The Stranger

A stranger doorknocked our suburban Newcastle house a while back seeking his childhood home.

He knew the address well enough, but was still unsure this was it. Houses covered paddocks he once roamed. Mansions spread where he knew humble cottages stood. Friendly corner stores were now another lived room of the former shopkeeper’s residence.

He expected all that!

Pictured ~ Memories of 1962. The stranger, in the arms of his older sister, by their long-gone hedged picket fence. He sent me this photo at my urging. It was the least I could do.
Click to enlarge

Beside our house, where he once played with his sisters and brothers, swinging from long-ago slain giant eucalypt beside a wandering Throsby creek, lay a concrete driveway lined with tidy steel fencing to feed townhouses obliterating his field of dreams – that precious suburban back yard of the time-proven quarter acre block.

Gone was the scooter hanging from the fencepost, the old pram that raised them all – now a fond plaything, having served its purpose – the woodpile, axe, and chopping block, the chook run, the vege garden, a clothes prop and old T-posts that once swung high his socks and undies above the hardwood plank fences, replaced by strings of Colorbond conformity.

Even this he half expected.

Yet as I invited him inside to explore these memories, I guessed the dismay that would soon cloud an anticipated reminiscence.

The weatherboards were plastic clad with new aluminium windows, new tin roof, and fully renovated bathroom and kitchen.

Where he recalled ornate ceilings and calcimined peeling paint and bumpy chipped plaster of Paris walls, was now the tedium of neatly corniced gyproc.

Where he scampered barefoot on frayed dusty Feltex and Linoleum he would find polished timber and slate tiles. Even the internal walls would confuse, as the rear veranda was the new inside, and the outside laundry and dunny were now enclosed, clean and modern. And not a cracked fibro wall panel to be seen.

Only the front door was original, and only the street number and a dotted line on some surveyor’s map confirmed his childhood identity, as though that entire younger self was smitten from existence, and growing up might well be a mere imagining.

The camera was useless. There were no images to take back home and show 90 year old Grandma, or Mother, how their first family home now fared. Not even to placate his childhood yearnings, those nagging incongruous memories that only a revisit to the original scene will put to rest.

The 11 year-old daughter followed us around, curious but detached, despite her father’s passion. This place was not her home but a stranger’s house. It meant nothing to her that Dad grew up in it, except that at least he was animated like a kid. She never saw him like that before.

That he left shattered and despondent (after all, he was visiting from Perth) was sad but not surprising.

His is the universal experience. We all know and live the sense of loss, returning to childhood wilderness overbuilt, homes rebuilt, suburbs outgrown, and cities reinvented.

When our parents and grandparents die we realise how quickly they become forgotten by society, the city, the country. And when we are gone too, we take memories of them to our grave – at which moment they completely cease to exist.

You know where this leads.

Imagine returning to a Newcastle whose only recognizable feature was the council sign welcoming you, but nothing remains that you remember. It looks like – and might as well be – any other modern city in the world. Your identity and childhood falters at that moment, with a deep sense of loss.

How is this important to visitors, or children growing in the "new" Newcastle, or to that majority of city folk who neither understand nor care what is being said here?

Well, I could launch an entirely new article on some thesis about the meaninglessness of built environments that, having destroyed their past, offer no sense of future – but instead will simply terminate this lengthy meander with a metaphor.

Our fellow Earthly creatures live for the present, aware primarily of the here and now in their foraging, feelings, and surrounds. It’s ever been said that we differ from them in our awareness of time and the attention we devote to the past and future in sacrifice of the present.

Do we consider and treat the city, like animals, as a mere substrate that tends to our needs, to feed and shelter, and remain oblivious to form and function?

Or do we revere and preserve that form and function as symbolic of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we hope to go?

Shall we live as animals in mindless destructive self-gratification, so-called creative destruction, or is there just a little more purpose and meaning to it all?



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