23 August, 2021

Stories my father told me

Perhaps I’m getting old. After all, this will almost certainly be the last thing I write as an under-50. But one of the many unexpected consequences of the ongoing pandemic is it’s finally made me grateful for my father’s stories of hardship and deprivation growing up in the 1940s.

Like the times he would be upset about one of his pet rabbits running away, but at least there was a decent stew for dinner that night. Or the time my grandmother was almost arrested for having a tiny hole in the sheet of iron they covered the window with during blackout. And the guilt he later felt for constantly asking her when Uncle Bill would be coming home and not understanding that the answer was, Never.

Knowing what I know now about trauma, I feel terrible for internally rolling my eyes and thinking ‘Here he goes again,’ when the topics came up.

So what’s this got to do with a pandemic eighty years later?
Perspective. That’s what.

Hearing these stories from an early age, sometimes to the point of cliché, might possibly be the reason I have very little sympathy with anti-lockdown sentiment.

It’s not a stretch to take some of the bad-faith arguments against lockdowns and apply them to wartime efforts.

“The government is telling us what we can eat, what we can spend our money on, how much fuel we can use, what we can write in letters and even when we can have the lights on. They tell us this is to defend our freedom but they’ve already taken all our freedom away. This is already a dictatorship. The question is how long we’re prepared to stand for being treated like this by our own representatives before we just learn to live with a foreign occupation.”

The answer of course was, As long as it takes. And no-one in their right mind would suggest it wasn’t the right thing to do.

Then there are those who don’t deny the risk of letting the virus spread but ask whether life is even worth living without being able to go to the footy, have pint of craft IPA after work, or go out for a smashed avocado brunch. That would be the same smashed avo which in the pre-pandemic times, some claimed was the reason young people can’t afford a house. Turns out it was actually an essential service and a pillar of the economy.

The question of a life worth living is one I would be interested to ask the great uncle I’m named after. It’s not for me to say, but in the scheme of things I suspect he wouldn’t mind spending a few months or even a few years stuck at home without being able to go to the gym or the mall. We’ll never know because he was killed in New Guinea at the age of 23.

He shouldn’t have been there. As a conscript, he couldn’t be sent overseas but he volunteered on the promise of having better opportunies when he came home. He bet his life on a better future and lost. Even then, he should have been on leave at the time but had traded with a mate. A life worth living?

None of this is to minimise the very real trauma people are experiencing over lockdown. My wife is from the US. She hasn’t seen her parents in nearly four years and there’s no chance of that changing any time soon. If she goes to visit them, there’s a serious possibility she won’t be allowed back into Australia. Even so, she is considering it because they are not getting any younger. It’s a terrible choice to have to make.

Any interruption to life as you know it, or expect it to be, is traumatic. Even the ones which used to be tagged #FirstWorldProblems. No-one will come out of COVID unscathed and knowing that you’re not living through a war is of no real comfort.

What can be of comfort is practicing gratitude. Today, I’m grateful for the Afghan refugees I work with, and for the stories Dad would bore me with so often. Both offer some perspective.