My Dad died two years ago today.
It’s only recently dawned on me that my Dad was, in a way, a creative muse for me. Many of my memories of Dad are bound up with massively significant art experiences. Experiences that have formed who I am and what I do. I work on things that I hope will make Mum and Dad proud. More than that, though, I work on things that I hope will make them laugh, cry and ask me hard questions about.
So the rest of this story is about Dad. It’s a version of what I said at Dad’s FUNeral. (You read that right. It was a party. One heck of a party.)
But Wallace was.
And that could make life difficult for us.
He knew how to keep a house tidy – why couldn’t we?
He knew the answer to that cryptic crossword clue – why haven’t you got it yet?
He was naturally fit. If he was carrying a few extra pounds, he knew he could shed it in a couple of days. Why was it so hard for the rest of us to lose weight?
Growing up, Wallace was… scary, intelligent, grumpy, busy, tired, scary, funny, scary, busy. It felt, at times, that us kids were a bloody annoying distraction to the important things he had to do – like, work, sleep, read the paper on the toilet, and hang out with Mum.
But materially, the evidence was the opposite.
We had everything we needed, and more. We were well fed and well clothed. We had great houses that Mum and Dad built, more or less. We had bikes. We had a table tennis table and a pool table.
We had a Para pool until Dad got his Feltex superannuation payout… which he spent on us. He bought a beautiful in-ground pool and had some landscaping done, which made playing cricket possible in the backyard. The only downside of this was losing the whirlpool capabilities of the Para pool… when the biggies would run around the edges and the littlies would be able to drift in circles in the middle.
We had amazing holidays – every holidays. We went almost everywhere there is to go in the North Island, and just before my big sister left for university we did the South Island. We traveled pretty well as a family, judging by the photos, which always seem to have us pointing in opposite directions, pretending to cling to cliffs, striking wacky poses. Dad, right in there with all of us, while Mum takes the photos.
We all had piano lessons – music was so important to Dad. The lessons felt like a chore at times – but he was so determined that we go, because he didn’t want his money to go to waste. Of course, now that I’m all grown up, I wish I’d paid more attention then because what little music theory I have comes in handy every day.
A lot of things felt like a chore, back then, that I am so glad to have the benefit of now. Like how to grow a fruitful vege garden. How to do my own tax returns. How to figure out what’s wrong with my computer without calling in the professionals. How to appreciate a game of rugby. (I’m sorry – I still can’t appreciate golf.) How to pay off debt. The art of To Do lists. Where apostrophes do and don’t belong.
To look at, Wallace seemed like a straightforward, straight, Pakeha kind of a guy. A middle child. A businessman, married, Catholic, father of four. Clever. Sensible. Organised.
But there was wackiness – lots of it. He was interested in the oddest things.
He loved musicals – loved musicals. He and Mum even went on a Phantom of the Opera tour of the USA! When the director of the Holy Cross Parish annual pantomime dropped out, Dad stepped in, realising a dream he’d always had – since Otago University Dramatic Society days – to be right in the thick of a stage production. (Mum wrote the panto script.) He didn’t want to act. He wanted to be a stage manager, operate the flys, run the rehearsals. (During his last summer, he took me to the Leonard Cohen concert. Dad was ecstatic with our seats – he could see the guitar techs and the sound-desk and loved watching everything going on behind the scenes.)
Dad loved comedy. We named most of our budgies after Goon Show characters… and I think he watched every episode of The Young Ones with us. Mum told us how he’d make the waterbed wobble while she was trying to sleep, because he’d be laughing so hard watching Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s follow-up series, Bottom. (He tells me he never really ‘got’ Monty Python though. I admit I’m sort of with him on that.)
Dad loved jazz. Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band, loads of sexy sixties jazz, anything with a clarinet in it. He loved classical, too, and raised us on a healthy diet of orchestral pops.
Dad took us to so many shows – a family of six on one income – I don’t know how he did it. We loved the shows he took us to. So many weird and wonderful films, orchestras, plays, and we’ll always have The Front Lawn. (As noted in his little accounting book for 1989 – 5 x tickets at $16.50 each). And going to the movies meant going to see something weird at the Academy or Charley Gray’s.
He loved a party. Half the noise-control notices we got were for Dad playing musical numbers too loud through the outdoor speakers.
Wherever Wallace was, there was a radio station on. He wasn’t a one-station kind of guy. He switched between the cricket, parliament, sport, National, Concert, Radio Live, ZB, Easy Listening. Sometimes he’d manage to have three stations on at once. It was so annoying! But we learned a lot from all those stations, and I think it’s not surprising that so much of what Dad loved has found its way into our careers.
Dad loved being involved in what we did, and once he’d left the world of manufacturing, he and Mum seemed to have businesses that nicely intersected with what we were up to. When we were students and needed flexible part-time jobs, they had their catering company. When we needed catering for our weddings and parties and 95bFM’s 30th Birthday Party, they were there. When we needed business cards and ukulele songbooks and manuscripts printed, they had the printing shop. When we set up companies, he was there with the financial advice and the systems wherewithal.
Dad was always, always helping out on so many things I did, in an almost instinctual way. He and Mum flew to Wellington unprompted to cook for and be extras in our short film, Dead Letters. Until they got there, we didn’t know how necessary they would be – but we knew enough to arrange a fancy (free) hotel room for them. They stood all day in the path of a cold Wellington wind, cooking sausages on the barbecue they’d hauled to Wellington Railway Station from my apartment. Then they got togged up in 1940s outfits and driven away in a vintage car throughout the night shoot.
Dad spent half a day hanging around another film set, so that he could star in the opening credits for New Artland. And two months before he died, we went to Avondale Markets together one Sunday morning – he insisted on carrying the bags, silly man – and then he spent the next morning helping me chop vegetables for the central meal-for-100 that would be the artistic result of one of our shoots.
Mum and Dad helped the band a lot in our early days, and traveled to see us perform several times. One of my favourite band-memories of Dad is the day that we flew to Auckland for one night to play at an awards ceremony. I had a spare hour to meet him for a cuppa. But as I was heading that way, I got a call from my band-mate to say she’d ironed a hole in her (only) dress. I phoned Dad – change of plan. The girls converged on a vintage store up the road, threw some options together, the frantic band-mate arrived, chose the first one, then Dad pulled up right outside and drove us to the hotel to get our things, and to the Civic Theatre for our sound-check.
Whereupon, he got to sit in the centre-front row and have his own personal concert as Ben Makisi rehearsed Nessun Dorma. After that, he popped out to buy champagne for the girls while we were in hair and makeup, and generally fussed around us. My TV show was up for an award that night, so his last task – he insisted – was to walk me around to the front of the Civic and see me up the red carpet. He was amazing that night – calm, kind, instinctive. Also: tired, pale, quiet.
Just six weeks before he left us, Mum and Dad came to Wellington for the beautiful, memorable Michael Fowler Centre concerts. He was so worried he wouldn’t be able to travel, but he did.
We had a wonderful dinner together, they brought many of their friends and family to the concert – paying for their tickets even though I had comps – and we had a great brunch the next day before he went back to my apartment for a wee nap. When he woke, we talked for an hour about the highlights of the show. Then he asked me if the band played funerals.
When they left, Dad and I both knew it would be his last visit to Wellington.
I’m glad it was a fabulous weekend.