Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. He would have turned 65. I have been thinking a lot about him since I became a parent. I think of him when I carry my baby in a sling and water the plants in our garden, pointing and naming the flowers for my son as we go. In the last photos taken of Dad in the days before he drowned, he is holding a hose with water cascading from it, tending to the old garden that was coming back from its long dormant state on the land where he was building his dream house.  In the photo,  my brother’s black lab leaps to drink from the hose. The image, so vital, encapsulates Dad well. After we finally returned to Northcote from the town where he died, I insisted on taking over the nightly ritual of watering the outdoor plants. The plants were as much my mother’s love as my fathers but he used to water them each evening after work, and taking over this task seemed like a kind of road to communing with the dead.

     When I was a child my father ran his own butcher shop in Wycheproof, the little Mallee town where most of my childhood was spent.  While working hard, cutting and selling meat, my parents planted the seeds of a new life. They spoke of dreams that grew closer and closer to fruition, of running a plant nursery.  Instead of Perry’s Butchery, there would be an alliterative Perry’s Portable Plants.

     There would be a nursery but the kicker was a truck full of plants, which my father would drive around to the suburbs.  The grand plan was to sell plants from the back of the truck, like the toy salesmen that used to travel to country towns when I was a child. Books were sourced about different species and genus of plants and the future was dreamed alive.  We children were called upon to gather up the skirts of what lay ahead, and to each choose our own special part of the nursery. After much deliberation, I decided that my niche was to be “Dani’s Camellia Corner” — eschewing the full alliteration that might have been found with, say, daisies or dahlias. The house and the butcher shop were sold, and the truck and stock purchased. Finally, Dad went on ahead to Bendigo to establish the business. In memory, or perhaps it is imagination, I see him filling the truck with plants and driving off to deliver that living green dream to gardeners waiting ardently in the suburbs for ferns and trees and flowers of every manner to fill their backyards, but the truth is that the dream was crushed without further ado.  Suburban housewives were wary, suspicious and entirely unwilling to open their purses or their gardens to a wiry, bearded stranger with a truck full of plants, portable or otherwise.  There was nothing left to do but to sell up and put the money back into what he knew, another butcher shop. We moved to Bendigo. 

     In his late thirties, Dad had a heart attack, across the road from his shop, having a drink at the pub one night after work.  It was relatively minor, and I like to think that he tried to live his life deliberately from then, but I’m not sure if that’s true.  Later, when I was fifteen, the butcher shop failed.  There was a bankruptcy, and my dad fled to Darwin and hunted buffalo.  It sounds so wild and romantic, but I wonder if he knew what road to take forward. Months later, Mum, my twin brother and I joined him in that steaming, verdant wet season green, so far from everything that we knew. We didn’t belong there, split from my brother and sister and our extended family, and five months later we all moved to Melbourne and started again.

      In Northcote, we lived another life, and Dad had a new dream.  He was going to build a mud brick house at Bushy’s, the land that had been in my mother’s family since the 1850s.  He read up on mud brick recipes and cooked them up on weekends spent in a caravan at Bushy’s. He built a mud brick outhouse there, with a tin teapot dunny paper holder (it is still standing strong).  While he waited for his dreams to come to fruition, he lovingly crafted wooden furniture in his shed and watered his plants each evening after work.