Tuesday, 4 September 2012
My father's axe
"He could swing an axe, my father. And that axe is gone. He taught me how to split wood though I could never do it like him, those long, rhythmic semi-circular movements like a ballet dancer's warm-up." 'My Father's Axe', Scission, Tim Winton.
We left our old axe in the wood-shed when we moved, leaning against the side of the rusted old water tank that we stacked with sawmill offcuts and branches felled by winter storms. By the time I thought to go back for it, it was gone. I used to chop wood with that axe out the back of Grant's brown-brick government house in the town where he taught for his first three years out of uni. It came with us to the farm where we moved after our year wandering the backpacker trails of the northern hemisphere. I chopped wandoo and mallee roots and curled up on the big brown couch, watching the flames dance while our first baby grew inside me. There was no fire to feed for our years back in the city, but I stoked the open fireplace the winter Quinn was born - our last in the suburbs. I tapped tentatively at pieces of jarrah kindling while my newborn slept nestled in the sling against my chest beneath the dripping green canopy of the ficus, while we waited each day for Grant to get home from school.
My mother always chopped the wood when I was growing up, and won the ladies log chop at the bush camp where their Sunday tennis crowd spent a boozy weekend around the fire each September. She would raise the axe high above her head and bring it down with short, efficient jabs, her mouth a thin line of concentration. We collected bundles of fallen marri sticks and helped scrunch up yesterday's edition of The West Australian while the wheel of fortune clacked on the screen next to the ironing board as we set the fire each evening.
When Grant's dad found out he was dying he set himself the task of clearing out his sheds and workshop, of selling off the thousands of car parts he had collected over the course of a lifetime. We were newly married and living in an inner-city rental, from where I could ride my bike to the newspaper offices each morning. On a trip to the city to visit his oncologist he brought with him a bundle of gardening tools that had belonged to his father. He had painstakingly scraped the rust from the heads of shovels, spades, pickaxes and rakes, painting them black and fixing them into new wooden handles, which he oiled by hand. They are among our most treasured possessions.
We had every tool out in the spring sunshine on the weekend as we repaired and assembled raised beds for our summer vegetable garden. I shoveled rich black compost and crumbling aged manure, raking the beds smooth in anticipation of the parcel of heirloom seeds arriving this week. And then I carefully stacked the tools back in the shed, out of the rain. Because I know that Grant still feels his father's love every time he picks them up.
I bought Grant a new axe for Fathers' Day and gave it to him with a slip of paper tucked inside Scission, marking the story we read together years ago. The book is dedicated to a friend from that little country town where we used to chop wood long ago. The new axe has a smooth hickory handle and a silver block splitting head unmarked by age. In the card Darcy made for his Dad at kindy he drew him chopping wood, his texta markings a swirl of colour on the page. Next winter Grant will teach them how to swing the axe as they chop the blocks of cypress that sit drying on our back lawn. The old tree came down last week to let in the light and it will fuel our fire next winter - when we have bought and installed a pot belly in our living room. But all those stories remain to be written.