For nearly every year of his life my Grandfather held a secret in his heart. It was only accidentally revealed shortly before he died....
Funerals are a ritual I could do without.
It was May 1986 and my grandfather was about to leave us. He was 79. With an aunt and some others we had one last look at him before his coffin closed. He was resting peacefully. Asleep. We remembered a grandad who seemed larger than life; one half of a partnership with a unique woman, my grandmother Flo. They had a special way, an order, little traditions for showing their love, to themselves, and to their family. But they shared a secret about my Grandfather that was only revealed shortly before both died.
The secret had its origins in the country town where our family's seeds were first sown. Grandad and Gran were born in Mitchell, a nondescript knot on the Warrego Highway six-hour’s drive west of Brisbane. Jack and Flo Callow were dinky di country folk who lived from cradle to grave within sight of the tall gums shading the nearby Maranoa River. Granny was from Irish catholic stock that had settled in the Maranoa district in the late 19th century. Grandad told us his father’s line was of French descent, while his mother came from the Jersey Islands. Grandad had two brothers, Uncle Bill and Uncle Harold.
Grandad and Gran were married on 7 October 1929. Grandad was a late convert, only becoming a catholic at the time of the marriage. It was an uncertain time. Wall Street crashed that month, launching the Great Depression. It was not a time for keeping all one's eggs in one's basket and jack of all trades Grandad was a carpenter, painter, shoe repairer, bee keeper, gardener, keen local fisherman and football coach. He was also Mitchell's undertaker for 37 years.
As for Gran she was busy with church and school and was a cleaner at the nearby convent. CWA and Red Cross volunteer, she would always have breakfast waiting for the nuns when they returned from holidays on the “mail train”. The most social of people, Jack and Flo liked holding parties. Grandad often left early for bed but Gran only departed when the last guest had gone. At Grandad’s well-attended funeral sadness and shock were chiselled on her face. Yet she apologised to me for not getting around to chat. That was grandfather's partner of 56 years. Our Gran.
Think of Ma and Pa Kettle from those old movies and you had some idea of Jack and Flo. My grandparents were roses in an old fashioned bouquet before “I Am Woman” and the sexual revolution torched Australia’s social energies in the 1960s. Grandad lived Victor Hugo's wisdom that “a compliment was like a kiss through a veil”. He also never missed a pot of tea for Gran first thing in the morning. Their love nurtured a family tree of 10 children, 37 grandchildren, and 27 great children with themselves and Mitchell at the core.
And what a core! Their home was a cradle for our childhood memories. Grandad playing his piano accordion was an important ritual. Before bed, bathed, powdered and in pyjamas, we would sit at his feet like sweet smelling young puppies. Quiet time with Grandad was the perfect tonic for heavy little eyes seeking sleep and other worldly needs.
Our spiritual needs were attended to next day. Sundays were for church and family. After finishing with Father Moran at St Columba's, the children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts and others gathered at Jack and Flo's for morning tea and Grandad’s pastry creation, "puftaloons". Those days were special; the memories like gossamer. We, the Grandchildren, were innocents enjoying our rites of passage to a more complex and harder world. We were growing up in the most glorious spring; a Kinder Garden of Eden where we had time to smell the flowers along the way.
But then the spell was broken. My cousin Jan was researching the family history in the early1980s when she discovered that the people Grandad claimed were his parents were actually his grandparents. They had raised him since his birth, out of wedlock, to their 18 year-old eldest daughter Amy. To honour a promise to his natural mother, for over 70 years Jack had hidden his true origins from nearly all his family. There was more. "Brothers" Bill and Harold, we learnt, were not his brothers. They were his uncles - Amy’s brothers - who shared the secret and took it to their graves. For post-Victorian Mitchell, this great vault for our family's genes, a birth outside marriage was a birth masked in shadows. Alongside father's name in Grandad's birth certificate there is simply a blank space: genetic code written in invisible ink.
But what for us was a blank space must have been an aching silence for my grandfather. In time we learnt that his father was John Scanlan, a shearer aged 29. The birth certificate had listed Grandad’s full name as John Scanlan Callow, a connection with his father that was now clear. We do not know for sure how much contact Grandad had with John and Amy after his birth. The latter were not allowed to marry, as Amy’s family was not catholic. We know that both married new partners and began to raise large families soon after Grandad’s birth. John died in Pittsworth, Queensland, aged 54. Amy died in Mitchell on 6 July 1970. She was 82.
With the secret revealed, Mt Vesuvius erupted beneath the family tree. Kinship ties, usually solid, were thrown helter skelter and that tree sprouted some unusual and belated branches. The family Who's Who had to be rewritten. Uncles were now great uncles, grandparents were great grandparents and peripheral players in this family drama became lead actors. Tears, driven by confusion and emotion, were common and for grandfather, especially, the cuts must have run deep.
But if there was malice to shroud the scars it was not evident. Grandad and Gran remained the ideal grandparents, dispensing love easily and often. When they finally departed we felt empty, for our great moral compass had been taken from us. Grandad went first from a heart attack, with Gran following six months later in November 1986. The doctor said Gran died of various ailments but the priest, the real expert, said a broken heart was the cause. Often she sought to talk to Grandad before realising he was no longer by her side. The smile, the glance, the tender words with one's partner - little habits we often take for granted. They were now lost to Gran.
What Flo had lost we had gained. In the end my grandparents taught us how to love your partner, your child, your grandchild and your family. They would have agreed with actor Peter Ustinov’s description of love as an “act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit”. Jack and Flo certainly had their habits, whether it was the last tune from the piano accordion, Sunday gatherings after church, or the surprise cup of tea first thing in the morning. In this year, the fifteenth anniversary of their deaths, Jack and Flo’s legacy remains with us. Despite Grandad’s secret, love – the ritual of love – really did conquer all.