Tuesday, 18 October 2011

the woodchopper's daughter

My Auntie Cheryl and Uncle Steve have a wonderful sprawling house in Tyers, in the Gippsland region of Victoria. I spent almost half my childhood in this house, and it is one of my very favourite places to be in the world. 

From the lounge-room window at night-time, you can see all the lights in the LaTrobe Valley, like so many fallen stars waiting for the morning to return home. In the summer, the cicadas chirp and the air crackles with hot winds and the whispering of the pine plantations my father’s family have forested for so many generations. The backyard backs onto a gully, verdant with grass and blackberries my four-year old self would happily stain her fingers and mouth with, once I'd tired of petting Mitsy, my Aunt's pet goat. When I was five, my grandpa and Uncle Steve built me a cubby house with a view of the gully, and it was here I'd eat my Coco-Pops before Auntie took me to school in the morning.

There was always a friend for me to play with: Sam, the first of many faithful labradors my Aunt and Uncle have loved over the years, who would patiently sit anywhere he was told to whilst I stroked his velvety ears. There was dear old Skippy, so named for the leg he lost in a rabbit-trap as a kitten. Never was there a fluffier, happier little rag-bag cat, a marvel to watch as he hopped along at a quicker clip than most of us care to walk. After Sam went to doggy heaven there was Jake, who had eyes only for Uncle. Auntie and Uncle would always talk to him like a real person, and Jake seemed to understand them: he knew the word 'rabbit' meant sit up straight and proud like a setter and scan the lounge-room for any possible hoppity interlopers. He also knew the word 'bike' meant real and proper adventure in his elderly years: Jake had been trained as a puppy to sit in a (rather largish) crate my uncle had attached to the back of the motorbike he used to check on his cattle. Roaming around on the property was Jake's favourite thing, besides his 'Dad', my uncle.

The house itself is huge. Uncle took it upon himself about ten years ago to renovate parts of it, starting with a beautiful black slate floor to run its' length. At the time there were three mini-lounge rooms, which Uncle turned into one. The supporting beam is a sleeper from the old Melbourne docks, now festooned with gas lanterns to hang from the arm-sized nails that still stick from it. Backing onto the lounge room is a wooden deck, where I loved to sit as a child and listen to storms as the rain pounded and bounced in a deafening roar off the fibreglass canopy.

But my favourite of all is the wall by the front door. This has become a kind of family tree photo album over the years: hand coloured black and white, my beautiful late Grandma and my Grandpa on their wedding-day. Their features alike and ghostly with the age of the paper, my Uncle's family, the Richards, when they used to run the mill on Mount Erica. My beautiful cousin Kylie in her twenties, with freckles on her nose and the sweetest little pixie-cut. My Uncle's sister, who to me was always 'Auntie Pat', her lovely heart-shaped features framed by a silky-grey mane of hair, spilling down to her waist while she made something sparkly and delicate with her hands. Me, blonde and five years old on my first day of school.

But my favourite picture on this red-brick wall is of my Uncle Steve. Here, he is twenty-two, laughing hugely and balanced confidently atop a man-sized log; his hands gripping an axe that is forever caught in mid-air, mid-chop, hair bouncing thickly to his shoulders. I can't imagine he's changed all that much in the forty years since this photo was taken, though his hair, even in black and white, seemed closer to a crimson than the strawberry, pepper-flecked tones he keeps in his sixties, and much longer. But there is that same twinkle in his eye, of mischief, of a face that smiles often; a face that looks at home with a deep rumbling belly laugh or a few bars of an Elvis song, pitch perfect. In photos I've seen of Uncle a little later, he lopped his curls off into an Elvis-style pompadour. And when I came along, we'd spend afternoons in the sun room, he on the keyboard and backing up my broken little vocals to 'How much is that doggy in the window'.

'The Woodchopper's Daughter' is a little tribute to all of this: a landscape of gum and pine, of crackly summer days, of a house- you can't see it yet, but just over that hill yonder, of childhood adventures. And the hum of an Elvis song.

Mel x

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