Every year of my life, when December turns to January, I have had a birthday. Fifty nine of them so far. I have clear memories of only a handful. As I approach my 60th, three of them come to mind.
New Years Day 1964 I turned ten. That’s the first one I remember distinctly. Summer. Blue sky over a shallow sandy lagoon. Light breeze rolling over surface ripples. Two colourful sails in the middle distance, going nowhere fast. Wonderfully warm January water around my ankles and thick white zinc cream on my nose to stop sun burn. Shoulders and back never got the same treatment. Little wonder blisters and peeling skin are also childhood memories.
I have no idea why that image has returned so many times since. Still less do I know why I marked the day in memory. But it has, and I did. I can’t take you to the exact spot on the map. I haven’t ever been back there as far as I know. Just the place name stays: “Bargara”.
New Years Day 1966 saw an awkward twelve year old peering out of the family tent into the rain. We had pitched our holiday tent in the grounds of the Laguna Guest House in Hastings Street at Noosa Heads. It was an old victorian timber multi storey (three I think) building probably built at the end of the nineteenth century and showing every bit of its age. It had seen its last guests and was closed, waiting for demolition. Dad presumably knew the owners. He was like that. Always knew someone who owed him a favour.
The sadness of this grand old building made a lasting impression on me. Generations of holiday makers and their noises, their fun, their sandy feet, towells, buckets and spades had been and gone. They would never be back. The building sat quietly resigned, waiting for destruction. Along with it an age of memories ready to disappear. Walking along creaky verandahs, peering into empty guest rooms and climbing worn stairs I remember a certain melancholy. Once lost, this place and the life it held would always be out of reach, and I hoped someone would save it. Even then I knew there were things beyond the power of a twelve year old.
The sight of the old guest house in the rain has stayed with me, as has the slight shiver I felt as the tent canvas flapped in the wind, and the conviction that this was my birthday and that I would always remember it. Strange child? Maybe.
New Years Day 1969. Fifteen years old and about to receive the greatest shock of my life.
My parents had finally separated and divorced two years previously. I don’t suppose I was the first child to deal with such a thing by not dealing with it. My response was to withdraw into myself and live as though nothing had happened. The shame was real but it was to be a meal for one. It was not to be shared. I would ignore my father and pretend that he did not exist, as he seemed at the time to be the cause of all the dangerous emotions that threatened me. How time brings understanding and forgiveness! But that is very much another story.
So my younger self hid in school work as that was safe and predictable. I needed to cling to respectability and safety and I wanted people to value me. I sought these things at school, in academic achievement, and in this, I was successful – sort of, in a limited, dysfunctional nerdy sort of way.
Mediocre school results turned into very good results in 1968 and the way ahead was clear. I would claw my way out of this mess, as I saw it, through educational achievement. Well, you and I can see clearly that this was not a recipe for anything worth very much, but to me then it was my lifeline. So it was a hammer blow to learn in the first week of 1969 that there was no money for me to stay in school and that I would have to find a full time job, having just turned 15.
I began work at the local newspaper, setting metal type for the morning editions, starting at 5pm each day and finishing at 2am the following morning. Picture an immature and fairly innocent teenager with shattered dreams of academic respectability in the midst of a foul mouthed, dirty, noisy and dangerous working environment and you may get a glimpse of how quickly I needed to grow up. No role models that I wanted to follow. No friends to speak of. I resented and envied friends still at school, but that was now another world and I was no longer part of it.
If I needed to nominate a shaping experience in my life that would be it. There is now no longer any pain or grief but there was plenty in the years that followed; shared with no one; admitted only to myself.
Finding myself contemplating a 60th birthday now I realise I have been richly blessed in my life. I have experienced forgiveness, grace and love. None of these were merited. All were gift. If I think anything at all now of those far off years I am saddened that I felt such shame for something that was not caused by me and in fact had nothing to do with me. I feel such sadness at the number of people I kept at bay, at a safe distance. I shake my head at the opportunities lost to live life fully, because I was too concerned at the ‘injustice’ done to me.
I don’t have any idea what this coming New Year will bring, apart from a 60th birthday. Whatever, I am comfortable with it. The young boy I have written about is gone, but I read somewhere that the boy is father of the man. Perhaps so.
Love and acceptance. More precious than worldly possessions or wisdom, but thankfully I have even been blessed with a very small amount of these too! As one begins one’s seventh decade what more could one ask for?