In the halcyon days before the memetic mix of Chinese investors and Lebanese developers rinsed Sydney of its home ownership rates, an enterprising young couple, on a single income, were still able to purchase a modest home in the metropolitan area. My parents, a bare 18 months after their arrival in the harbourcity, paid a deposit on their home and spent the next twenty six years of their lives tending to 37 Montrose Avenue, Merrylands.
In those days, everybody lived in Merrylands, or near enough anyway. Uncles, nieces, nephews, friends. Lebanese grocers near-by. A Lebanese school, across the road from a Lebanese Church. This was the perfect spot to settle down and raise their family, surrounded by relatives and the culture they knew and hoped to pass on.
We lived in a modest home. A white fibro box, with green painted architraves and balustrades for design. A large blueberry tree bisected the boundary between we and the neighbour, producing delicious blueberry juice and a huge weekly clean as the blueberries fell and stained the concrete below. There were two bedrooms across from a chimney-living room. Kitchen with room for a dining table. Laundry at the back with a hallway that led to a decent sized backyard. For reasons I’ve never understood, the house had a higher than average humidity, leaving our ceilings and cornices dotted with moist, black specks. I had turned a year old when we moved into the place, already a fluent speaker in gibberish, and my young lungs didn’t take kindly to the conditions. My parents took every precaution possible to mitigate the impact of that mild asthma. I remember several Sunday afternoons spent watching them, gloves in hand, standing on beds, couches, ladders, scrubbing the dampness clean. The ceiling would look clean-white for a few weeks only for the black specks to reappear and the process repeat.
The rest of my three siblings would be born in this house. Despite my prayers to Saint Peter, they were all born as members of the so-called ‘fairer’ sex.
I didn’t take it too well at the start.
The morning we received the news that my new baby brother Peter was actually a girl, I cried tears of disappointment and anger, upset that I was destined never to have a brother.
A few months after my youngest sister was born, the house was packed up and we moved into a rental not too far away. Our moist, fibro home was demolished and built anew. Double brick walls. Concrete floors. Two storeys. My own bedroom. For a seven year old this was very exciting! I was gifted my parent’s old bedroom set and was thrilled by the prospect of roaming freely in my own queen-size. I could sleep in any direction I chose, turn as often as I liked.
A few times I took one turn too many and awoke on the floor near my bed.
Not only was the house nice and new but I got to see my Dad a lot more. He would be home when I arrived from school. Sometimes he would even pick me up. This was opposed to arriving home from work well past my bedtime and then rising for work before school hours. Even Sundays, work had permitted him no rest. These were good times.
Sydney is a restless city and in 26 years much was bound to change.
When I was younger one could count the number of cars that would pass in front of the house throughout the day, the loud roar of the engine an occasional interruption to the overwhelming orchestra of crickets. The situation is very different today. The street is always busy. The nearby shopping centre underwent an enormous redevelopment. Elegant, brand new houses in every street. High-rise apartment complexes in progress. Hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on developing the suburb.
The area is not without its problems. Merrylands a byword for gang violence and shootings. A story I enjoy relaying was during my first or second year of university and a new friend asked where I was from. Not wanting to say Merrylands I chose the more broad ‘Parramatta’. They laughed and said, `It could be worse, you could be from Merrylands’.
Teenage insecurities aside, the area of my upbringing has come a long way throughout my lifetime. Developed and grown by its overwhelmingly migrant demographic, a testament to the opportunity this country affords those who call it home.
My family’s relationship to the area also underwent great change. Relatives sold their homes and moved a distance. Children grew up and graduated from school. The ties that bound us to Merrylands were slowly loosened and my parents began the process of searching for a new home, resigned to their wish to be closer to family.
It was an intense process, at times giving way to frustration and ennui; endless home viewings, extraneous price requests and failed auction bids during a property boom that appeared to gather momentum when it should have been burning out.
One of the properties which attracted our attention months earlier, but was discounted due to its price, reappeared with a heavily revised amount. A phone call, several home viewings, a signed contract, and then late one afternoon, confirmation of the owner’s acceptance. After three years of searching, the purchase took a mere few days.
This of course meant selling the Merrylands home and this was not an easy exercise for my parents. They were very proud of their home. It was their design, their choices. Custom made to suit them and their needs.
When we put the house up for sale earlier this year, if criticised in even the most elementary way by a potential buyer, they became defensive and were certain they had no intention of selling it to somebody unable to appreciate good taste.
I could understand their attachment. Not only was this the house they had built, but it was where their four children had grown up. The crucial, formative experiences of adolescence were played out in all their vivid diversity. For 20 years Montrose Avenue played host to graduations, birthdays, holy communions, sleepovers, formals, Sunday bbqs, overseas family visits.
How else were my parents to react to a mere whisper of disapproval? Through the rose-tint of their glasses, this was the perfect home, where four of the best children in the world grew up. The new owner would have to respect the past of this home if they were to own it.
After months on the market, the house finally sold and the rush to have our new place completed in time for settlement became the consuming focus of everybody. I was more concerned with door handles, architraves, vanities, tiles, paint colours and balustrades, than in savouring the final months.
As the day drew near, as the boxes piled up around the house and the shelves emptied, the obvious emotion of what we were doing began to dawn on me.
26 years of memories, laughter, and tears.
The all important Sunday bbqs which Dad loved. I would complain that chicken and steak upset my stomach so I had an excuse to drink Coke.
Late night family rosaries where we would breakout in barely suppressed laughter because one of us accidentally started the Hail Mary with ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God’.
It was in this house that I discovered, lost and then rediscovered a love of literature and history. The uncomfortable didacticism of the Brothers Karamazov. The tragedy of the First World War. Like any good cult-of-personality dictator it has lead me to engage in my very own vanity project; a library of almost one thousand books. At least it’s not drugs. Right?
The six o’clock dinners around the breakfast bar, with only 5 stools to seat six people. I don’t know what possessed my parents to only purchase 5 stools but they never considered rectifying their error and that was how it remained. My mother, selfless being that she is, always sat on the lower chair we pulled from the dining table. Not that she remained seated for long. Whenever one of our plates would empty she would jump and re-fill them. Whatever she could do to make her children and husband more comfortable, she would do. My spot on the breakfast bar was on the left hand edge. I guarded it with the ferocity of a Sheldon. My father sat opposite me. Mary-Joe next to him. Paula and Christie would interchange.
Our dinners were temperamental events, one never knew how they would end up. The conversation may remain serious. Work related. Perhaps I would get to extol some political or historical knowledge I had stored. Perhaps it would be science or maths based, and I would have nothing to extol (unless it was the quadratic equation which I have learned to sing). Other times a debate about why I never had to do the dishes or whether Lebanese was a dialect of Arabic or its own separate language.
Generally speaking, we were never able to remain serious for long. Not with my younger two siblings at the table. Paula with her fondness for laughing hysterically at strange sounds and Christie with her fondness for being the producer of said sounds. Dad, tired after an arduous day at work would get annoyed at their rabid laughter, but try though they might to contain their giggling, it was to no avail. They would laugh until it was time to do the dishes, and then the laughter would disappear.
When the moment demanded it, we could be serious. When the business was floundering, mum would warn us that dad had had a hard day at work and that we should be on our best behaviour, hug and kiss him. This would silence our mouths and we would be the perfect children at dinner. A peace that would last until mum would expect me to dress for Tae Kwon Do or expect Paula to eat fasoulia. No financial difficulty could induce her or I to do so.
Throughout those difficult times my parents never let us feel that we had to go without anything. They shielded us from the worst of it and allowed us to keep living as before. It was only as I got older that I realised how difficult those times had been. It is to their eternal testament that they never projected their problems onto their children.
So now, without the bricks and mortar, the physical presence of our house, how vivid will these memories remain?
I’ll never forget my disappointment at seeing the house get repainted. Mum had floated the idea several times, and I assumed rather naively that this too would be another of those insistences. I wasn’t opposed to repainting because of any selfish aversion to being inconvenienced, in fact I understood and appreciated that the time had come for some renewal. Rather I was opposed because it meant the loss of the infamous kitchen stain.
For many years, I’m not sure exactly how many, at least a decade, the right corner of our kitchen ceiling was represented by a medicinal-syrup stain. My mother had drawn it, inadvertently, one evening when a syringe full of syrup had projected upwards and latched onto the ceiling. The stain consisted of a group of small, circular shapes likes islets on a map. I remember my excitement at the moment.
How I laughed!
How I invoked it in conversations.
My mother! The clean freak. The woman who made me dust my bedroom every Saturday. Who made me wash the garage floors. The woman who mopped several times a week. Vacuumed just as often. Here she was, creating a permanent mess! It was ammunition for a youngster and I was glad to use it.
So naturally it upset me when the painter rolled over the stain and turned this monument to my mother’s fallibility into a mere reserve of memory. It became something purely anecdotal. A story to tell at a dinner party, should a similar topic be broached. Without the stain it was a fairly insignificant story. It was no longer tangible, visible to the eye. It was the physical proof of the event that made it vaguely interesting. Its survival now resting entirely on my ability to propagate and perpetuate. The sad truth however, and it was something I recognised then, was that memories fade. They are fickle, unreliable companions. Did I really find it so funny at the time? Was it even my mum who caused the stain? Or is this memory just a creation of my own mind, something I assume occurred in the order that I recall but in reality happened very differently? The further removed you are from someone or something the more distant the memories become, the more shallow and impeded they feel.
How quickly will the unending memories fade from our minds, becoming unreliable and uncertain? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. As Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Our memories need not be faithful narratives; exact recounts of the past. What matters is knowing that I grew up loved and cared for, surrounded by parents, sisters, family and friends. Able to spend this Christmas with those that I love and those who love me.
As the memories of Montrose Avenue fade that will be what matters most.