Life Relationships Happy Father’s Day: Forget the socks, how about some nice hankies?
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Happy Father’s Day: Forget the socks, how about some nice hankies?

John Elder and his daughter Milo when she was six months old. It took Milo and her sisters 20 years to teach him one of life's great lessons.
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Ernest Hemingway wasn’t known for his comedy. I’ve read his early stories many times and I only laughed when a character, in ridiculous despair, was running away from something.

In the story ‘Indian Camp‘, a woman is noisily having a baby on a lower bunk. On the top bunk, her husband can’t run away because of a leg injury. So he goes to grim lengths to avoid his wife’s crying and screaming, and in doing so makes the day all about himself.

I won’t go into it any further, because it’s Father’s Day.

However, I’m a man trying to make a point and therefore can’t be stopped. A few years ago I read a sympathetic essay in which a case was made that just about all of Hemingway’s work, his best stuff, was about running away from the screaming or trying to make it stop.

“My daughter Charlotte is a fixer. But if she needs listening to, there’s no avoiding it,” says John Elder.

As a father and serial husband, I took the Hemingway route for about 20 years. We’ve all been there, haven’t we brothers?

“Oh Jesus, please don’t cry.”

Or even better:

“Aw no, what is it now?”

We’d rather pull out our rather limited emotional tool box and try and fix the situation. Or pull off our ears. Or say a prayer of thanks because we had to get to work. Or deal with a phone call. Or just in a mood about the whole thing.

In the end, my daughters wouldn’t stand for it

For most of her childhood, my eldest daughter, Milo, lived with me. This began when she was two years and two weeks old. When she turned three, I had to move to Melbourne for work, with the understanding that her mother, Lisa, could visit from Sydney when she liked, and that she’d have all school holidays.

I remember, in the early days of single fatherhood, my dad took me out to a Chinese lunch and said, “Look it won’t always be like this.”

John Elder’s daughters Charlotte, Lila and Milo: An afternoon Christmas in an Adelaide hotel, 2010.

I guess he either worried I’d fall into despair or run away with the circus when the reality of caring for a small child, day after day, sunk in. The fact is, largely because Milo was an easy-going and sweet companion, I really loved those years.

I fed the hell out of her, thinking a truckie-sized plate of food (with half a tree of broccoli on it) would keep her healthy. At restaurants, people would steal her away to their table. Waiters took her to the kitchen. She ate anything. Raw fish and raw beef at Japanese joints, olives and anchovies, the eyes in whitebait she made a great show biting off and chewing. And she was a ruthless critic of my cooking. (Years later she had an Instagram account called Chubby Milo, reviewing restaurants.)

Anyway. Life was good. If I wanted to go and watch flamenco dancing or whatever, she came along and fell asleep on my hip when she needed to. She sat through all sorts of art movies. The only time we had to leave early was during Dumb and Dumber when Jeff Daniels filled a toilet that then overflowed. William Burroughs she could cope with, a comic attack of the runs, not.

And then …

When she was six a couple of things happened. A baby sister Charlotte was born with all the surprise of a rabbit coming out of a hat. A year after that, I married someone who wasn’t Charlotte’s mother.

Ten very difficult and in many ways tragic years went by. I’m not getting into that. But Charlotte and Milo had a hard time of it. Then another little sister came along, Lila.

When Lila was two, her mother took her to Adelaide. That was the beginning of another dozen years where certain difficulties remain in train.

For four and a half years I drove once a month to Adelaide to see Lila. Milo drove through the night with me on many of those trips. The conversations were very tough. I’d rather not have talked at all. But there was a lot I had to hear and hear it more than once.

Charlotte had her own way of putting me through the wringer.

There was no great epiphany on my behalf. Instead, there was a gradual accrual of understanding, not only of what the girls had gone through. I knew the facts. It just took me a good while to submit to sitting under the bright lights listening to them.

And none of this was really about making their father feel rotten about himself. Or even understanding their situation. It was about recognising who they were.

One night, Milo turned up in a terrible state, let down by a young man.

For an hour, maybe two, I sat on the couch, her head on my lap. The sobbing went on all that time. I didn’t ask. I didn’t make suggestions. I didn’t make up an excuse to get the hell out of there. I just sat there and patted her shoulder and, okay, maybe I thought about other things now and then. But I waited until she was ready for us to eat something.