Day 79: 45km Hanging around Wollongong: Mt St Thomas, Woonona, and Mount Warrigal

It was remiss of me. K said I should do it, but I didn’t. Scrabble is such a tradition in mum’s family and we got some great words – it would have been the photo of the day. The entire B family would have nodded their heads in appreciation, had a discussion about words like FROTHY and MANGE and our great concatenations, and felt able to chime in, part of it.

We have the family we are born with and the family we choose. Extended family and close family, and in my case distended and bifurcated family too. Even with all the colour and history, I’m finding that family can sometimes be good. and though I would have liked to do some more riding off into the sunset, and sunrise, exploring and gliding, shifting my body and bike through twisties, criss-crossing The Great Dividing Range, exploring the nether regions of the East Coast and hinterlands of our great coloured land, I have limited time now. I’ll still get to do some glorious riding, but right now, here in Wollongong, family has come to the fore.

Last night I was in Mount St Thomas – a town my GPS couldn’t find. I met my youngest niece, the two-year old (almost three) acrobatic C. My biggest little brother, who is tall, tall, tall and one of the sweetest men alive has had a daughter since I saw him last and she is wild and sweet and true. It was the first time I’d seen M (so many M’s in our bifurcated family) and his gorgeous wife J since their wedding. Really the first time I’d had a chance to chat with M since our Dad’s funeral, which didn’t leave much room for knowing as the focus was taken by our larger than life Dad, who in some ways, in many ways, was like a cross between the dad in Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Wes Anderson’s Royal Tennenbaum. True. He was larger than life and as challenging as he was (at times) magical… We don’t always remember the magic, but it was definitely there.

It was the first time I’d had to be in a quiet space with J. Their wedding was amazing, and now their life together unfolding in gentle confidence and love. It was amazing to see my big little brother climbing into his skin, encapsulating everything I loved in the boy, yet also growing to be the kind of man I could adore. Our bifurcated family didn’t leave much space for knowing, but J and I share so many values that our relationship can grow now, even if I’m on the other side of this world. Bifurcating families will fling people far and wide if not literally then metaphorically. In our case it’s been an almost violent, haphazard combination of the two.

This morning C reluctantly waved goodbye to J and M, and after some initial tears, we got down to business. A four-wheel adventure in the trike that was so wild and crazy (no footpaths here for the faint-hearted) that she eventually had to dismount and walk on the hilly, unsteady, grassy tween-land holding my hand and chattering away in her as-yet-largely-incomprehensible chatter while I wheeled the trike. She’ll be an acrobat for sure, but the wild lands of Mount St Thomas were a bit much for her first outing with her only-just-met-Aunt. After one circumnavigation of the block, we retired to the back yard where we giggled and bounced on the trampoline, sat reading and singing, tried taking photos as she rearranged the furniture and leapt in and out of shot flying from the carefully positioned chair on the balcony to belly-flop and giggle and roll onto a big bright pink beanbag, and waited for poppy who would skilfully ask her if she didn’t want to go to bed, and that’s where she went – out like a light, head down, bum up in seconds, of her own accord. Awesome.

I had a nice chat with J’s dad, then headed off to another branch – the Joneses.. (none of whom are Joneses, by the way. They too all seem to start with M or B, but we also had H, G and K). Lunch on the balcony, eating many things I shouldn’t. Enjoying the kinds of casual conversation we haven’t enjoyed in years. They all made the trek out to Woonona (pronounced Wonoona) as did I and one of the MBs who is now an MC put on a spread. Connecting is increasingly important to me, and it was good to see them all. I had the chance, especially to talk a bit with Aunty M, who castigated me for my absence when I disappeared and didn’t post for a week when I had poor internet and then was writing. She said she had started asking people where the nearest hospital was… Bertie, too, had said just post something! People are worried . it’s still hard for me to imagine that anyone reads this blog, let alone worries about me in any way, even when Bertie tells me people are calling him and writing, asking what’s going on. she’s having too much fun he said, which in some parts was true, but really I was writing or far from internet connectivity – still possible in our big, coloured, at times internet-free land.

From Woonona I went straight to Mount Warrigal, at the Southern end of the Illawarra Shire, to Baker Place where I’ve spent many days, many nights, my uncle singing country songs and playing his guitar. One of the nice things about getting older is that all our ages converge. S popped in too and it was lovely. We had a killer game of scrabble, which I incidentally won, but it was close the whole way through, touch and go until the last tile went down, which made it great. I like these simple traditions. A finished with a flourish on a triple word, with every tile, but because it was the last play of the game she didn’t get 50 points which would have catapulted her into the lead, leaving K and I floundering in her wake. K had three tiles left and I had GILL. I’ll play scrabble with my mum today or tomorrow, no doubt, too.

so today was three different sides and three different perspectives. With the coal mines of the north at one end and The Steelworks in between. Wollongong was an industrial town and kind of still is, though industry now is transformed from when I was a child. My dad worked in the coal mines when I was little… he also worked at the steelworks at one time or another. In those days almost everyone did. But those days are long gone, as is my dad.

It was nice to start and end the day with these different senses of home.

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