Yesterday I went to a funeral with my father. He will be 80 in February and I didn't completely fancy the idea of him driving the 200-odd kilometres and back in his elderly little Holden Astra by himself. I had also met the deceased -- a man called Michael who went to school with my father in the 1930s -- a few times and liked him very much. And I do these things because, being my own boss, I can.
We had an uneventful drive north to Port Wakefield near the apex of St Vincent's Gulf and then back south down the coast of Yorke Peninsula. Past Ardrossan you turn off the southbound coast road and angle southwest, inland, and that's when the hair on the back of my neck starts to stir, less because of the spine-jarring road than because we are getting closer and closer to the place where I was born and raised. We have already crossed the land that my great-great-grandfather first farmed in 1855, before moving a few miles south and west to settle down properly.
We're early so we go to the home-town cemetery, a little oasis of sighing trees -- new acacia, middle-aged eucalypt and ancient pine -- out in the middle of nowhere, more than a mile from the town. If you go to a burial here in the summer, you can turn around a full 360 degrees and the only possible phrase at any point in the circle is 'fields of gold'. My great-great-grandfather seems to have been one of the first white people buried here, with his wife beside him: theirs are the first gravestones you see as you walk in, rather modest and delicate late-Victorian designs in white marble. My great-grandparents, both born in South Australia, are one row across and back.
My father prowls around his grandparents' graves, looking at a crumbly bit and saying he must come back to fix it. Henry has lost a bit of the W in his surname. The youngest child, Henry was the near-contemporary of a Narungga man called George Button who lived with my family almost all his life, who as an old man saved my toddler father from being savaged to death by a feral sheepdog in 1929 (he still has the scars on his arm to prove it), and who may or may not have been, but probably was, Henry's half-brother. There are stories of their inseparability as children, playing on the beach at Black Point in the 1860s. I think, not for the first time, that the genius of B. Dylan lies in his ability to nail a timeless image: 'I can still see the shells falling out of their hands / as they follow each other back up the hill.' They died within months of each other in 1935. George is buried in the city, and it occurs to me for the first time that it might be possible to bring him home.
This cemetery is full of my father's friends. For a few years now it has been the resting place of two or three of the tragically-dead kids of the kids I went to primary school with. This year, with a nasty jolt, I see a little memorial to a baby who must have been the granddaughter of a boy in my class. There are a lot of tiny ancient mounds with no markers. Itinerant farm-workers' children have lived and died cheaply for a century and a half.
We drive slowly past the land that my dad and his dad and these two in the cemetery used to own (you know, 'own') and farm, and past the farmhouse I grew up in and the ruins of the house where he was born. Everything is in order. The trees have grown. The wheat and barley look better than he was expecting. We arrive in the township, where we could fire a gun down the main street, if we had a gun. 'Not even a brown dog,' says my father, in a satisfied sort of way.
The funeral is in the next town down the highway. It's a cloudless day and the country church is full of the effect you get when sunlight shines through blue and yellow stained-glass and the colours land on the whitewashed walls. The church is full of projected, reflected and refracted light: sun, candles and slides. There's a lovely shot of Michael, still tall, handsome and upright at about 70, being projected onto a screen at the front of the church. When the Anglican priest gets up and begins to speak we realise he is in fact Michael's own nephew and has been named for him. His family, too, has lived around here since the middle of the 19th century.
I love hearing about Michael's life. I didn't know he'd got the state's top mark for Geology in the 1940 public exams. I didn't know he was in the RAAF. I didn't know that, at 78, after he'd been widowed by cancer for the second time, he became a solitary world traveller, first to Alaska and then to China.
The slender, soft-featured, well-dressed woman sitting next to me in the church turns out to be someone my mum used to visit, youngest child in tow, for cups of tea after she'd dropped me and my older sister off at school. 'The baby was so good, she'd just sit there happily and play with her toys while I talked to your mother.'
There are at least twenty people here who knew my mother. At one point after the service I realise that one little group is looking at me and talking in undertones; I hear ' ... so much like Auntie Kerrie!' I catch an eye and raise a brow, and the bloke calls me over. 'I was just saying to Stephen, you look exactly like your mother.' Stephen, a distant cousin, was named for the great-great-granpa we have in common, the one who was the father of Henry and probably of George.
On the way out of the church we'd done the receiving-line thing with several of Michael's nephews and grandchildren who'd spoken during the service. The last of these was a grandson not yet out of his teens, a slender boy in black who fronted at the lectern, straightened his great-great-grandmother's family Bible in a pedantic sort of way, looked up, and began in a clear young man's voice to read from the Gospel of St John. 'Let not your heart be troubled.'