My cousin, Smacka, was cremated last week. Two things stood out about his overflowing funeral of some hundreds – what it said about him and the resonances of family it stirred in me.
First those resonances, the context for my being there:
As I get older I am drawn more to see the full cycles of my life; and I see more circles close.
The extended family grew up in a series of working class semis in Crow’s Nest. I lived in the house of the matriarch; my nanna. Smacka and his family lived a walkable distance away, as did a few of nanna’s other daughters and their families. Families hanging close is a common second generation custom.
The first generation huddled even closer together. In the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century almost every street in Miller’s Point housed someone who shared my DNA or married into it.
Smacka was the better part of a decade older than me, the younger of 2 brothers, a chalk and cheese duo. Barry the older was quieter, more studious, sometimes ill. Brian (Smacka) was a knockabout kid. He could have been a prototype for Ginger Meggs. Both boys, as befitting an Irish Catholic heritage, went to Marist Brothers at Mosman and discovered football.
I think it was he who pushed me, aged about 8, out of a rowing boat 100 metres from the beach at Balmoral. It was sink or swim and I learnt to dogpaddle. I still have small grainy black and white pictures of those family picnics. Now I take my own grandchildren there – 5 generations have played on the same sands.
At 18 Smacka as he was already known (a nickname which perhaps gave a hint to his personality), did what someone with that name might do – he joined the police force.
I remember the family consternation, the uproar, the criticism. The sons of a working class Irish family never became coppers. Coppers, it was rumoured, had to sign a pledge that they would even put their own mothers in jail if they did the crime. I remember becoming concerned for my Aunty Ruby, Smacka’s mother and the gentlest kindest of my aunties in whose kitchen I often sought comfort.
I lost memory of him from then on although I do remember going to his wedding. Ruby, dear Ruby, came to help me with my babies in the year before she died.
About 30 years later, I got elected to a position that some, not me, might consider to wield some power. Smacka got in touch. Could he visit? The time came and there he was on the doorstep with the boss of the local police region and a slab of beer, come to discuss matters of mutual interest.
Another 25 years passed and about 9 months ago the oldest of the cousins died. Spurred by sentiment I decided to gather many of the remaining cousins to lunch. Smacka and his wife came.
There he was on the doorstep looking ravaged by time, by the many cancers he had beaten, croaking through the voice box that had replaced vocal cords removed after cancer of the throat. And by his side was the Esky of beer that I presumed accompanied him to all social occasions.
He spoke little though that afternoon, a few wry comments. But he was there part of my childhood returned to me passingly before he died.
Who was he this cousin of mine?
I suppose I am writing this not just as a hook for my own memories but as a statement about people we are connected with who can live a whole life, achieve milestones, show kindnesses and we are ignorant of it all. A book on the shelf that we never bothered to read.
Smacka deserves acknowledgement because from what I heard at his funeral he was one of the last of a kind. A bigger than life Irish Australian character, the knockabout bloke who loved his sport and would do anything for his mates, a bloke who read Banjo Patterson, played golf when too old for football and went to the Melbourne races. Mates everywhere.
“He was all ours of a weekend” one of his daughters said. She recalled great childhood experiences of long car rides to bleached beaches on searing summer holidays.
This man always had a wry crack. Perhaps it was the years in the police force (including in the old 21st Division, the CID and Armed Holdup Squad). or the natural reticence of men of his generation, that made him dry and non-committal?
For me the funeral held some surprises. The tribute from the large copper, a very senior officer, in full dress uniform with about 5 gold stars on each shoulder could not continue because it took all his energy to stop the tears from spilling down his face. He clearly loved my cousin.
Smacka, who had taken early retirement because of the cancers which took first his voice, had risen by that stage to Detective Inspector and the sentimental talk at the funeral was that he could have been Commissioner, other things been equal.
So all that was a surprise to me. The other surprise was the battered elderly man in a leather coat with his own voice box, crying in the row in front of me. After retirement Smacka and his wife took over the Laryngectomy Association. We were told there wasn’t a hospital in NSW he hadn’t visited to counsel some suffering soul.
So there you have it, a dry knockabout lad who loved his sport, his mates, his family;
who rose up in the old tough NSW police force;
who showed indomitable courage in the face of years of illness;
who spent the last 20 years counseling those similarly afflicted;
who was remembered by men crying at his funeral;
and whose family thought he would be best remembered with a poem by Banjo Pattterson and a song from John Denver.
He was a cousin of my childhood and I missed his life.