flashing indicator signalled a right hand turn into our driveway. As soon as I saw the insect speckled grill, the yellow NSW number plate and the dust and dirt from many hours of travelling, I would run inside shouting, “He’s here! Dad’s home!”
When my father finally lugged his bulging suitcase inside, there would be greetings all round and a cold beer thrust into his grateful hand. My clearest recollection of Dad on those nights was the prickle of his beard stubble when he kissed me, and being lifted high into the air, probably for the first time that year.
Later on, my brother and sisters and I would gather around as my father unbuckled the straps of his big brown suitcase. It was like watching the opening of a treasure chest. In amongst the usual clothes, toiletries and paperback Westerns, were items of real mystery and wonder.
Leather containers held large green and red die along with old pennies marked for Two-Up. Yellow plastic boxes rattled with slides depicting images of my father’s snowy world of trucks, cranes, tunnels and towering dams. An old tin overflowed with coins that my brother and sisters and I would eagerly share. Another was filled with the big shiny ball-bearings Dad would collect from the huge machines he operated and serviced. These I coveted like gold.
The next morning would bring its own special magic. As I woke to the sound of a raspy smoker’s cough coming from ‘mum’s room’ I would suddenly remember that overnight my normal world had been totally transformed.
Dad was home.
Every Christmas Eve, as I pressed my face between the railings of our front steps and waited for that certain set of headlights, I longed for everything that I knew was to come.
Other kids might have had their Santa Claus, but in many ways, Dad was mine. And like every good Santa should, he came from a far-away land filled with ice and snow, bringing joy and happiness at Christmas.
But instead of a bright red sleigh, my Father Christmas drove a mud and insect splattered Holden, and in place of a sack of toys and a jolly ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ he appeared with a battered old suitcase and a raspy smoker’s cough.
He wasn’t perfect, but unlike that other fellow, at least I knew my Father Christmas was real.
And best of all, for a few precious and magical weeks, he lived at my house.
“Happy Father’s Day Dad.”