Finding My Parents in the Signalman’s House

Finding My Parents in the Signalman’s House

Flicking through the pages of the Visitors Book

Diane Brown Writer-in-Residence 2005, 2019

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.


Diane Brown