When I was young and newly married, my parents-in-law built a new home for themselves on a bush block at Venus Bay.
Before they were my parents-in-law, they had cleared the land by themselves using hand tools, ready for that building. Each weekend after work was done, they would gather up their family and head to their bush block to work.
After their son and I met, I was invited to join that party, but none of the children (young adults) worked during those weekends away. Instead, we walked the sandy streets together, went to the surf beach, hung out under starry skies and had a good time.
My parents-in-law never complained. They never asked their children to help. Their children just enjoyed those outings and didn’t seem to ever think much on helping.
I may be wrong in that memory. A lot of time has passed since then, but these are the things I remember about those times. Of course, I was falling in love back then, so my memory may be skewed. I do know that we spent a lot of time having fun while they worked, and each day we would join them for lunch and dinner, that my future mother-in-law had also found time to cook.
After their house had finally been built, (again, by their own hands), they set to creating the gardens surrounding it. On one little terrace (the house was built on a hillside) there was a lovely acacia tree growing, with droopy leaved branches creating dappled shade. My father-in-law thought it was a grand place to build a picnic table, to make the most use of that shade in summer when work in the garden needed to be done, and when time out for refreshment needed a space to sit.
He was an artist like myself but had mostly given up that skill by the time I had met him. Instead, his old artworks were kept in storage boxes and he rarely looked at them. He showed me a few times, and then stashed them away again. They were so good, I thought it was a pity that they were hidden away and that he never really expressed those talents any more.
His idea about that was that he was older, now, and those talents belonged to another time, when he wasn’t a husband and father, and didn’t have to focus on working to make a living. I didn’t fully engage with those concepts at the time, but later in life after I had finished with my career as a minor actor on stage, film and television, and never intended to go back to it – nor ever reached the heights I imagined I would reach when starting out on that path – I also put aside those memories and memorabilia from my own life, because they were no longer relevant to me and because I felt that I had underachieved them – so, nothing to brag about!
It wasn’t until much later, after my son became disabled (and life became far more poignant), that I realized (as I had when talking with my father-in-law many years previous), that talents should not be shelved just because they didn’t achieve what we dreamed of at the time. Talents are skill gifts given to us when we are born and it is disrespectful to not express them, somehow, or to re-purpose them if the old usages have become invalid.
I am still happily using my talents, today, but I am no longer an actor. Luckily, I had more than one talent to express. I no longer had any desire to be on stage or in front of an audience. Instead, today I let my works be the viewable elements and I thoroughly enjoy being able to still express myself like that when I am at an age far older than my father-in-law was then. I do not believe that age or life roles should ever get in the way of enjoying those god given skills.
Anyway, back to the picnic table in my parents-in-law’s back yard. He finished building that lovely little table and the run of concrete steps leading down to it. It looked so inviting sitting under the tree but because the table top was bare marine plywood it looked very plain.
He asked me to paint a picture on it, so I did. I painted a picture of a happy family and laughing children. It was bright and colorful, and he was such a darling man and so respectful of my own talents, that he really loved it. For many years, they used that table for refreshments when working in their garden.
As time passed by and our own family grew, our visits to their home at Venus Bay became more rare. When we did visit, we would always tour the house and garden and see what had been happening while we were gone. The vegetable patch still thrived under the auspices of my mother-in-law, who was truly a mother earth figure with a huge green thumb, but the little picnic table had become sadly neglected. There were sap spots and bird shite fallen onto the table top and dark marks where the sap had gathered leaf detritus and dirtied. Over time, the sap and shite degraded my happy picture, spot by spot, until it became seriously faded.
What happened? Well, my father-in-law had become older, more tired, and struggled to keep up with tasks. Instead of taking time out from the garden to sit and take refreshments on the table and then go back to work, he cut short his workload and went inside to sit and rest when he was done.
Even marine ply begins to delaminate, chip, strip, and curl up at the edges over time, and eventually that little table was a sorry sight. The tree also overwhelmed it and you could barely get underneath to sit on the little stools he’d placed there.
Because the table didn’t look so inviting any more, not even my own children wanted to sit at it when they played in their grandparent’s back yard.
My father-in-law had a stroke in his 70s and never fully recovered after that. Every time I see a decrepit picnic table, whether made of wood or stone (like the one in the picture), I always think of how much hope inspired the building of it – set on aspirations of pleasant times with friends and family sitting around it, or of just taking in the beautiful views and ambiance of the surroundings that once motivated its erection.
I wonder at the story behind the table and how it came to be neglected. If it sits in a forest, was it once well used but the families grew up, moved away, or became more interested in other lifestyle threads?
I don’t see a ruin. I see all that once was or all I can imagine it once was. Such tables represent to me a dream, a hope, an effort to embed pleasure and rest.
Such is life that even the most enduring edifices degrade, eventually. Even mountains are worn away by wind and water. People’s lives eventually begin to seize up and activities that once fostered the energy of life are no longer accessible. Circumstances change, so that the original ideas and modes are no longer valid.
Does this make them unworthy or unmemorable? No.
We should not look on such ruins with any less romance than we do pyramids and ancient Roman courtyards. We should not disregard the achievements others have established in their history just because they made no headlines or because today they live on pensions and hobble on a stick.
All life should be remembered as worthy. All the small moments make for a very large life, if every moment was fully lived and appreciated.
My father-in-law was a human man who had flaws and failings, like most of us, and there are some who have said he had more than most – but my memories are of his wit, his graciousness, his kindness, his mercy, his humor, and his joyful expression of art in life even as he thought he had shelved those skills. In the house he had built, the kitchen, dining, and lounge room were one long room, separated only by divisions where you could see the ceilings in each area quite clearly. The kitchen had a bright new leaf green ceiling, the dining area had a bright postbox red ceiling, and the lounge area had a deep blue sea ceiling – and this was in the days before modern art became so popular…
Refreshment at his table is no longer available. His life ended many years ago, now, but every time I relive those memories he lives in my mind as if he is alive, still. I see and hear and even smell him so clearly, and feel his powerful energy and presence.
I love those memories.