Love bridges the past and present for Vin Maskell.
I am standing on my father’s bridge with my daughter and her two young children. The suspension bridge is 10 metres wide, a crossing for a small murky creek. Rarely flowing, the creek is no pristine babbling brook. But it is the creek I have known since I was a teenager in the 1970s, when my parents built a beach shack here, among the trees and the birds, the echidnas and the kangaroos.
On the western side of the bridge is a redgum plaque that bears my father’s name. The plaque and the bridge have been here for 20 years.
My daughter Hannah and I take six-year-old Olive and three-year-old Jethro across their great-grandfather’s bridge and along the soft banks of the creek. No snakes in winter. We bend under branches and wend our way until we cross the main road. No traffic at this time of year. A sandy track takes us to the beach, where the low-tide sand and long wide waves open their arms to us.
Twenty-five years ago my father played with Hannah on this beach, with a kite, bucket and spade, and what Hannah called “the lellow sand”. It was a windy day and because some toddlers cannot resist the call of the water, we flew Hannah’s wet clothes up the string of our kite.
Wrapped in her grandfather’s brown jacket, she listened to Dad’s impromptu elocution lesson. “Say ‘yacht’,” said Dad, kneeling on one knee to be at Hannah’s eye level.
Father and son smiled, exchanging raised eyebrows in bemusement.
We reeled in the kite, dressed Hannah and walked back to the beach house, crossing the busy road.
February 1983. I am standing on my parents’ block of land. There are no birds. No animals. The hills are grey and bare, save for the naked, blackened trees. There is no house. The Ash Wednesday bushfires roared through on a tide of blazing heat.
Hardly a week later my father is digging new post holes for a new house.
Hannah and I sit on a dune watching her children. Sandcastles at first. Buildings so to speak. Then they write their names, one or two letters back-to-front. Olive draws whales. Jethro, rockets. They are not tempted by the water but I’ve brought a towel just in case. We have no kite.
Hannah was 10 years old when Dad died. She and her two younger brothers called him Pop.
We head back to the house via the bridge. I start sawing firewood with my father’s orange bowsaw.
“Can we help, Poppa?” asks Olive.
They take turns to hold onto one end of the bowsaw, while I cut a groove and create a rhythm. Together we feel our way into the wood, the saw crossing between us, back and forth, back and forth.
We are only cutting sticks into kindling but I tell the children it’s firewood and they proudly carry their little bundles up to the porch. That evening the fire blazes while they watch Kung Fu Panda.
My father was an only child. My mother was one of eight. Together they raised six children, and endured two miscarriages.
They retired to the beach house and found a family there for their final years – neighbours, beach walkers, golfers and churchgoers.
For decade upon decade the only way to cross the creek was via the main road. The Great Ocean Road can be a never-ending stream of vehicles in summer. So the locals campaigned and eventually a footbridge was to be built a few hundred metres upstream from the beach, from the mouth of the creek.
Dad died suddenly, just weeks before the bridge was completed. It was serendipity that the Moggs Creek footbridge was just about to be named. If another local had died around that time, their name may well have been on the redgum plaque.
On a drizzly August afternoon in 2000, my young family and my siblings attended the official opening of the bridge, including the unveiling of the plaque.
All fathers – and mothers – are bridges of a sort. What is parenting if it is not a series of steps, of crossings, of paths? Of showing the way? Of going back and forth until the firewood is cut, until “lellow” becomes “yellow”, until letters are not written back-to-front? We cross bridges every day, one way or another.
What is childhood if it is not a river – or a murky creek – leading to the sea?
I am standing on my father’s bridge – my parents’ bridge, ultimately – suspended between water and sky, between the earth and the heavens.
This piece was first published in ed#619.