If there is one thing from my childhood that I will forever be grateful for, it’s my Dad.
He taught me so much about this world, and how to treat the people in it.
I wonder if he knows just how much I remember. I shiver for the things I remember that he never knew about.
But mostly, I wonder if he knows just how much he means to me, and how thankful I am to have him.
Because being a parent is a largely thankless job.
Waiting for Dad.
Going to Dad’s house was like going to a completely different world.
The weeks without seeing Dad were longer than you could imagine.
I spent a lot of time in my room, staring at a tattered photo of my Dad. I would talk to him, hoping he’d somehow be able to hear me. When I was sad, I would hold that picture tighter than I’ve ever held anything else, and I would cry myself to sleep.
They say your childhood shapes the person you become. I guess when you begin to understand the horrors of this world, you also come to appreciate the blessings just a little bit more.
But Dad, thank you.
When Dad picked me up, I would be so excited.
We always got Hungry Jacks on the drive south to Dad’s house. I could never finish the burger in my Kid’s Meal, but Dad never minded.
He would point out things in the paddocks – windmills, cows, sheep… and I would tell him I loved him, over and over again.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too, sweetheart.’
Weekends at Dad’s.
My Dad’s house was a parallel universe compared to my usual living conditions.
He would cook spaghetti bolognese on Friday nights, and I’d sit at a tiled little coffee table, and eat it out of the smallest bowl, with the biggest smile on my face.
He always had juice boxes for me, and they had stickers in the pack that we stuck all over the fridge. I liked the purple ones best.
We also stuck the stickers we got from the jelly packets, the local vet, WWE and RSPCA all over the fridge. And our apple stickers too.
He’d run me a bath, and try to comb my matted hair. He’d dry my hair by throwing a big warm towel over my head and ruffle my hair and plonk me next to the fire if it was winter.
Dad taught me how to use the stereo system in the lounge room so I could watch Saturday Disney in the mornings before he woke up. I’d do drawings to send in to the hosts, with pretty pencils Dad bought just for me.
He had an empty Moccona Coffee jar that he would fill with little fruit balls. He kept them on the table by the back door. I’d sneak into them in the mornings… when I wasn’t sneaking the dogs inside, or sneaking into the kennel with the dogs outside. The kennel was made out of an old metal water-tank, and it was always nice and quiet and cool in there.
I learned how to use the landline, and would call my friend Jilli, who lived a few blocks away. I remember laughing and laughing, until Dad would wake up and decide to organise my breakfast.
He always had different cereals for me to try in the mornings. And he always made me honey and banana sandwiches for lunch.
Dad always made sure we were doing something. Time was always so precious. We’d go to the beach with the dogs and pick up rubbish, or do paintings, or work in the shed. Sometimes we’d build trains with Dad’s old Lego, or we’d stay out in the garden digging away. There was always something for us to do.
Sometimes we’d go camping with Jilli’s family at a place called Scott’s Creek. We’d collect tadpoles and find firewood, and try and jump the streams in our gumboots. It was so quiet, and the marshmallows by the fire were always somehow better there than anywhere else.
Dad and I would go fishing down the Coorong in the boat, and he’d show me how to tie the knots for the anchor, and what to pack in case of an emergency. Sunscreen, flares, matches, spare clothes, first aid kit, towels – we even had a thin army blanket, which I would pull out of our big waterproof tub when it got breezy. He taught me how to put the cockles on the hooks without hurting myself, and how to throw the line in without catching on anything.
I remember seeing dolphins and seals and birds. We helped a pelican once, who’s beak was tied up with fishing line and hooks. The pelican sat with us on the shore for the rest of the day, and we fed him all the fish that were too small to take home.
At home, I’d have a little wooden trolley that had different coloured painted blocks in it. I loved building little towns for all the Matchbox cars Dad let me play with. Dad always built much better houses and castles than I did, but I never minded.
He taught me how to play chess, and never let me win. He would patiently sit through my tantrums, reminding me you always had to be one step ahead. Something I’ve come to learn is true in life, too.
I remember writing letters to the tooth-fairy, asking her to give me $20 to take Dad on the Cockle Train from Goolwa to Victor Harbour. She always delivered. The train ride was always so perfect, watching the ocean from the window. Except the day the Diesel Train was running instead, and its horn was so loud I refused to ride it.
We even had a little jar that we would put all the five-cent pieces we collected in. When it was full, we would count them by hand, and then take them to the bank and cash them in.
We’d watch ‘Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday’, and we always laughed. Nothing was ever too hard for him to do. He had a monkey puppet that I absolutely adored. He would give him different voices and I would laugh until I was exhausted.
When Dad had friends over, he would hold me, and I would put my ear to his chest as I fell asleep, and listen to his deep voice as I drifted off.
Dad taught me to appreciate the little things in life. But I’ve come to realise that those little things are the most important of all.
Dad had video-taped the Looney Tunes movie for me, so on Sunday mornings I could watch that instead of the boring shows on TV. I was always up early. When I was at Mum’s, I’d usually put myself to bed, so I was used to being awake early most days.
Sundays were always depressing, because we knew I had to leave. We’d drag the day out as long as we possibly could, but the time always came quicker than we wanted it to.
There was only one time that I remember when Dad came to pick me up, that I refused to go. It was after my end-of-year Kindergarten concert, and I was dressed as a little angel with a halo over my head. I don’t remember what Mum said to me, but I refused to go. I cried and cried and cried, and then when Dad left and I’d realised that I wasn’t going to Dad’s house that weekend, I cried some more.
My Dad never hurt me. He never made me feel unsafe or unloved. My Dad was exactly what I needed, all of the time. He was a teacher, a toy repairer, and gardener, a chef, a singer, a comedian… A hero.
After 7 years, multiple psychologists/ psychiatrists and ugly custody battles, being a missing person for 8 months, and a lifetime of trauma, the court finally ruled in my Dad’s favour. And I finally understood what true happiness was.
Happiness is getting to be a child.
Happiness is being able to attend school regularly.
Happiness is learning you aren’t dumb.
Happiness is learning you are valued.
Happiness is being able to have a packed lunch.
Happiness is having friends over after school.
Happiness is having a safe home to play in.
Happiness is not going hungry.
Happiness is not being cold.
Happiness is not sleeping on the side of a road.
Happiness is not something you have to do favours for.
Happiness is having a say.
Happiness is having clean clothes.
Happiness is having clean hair.
Happiness is being tucked in every night.
Happiness is going to bed safe.
Happiness is knowing there’s breakfast there for you in the morning.
But mostly, happiness is knowing you are loved. Unconditionally.