“No more stories.
We’re still using your imagination,
it was stronger than ours.”
Twenty years ago, exactly to the day, I sat next to a man on his bed. If my arm hadn’t been around his bony shoulders, he couldn’t have sat up. His frame barely filled the pyjamas which spoke of a time when he weighed more. Much more. His wispy hair, white now, stood up at a crazy angle.
A flash of childhood memory: I used to think his morning hair was comical, like a cockatoo’s, before he’d put himself through his morning ritual of Brilliantine to become more senatorial in his presentation. He’d stand in the bathroom and look down at me in my dressing gown, smiling. Was I five? Six? He’d lean down to put shaving cream on my face and then shave it with the back of a comb. I’d get a fingertip’s worth of Old Spice dabbed on my cheeks and have my hair tousled before I would run out, beaming, to be told how grown-up I was.
No more. The lung cancer had won. One eye was a ruin of inflammation, and the other barely held a spark of the old man. Just sunken cheeks and a gaze of unspoken sadness and disgust at a life of self-reliance brought down to this degraded state. He was sobbing, but was almost too weak to do so.
I was sixteen. And I had no words. Just an inchoate sense of dread. This trip to hospital would be the last. My grandfather died later that day, 13th November 1989.
If you’ve lost someone like that, what do you think is worse? The death, or having the majesty of who they used to be taken away first? It’s such an affront, isn’t it?
How my grandfather died says absolutely nothing about who he really was. No, there was one thing: At his funeral they were bunched up the back and pouring out the door.
So let me tell you about Henry George Holland.
He was born in 1923. Only my gran ever called him Henry. Usually as a one-word exclamation of reproof after he’d told a risque joke and she felt the need to fake being scandalised, while he’d roar laughing for whole minutes with his brother, Uncle Claude. Laughter always surrounded my grandfather. And to every other soul, he was Harry Holland from Glenhaven.
More than any other person in my life, Harry defined the kind of person I wanted to be. He was involved in everything. Even from the earliest age I remember him disappearing out the door, meticulously turned out in one of his dapper brown suits (always brown) to preside at this or that. President of Glenhaven Bushfire Brigade. President of the Glenhaven Progress Association. President of the Hills Shire Chamber of Commerce. President of the local branch of the Liberal Party. People were always calling at the house; city Councilmen, State and Federal MPs. They came to take tea with Harry, shake his huge, rough hands, and chew the fat. Because if you had Harry on-side, you had a lot of others as well. There was no bluster to Harry; just a chestful of the good sense he had inherited from a long line of ancestors. That sense was up on the wall of the local Church, where his grandfather’s name plaque (James Holland) was there as a founder, and around the corner, in Holland Road, named after the family; and in the local park, Holland Park, named because, by my grandfather’s generation, we weren’t just from the area, we were the area.
He was awarded the National Medal with two bars, which was almost unheard of.
Our family used to run Glenhaven Post Office (see painting to the left), which was a hub for local gossip. But Harry was also the manager of the original Castle Hill Cinema (knocked down in the 70’s to make way for where Castle Mall is now. See below B/W photo)
What I learned at my grandfather’s feet was that civic engagement, especially as voluntary service in one form or another, should be as compulsorily a part of life as breathing. You got involved in things. You invested in something that was larger than you were, and you did it cheerfully, recognising that civic virtue should be an end in itself. That had a powerful effect on me.
Almost everything I’ve applied myself to as an adult has that thought lurking at the back of my head. I hope he’d be proud of me. People massively over-analyse nowadays whether it’s healthy to have ghosts like that at our elbows, but let me tell you, I’d rather be haunted by the expectations of someone like my grandfather to goad me on to better things than not to have had such a role model in my life.
Another flash of memory: Some circumstance caused a need to put all the Fire Brigade’s trucks on our lawn, since we were over the road from the station. Was I seven? Eight? Imagine the look on my face when I came out of the house. My grandfather gave me real fire trucks, be it only for a morning. I still remember his words: “You can push that button,” (the lights), “but NOT that button” (the siren). I think I short circuited from excitement. It was magic. I've written elsewhere about that yard.
There were a few things I shared with my grandfather that were definitely his and mine alone. One of our solemn rituals was to put up the chain of coloured party lights a few weeks before Christmas on the front verandah. I had a dog-eared sheet of paper where I had worked out the perfect sequence of colours that was aesthetically pleasing. He used to indulge me as I consulted the sheet and passed the bulbs up the ladder. He got why it was important. The sense of continuity from year to year might have seemed trivial, but it was significant to us. I still do it, working from the same Arnott’s tin of bulbs and the same dog-eared piece of paper.
When the Bathurst 1000 touring car race was on (the James Hardie 1000 back then. Oh my, how times have changed), we used to get out a big toy racing car set and take over the lounge room on the race weekend to play while we barracked for Peter Brock or Dick Johnson (Brock would normally lead until his engine invariably blew up half an hour from the finish). Grandma would keep us plied with scones and milkshakes, stoic about the chaos in her lounge room.
My grandfather was a wizard with all things mechanical. He was fascinated with engines and gadgets and he bought me my first computer, a Commodore 64. This love of technology meant that, long before consumer video cameras existed, there’s a rich history recorded of my first years on 8mm film. I’m so grateful for that, as I am for the precious library of reel-to-reel audio tapes of him in correspondence with his brother in Lismore. When I evoke his ghost from the machine, I travel back in time. His voice is at the end of the podcast version of this essay.
He was bawdy, yet gentle. He was casually racist about Japan, like so many in his generation, yet expansive towards anyone who took on Australian values. He did not suffer fools gladly, yet the twinkle in his eye showed that any censure was temporary.
My regret of course, was that he died when I was only 16. I remember starting to go to a few meetings with him (“Sit quietly”, I was told), but I think he was delighted I was inheriting the same values. He’d have been 86 if he’d been alive today. I think of all that life and advice he could have imparted to me if he’d still been here. His absence is still an ache in my heart. I miss him so.
His example gave me my enduring fascination in how the web of community we create around us, through service organisations, churches, sporting clubs, veterans groups, dramatic and creative societies, political parties and so on collectively defines the kind of civilisation we can be proud of. It doesn’t come from our governments or corporate goliaths. It comes from people like Harry. I’m a member of a few community organisations myself, and sometimes I’m among the youngest in attendance, at 36! I wonder how we can ensure community spirit does not pass from our society, and how we can foster it in a selfish and introverted generation.
When my son was born in 2002, it seemed fitting that I would somehow name him after my grandfather. So, my son’s middle name is “Henry”, and sometimes I call him Harry because it pleases me (and because it makes him think he’s Harry Potter!)
My mind is flooded with stories, and I wonder what to else share. There’s a lot of memories my mother, Helen has been fortunate enough to recount for a local oral history project and the text and audio are available at the Baulkham Hills Council historical website (here and here).
I’d like to think I carry the better part of who my grandfather was with me. If I'm lucky, I might even manage to pass it on to my son as well.
And in case you’re curious, yes; I do wear Old Spice after shave, and I’m proud of it.
I opened with Les Murray’s poem “The Last Hellos”, which he wrote about the death of his own father. He said,
“People can’t say goodbye any more.
They say last hellos.”
They say last hellos.”
That’s true, but
I like the last lines of that poem still better:
"Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God"