One Sacred Day

By Margaret McCaffrey. Melbourne, VIC

Thirty-four years after my father’s death, I drove one frosty morning in 2010 to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. It’s a pyramid-shaped building keeping guard, sphinx-like, over the city. There, I joined the shivering, silent crowd huddled around the eternal flame for the pre-dawn service, as the bugle strains of The Last Post haunted our bodies. This was the first time I’d ever attended an ANZAC service, looking, perhaps, for something I was unable — or unwilling — to find while he was alive.

In my father’s time, I had a low-grade dread of ANZAC Day. To me, it seemed like a Good Friday for soldiers. Instead of the churches being the only buildings open, on this day the pubs and bars joined them. Every skeletal bone in my teenage body resolutely ignored the fact that my father was rising in the dark to join the men of the 2/6th Battalion for the march down St. Kilda Road. For me, the parade seemed like the convenient precursor to the moment when it was over, and the ex-servicemen could retreat to the nether regions of their respective clubs. Dad’s battalion met at the Duckboard in Flinders Lane. Inside, the men must have re-lived the real lives they’d shared many years ago; lifetimes before most of them had married and had us children. Later in the evening, they’d wend their way home to their current lives, which might have looked to them in their haze as if we’d all just mysteriously popped up in front of them.

My father, Jim McCaffrey, in Egypt in 1940

On the afternoon of my own personal vigil to the shrine, I reported back to my mother. Was I looking for some kind of absolution? A puppy’s reward or bravery medal for good daughterhood. My mother gently handed me a black and white photograph taken of Dad and his friends one ANZAC Day. They’re standing outside the old Buckley and Nunn in Bourke Street. My father is glaring at the camera. The other three men are looking at each other and laughing. Not my dad. He stares at the camera as if it might have done something wrong, or as if to say this sacred day is no laughing matter. I was in no doubt that it was — a holy day.

In the photograph, Dad looks a little like all five of us children. He could be his 26-year-old self on parade at Puckapunyal army base before the war. Or an army lieutenant standing to attention in the Middle East. I see the fierce determination on his face in each of my four brothers. But most of all I see it on my own.

He is standing very straight for a man with a back injury. Maybe a little too straight. His medals are strapped to the breast coat of his good plaid suit, and he carries over his arm a beige raincoat, which I do not remember. April in Melbourne can be a rainy month.

Arthur Browne, the friend who gave Mum the photo, has pencilled the date on the back. I’m surprised to discover that it was taken just four years before Dad’s death. He died in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, eleven days before ANZAC Day in 1976. It was on the morning after his death, when I heard the news, that my own slow pilgrimage back to him began.

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