I was a little scared of him as a child. Dad was quite an imposing-looking fellow. He looked like he’d stepped straight out of Victorian England – a big white beard like something from the Royal College of Scientists. He is sort of an intellectual, a music-lover and a big thinker, so, for me, he is almost a heroic figure.
His name is Mike but sometimes it’s Michael, like when mum is angry at him about something. Both my parents are from Canada, but we wound up in Australia because dad is a geologist and there was plenty of work.
His specialty is mining geology, so he came here to teach university students about ore extraction and opencast mining and geotechnical-foundation-boring, which he will tell you is anything BUT boring.
My dad is an obsessive traveller and so the whole family were lucky enough to travel the world several times over – usually to look at rocks. Dad has the most incredible slide collection. He took thousands of photos – mostly of rock.
He used us for scale. That’s the photographic documentation of my childhood. An incredible boulder somewhere in Cambodia or Sri Lanka, with me and my sister standing way off to one side of it, almost out of the shot. And the boulder is the only thing in focus.
When he was with us, he was incredible. He was a natural storyteller – still is. Whenever we were travelling, or on a camping trip, he would tell us an improvised story every night, using the events of the day as a starting point.
I often felt he missed his calling. He would have been an incredible writer or a kids’ entertainer. He has this effortless ability that I envy – this way of entertaining a room. And he can be hilariously funny. Often unintentionally. Just to look at him, you have to laugh.
When we were kids, he filled us with the raw material that sort of shot us off in our different directions. We have all chosen careers that in some way reflect stuff he is interested in. My sister and brother have jobs that involve a lot of travelling. My other sister works in the movie business. I’m a writer. We have all been inspired by dad in some way.
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We don’t actually know how dad survived as such an independent traveller all those years. Mum’s theory was that he was a spy – she really did think that.
What’s beautiful now is that the relationship between them has changed and he has definitely softened as he’s gotten older. Now they hold hands. He buys her presents and there is definitely a new, sweeter dad, a more romantic dad.
He will go with her to shows or movies that he doesn’t really want to go to, you know, which is really nice.
Now, I believe, dad and I have reached a sort of relationship where we just goof around. It’s always fun. I can’t talk to him about heavy stuff – I go to mum if there are personal problems or parenting questions or whatever. Nine-and-a-half minutes is all my dad and I need for a catch-up chat. He’ll say, ‘how’s the car running?’ I’ll say, ‘yeah, not bad, the car’s good.’
Then he’ll ask what I’ve been up to, and I’ll ask what he’s been up to. Then we’ll eat pistachios and throw the shells into the garden. Then he’ll stand up and say, ‘better check what your mother’s doing.’ That’s it. We’re done. You never go to him for deep and meaningful.
But I guess I am not scared of dad anymore, though I still want to impress him. He is – and always will be – a god-like figure to me. He’s lived a big life.
He managed to escape his working-class upbringing and get a university education – unheard of in his family. And then escape Canada and see the world, which was also unheard of. I admire that. He always did what he wanted.
- DANNY KATZ \ is a columnist for Good Weekend magazine.
- This is an edited extract from Things My Father Taught Me, by Claire Halliday (Echo, $29.99).