In a short memoir, “A Brief Vacation” American writer Judith Moore describes being drawn back to old ground. We are told, she says, to move forward, forget the past, focus on the present but there is always something that gnaws at you.
I get it, the reason why Geelong feels so good.
I left Geelong as a seventeen-year-old with big hopes and ambitions that way back then could then have been fulfilled in what felt like a small town that turned its back on its best asset Corio Bay. Forty-one years later I am back.
Most mornings I run with my dogs up Yarra Street past St Mary’s Cathedral and to Eastern Beach. Not to music on my I-pod but to vivid memories: towelling myself dry in the change rooms one chilly November Saturday morning and learning that JFK had been assassinated; swimming lessons there, before Summer got underway, in the icy cold pool; the elation of finally getting my Junior Certificate in the Herald Sun Learn to Swim program; and of diving into the ‘big’ pool on the promenade, fully dressed, to retrieve a hand-full of sand and seaweed from the bottom, a requirement of the Bronze Medallion I so badly wanted. I still swim there and I think of Hubert, my great grandfather, who dived off the diving board every day and maintained a healthy vegetarian diet only to be knocked off his bicycle and killed when his head hit the gutter … or so the story goes.
We keep running. Corio Bay resplendent on my right, up the hill, past my father’s first home in Geelong, through the Botanical Gardens to Limeburner’s Point where the smell of shell grit and sea grass reminds me always of the heat of summer. We turn back there and run towards home, past the hospital where I was born, and where I was stitched up after cutting myself when, delivering a jar of honey to our neighbour across our street, I tripped and fell.
Some days I swim laps at Kardinia pool where I trained as a teenager and whenever I do, I remember my first taste of American take away food. Fish and chips or Chinese take away, always dished into our pots and pans, had been our regular Friday night dinner but Geelong’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet had just opened and mum surprised us by stopping there one night after swimming training.
Some days I run my dogs on the running track along the Barwon River. A memory of fourteen-year-old me at boat races abandoned by my no-longer friends and hot, in a woollen skirt and jumper on an unseasonally warm day, inevitably catches me up as I pass underneath the Moorabool Street Bridge. I remember the desire for the day to end and to be invisible (which I probably was). Now the days aren’t long enough. The muddy water smell is the same as when we flung ourselves off the rope just near the old bridge at Mt Pleasant Road or dived in off a wooden jetty at Queens Park and swam to the other side on hot January days.
At Capra, my local café, the girls know me by name and my preferred style of coffee. I buy one to take away and I head home via the back lanes. Branches hang over fences and plum trees offer me their ripening fruit. My own garden has a white nectarine tree and three Granny Smith apple trees.
Our family business was in James Street. The building is long gone but I still remember the smell of fresh ink and the clang and suck of the printing machines as they pulled up empty sheets of paper and filled them with words and pictures. I was fascinated by the ingenuity of the office window, a sheet of sliding glass that rolled open over small metal ball bearings.
My eighteen-year marriage ended abruptly soon after my mother was diagnosed with dementia and I have returned to Geelong to help her. Her failing memory has made her hold on to the remnants of who she was and has made her fiercely independent. When I visit, she greets me suspiciously at the front door and bars my entrance. Still there is something about returning. I feel deeply satisfied. I have come home.