Saturday, May 17, 2008
A sentimental journey
My late grandfather kept moving further north - "for the air", he used to say. He ended up living in a small, dreary town in the middle of the wheat plains of the north. Hardly anyone has heard of Booborowie, a tiny little grid of streets out there in the vast agricultural no man's land. But why should they? I only discovered it because my old Pop chose to live out the last of his years there.
The other day, I made a sentimental pilgrimage back there.
Actually, it is relatively hard to find Booborowie at all. No roadsigns brag its presence out there amid the vast wheatfields. Even the GPS said it could not find it.
But we did, off the road between Burra and Spalding in the South Australian mid-north.
"We" were my husband, Bruce and I with our cherished friend Peter. The trip was prompted by Peter having to open an Antiques Festival in Burra - a job he did with immense wit from the stage of the Burra Institute Hall (which is probably the only theatre in the world which has a real, functioning fireplace on the stage). While Peter schmoozed with his adoring public, I took Bruce to see the old copper mines and some of the town's history before we all grabbed a sausage sizzle snag for lunch and went off in search of Booborowie.
The drive was a chance for me to recount stories of my grandfather and the strange, sour woman he married after my darling Nanna died. I loved Pop - but it was hard ever to really know him. He had been a bully as a husband and father, a braggard, a bigot, a loudmouth and a very generous man. He'd been the spoiled baby of a family of 7 and his big sisters always said he was still the spoiled baby, even when he was a ripe old man. He had some sweet characteristics - he could sing zany little ditties of bastardised Yiddish words to which he would dance a lively jig. And he was a terrific cook of sauces and pickles and jam. His Kryne was the best in the world. Actually, so was his tomato ketchup. He loved to do things first, biggest and best. He usually did - and we never heard the end of it.
When he retired as MD of a large meat and dairy produce company, he headed north, bought a beautiful small farm, and bred Border Leicester sheep with which he won all the blue ribbons there were to be won at the assorted agricultural shows. To the amusement of the other farmers, he had a miniature poodle which was very good at working the sheep, albeit superfluously, since Pop's flock came when he called them.
Tiring of sheep breeding, he moved further north to buy a gorgeous colonial mansion in a proud country town in a burgeoning wine area. Here, for many years he used other skills to restore antiques and historic items for the National Trust. He enjoyed being a sort of curator in one of the local Trust properties and loved to show people the objects he had so skilfully restored.
And then, to everyone's amazement, he announced that he and his surly wife were moving to Booborowie - which has to be one of the world's dead end towns. He had emphysema by then and said the dry air out there was the best in the world. And so he settled in and lived out his last decade in a dreary cream brick house in a little grid-plan settlement where even the streets could not dredge up interesting names. First, Second, Third...
Booborowie has a pub, a general store, a farm store, a sports oval, a primary school and about five churches. Its town sign says it has a population of 130.
But we saw none of them when we visited. I heard a cock crow. I saw a dog. But no living human being. Nor car.
It was truly like entering a ghost town - empty streets, store closed, pub deserted. There were some caravans with all signs of people camping on an empty lot near the pub. But neither man nor child was to be seen.
We drove around the town - once, twice, thrice. I could not remember the house that Pop used to live in - and wondered vaguely if his widow was still alive. She was 25 years younger than Pop. She could be. But she was not in the phone book. At least, not as Harris. Had she remarried? Probably.
She had hated Pop's family from the outset. She made our visits with him into very tense affairs. Since we always had a long drive to get there, he'd insist that she serve us at least a light lunch. She did so grudgingly and, oh my, she made sure they were light. One shave of chicken, a sliver of ham, a slice of tomato...
Poor woman. I think she was deeply disappointed in life. I am not quite sure why she hated us so much - but we were part of the package of her punishment.
Once we had paid for Pop's funeral and headstone, we politely retreated from her life - sad that she could never bring herself to share any of my grandmother's rings with us. Oh well.
So around and around Booborowie we drove...me getting cheeky in the realisation that there was not another car on the road. I could drive backwards and on the wrong side of the road - and I did.
We kept driving because we figured that, surely, there would be some sign of life. Surely?
Then, with absolutely nothing left of not much to see, we headed for the Booborowie Cemetery to pay homage to Pop. I knew the cemetery was out of town, but I had not recalled how far. It was 7 kilometres. That is a long way away to keep your dead. How odd.
But what a lovely graveyard out there in the place of the landscape - gums and parrots and grasshoppers.
It was our day's reward. And Pop's of course.