Maya Angelou once said: “Life loves the liver of it.” This is seen in the passion and humor that John Findley brings to his life story. From recollections of early childhood to more poignant times later in life, these are everyman moments as much as the unique happenings of one particular life. The writing is brisk and engaging, and the book is well-organized, avoiding the pitfalls of meandering narratives and unimportant details often found in personal memoirs. The forewords, written by various family members, were particularly touching without being sentimental. There are universal nuggets of truth in these pages that transcend both the times and details of these stories.
Recollections of my life much idealized, ignoring my imperfections that I am constantly reminded of. Well, with these parameters I am attempting to give an almost accurate account of my early life, I am attempting to put down why I am the person I am today. But be aware I don’t expect to let the truth get in the way of the story.
“Go back to bed John.” I remember my dad suggesting this to me; perhaps it was more of an instruction.
“Oh let him stay,” my mother answered.
I was sitting up in my parent’s bed; I knew I wanted to stay just where I was. This is my very first memory; I reckon I was about two years old. I recall more the feeling than my parent’s conversation. Maybe it was then I started to learn that by moving slowly I could put off doing what I was told for some time. I became very good at this dallying and dawdling when confronted by a request that I didn’t agree with, if not then, I knew all about it later when I was at school.
My mum and dad weren’t together when I was seven-years-old. Mum was sick and we moved back to live with Grandpa and Grandma. My sister and I had our needs attended to by our grandparents; the only thing I remember about that time was our mum was in bed in the middle room and I was to be quiet. Then one night I was to stay at someone’s house I didn’t know, Grandpa came up when I was in bed and told me that mum had died. The lady at the house sat on my bed and held my hand; I didn’t know her, I wanted her to go away. I don’t know how I felt at that time, I can’t remember.
“Write down these words in your book, I will expect you all to be able to spell the words back to me tomorrow.”
There were always ten words, our teacher would take them from the third grade spelling list. The next day she would stand on the step near her table and call out for one of the students to stand up and spell a word. This skill I could muster because after dinner, the night before, I would sit in my room and spell out each word over and over. Also, on the way to school I could be heard repeating the word out loud. In fact most of the class would do the same. But as you are no doubt aware that third grade teachers are evil and think of ways to get you unstuck, announcing that, today, last week’s words would be retested. That I failed, in fact most of the class got the words wrong. Over the weeks that followed the class started to do well, I continued to get most the words wrong.
“John, ask your father to come in and talk to me.” The evil teacher would say, but I was too smart I knew that only trouble and heart ache would come from that.
I never told my dad. But, once again, I found out if you procrastinate long enough things have a way of working out.
The spelling bees stopped and in its place came mental arithmetic. The teacher would verbally give a math question and whoever worked out the answer could call out. If you got it right your name was written on the blackboard; another right answer, a star was placed beside your name. I finished most mornings being milk monitor, which kept me from answering all the questions. As I got the milk bottles ready in the hallway, I could still hear the questions, and knew the answers, but I had a job to do. I went from the class dunce to the class smarty pants, being confronted with something I was good at I would not have minded telling my dad to see the teacher. But she didn’t ask again.
My time in third grade and living with Dad came to an end; I was off back to live with my sister and my grandparents. My new teacher was fantastic; the class would wait for her at the acorn tree and walk with her up the hill to school. We would take in every word she uttered; she knew everything about us and knew how to get the most out of us in school work.
“You realise if we were in China we would be walking one behind the other, now in Australia we all walk side by side,” our teacher said as she passed on this piece of information onto us.
The whole class was spread out across the road with those at the ends straining to hear everything being said. Nothing more was said about China or Australia until our lesson that morning, then, after the lesson she’d question us to see who had been paying attention.
“Who can tell why they walk behind each other in China?” she asked with a knowing smile. A shake of the head was given to an incorrect answer. Another smile, then looking straight at me; the rest of the class realising the easiest and safest way to behave was to keep quiet.
The walk to school flashed through my mind along with the pictures of rice paddies just showed in our lesson. “The road between the rice paddies are very narrow, they don’t have the room to walk side by side.” I returned her smile and realised the joy of receiving the hand wave that told the rest of the class that I was right.
Another time a life lesson was given to me by the same teacher was when our class was getting ready to sing a Christmas carol at the school concert. All of us stood singing, our teacher walking along the row. Then she stopped at me, placing her hand on my head.
“John, just open and close your mouth you don’t need to sing.” I was relieved; some of our class was to sing a verse by themselves. I was scared that I may be asked; I no longer had that to fear.
Another time I experienced the feeling of loss; it may not be what you consider loss but to a ten-year-old boy it was devastating.
“I made this at work for you, be careful with it.”
Grandpa had made a slingshot out of thick steel wire coming up from the handle covered with a piece of water hose. The two upright arms with short strips of leather thong tied to rubber, cut from a car tyre inner tube, another piece of leather thong with a pouch to hold the stone that was shot at a target. Hours were spent knocking tins off the fence; even bottles were used as targets. Remember, it was 1954 and it was considered okay to hang around the tip and any bottle that didn’t have a deposit on was alright to break. All my friends agreed that my slingshot was the best they had seen.
My slingshot was not in my pocket, it was late in the afternoon and time to be home for tea. Nothing could be done it had fallen out of my pocket sometime that day. I had been playing all day mostly throwing a ball with my friend and his dog. That night I kept going over in my mind the places I had been that day and I was more than a little upset; I was devastated. I didn’t tell Grandpa.
The next day, I set out to retrace my steps, realising I had to cover the ground several times as I could have crossed the creek in several places. The bush where we played had tracks all over the place. As the day rolled on, despair and hopelessness crept into my thoughts; I knew what my grandpa would say. Well I thought I knew, now that I am older I think I have a better understanding of how my grandpa would have handled it. But back then, I only had the empty feeling in my stomach.
There it was. I looked a second time. It had only been lost one day and the shiny steel wire that was the handle already had brown spots of rust. Rubbing it on my jumper restored its shine. I had found my slingshot.
I reckon I was very lucky with the people that crossed my path in my early life, I didn’t know it then but as I look back I see the outcome of decisions I have made.
I knew that Grandpa could do anything, he built the house we lived in at Cal Gully he could fix anything that broke. I remember Grandma saying more than once, “Bert the tap won’t turn off;” “Bert the cupboard door is broken.” No matter what the problem, Grandpa resolved it.
Then years later, I was sixteen and working at a bank, looking up I saw our Minister, our Church was miles away I walked around to the side counter to talk to him. When he spotted me he had beckoned me over to him.
“John your Grandfather died this morning at work.” He went on to fill me in, then talking to my manager arranging for me to go with him to tell Grandma.
“I didn’t say goodbye this morning,” was all Grandma had said.
I was asked by our minister to make a cup of tea, but he left after only taking a couple of sips, leaving a full cup on the tray.
“Look after your Grandma,” he said while standing at the door and was gone.
Grandma along with the minister arranged the funeral. I was asked to go with them to view the body, but declined. I didn’t wish to see Grandpa just lying in a coffin.
I became the person Grandma looked to when anything needed to be mended. My ideas were listened to but never taken up. I was still a child in Grandma’s eyes, one who could help around the house, but not like Grandpa.
The house was sold and we moved into a flat.