Dad died suddenly in a car accident at just 49 years old. 29th May 1978. It was an unbelievable shock. As I write that, I see myself then at just 19 years old. I was smack in the middle of seven children. Maree, the oldest was 25 with two babies and Marica the youngest was just seven. Barely a year before, Dad had handed me over to my new husband at our wedding.
One of my favourite pics of Dad. At Colleen’s 21st. He absolutely loved to dance and here he has encouraged Nana, Mum’s Mother, up onto the dance floor.
As often happened in small communities news spread rapidly. Gilbert was truck driving and hearing it on the RT, came straight to me where I was teaching at a Kindergarten. I was in the sandpit with the children when I looked up. It was unusual for him to visit, but I just assumed he was passing. He stopped and spoke to the head teacher before coming to me and he guided me gently into the staff room saying he had to tell me something. I had a foreboding because of his manner, but could never have expected what it was.
Gilbert told me Dad had been in an accident and to get my bag, we would go. He held me as I cried, but couldn’t answer my questions. I pulled myself together once we got in the car. I needed to be strong for Mum, but became distraught when Gilbert turned South for home, not North for the hospital. Gilbert couldn’t tell me anything, but when I kept insisting we go to the hospital, he simply repeated, we needed to go to Mum, not the hospital. I didn’t get it. If it was bad like Gilbert was leading me to believe…I was confused. My mind couldn’t quite comprehend.
Johnny told me a little while ago he had taken the day off high school. Tony had said “if you’re not going to school then you may as well make yourself useful here”, and got him prepping at the takeaway bar he ran with Mum. Dad drove a van doing deliveries. It was called ‘Fast Freight’. Dad and a mate, Laurie Hyland came up with the idea. The fore runner of todays courier van, he would pick up and drop off stuff as fast as he could. This job was right up Dads ally really. Going fast was in his blood.
Tony told me recently someone had rung Mum and said they thought Louie had been in an accident so Tony and Johny raced to the site, and Tony quickly realising it was bad, told Johny to stay in the car. They then drove to Mum and broke the news to her. How hard must that have been.
Lindy told me she was at work when our cousin came and told her, so she and Chip dashed home.
Maree told me she had dropped Karen to school and Tracey to Kindergarten when she got a rather strange call from an old family friend, asking if she had heard any news. She hung up thinking that was a strange call, when Tony phoned to tell her. No doubt Marica and Michael have their versions too. Every detail so clearly remembered.
When Gilbert and I pulled up at home Mum was walking in a daze outside and I remember her telling me Dad had died in an accident. Dad gone? The whole thing was too much and as each of us arrived, we sat and cried. Stunned. Disbelieving through the next few days, nodding as people held our hands and told us how sorely he’d be missed.
That first day Mum handed me a notebook of phone numbers of people she needed to tell. She was just numb. She hardly spoke. We sat on the side of their bed and I sobbed as I relayed the news to old family friends with her at my side. Nobody could believe it. Neither could I, even as I delivered the news. Mum and Tony organised much of the funeral. Tony was just twenty two years old, organising his Fathers funeral. It wasn’t fair, but he stood tall and shouldered the responsibility.
Mum had wanted to see Dad, and against all advice, we went to the funeral home and saw Dad in his Sunday best. We lined up against a wall, as far from him as we could after being ushered in. Silence. We stood there unsure of what should happen. We had never done this before. Such a strange feeling. I stepped forward. Closer and closer until I was at Dads side and touched his face. So cold, and the colour was wrong. Much too pale for his Arabic features. I fingered the silk of his tie with tears flowing freely as I heard Michael in the background protesting loudly to Mum that I shouldn’t be up there. I shouldn’t be touching him. “Make her stop” he begged.
Mum however stepped forward also and encouraged the others too. We all cried, but I remember, you had to try and keep yourself in check. Not let it go, as who knows…You might not be able to pull yourself back in, and then what would happen? You might not get control of your emotions. You’d be a mess forever. We were grown ups now. It was alright to cry, but just little sobbing quietly. That was OK. Not a screaming heap, like I was fast falling into. I was perhaps the most emotional of all, and even now am the most likely to cry over anything. My reaction was possibly scary for the others. Crying was for babies, not adults.
We left Dad there. That was protocol. The next time we were with him was at the church, but now the lid was closed. That was how it was done back then. There was no more real goodbye. Such a stupid British stiff upper lip way of doing things. I bet my Croatian and Lebanese ancestors never sat around the edge of a room with a hanky dabbing at tears quietly, and I know my Irish ancestors definitely didn’t! How did things get so distant and cold? How was it we pretended it wasn’t a big deal. That someone simply wasn’t here any more.
The church was filled to the gunnals, inside and out. Speakers were put up so people outside could hear, though I was oblivious to that. I heard later it was one of the biggest funerals they’d had and police were diverting traffic.
I remember coming out of the church and there were people everywhere. It was all a blur as we went to the cemetery. That final goodbye as Dad was buried was incredibly hard. Poor Mum. Just turned 46 and Dad 49.
Someone, with the best of intentions took Marica away for much of the time. Crazy when I think now that the best thing is to be together, to cry and share stories and say goodbye. Not stifle it back as you make endless cups of tea for visitors, or accept cakes that stick in a throat too dry to swallow. Eating to fill a belly that has no hunger.
I believe it was Tony Buller who got the bright idea to paint the leopard onto Dads race car and he immediately became ‘Louie the Leopard’.
In the race team he was often used to come up the rear and bump off the competitors, so other team members could take the lead. He was the one the public loved. The one they cheered for.
I wouldn’t say Dad was famous but he certainly was well known. Not for his doing any greater good, but for his escapades, dare devil-ness and even now when people hear his surname, if they were involved in the world of cars and racing, then they know of him. Was it weird that he was forty-nine when he died and his race car number was 49?
The older ones who really knew him are gradually falling away now, but the stories have lived on. When we meet any old timers they love to share a memory and they are most often funny. Its good to laugh. Its good to know he touched so many lives in a fun way. I’m sad now that I never really knew him as an adult. I was 19 years old. Had not long left home, just married and was really just starting to ‘know’ him. I was always sad that our kids never got to know him. He adored children and they would have loved him. Now we would never be able to hand our babies over proudly to him, their grandfather. Never to see him rock them as a baby, to dance with them, play his piano accordion or tell them his stories, and I’m sad for that future they lost with him.
Mum & Dad at Red Dawson’s wedding. Chee thought Grandpa looked like a movie star.
But I was always mostly sad for Mum. She was heartbroken. He wasn’t the best husband. He had his faults and she knew them well, but she loved him more than words can say.
He signed off his last love letter to her before they married. “Goodnight little sweetheart. Yours till hell freezes! Louis x x x x x x x
She told me much much later that just before his death she was worried about something and she had cried. What if he wasn’t around to help her, and he had held her and said, “I’ll always be here, alright? I’ll always be here”. That was just a few days before he died. She told me it took her about three years to stop being so angry and sad. To stop crying herself to sleep. The nights were the hardest, bought up in a world where you ‘grin and bear it’. It was the first time in her life she was to sleep alone. All her life she had slept with her sisters in a double bed, until she married Dad. It wasn’t till she went to a ‘coping with grief’ weekend that she could move forward.
True to my form the tears are flowing freely as I write this. I still think of Dad as we pass the spot where he died, and I’m grateful for that instant death. His dog, Rom a constant companion, killed with him. Thrown from the vehicle. Micheal apparently retrieved him, and Johny helped bury him. That would have been hard too.
The roads are different now. Realigned and widened so visibility is better. I get why people want to put crosses at the place of death as that’s the place I most often think of him. I never visit the cemetery. There is no solace in the grey rows marching down the field, marking death, after death, after death.
I read the other day of an app you can get where you get a reminder every few days that you could die at any moment. You would think it would be a morbid sort of thing to get, but they say it makes you stop and smell the flowers. To be grateful for each day and all that is in it.
Why am I thinking about this now? Because the 29th of May 2018 is the 40th anniversary of his passing, and our family gathered with yet more great grandchildren at the old homestead where Dad grew up, where we also grew up as he took over half the farm, and where Johny and Sarah have since raised their family. We stood and laughed over shared memories. The amount of times we moved the bricks, how careful we had to be with the water, the parties and Lindy sneaking out the window…that was a pretty high window Lindy! I can’t help but feel like a young girl again there.
Dinner was peppered with some of Dads favorites like Fried rice and Nasi Goreng that he got Lindy to bring home from her job at the takeaways, and Lindy had made Mum’s Lebanese cabbage rolls.
We ohhhed and ahhhed over Johny’s alterations and imagined the house warm and toasty, when it had been freezing when we were children. We were amazed at the master bedrooms new ensuite, comparing it to where we had nine of us with one bath and toilet in the same room, when we were young, to the three or four bath/shower options now! Amy marveled how small the house was for a family of nine, while Lindy marveled that Johny had kept the same wallpaper in the back toilet that Mum had done.
We watched a DVD Tracey had made of the days of racing with Ivan Swain who pointed out he often raced Dads No: 49, and we laughed uproariously as Tony clicked through reels of family slides. Lindy with her blonde hair halo in her communion clothes, as she assured us she could have been a nun. Dad chainsawing right beside the washing blowing in the breeze. God, he must have made Mum angry!
Tony with his arms around yet another dog and Micheal in the go cart. Our children were amazed at all the pictures of dogs, as we argued over whether it was Rom or Peter or Fritz or Patch or Remus or Loot or Jason… Who would call their dog Jason? Most of our dogs were pre-loved and pre-named.
But most precious of all, we were thrust back to a family, with a heap of kids and extras around a table. Full of life and laughter. So many memories there in that old place. Thank you Johny and Sara for opening your home once again.
I just might give my memorabilia another outing May 29th. Dads badge from the very early stock car days. Auckland Stock Car Drivers & Owners Association.