Saying goodbye isn’t the hard part, it’s what we leave behind that’s tough.
The house of my childhood is being demolished. Strangers in HiVis jackets and steel capped boots have already been through with sledgehammers and crowbars to gut the interior and once the bulldozer comes only a pile of rubble will remain. While the house isn’t much to look at from the street – plain cement sheeting, veranda cast in shadow and rusty red paint clinging to the roof’s corrugated iron – I didn’t realise how much it meant to me until Mum and Dad said they were knocking it down.
The places where we live help shape the people we become. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow up. My entire childhood played out in that house. It was the place I was taken as a baby and where I lived my first eighteen years. I understand why Mum and Dad are redeveloping the place; it is pretty run down. Roasting hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter with a leaking roof and asbestos sheeting. You could spend a fair whack of cash fixing the joint up and still have an eighty-year old house. With that in mind they have decided to subdivide the block and build a new place. It’s an exciting change for them but for me it also means saying goodbye.
Several generations of my family have called 70 McKenzie Street home. A tightfisted Norwegian named Frongaud sold my great-grandparents the 1930s equivalent of a house and land package on the condition that the materials be purchased through his timber yard. My great-uncle built the house: three bedrooms, kitchen and separate dining room, laundry and sleep-out off the back veranda and thunder box out back. During the depression the whole Quilford clan (my great-grandparents and their children) lived under its roof.
The house was built on the cheap. To save on timber they used off-cuts of architrave for in the wall frames, set the roof battens at 900mm rather than 600mm and the internal wall trim and mantle pieces were made from unused floorboards. While they didn’t have much cash my great-uncle was still a quality Tradie. He ordered five truckloads of timber for the build but rejected two. The rooms have beautiful mountain ash floorboards without a visible join and some of the rooms are 18ft square. The house was built so well that the demolition crew complained about the difficulty they had taking it apart.
Following in the footsteps of my grandfather, I lived in the sleep-out. It was a great room for a teenager, a space away from the rest of the house and with access to come and go as I pleased. It also proved convenient for Mum and Dad to have me out there. That way they could maintain plausible ignorance about my late night comings and goings. While I had taken most of my stuff with me when I left home to start University, the old trophies and Boxing Kangaroo curtains still made it feel like my bedroom.
Mum told me I had to clear out the last of my stuff before the demolition. Sitting on the floor with my legs crossed sorting through the trinkets of my childhood brought the memories flooding back. Stamp albums, boxes of Lego, stuffed toys, photos, teenage keepsakes and a wooden car made by my great uncle, the man who built the house. I even had to clear out the secret cavity beneath the drawers of my desk. The place I had once hidden porn, booze and other teenage secrets.
The yard, like the house, is full of memories. There are rotten tennis balls lost during games of backyard cricket and rusted trampoline springs. Dig past the remains of all the tools I misplaced and you would also find a few skeletons. There would be a dozen goldfish and a couple of cats. Victims of the beaten up commodore’s that used to rally down the back laneway and throw red dust in the air. You would also find the skeleton of Fluffyball, our cat of fifteen years. At bit smarter than the rest, she survived dogs, overly affectionate next-door neighbours and the wrath of the old man. Dig a bit further and you would find old bones buried by our Labrador Coalette, the biggest, blackest, stinkiest, most awesomest dog a kid could wish for. I remember when she and I ran, wrestled and ruled that backyard.
Twenty years on and you can still feel the frowns of Old Man Klune who lived in the house across the back lane. I fell through the rusted roof of the truck shell parked in his backyard when I was three; stuck in a tangle of blackberries and twisted steel for hours only to be yelled at by Klune then belted by the babysitter. Back then, you could stand in the backyard and watch our eighty-year-old next-door neighbor, Parachute, crushing recycled aluminum cans with his old Fiat. He would jack up one side of the car, carefully place the cans beneath the wheels then crush cans by releasing the jack. The red tin shed, which stood for sixty years, was still in the back corner of the yard. Its buckled corrugated iron was riddled with holes and the dirt floor was full of stone but my great-grandparents spent an entire Wonthaggi winter in that ramshackle hut while the house was being built.
There were always plenty of kids around the place when my sister and me were young. The Barry-Macaulay’s moved next door when I was about ten. Dave and I kicked around together as did Amy and my sister. Being a couple of years younger, Nina’s focus was following us around and victimising the cat. The kids from the two families spent so much time together that the old man ended up putting a ladder over the fence to join the two backyards. The ladder worked out well for me; Amy and I didn’t get together until we were in our twenties but the love of my life turned out to be the girl next door.
Seeing the house go isn’t just sad for me; it means a lot to all of us. Dad says that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a house, but we all know how much it means to him. It was his grandmother’s house, built by his uncle. A place that he and his siblings used to go for hot lunches on Friday. I also know it is a massive change for Mum too. She has made her life in the place, raised two kids and lived there for 35 odd years. My sister hasn’t said much about the demolition but she will miss the place. It never felt like she moved out, up until a couple of weeks ago her bedroom still looked like it did when we were kids.
I am glad Mum and Dad are redeveloping the place, setting themselves in more comfortable digs but the thought of all those memories, all that history, being reduced to rumble still makes me sad. It is just a house, but it was my house and the home of my family.
The day I cleared out my old room I decided to spend one last night in the house. The place was empty, carrying only echoes of the activity it had once seen. It didn’t matter, I set up camp on the floor, laid down, closed my eyes, listened to its last whispers and thought back to my childhood. I’m glad I got to say goodbye.