Old men and trees

The other night at twilight after I’d taken the dogs on their second walk for the day – my job in the absence of my daughter and her boyfriend who were away on holidays up north – I decided to clean out the pond.

It’s a round pond, bricked around its perimeter with a deep fibreglass basin that acts to hold the water. A terracotta gargoyle watches over.

The water in the pond reaches knee height when full and we top it up only occasionally, relying on rain water to keep it healthy. But with the recent absence of rain over several months the water level reached the half way mark and the pond was joked with weeds, so I decided to cull them. 

At their best water weeds look lovely, deep green leaves and buttercup yellow flowers that open all summer long beginning in spring. 

By the beginning of autumn though only the sodden leaves remain, and the pond becomes a breeding ground for mosquitos because although it’s fitted with a pump and fountain to keep the water flowing, the pump tends to choke with mud and leaves which cause an electricity shortage that cuts out the whole system. 

So, we stopped using the pump. Hence the still water and mosquitos. 

On this particular evening,  I put on my daughter’s gum boots, the ones she bought for her student stay in Edinburgh, knee high and fleece lined. I waded in.

The weeds were heavy as sacks of flour especially as they were tangled together in great knotted clumps.  I used secateurs to cut them down to size then threw them all over the garden. 

‘Good mulch,’ my husband said from the back door. 

I’d almost dragged out the last of the weeds when I thought to use a hose to drain off the excess water but again my husband advised I’d be having to get the water to run upstream. 

Impossible. 

No, I’d need to bucket out the water, which I proceeded to do. 

When the water was at hand height, I collected another bucketful and threw it over a flowering gum nearby. 

That’s when I heard a thrashing in the leaves behind me and imagined it was one of the dogs but when I looked around there was no dog and the thrashing over the dried autumn leaves grew louder.

In the growing dark, I could make out the outline of gold fish, huge by gold fish standards and I apologised to it profusely for upsetting its home. I managed to grab the slippery beast and threw it back in. 

A grandfather of a goldfish. 

I stopped bucketing out water. 

The next day in daylight, I decided I’d locate this fish in the last of the muddy water and rehouse it in the front pond. I’d refilled the front pond weeks earlier, so there was water aplenty there. 

The point of this story? 

I had no idea we had any fish left in our back pond. I figured they’d died long ago and even more so with the water levels dropping. What space could there be left in the pond choked by weeds?

But there it was.  The grandfather gold fish. Alive and well. 

This discovery reminded me of a time twenty-five years ago when I was hoping to fall pregnant following a miscarriage in the spring of 1992.

The year before we had cleaned out the pond and loaded it with fish. 

I checked every day and over time the fish babies appeared and the sight of them gave me hope.

My last daughter is the result of that hope. 

By contrast, I’m battling a sense of hopelessness this morning after the federal election results last night, which means we will have another term of a conservative government, one which still promotes the use of coal even in the face of climate change threats.

I fear for the future of my children and their children.

All we can do is keep up the fight against the narrowness of self-interested mindlessness that refuses to acknowledge the need to change our excessive impact on the environment. 

We must not give up, grandfather fish and babies as well.

It puts me in mind of something I read recently:

A creative society is one in which old men plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.

Watch your words, and your jokes

Auntie Sylvie is buried in the Kew cemetery, that place with thick red brick walls along High Street in Kew.

I didn’t know her well. She was on my husband’s side, and developed cancer around the time my second child was born.

They buried her soon after she had visited me in the maternity ward.

I took my new baby to her funeral and mingled with my husband’s cousins at the wake. Thereafter I saw none of them again.

It happens in large families, with relatives far flung. But I remember Auntie Sylvie as the one person I know who lies buried in the Kew Cemetery. 

The other day as I drove past this cemetery with my grandsons in the car, the older one mentioned his granddad’s ‘fantastic’ joke.

 ‘People are dying to get in there,’ my grandson said and pointed to the gravestones visible from the side street.

He thought the joke hilarious, but his younger brother needed help in understanding the play on words for ‘dying’.

I groaned inwardly. The first time I heard this joke I thought it funny, but I’ve heard it too many times since, to enjoy it. 

This sets me thinking about comedy, not only about those ‘Dad jokes’ that set most people’s teeth on edge. Certainly their father’s jokes have lost their appeal to our daughters and to me but sometimes he still manages to come out with something that has all the freshness and vitality of a good joke. 

Nothing like Hannah Gadsby’s jokes though.

Even so, I must concede, compared to my husband who has a sense of humour which he likes to share with people, an often dry sense of humour that relies on wordplay, puns or practical jokes, Hannah Gadsby is a professional comedian.

It’s her job to make people laugh. But these days ever since her one person show Nannete she has morphed into a story teller who can not only make you laugh but also make you cry. 

I’ve been trying to understand the difference.

Gadsby talks about comedy far more eloquently, when she tells her audience about the nature of a joke, the set up and then the punch line. Whereas a story has a beginning middle and end, there needs be no punch lines but there needs to be something happening to turn it from an anecdote into a story, one that bears repeating.

Something to drag it up from the weight of the everyday into something more meaningful, that rescues the story out from solipsism into something universal, with which others might reverberate. 

When Hanhah Gadsby describes herself as ‘a little bit lesbian’ she’s taking the mickey out of herself but also having a joke at our expense. The way we want to classify people into neat categories that pigeon hole us all into absolutes. 

When my husband joked last night to our daughter who was about to go into town for an evening with friends, ‘Beware of African gangs,’ we both knew he was trying to have a go at the government and media for stereotyping certain people who are deemed foreign and therefore dangerous.

He does not believe his daughter should be wary of such people. Still his joke nudges too closely towards racism. 

I cringed but didn’t bother to pull him up on it at that moment.

These days we’re forever dragging my husband back into a world where so many ideas about what’s okay and what’s not okay have changed, and this includes all racist, sexist and misogynistic talk.

It’s not easy for him, born in the late forties and a creature of his times.

Some of the things my husband said to me when we were young about women who had not yet formed a relationship, trouble me deeply now but at the time, I saw them as the norm.

He wasn’t the only one. A compliment to a woman: ‘She’s a real spunk bucket’. For those not in the know, ‘spunk’ is another word for sperm.

In the seventies and eighties, we used such expressions blithely. 

‘She’s as dry as a nun’s nasty,’ another commonplace statement. I thought it okay at the time though now it turns my stomach.

The prejudice against women who have chosen not to behave in hetero-sexual ways for complicated reasons that are unfathomable to your average so-called red-blooded man. 

I’m relieved to be alive at this time, as challenging as it might be.

I’m relieved that I’m not yet buried in the Kew cemetery like Auntie Sylvie and can join with others who question the language of years past, the language that objectifies women.

Language that also puts some men into positions that are also uncomfortable for those who are sensitive and might prefer not to engage in this misogynistic caper where men and women are classified into two separate categories that warrant different treatment, unbalanced treatment instead of recognising we’re all people, irrespective of our foibles, our gender, our bodies.

We all deserve one another’s respect, to give and to receive. 

Including Auntie Sylvie, even after she’s dead and gone.