Australia: Part Two

Memories unfold episodically. We jumble them up, sorting them out of sequence, insisting that this happened before that when in truth it might have been the opposite.  We also never have the same memories as those of others with whom we may have shared the same experience.  I’m sure I remember Australia differently than my wife at the time did; or as my children, though young, recall their time Down Under.

It’s funny to me that so many of my vivid memories are of times at a zoo or wildlife refuge.  Maybe it’s because these memories are really of my boys, with the zoos as background. Once at the Sydney zoo we stood next to the Kookaburra exhibit and David, six or seven years old, spontaneously sang, “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree…”  It was a moment of pure uninhibited pleasure.  Another time while having our lunch seated at a picnic table in a wildlife preserve in Healesville, an Emu raced by, snatching a sandwich right from David’s hand.  He howled, not hurt but startled, even as we had a hard time controlling our laughter.


We often took the boys out with other school friend families.  One afternoon we went to the zoo in Melbourne with our Australian friends the Hollands.  Standing in front of a particularly hostile looking leopard, Mr. Holland—I wish I could remember his first name—broke into a dramatic recitation of all verses of “Little Black Sambo.”  And by and by he met a Tiger. And the Tiger said to him, “Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up!”

While today not politically correct, it nevertheless was innocent and charming and the boys loved it.

I remember watching the Fairy Penguins leap from the sea onto the beach at Phillip Island.  And stopping once to picnic under a grove of Stringy Bark Eucalyptus deep in the New South Wales outback, I crept way too close to a pair of four-foot goannas.  Later I learned they could be aggressive– and a goanna bite never heals.

[Memories of zoos jump out from our earlier times in Spain and Singapore, too.  We made a special visit to the Barcelona zoo to see Snowflake, the albino gorilla.  In Singapore the coolest place on the island—cool being relative—was at the zoo, where the chance of a breeze was slightly more likely than in the center of the city.  We often took the boys there as a refuge from the heat and humidity.  The two big attractions were sitting with Ah Meng, a docile Orangutan, and her baby, and being photographed with two gigantic pythons.  Not even a chance to earn a million dollars could have induced me to come within five feet of these monsters.  My wife on the other hand had no fear of snakes and happily posed with both pythons draped over her shoulders, holding a head in each hand.  Our boys squealed with a combination of fear and delight.  Afterwards, Evelyn said it was like holding two particularly heavy handbags.]

Eva Gardner once remarked how appropriate it was to film a story about the end of the world in Melbourne when shooting Neville Shute’s On the Beach.  Her quip was sarcastic, and not especially appropriate to Melbourne. But I felt the same way when I visited Perth, said to be the world’s most isolated “civilized” city.  It was a physical sensation of being very, very far away from anywhere else. Facing the Indian Ocean, looking away from the continent, I could have been on a habitable Mars.  I experienced the same sense of isolation and being alone in the red desert and ranges of Central Australia, where there was only barren, limitless, inhospitable landscape. I know that’s one reason why I became so attracted to Aboriginal painting—legends and histories interpreted through a geography of dots and lines and color and mystery.

There are simple memories, too, from those days: the young Czech couple who baked heavenly cookies and pastries from traditional homeland recipes in their Black Rock bakery; our neighbor’s mentally handicapped son jumping in happiness in front of our sidewalk gates; the old ladies in their white hats and cardigans playing bowls; the Leagues Clubs in every small town that invariably served Chinese food; hopelessly playing cricket on my company’s team.

There was the time when my wife called me at work to come immediately to the hospital because Sam had broken his leg on our backyard trampoline.  The circumstances of his fall were vague, but to this day David insists his mother blamed the break on him, even though we know he hadn’t.  A few days later we left on a beach vacation in Queensland and I can still see Sam sitting in his cast in the sand without a care or concern.  He’s been a happy child since birth.

One Christmas we invited our Swedish friends Margareta and Mats Ogren to have Christmas dinner at our house. Margareta arrived alone.  About a half hour later there was a knock on the door.  We sent David and Sam to open it and in stepped Mats dressed as Santa.  Our astonished boys only saw the “real” Santa and they held that belief for years afterwards—even when they were fearful of not believing.

[Years later we had another encounter with Santa. When Adam was five years old we visited a former college professor friend in Maine.  Our friend had recently married a German author who was jolly, red-cheeked and sported a large white beard.  We had never met him before.  When he walked into the room, Adam fell back spell-bound, and looking up at him, exclaimed, “Santa!”]

I can close my eyes and see the hideous beige and brown carpeting in our rented house, carpeting we attempted to cover completely with oriental rugs.  I see Sam dressed as Paddington Bear and David as Robin Hood for a Guy Fawkes costume party.  I see the possums lined up on the top of our garden walls.  I see golden haired David in his black and purple Haileybury school uniform.  I see the great procession of prize farm animals wearing their ribbons at the Melbourne Show.

Were I to return to Melbourne I wonder what memories would be offered up by the places I knew so well. Would visiting our house on Arkaringa Crescent yield happy or painful memories?  (There were, in fact, hurtful, painful times.) The city has changed a great deal since we lived there, maybe erasing images I have in my mind of what it was like.  After twenty years it couldn’t possibly be the same, though it feels like yesterday. I also know from another time in another city that memories evoked through the lens of an earlier experience can be as real, and in this case, hurtful, as when they were first lived in happiness.

I know my friends in Australia have remained a constant, even those I haven’t seen in all these years.  Janine Rogers, Tim and Andy Macdougal, our next-door neighbor’s son, for a while Cathy Conors, who disappeared after her second marriage.  Tim and Andy, together with their three children Cordelia, Venetia and Hugo, visited us in New York.  We had dinner all together at our favorite Spanish tapas restaurant in the East Village.  I remember their warm and generous hospitality back in Melbourne.  Sherri McIver and I maintain our friendship on daily Facebook posts. Janine remains a close and faithful friend to this day.  We share everything in our lives, some of which has been remarkably, and unfortunately, similar.   I wish I could see Janine in person.  I will someday.

Adam was born in Melbourne.  Moving back to the States when he was one year old, he of course has no memory of his birthplace. I see him in the nursery of Monash University Hospital, a serious baby, as he is today as a young man.  He has never been back to Australia. It’s been a dream to take him there and share the memories of what our lives had been like back when he was born.

Our years in Australia exist for me today as a giant parenthesis in my life.  Professionally it was a peaceful interlude between the disruption of Spain and Singapore and the pressures of New York.  Personally it was a time of discovery, family and friendship.  My memories of Australia are full of happiness. It’s such a saner culture than America’s.  I love the country and miss it today.

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1 Comment

  1. You are such a richly vivid and warm writer Niland… I love these stories of your past adventures

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