“Dad was special, so special. I know everyone must say that about their own Dad. Do they?”
I tell Mary, “sometimes yes, sometimes no. Only when they truly feel that their Dad belonged in that category of exceptional human being”. He sounds like he was a great connector, beyond the immediate family and the boundary fence.
Derek was a farmer, not from farming stock per se but when he arrived in Australia from Cornwall, England, still a teenager, he saw the land as his destiny. He landed on his feet as a jackaroo at a farm in north west Victoria.
Hopping the ladder two at a time he successfully took a role at a heritage farm and property. He was hardworking and loyal and it was there, over the fence, that he met his lifelong partner, Serena. They had 4 children and he was as committed to the farm as he was the family well being.
He wasn’t much interested in traveling the world, he had done that as a child of a military man and grown up in varying countries, India, Malaysia & England. This constant resettling had unsettled him and his option to stay put was exercised, although they traveled Australia extensively. One year, with long service leave up his sleeve, they took a year long family sojourn around Australia, a plan for a broad education acquired through spontaneous and adventurous outdoor experiences. Mary describes it “as good a childhood as one can imagine”.
Much later, Mary confided in him for support when her marriage was drowning. He gave her two distinct options as she howled into the phone, “come here or I’ll come”. She needed to escape the house and wisely used the 2 hours to help get her thoughts straight. Her parents were a beacon of stability and her Dad even wrote her estranged husband a forgiving letter to help clear the air. According to Mary, he really nutted out the situation and gave her advice on the back of an R&D exercise, there was little emotion to it but his heart broke for the heartbroken.
She revels in that time spent with her Dad, where comfort and support were free flowing. He had once set up an office for her at the farm and built it exactly where the internet signal was best, his pragmatism and motivation both true gifts in stressful times.
The farm they shared is now steered by one of Mary’s sisters and her own young family, her Mum moved to the beach house for sanity and social mobility. Mary has a partnership in a creative business operated from Melbourne and longs for more shared family experiences, especially with the next generation of the Dawson clan, she acknowledges, “they have hurdles to jump”.
It is now so obvious, after Derek’s death, that he was really the glue between the siblings. The fracturing connections that chase their grief around like a dog chasing its tail, empathy for each other a little out of reach. Dreaming of what they shared as children and translating those bonds into mature adults independently is taking its time, the cues they received from the puppeteer guiding them in a similar direction are void. His widow is an emotional being and although stoic in response to Derek’s death, wishes they would all find a way to get along while she is still young enough to enjoy a peaceful family dynamic.
- Mary's story, as told to Nat Power
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Main Image: Nathan Anderson