Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nest feels a little emptier after family ties fortified by floodwaters

A tale from Brisbane's big flood by John Henningham

OF COURSE you must stay with us, I assured my suddenly homeless son. For as long as it takes to rebuild.

Which could be weeks, I thought, looking at the muddied wreck that had been home for the family of four.

We'd seized as many of their possessions as we could, splashing through the rapidly rising waters in our little convoy - cars and a truck bursting with mattresses, fridge, clothes and fluffy toys. A team of touch football mates helped load and disappeared just as rapidly to help other families.

Then the waiting, on that fine and sunny January day, eerily free of portents of the rising catastrophe. Within hours all access was cut off and the broadcast warnings were increasingly grim.

By the end of the day, the slab beneath our high-set Queenslander looked like a bazaar, with son's and a neighbour's chairs, rugs, fridges, beds, cupboards and linen jammed together.

But then the waters receded, and after another day we finally saw our son's house. And saw his heartbreak. Everything inside and out was coated in the drying black muck left behind by the river, its stench filling our nostrils.

The kitchen clock was frozen at 26 past six, witness to the moment the waters had reached halfway up the walls, before rising above the ceiling.

And suddenly the clean-up was on, like a pitched battle. Friends and family were joined by dozens of robust volunteers. The footpath looked like a long garbage tip. Water tankers hosed the slimy mud off the road while trucks picked up the rubbish.

The street took on a carnival atmosphere, with sausage sizzles, drinks and ice creams, everyone helping each other. It was Brisbane at its finest.

The house ended as a skeleton, a framework of studs, joists and trusses, but with the outer boards and tiled roof intact. We settled into a new life - empty nesters no longer. The fledglings sent off by the parent birds had returned with chicks of their own.

There were sympathetic looks from old friends. "It must be difficult," murmured one. They saw my cheerful denials as lacking credibility, perhaps because they knew how grouchy and difficult men of a certain age can become. We'd allocated the little family two rooms plus the second bathroom. Yet over the months there seemed to be a gradual encroachment. The carpets in living areas were colonised by toy cars and trucks, a doll's house, blocks and a train table.

Our bathroom had the house's only bath, so it became a home for rubber duckies, turtles and tiny boats. I'd often find the toilet had a little insert in the seat. The backyard soon had a sandpit and play castle, plus scooter, balls and Tonka truck. Soon it seemed we were confined to two rooms, while the young family had the rest. But story-time and goodnight kisses were a boost - something grandparents normally don't get to experience every day.

Our grandson Patrick turned three during their stay. He delighted in nicknames, had renamed Gran as Nan, and now the tongue-twister of Grandpa was simplified to Punka. I got to like that name.

But it wasn't easy for the young parents, suddenly thrown into a role of dependency while trying to manage their family as well as do their jobs and part-time study, on top of dealing with all the complications of rebuilding and applying for flood funds.

Buttressing the young family was the support from friends and strangers who didn't forget and kept pitching in. Gifts of toys, furniture and clothing poured through our doors. An acquaintance sent a huge hamper of goodies, while meals, cakes and drinks kept arriving from myriad friends.

Very generous cash gifts were quietly and often anonymously dropped in. A former student in Japan sent a donation, little knowing his own country was just weeks away from a far more terrible devastation. And ongoing labour was at hand to get the major reconstruction started, led by my son's parents-in-law.

Surplus gifts of furniture were distributed back and forth between other families in the street, until finally anything extra was packed off to the serious flood victims at Grantham.

A week or so after the flood, the muddied kitchen clock began ticking again. Surely a good sign.

After months when nothing much seemed to happen, a flurry of professional building activity after the flood funds came through meant the house was ready to be lived in again. And so the little family left us, 7 1/2 months after the January disaster.

It was disturbingly quiet and still the first morning after they'd gone. No happy babbling of baby chatter or toddlers' yells and laughter.

No toys being trundled up and down the hallway. No little boy waking us at dawn to ask if we'd play. No calling to order from the parents. No big pot of porridge on the stove.

A dreadful hush that made the place seem lonely. Carpets lay sadly bare, deprived of their toys and kiddie furniture. It was all too quiet and neat.

A couple of days later, as we visited the little family and I looked around at their beautifully restored house, my grandson begged us to stay longer. We realised he was missing us, too.

I told him we had to go back to our house, but we'd be seeing him and his sister often. He threw his arms around me and gave me a tight hug. "I love you Punka," he said. Not entirely a bad flood.

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