Finding My Parents in the Signalman’s House
Flicking through the pages of the Visitors Book
in the Signalman’s house I come across
my mother and father, their handwriting
bright and clear as if they had just signed
and left the house moments before.
I long to run after them, call out, ‘Wait
Dad, did you know your surname
should have been Cass not Brown?
Would that have made a difference
in your life? Gifted you ambition?
And, ‘Mum, the story you told me
about your grandmother moving
from Auckland to Melbourne
to avoid her brother, who told you that?
Why is it only I was told?’
Last time I was here to write the recent past,
the vital moments of travel, this time
I have stepped out of my life down south,
to trace the story of the women before me,
a slow picking through lists and dates.
Is that Mary Ann, my great grandmother?
Is George Poate, the seaman, her brother
or is it George Poate, the petty criminal,
a long list of charges: receiving, poaching,
and too often in jail to sail to New Zealand?
Mary Ann, why don’t you enter the room
so I can interrogate you for myself?
Did you ever come over on the ferry for the day?
Bring my grandmother, youngest of six?
Or were you too busy for such frivolity?
I trace my fingers over Dad’s signature, notice
the handwriting is a little shaky. 89, 14 years ago
he wrote, ‘seeing this house brought many
memories of years gone by.’ Ten in 1926,
he sold ice-creams at the Cheltenham kiosk.
Their wedding day photograph taken down
at the beach, their favourite for family day trips
on the ferry. More snaps, Mum in modest black togs,
watching over us swimming, later spreading
calamine ointment over our sunburnt backs.
‘A happy day,’ Mum wrote. A woman of few
words which is why I took note of her stories,
why I am here now in the studio, looking out
at the bridge we walked over the day it opened.
Dad, knowing my fear of heights held my hand.
They live on in you, people say, in memories,
photographs, artefacts, hasty scrawls on a page.
Tonight, the bridge is lit up as if in celebration.
I think of their hands, the safety to be found in Mum’s
earth-stained gardener’s and Dad’s carpenter’s callouses.