A wise man I know often reminds me, “Experiences matter, not things.” This is why we sold our far-too-small former home 50 metres from the edge of the lake to move up the hill onto a bush acreage where we have planted apples, oranges, plums, mandarins, nuts, vegetables, berries … we have dogs and a tree swing and a trampoline and pool. We could have made the far-too-small home big enough by putting another floor on, but there still would have been hardly any yard for the boys to be boys in, and I wasn’t at all sure that later in life they’d thank us for the lake view more than for the awesome huge bush backyard full of wonderful boyness that is this current home. My wise friend, though, has never seen the true devastation that is often wrought in our home by The Ninja aged seven, and his brother The Bird, aged 8. At least it’s easier to blame them than admit my domestic godlessness. They are very smart and funny little boys who provide me with no end of entertainment, love, cuddles, kisses, fights and farts. Not necessarily in that order. The house is a mess, constantly, because we believe in Doing Things and Going Places.
My father lived in Canberra for about 25 years and it is a city that I have great affection for. I love its bright sun, its frosty winters, its dry summers. I love its lake and bushland and rivers. I even love its roundabouts! But after my father retired and migrated north we hadn’t returned to Canberra although The Bird assures me he can remember his visit when he was about six months old. I have longed to go back to Canberra, but we’d been busy visiting other places.
On a recent long weekend, we took off down the Hume Highway for a frantic visit to everything fabulous in the ACT: Questacon, Tidbinbilla, Mt Stromlo, Black Mountain Tower, the Australian War Memorial. And I wish we hadn’t put it off so long. No-one threw up in the car, no-one had a tantrum (in the sense of no-one except their tired and emotional mother after 5 hours of ‘I’m bored’ in the car … we now have a portable DVD player). The Ninja was thrilled to find a frosty stick and a frosty leaf one morning when we sat outside in the sun for breakfast. The Bird amazed us all by dropping from the Free Fall thing in Questacon – I was so proud of him, if ever there was a non-risk-taker, it would be my Bird. It is usually his thrill-seeking brother who is first up for the crazy. We went in the earthquake house and bought ridiculously expensive packets of freeze-dried icecream!
We talked about things. A lot of things. About how Walter Burley Griffin designed the city so that Australia could have a federal capital somewhere other than Sydney or Melbourne – and about what a brilliant architect Walter’s wife Marion was, too. We talked about the Old Parliament House and how it became to small to hold all our politicians so the new Parliament House was built into a hill. We talked about the terrible bushfires in 2003 and how 70% of the ACT burned, that over 500 homes were destroyed and four people died. We drove up to Mt Stromlo where the burnt-out remains of some of the observatory domes still stand like ancient ruins. We talked about how Pa (their grandfather) spent two nights on his roof with a hose and that after the fires he decided to leave Canberra. We talked about the Brindabella mountains and how they become the Snowy Mountains.
We showed them the National Library, the High Court, the National Gallery and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, we spent hours wandering through the Australian War Memorial, trying to explain to them the terrible facts of war, and death, and fear, and hope. We looked at the dioramas, unchanged since my first visit as a child, stood in awe in front of the painting of the ghosts at Menin Gate at midnight, walked underneath G for George – the famous Lancaster bomber. We sat together and watched the amazing audiovisual presentations about the wars. We held hands quietly at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and we walked the two long cloisters of the Roll of Honour and talked about how so many of the names belonged to men who were not much more than boys when they died. We placed a poppy for two ladies who were there to remember their loved one. His name was up high on the wall, so The Bird climbed on his father’s shoulders and reached up to place the poppy for them: Amos, C. 25.4.1915 I looked him up when we got home. His name was Carl Amos, 1st Battalion, and he was just 23 and he didn’t last a day. I think The Ninja and The Bird will see Anzac Day a little differently in the future. They mentioned how sad his mum must have been.
But, there was still fun to be had. Later that afternoon we went to sit by the lake and watch the ‘spitter spout’ – my family’s pet name for the Captain Cook Memorial Jet. And The Bird said to The Ninja, “Let’s play Simpson and his donkey. I’ll be Simpson, you be the donkey.”
I haven’t had the heart yet to tell him that only the donkey survived the war.