We carry our past with us. Some see the past as a great shell or exoskeleton, or a weight that has to be hoisted as a burden on the back. Others, myself included, are fortunate to be able to take delight in the past, and let it carry us forward with loving hands that lift us and make the way ahead more gentle.
When I was about 5 years old, maybe a little older... but not much, I went rowing with my uncle. I remember putting both hands on a heavy wooden oar and can still feel the heft of it after all this time, the weight and roundness of it, and the grainy feel of wood where it had worn a bit with the contact with many hands. Small boats were a new thing for me, and I remember the sensation, this thin shell of wood moving over the water, the wobbly instability of it, and some of the creaks and gurgles that emanated as it cleft the surface of the lake. I remember feeling very proud of holding the oar, and rowing with it, and the hard slap and splash of wood on water.
When I think back to rowing with my uncle, I can hear my uncle's voice and that of my Auntie Elaine, and they both seem to travel with me in that boat.
My father sent me this photo recently, it is of my Uncle Alan, in the sun hat, and myself (with the oar), and my father just visible in behind us. It was a wonderful surprise receiving the photo, as I had not realised that one had been taken of this occasion.
I was interested to see my father in the photo, as I had no memory of him being in the boat. In my mind it is just my uncle and aunt, and myself, but the mind does simplify things. I wonder who took the photo? Did my aunt take the photo? Was she actually in the boat at the time? Or was it my sister? Where was she?
My uncle and aunt lived in Australia on the other side of the world from England where I spent my childhood, so we saw them infrequently, but each moment with them was a precious one, and I have this delightful string of memories stretching back over 50 years or so. Visits from them were happy occasions, and the couple brought with them a hint of a wider world out there beyond our hazy and close English horizon. My Australian aunt was vivacious, kind, and fun and my uncle was really tall and developed a gentle Australian accent, and I liked it that he wore a hat like the one in the photo, as it made him look like what I thought someone from Australia was supposed to look like! He just needed some corks on strings around the brim to complete the picture, but it was easy for a child to imagine them when required!
I had some special books and toys from them when I was a child, and usually they had an Australian flavour to them. "Gloop the Gloomy Bunyip" by Colin Thiele, with superb illustrations by John Bailey, was a childhood favourite of mine.
I had a soft toy, a duck billed platypus, that shared my bed in my early years, and I suspect it was from them. And later there was "I can Jump Puddles", by Alan Marshall.
The funny thing is that I appreciate the Alan Marshall book a great deal more now than I did years ago, it was written by an old and wise head, and I think it requires some life experience to really gnaw on the soup bones of wisdom that it contains.
Playing back memories of my uncle and aunt, is a bit like watching one of those films people do of plants, where they take a photo every five minutes, and then put them together. When the film plays you see the life of the plant all sped up. One moment the plant is a little seedling, then it is popping out more leaves, and then the stem is waving and snaking skywards. Suddenly flowers pop out, and you see the colourful faces follow each day's sun with great swinging and dipping movements of their heads. And there is a continuous flicker as each new day dawns, reaches the midday climax of light, then fades into evening.
I suppose that it is the nature of our human existence that most of our relationships are marked by short together times, and longer gaps in between. Probably the only relationships where the gaps are really short are between mother and child in the first year or two of life. Maybe some of us get that back again for a while through marriage or partnership, but most relationships are a stuttering series of moments.
We are fortunate in having developed some friendships that have lasted many years, and these are the sort that can take up again comfortably even if there has been a gap of months, or years. Long friendships and family relationships are precious, but the stop motion nature of them makes them poignant as well. The voice and gestures remain from year to year, but how did the hair grow grey so suddenly, and the bones fragile, and the step become uncertain?
We were most fortunate to have a visit from my uncle and aunt from Australia earlier in the year. Sadly, my uncle's health is such that it is unlikely that we will see both of them here again, but how lucky we have been to have amassed the moments of life together that we have, and what a joy that is to carry with us.
I am writing this thankful for family and friends who have brought us so much happiness over the years.