I don’t remember an awful lot about my grandfathers. Most of what I do know has been gathered from an array of photographs and opinions and stories told by relatives.
Adam Bilariusz was my maternal grandfather or dziadek. He was a hard working, svelte, pragmatic Polish gentleman who shared the same sense of humour as my mum — sensible.
But – Magda Szubanski! I hear Aussies rebut. (Babe’s Esme Hoggett for the rest of you.) Well, her father was an assassin in a counter intelligence branch in the WWII Polish Resistance, which is pretty awesome and kills any story I could have come up with, but I’ll think you’ll find her humour comes from her Scottish mother.
Anyway back to grandpa Bilariusz.
In my maternal grandparents world Catholicism wove it’s way through everyday life with plenty of small mementos littering their three bedroom double brick Australian abode reminding us that indeed there was a pope and hooray! he was a fellow Pole.
Back in Poland Adam worked in a variety of occupations, including a particularly hazardous one as a musician. He played the accordion at happy gatherings like weddings. Stamina and a strong constitution was called for in this line of work because Polish wedding celebrations can last anywhere up to three days.
Starting the gig with good starchy carb loading with plenty of pierogi before and during festivities helped soak up some of the Belvedere wódka and may well have staved off liver problems in later years. It wasn’t just the Polski Ogórki getting pickled. Remember, he was very sensible.
Like a groovy Slavic Brady Bunch, Adam had three daughters. All of them had hair of gold, like their mother and so on and so forth.
But I have an inkling the disgruntled middle child, my mum, was his favourite. I’m told she was always at his side, ready with a shovel or a spanner whereas her sisters were busy doing prissy girl’s stuff, which is fair enough. Those rag curls won’t wrap themselves y’know…
Mum’s sisters both have easy names: Anna and Maria, while my mum was burdened with a Polish one – Jadwiga. Pronounced Yudd-vigga.
I do have vague memories of chatting at teatime with my paternal grandfather Kenneth. He was the reclusive strong, silent type, a towering, protestant manly man who served as a Sargeant in the airforce during the second world war, and had a penchant for cigarettes and curried sausages.
He loved his wife Frances dearly, a spirited woman who loved the outdoors. I still have the photograph he carried of her right through the war. He was a good man and great provider but my grandmother wanted more children and Kenneth drew the line at one, my dad.
For him, children were definitely to be seen and not heard. I think that was true of that generation. Come to think of it, I suspect he would have been happier, most of the time if they weren’t even seen.
I recall little K9 companions surrounding him at their home in Bondi. He collected chihuahuas. He had an elderly, shivering, snappy, neurotic Mexican rat dog called Bobo. He loved that dog.
Grandpa sprouted from a line of fine, upstanding, all-conquering British emperialists. And he loved to shoot things. A lot. There are many surviving photos of him with his freshly killed creatures. Among the pictorial record lie a few of Kenneth showing off the wingspan of some poor duck or wedge tail eagle.
To think – just moments before, this magestic raptor had been happily soaring up, up into a thermal high above the Central Western Plains only to be quickly dispatched by patriarchy personified.
“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” — Genesis 1:28
My Grandpa had the God given right to kill whatever fowl of the air, and those animals that scurry along the ground — fuck those guys, right?
But he wasn’t a bad person, he carried some healthy social justice genes and many descendants from Frederick Garling Senior have found their way into areas of law covering the environment, indigenous affairs, discrimination and refugees. Frederick himself promoted emancipists who were against hanging way back in the day.
No my pop wasn’t evil, he was just the product of a privileged few who knew no different and had been given dominion over the animals after all. Using rifles was very much a signifier of status and gender, if you couldn’t shoot stuff as a man, what was the point?
All that icky life-creating / nourishing / nurturing business and “feelings” belong to the womenfolk you see. Pffft — women.
So that’s how he expressed himself.
On a personal note, even though gun culture and contempt for women felt at odds with my values, standards and commonsense, it permeated everything in my world growing up and I was complicit in the mindset at the time. I internalised misogyny that I’m still unpacking today.
Being around discharging weapons in my formative years might also explain my tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears. Although my bonce spent many hours clamped in some fancy JVC headphones listening to a lot of Boney M in the late 70s.
“Ma Baker – she taught her four sons, Ma Baker – to handle their guns…”
You know, the Black Abba.
There are signs of progress among the men in my family though. There’s been a steady adaptation from clinging to their firearms to gradual relinquishment and development of the ability to express themselves through motorbikes and high performance vehicles.
[Insert eyeroll here.]
This transition was nudged along in 1996 when new gun laws were introduced in Australia after the Port Arthur massacre.
Even though they were financially compensated, there were a lot of disgruntled people in the nineties, unhappy about being told to hand in their unregistered .22s and AK47s. There were conspiracy theories circulating that Port Arthur was orchestrated by the government of the day (conservative as it so happens) as an elaborate ploy to take away our guns. They called our PM “Jackboot Johnny”. It was a strange era to live through.
So after the buy-back scheme at least there’s been an improvement in the unbridled killing of fauna these days. Now it’s just the odd unsuspecting echidna or wombat that happen to waddle onto our highways.
In subsequent years I have been subconsciously drawn to modern day grandfather figures in the form of Marshall Rosenberg and Howard Zinn.
Marshall Rosenberg founded the Centre for Non-Violent Communication who advocated that “Every criticism, judgement, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”
And Howard Zinn: “Human beings are not machines, and however powerful the pressure to conform, they sometimes are so moved by what they see as injustice that they dare to declare their independence. In that historical possibility lies hope.”
Sadly, both of these legends passed away quite soon after I discovered them. The bastards.