MEMOIR: WHEN MUM MET DAD
It was the early 1960s, and Ken was a young man with tall dark and handsome movie star looks. He was up on the balcony at Perth’s classy Embassy Ballroom. He came here Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, every chance he got, for years. It was one of his favourite haunts, and he was well liked, cutting a handsome figure in a decent suit.
And on this one particular night he happened to glance down into the milling crowd below, where coloured light from a rotating mirror-ball spun stars around the room, and happened to catch one young woman’s hair at just the right moment, the fateful moment, and he saw a vision splendid.
He was breathless. He had never seen such beautiful hair, so pale, so luminous, a cloud of glowing light. He had to meet this girl, because he knew in that moment that he would marry her.
Marie was a sensible, well-brought-up young woman from a broken home who in addition to the social stigma associated with having divorced parents, she also had to live with the genetic disorder of albinism. The luminous cloud of pale hair that Ken had seen was Marie’s albino hair which had so little blonde pigment it was nearly white, and very fine. That night she may have had a mauve tint through it. But she was there at the only place in Perth known to be safe for young women. And if there was one thing she loved it was ballroom dancing and the Embassy Ballroom, in the very early 1960s, was the place to be. It was glamorous, stylish, exciting, and the best night out in Perth.
The Embassy had a capacity for perhaps as many as a thousand people, but never felt stuffy or hot because of ingeniously designed ventilation systems. Two live bands in different areas of the Embassy handled the tunes–one providing the latest “rock ‘n’ roll” while the other played all the classic ballroom dancing songs.
The night Dad and Mum met, according to their recollection, Dad wore dark trousers and a reefer jacket, and Mum was in a white blouse and a brightly coloured circle skirt with layers of petticoats. She looked lovely.
Marie lived in Fremantle in a huge, breathing, rambling red-brick pile of a house similar to the sort of place made famous in Tim Winton’s CLOUDSTREET. All the rooms seemed to have room for entire smaller houses to be hidden inside them. You could wear yourself out walking across the dining room. Marie had lived there for years, raised by her grandmother, a stern but loving matriarch from whom Marie learned many important lessons, especially about the importance of forebearance and persistence.
Ken at the time was a recently divorced, ex-army (dishonourably discharged) guy who was at the time working as a cocktail waiter in Perth’s Savoy Hotel. This was a temporary, passing thing. His work history before and after this all revolved around machines and engines in different ways. When he applied for his first job fixing outboard boat motors, having never seen one before, they showed him a workbench with a completely stripped motor, pulled into individual pieces, some 300 of them. They also provided a workshop manual, and all the tools he might need. “Fix this and you’re hired,” they said. It took him three days, but he did it and got the job.
The night Ken spotted Marie’s luminous hair down on the dance floor, and swore that he would marry her, Mum had already seen him around the place, in the company of a redhead woman named Mary who was wearing a red dress. Mum, even today, decades later, took a dim view of redheaded women wearing red. Especially that one, who seemed to have “gobbled up” Ken, as far as Mum’s weak albino eyes could tell. That woman seemed very confident, Marie thought, and even though Ken was very nice, polite and charming, Marie looked at him a little askance, believing he was taken.
But he wasn’t. Redheaded Mary might have been quite serious about him, but he was not serious about her. She was, he says, a mate, a pal. Ken was determined to marry Marie.
But Marie’s family suffered a great loss. Marie’s grandmother’s husband, Jack, suddenly passed away at work. Marie had spent a lot of her life growing up in this huge, baggy old house surrounded by older relatives, but over time they’d all left, leaving just Grandma, Jack, and Marie in a house much too large for them. And now it was even bigger, the rooms like furnished hangars with bric-a-brac and doilies.
Marie’s grandmother, an extraordinary woman in her own right, fell ill. Her heart was weak. Marie stayed home on her former dancing nights for three weeks to look after her grandmother, who knew her granddaughter was giving up something she loved. So she told Marie on the third Friday night to go dancing, but perhaps just come home a bit early. She, Grandma, would be fine.
Reluctantly, guiltily, Marie went.
Ken had been searching for her, this living vision like no other woman he’d seen. And when Marie arrived, the first person she saw at the entrance was Ken. They spent some time that evening. A mutual friend confided to dubious Marie that Ken was a great guy, and that he wasn’t involved with the redhead, who, Marie learned to her great surprise, had gone to Melbourne. This all made Mum lowe her suspicions somewhat. Even today, in her 70s, she is inclined to be suspicious of people she doesn’t know well, expecting the worst from them.
Despite Mum’s suspicions, and a droll misunderstanding involving a pair of Dad’s binoculars, he took her home to Fremantle that night, and was a perfect gentleman. Mum allowed that he might have been a decent young man. Over time, they went out a bit more, and a bit more. At some point Dad swapped his Morris Minor car for something like a Vespa or Lambretta motor scooter. There are family legends of Mum and Dad puttering around Fremantle and elsewhere in freezing weather, with Mum (pregnant with yours truly) riding on the back, wrapped in a blanket, helmet on skew-whiff, stopping at a burger joint in North Fremantle for snacks, and much else.
Dad has never once, not ever, given Mum a hard time about her albinism. I’ve always loved that about him. Mum’s eyes, a very rare pair of blue eyes (most people with albinism have colourless or pinkish eyes), wobble all the time, so that she finds it very hard to focus on anything. She’s legally blind. Her skin is exceptionally dry, and prone to skin cancers that are forever cropping up, sort of like pimples, only they have to burned off or cut out every few months. Her skin is also white like ghosts. No amount of sunlight is safe for her. Her condition also makes her allergic to summer heat.
Then there’s Dad’s troubles. He knew what he was getting with Mum because her problems are all very visible. But Dad “doesn’t look sick”. He tells me the first he knew something might be wrong was when he was 18 and his dad took him to a psychiatrist. He remembers little of the experience, other than that he was given an injection of something. It would have been the mid-1950s, so it’s very unlikely it would have been anything helpful or useful.
Dad’s troubles did not become serious problems until he was doing his national service in the army in the eastern states. By this point he was married (not to my mum; this was someone else) and at some point it collapsed and they divorced.
Dad was so distraught he attempted to take his life. I asked him about this. Was it “cry for help” or “actual suicide”? It was a large quantity of Librium, too, and it was definitely the latter. He was devastated. In time this led to the dishonourable discharge. Between his divorce and this discharge he must have felt dreadful.
But things had cleared up by the time he was back in Perth, and was working at the Savoy Hotel as the cocktail waiter. Mum never found out about Dad’s psychiatric past until ten months into their marriage when dad fell ill again, which is to say some form of breakdown. This is the early-to-mid 1960s. Treatment options at the time were not great. The only things available were very blunt instruments, and often as bad as the condition they were treating.
Dad spent years, from when I was little until I was 16 and went into D20, living like this. He struggled to hold jobs. It was hard. He had a great mind for the work he was good at. But the pressure of being the breadwinner, of fatherhood, of bringing in money, felt like it was killing him. He was often spirited away in the dead of night to places like the mysterious Graylands Hospital, and might be gone two days or two weeks or longer. I was never allowed to visit. It was considered a very hardcore place. When Dad came home again, looking harrowed, he told stories of the sort you can’t bear to hear.
It wasn’t until I was in D20 before Dad, and I, were both put on Lithium Carbonate, a metal salt. It changed our lives, though it took a long time to adjust. It was also a very blunt weapon–but it was a weapon. It was more than a stick or a club. It had a couple of rusty nails in the end. It did the job. Darkness and mist that had been with us so long it had begun to solidify around us started to melt away.
It saved us both.
But it nearly killed Mum. She had a heart attack around the same time I was being put on Lithium. Dad was in Graylands, and I was in D20. Then one morning a male nurse found me in the Art Therapy Room, one of my main haunts, and gently, as if defusing a bomb, explained about my mum being over in Accident and Emergency, and whether or not I’d be allowed to see her.
Mum, who has her own psychiatric history, had been holding Dad and me together all these years. Part of that was keeping me from fully understanding what was up with Dad. She was often pulled two ways at once. Sick Adrian was extremely reactive with Sick Dad. The two did not get on, not one bit. There was yelling, door-slamming, and suspicion.
Dad, now, when I visit, says he has no recollection of any of it. He thinks we’ve always gotten along as we get along now, which is great! For my part, I can’t believe how well we get along now, considering the past, and the potential for grudges. But there’s no point having a grudge against someone who doesn’t remember why you’re pissed off. Now he’s just a nice old man with way too many medical complaints (tonight it was tingles in his legs), and too much medication.
But Mum remembers all of it (just as she remembers how she felt when Dad came unglued on her just ten months into their marriage and he hadn’t told her about what happened to him in the army). When I’ve told Dad what it used to be like, she backs me up, which is good. It’s miraculous that we’ve turned out so well, that it’s come to this point. Neither Mum nor me expected Dad to last this long. He smoked until he was 45, but managed with Mum’s help to gradually quit, and never went back. He still, at 81, carries permanent lung damage and COPD, emphysema. He gets winded easily. We never thought he’d make it to this age. Now he says he’s going to live til he’s 90, and who can say he won’t?
I doubt they would say they are happy together, but I believe they would agree that they are content and peaceful. They and their many and various illnesses and conditions are great companions. Mum is still the boss, and is still keeping an eye on Dad, to keep him out of trouble (just as she still watches over me, whether I like it or not). One of Dad’s hardest adjustments is the gradual reduction in the range of physical handyman-type jobs he can do around the house. He always used to love being able to fix and maintain things. Never comfortable telling you he loved you, he was the sort of Australian male who showed you how much by cleaning your gutters. His long losing battle with time and entropy has been terrible to watch. Now it’s a lot for him to make me an instant coffee. I love his instant coffee.
Mum and Dad still have a framed head and shoulders photo of the two of them dating from the Embassy Ballroom years when they went there. I see it every time I visit, and it is striking how Dad could have been a matinee idol, and Mum could have been a wobbly-eyed platinum-blonde bombshell, if only she hadn’t been quite so self-effacing, modest–and suspicious!