A memoir by Ian MacIntosh
I don’t think it is unreasonable that one should hope for, and even expect, a pretty special present for your 50th birthday. After all, isn’t it something of a miracle that you’ve come this far?
When it was coming close to my big day, my wife Karen and our four year old daughter Thea-Rose, began to tease me mercilessly about how, if I couldn’t come up with some decent birthday present ideas, they would have no choice but to give me underwear.
“Did I have a favourite colour”, they would ask. “Boxers or briefs? How about pink with orange spots?” But I’d always go blank when asked such questions, and really don’t feel that I lack for anything – especially in the way of material possessions. And I usually wear my underwear, shoes, and other items of apparel to the point of total disintegration. I’m still wearing the business shirts that my younger brother gave me 10 years ago. I’m really not one for the shopping. But undies for my 50th? “You’ll have to do better than that,” I protested.
As the birthday approached, the teasing was rapidly becoming intolerable, as was my silence to them, but all that was swept away when I awoke on my birthday to a large cloth covered box at the foot of the bed – big enough to hold a hundred pairs of underwear, I thought to myself.
Well wrapped within was a beautiful piece of porcelain – a jolly old bearded Chinese fisherman atop a great turtle rock, hauling a huge golden fish from the water. It’s an extraordinary sculpture, and Karen and Thea-Rose had bought it on a whim. They did not know how I would react to such an unusual gift or if it would have any significance for me at all. (They kept the receipt so it could be returned). Now this fisherman is certainly not something that I would ever have gone out of my way to buy – but then again I had not seen anything quite like it – and I don’t frequent the types of shops where one might find such an item.
In short, after an initial few minutes of sheer puzzlement, and surprise, a feeling of déjà vu dawned on me – I had seen something like it before – in my parent’s house in Brisbane. My mother had purchased a series of small Chinese porcelain treasures in her youth and they had pride of place in the living room of our Yeronga home. One of those figurines depicted an old fisherman sitting on a rock, and I had loved it as a child. My mother says it is still there, though it’s now broken to pieces, covered in cobwebs, and barely recognizable. It’s too difficult to clean, and it probably wouldn’t survive the handling.
Growing up in the 1960s, these little figurines, as well as other curiosities in the house like Aboriginal bark paintings from Arnhem Land, or Tibetan prayer wheels, had inspired in me a sense of wonder about the world, beckoning me to learn, to know, and understand the rich tapestry that surrounds us.
With the death of my father just six months earlier, seeing this new Chinese sculpture transported me back to Yeronga – back to an earlier time – and I could tap in to that sense of wonder that has helped define the course of my life and who I am.
Living so far away from home – way away in Indianapolis – has been something of a struggle of late, and I was speechless and so very thankful to Karen and Thea-Rose for such a wonderful gift. And how serendipitous! I could barely express my gratitude. Here was a special gateway – a time tunnel even – to a special and carefree time in my life.
When I finally got up to get dressed, I realized that I had no clean underwear. They were all in the wash! I really did need a few new pairs of undies! Orange, pink, or whatever. But it just wouldn’t do as a present.