Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Uncle Ray

Yesterday, one day after what would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday, her brother, Ray, my last surviving uncle, died. This news has, as usual, sent me into something of a tailspin of reflection and introspection.

He was 86. He and his wife, Margaret, were a pretty good team, and seem to have been able to keep each other going to what is a very good age. Although I haven’t seen them for a number of years on account of physical distance, we have kept in touch, and they seem to have been in quite good health (although, curiously, they both became diabetic late in life) and in full control of their faculties, although uncle Ray, I am told, had withdrawn into himself in the last little while.

Which might have been difficult for an outsider to notice. Ray was a quiet one at the best of times, a Hewson trait of which I am an inheritor (as was my own mother).

Ray was the survivor of the four Hewson children. For whatever reason, genetics, circumstances, or mere coincidence, none of his three sisters fared entirely well. Mavis, whom my mother spent some years looking after, contracted juvenile diabetes, went blind, and died young. Muriel, mother of the three Coulter boys, also died much too young (when Geoff, the youngest, was only a teenager; he spent some time living at our house, which I was too young to really remember); and mum died at 68, not that young, I suppose, but also not that old, and she had been in varying degrees of poor health for a number of years. Ray, however, was made of stronger stuff.

(As for myself, I don’t think I am a particularly well-made human being. I have had poor eyesight since at least the age of five; my spine is twisted at various angles; I have strange neurological symptoms consistent with, but not, apparently, amounting to, MS; and yesterday I scored 35 in a test in which anything over 28 is indicative of Asperger’s syndrome.)

Perhaps because of my status as an only child, I have never really understood families. I seem to have voluntarily estranged myself from most of my cousins on my father’s side, on account of bad things that happened after he died; and the Hewson side is prone to long silences and infrequent contact. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding that we have never really spent a great deal of time in each other’s company, I feel a strong sense of connection with my cousin Gay, Ray and Margaret’s daughter. Whether this is because we are both only children I couldn’t say, but it probably does have something to do with it.

Gay is a few years older than me, but not many, and we both were born to relatively old parents (for those times). She grew up in Dandenong, which was the closest part of Melbourne to our farm, so we did see them for a few hours at a time, from time to time, and stayed with them occasionally - enough for me to carry a number of lasting, but general and perhaps distorted by time, impressions. They had a caravan, a budgie called Marmaduke and a cat whose name now escapes me. Later, they built on an extra room, which came to be dominated by a billiard table which I was quick to gravitate towards whenever we paid them a visit. (Ray worked for a company called Southern Billiards, if I remember rightly, making billiard tables for a living; he was also a keen gardener and, after his retirement, a fine lawn bowler.) Gay had Stephen King novels in her room, and listened to David Bowie (whose surname Margaret insisted on pronouncing so that the “Bow” sounded like “bow wow”, much to Gay’s disgust - I suspect this was Margaret’s way of expressing her disapproval of this man who wore copious amounts of make-up, had coloured hair, and even wore dresses). They came to our house most years on Christmas day, along with the Coulter cousins. For a long time my prize possession was a postcard from Gay which was sent from Fiji, featuring a policeman wearing a white uniform, directing traffic. I have no idea what impression, if any, Gay formed about me: probably just that I seemed like a strange sort of kid from the country: which, I suppose, I was.

Specific memories? Only two, and one of those not so much a memory as a story.

When I was very young, maybe around five, Ray and Margaret took me out for the day, to what I now believe to have been Venus Bay (where Adrienne and I, much later, went for a long walk on that fateful weekend in 1989 when she first visited me in Leongatha). I was wearing a new pair of black shoes (new shoes, new anything, was something pretty special in my family). I was under strict instructions from Margaret not to get them wet. I was busy for some time playing at the water’s edge, lost in my thoughts and oblivious to anything else that may have been happening around me (such as the tide coming in). There was a shout and a severe reprimand from Margaret when it became obvious that my new shoes had indeed been immersed in the salt water, and who knows for how long? (But why was I not in bare feet like normal kids would have been?) I felt terrible, having failed to follow instructions and, I was led to believe, destroyed my new shoes into the bargain. No doubt I got into more trouble when I got home, but that I don’t remember at all, only my betrayal of my aunt and uncle, who had been good enough to take me to the beach in the first place, a treat which, in my own mind, I clearly didn’t deserve and which would never happen again.

Second, there is a story recounted by my mother of my cousin Max, one of the Coulter boys, at a young age, sitting on the floor at Ray’s feet, while Ray was, characteristically, sitting in an armchair, reading. They stayed there in complete silence for some time, until somebody, perhaps my mother, perhaps Muriel, Max’s mother, said to Max, “What are you doing, Max?”, to which Max replied, “Talking to uncle Ray.”

That story, while it may or may not be entirely true, certainly rings true. Ray is best remembered as a quiet figure sitting in an armchair, reading a magazine, a book or a newspaper, or doing a crossword, seemingly oblivious to events around him but in fact entirely attentive, making the occasional comment, always worth waiting for, and then going back to what he was doing. In some people this may have been considered rude, or arrogant, but Ray conveyed so much generosity of spirit, kindness and goodwill that he could get away with it. In fact, not just “get away with it”: it was who he was.