I know it is a cliché. Nevertheless, my father was a man of his times. And during his 88 years he lived through periods in Australia’s history that are almost unrecognisable from the perspective of today’s generations.
In the autobiographical notes he left amongst his personal papers, he recalls his childhood, living in a sturdy weatherboard house with a verandah on two sides. He once told me that he and his brothers would often sleep on that verandah in the hot summer months.
In those notes, Dad chose to highlight two events from his childhood in that home. Firstly, when the town water was connected and the young family no longer had to rely on water tanks and the fickle rainfall of Riverstone on Sydney’s western fringe. And, secondly, he remembers the day in 1932 when electricity was connected to the house.
Electricity immediately meant no more smelly kerosene lamps - no more reading in bed at night by candlelight. Eventually, there were more far-reaching changes. The wireless brought entertainment into the living room – apparently Dad’s parents would listen to radio dramas and children were expected to maintain silence or face the consequences. The fuel stove was replaced by an electric model – no more rising early in the morning to chop wood, no more choking smoke in the kitchen, and no more unstoppable heat that made hot days even hotter inside. Electric irons and other labour-saving advances followed, making life easier for my grandparents.
My father’s sensitivity to these developments became more understandable when my mother recalled that Dad had always helped his mother - my grandmother - with her housework. He also assisted his father with his carpentry and picked up skills that were to last him a lifetime. Dad could literally make anything.
His readiness to help his parents does not appear in his notes and that leads me to point out some other characteristics of my father. Dad was intensely private and unwaveringly modest. He was also uncompromisingly independent.
My mother recalls Dad being a confident young man when she first became aware of him as they travelled together to and from jobs in Sydney each day as part of a large group of teenagers from Sydney’s west. The long journey on the old steam trains was a perfect occasion for the young men to play cards, using the tables in the adapted dining cars.
My parents became engaged during the war. They were married soon after Dad’s discharge from the army. Dad’s notes record his frustration with the delays the young couple encountered in building their own home in the tight postwar economy.
There is little said about the war in his notes – although Dad’s wartime experiences had a huge impact on his attitudes in his professional life and on his health in his declining years. My mother told me a few days ago that Dad had spoken more about his army service as a signalman in New Guinea during the past few weeks than he had in the preceding 66 years of marriage.
My father’s notes do recall a chance wartime meeting with his older brother, Basil, who was serving at an adjacent base in New Guinea. Dad also kept a poem penned by another signalman with a scorching wit. One of the verses records that Dad – nick-named “Andy Beau” - took such good care of his uniform that he slept with it neatly folded underneath his sleeping bag to ensure that the trouser creases were properly maintained.
And that brings me to another aspect of my Dad’s character. He was a fastidious man who put a whole-hearted effort into everything he undertook.
At school he enjoyed the exactness of technical drawing and achieved a strong overall result in the Intermediate Certificate – an unusual achievement in those times when many boys from Riverstone did not attend secondary school at all.
He threw himself into sports – rugby league, cricket and tennis. His league team at Westmead Tech was at the top of the competition table when it played against Ashfield in a curtain raiser to a test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Dad never told any of us about this match.
Rugby league remained an abiding love for my father. If Riverstone were playing at home on a winter Sunday, Dad would dress in his best slacks and sports coat and make the short walk to the park to watch the local A Grade go round. I remember going with him when I was very small and listening to Dad’s conversations with friends about players’ form, injuries and likely finals contenders.
Later, Dad would regularly take my mother, my brother and me to watch Parramatta play at the old Cumberland Oval. If Parra was going well we would venture to other suburban venues and, of course, there were many matches of the day and finals series at the SCG. We were there in the old Brewongle Stand on the day St George’s run of 11 premierships in a row came to an end in 1967 in a gripping preliminary final against Canterbury. We also saw several test matches.
Even later, Dad attended almost every league match my brother and I played for Riverstone and even some of our high school matches when work commitments allowed. He greatly enjoyed the friendship of the fathers of our teammates and he always seemed composed regardless of the dramas of such a physical sport. If he shouted, it was to encourage or instruct. I recall him telling me to use your fend, tackle low and run it up hard. It was good advice for both football and life.
My father had several changes of employers during his career. He spent some time at Riverstone’s famous meatworks and also worked for suppliers of butchers’ materials and equipment as a company representative. His employers prized his reliability, his honesty, his perseverance, and his ability to relate to clients as friends. He was chosen to fix seemingly unfixable problems and to develop new business in difficult or remote parts of New South Wales. Reading his notes, it seems Dad was always being pursued by potential employers. He makes it clear, however, that he chose work on the basis of how good it was for his family.
And that brings me to make a final point. Dad was not a particularly affectionate man or a man who spoke lightly and frequently about love without understanding its obligations. But Dad loved my mother and his children and his extended family. And he loved them unconditionally and he expressed that love in a multitude of practical ways.
Throughout their married life, he made sure that Mum had everything she desired. He made ample provision for the education of his children and for a happy retirement in Bateau Bay. The achievements of his grandchildren were sources of great satisfaction and he never tired of hearing about them. He spent countless hours researching and documenting the origins and history of the Andrews family, teaching himself to use a personal computer as part of the process.
Dad described the move to Bateau Bay as the best he ever made – and my mother agrees without reservation. The unit at Kiah Lodge was originally a base for expeditions to parts of Australia my parents had always wanted to see. It later became a secure haven as Dad’s health waned.
In his notes my father recalls his frustration with the fact that his problems with ataxia eventually made him so unsteady on his feet that he was effectively housebound. This disease isolated him from his extended family. I remember him writing to me to explain his sadness that he could no longer make the drive to Sydney to visit his grandchildren. Typically, he asked me to keep the details of his illness and its ramifications to myself.
When he moved out of Kiah Lodge because of his health – the combination of ataxia and prostate cancer had made it impossible for Mum to provide Dad with the specialized care he needed – he always made sure that, as my mother left him after each day’s visit to the nursing home, Dad would quietly tell her “I love you”.
There is so much more I could say about Dad. But let me finish with this. On the day of his death, a young nurse in Nareen Gardens approached my mother and said simply: “I’m sorry for your loss. He was a beautiful man.”
No more needs to be said.