Death of a Salesman
Posted on November 22, 2015
This picture is of a house in a suburb of inner west Sydney, NSW, Australia, called Five Dock. The Wikipedia entry says Five Dock is about 10 ks from the centre of Sydney, which, weirdly, is the same distance my own suburb is from the centre of Vancouver. This is the house where my grandfather died on the 2nd April 1952. My father would have been around 91/2 years old. At death, my grandfather is listed as an “Advertising Manager”.
One of the things that is so frustating about going back into the past of an ordinary family is only having certificates and newspaper announcements to go by. We don’t have someone writing history books about us. Photos help, but none of it can really tell you what it was like to be there that day in 1952, tell you how they spoke to each other, what she said, what he said. They must have known he was slowly dying. He hadn’t been allowed to go to war because of his ‘weak heart’. I don’t know how long he was gradually failing, or what words were said between them. Dying at home speaks of a different time. I know that the kids weren’t involved, didn’t really know. That too, speaks of different time – of sending children away, keeping them safe from reality.
What I can piece together – imagine – is the Five Dock of that time and get hints as to who they were. That’s how I try and figure it out, by seeing what was around them and what choice were made and making inferences from those. Here’s what I can figure: even though he was a man in management, they chose to live in a distinctly working-class suburb. This is post-war Sydney, and thousands of immigrants were arriving from war-destroyed Europe: Italians, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Germans, to fill an Australia desperate for labour. Many Italians had settled in Five Dock, which meant they would have been surrounded by a distinctly Italian, Catholic presence, very different to New Zealand. Weirdly, I live in a very similar neighbourhood now in Vancouver. Five Dock is to me a very telling choice. It speaks of people who aren’t really interested in climbling a social ladder, who choose to be with other unpretentious people. However, there was another decision they made that seemed to be at odds with this: they chose to send their son to a private, Anglican day school: Trinity grammar. Perhaps they were not so sanguine about the public schools in Five Dock, and wanted to make sure their children stayed in touch with their Anglican roots.
Back to that day. April is a cooler month. It’s Autumn. The worst of the summer humidity has passed, and those trees that feel it start to lose their leaves. From what I remember of Sydney it’s not particularly green, and I imagine after the summer the lawns would have been parched and brown. The heat radiates off the concrete and the brown brick houses, but luckily, the house was close enough to the water that it would have caught sea breezes from the harbour. I imagine the windows open the day he died, allowing that breeze in.
That he died in NSW, Australia somehow completes a circle, because Australia was the first place his family emigrated to and where his older sister was born. More on that later.
The big question this death leaves with me now is what effect it had on my father, that 9 and a half year old boy. Very soon after my grandfather died the whole family returned to New Zealand, to the matriarchal and dysfunctional family headed up by my great grandmother. This marriage had been my grandmother’s attempt to escape, marrying into a more sane family, leaving the past behind, but now she was forced to return home, taking her two children with her. It was to change the trajectory of all their lives for the worse.
We know now trauma can effect the way brains develop, the way genes express. As an adult my father has struggled with mental illness and abusive behaviour. Of course there is no way to know for sure, but I wonder if this event was part of the catalyst for what came later.