Joseph My Father

They say that every person born can evoke ‘the feel of the times’ from 20 or 30 years before the date of their birth. Conversations overheard meld with memories, or so it seems.

It is a summer day in 1908. The place is Brunswick. Charlotte Healy is giving birth to her sixth child, a son. He is called Joseph. Just one name: his elder brothers had used up the others.

Station Masters House

Joe is, you might say, a ‘bush boy’. His father, John Healy a railways man, is appointed to Whitfield. There is a photo. C

Joe watches his mother in her apron with her scrubbing brush in hand. She is scrubbing the tiny Whitfield ‘Station Master’s House’ while watching the pot on the wood stove. She has laundry bubbling in a metal tub on an open fire in the back yard. At five years old young Joe is already deft at chopping kindling.

There is a train from Wangaratta that terminates at Whitfield Station, down the bottom of the hill. Joe watches his father busy with arrivals, dispatches, ticketing and filing. Important ‘men’s work’.

Comes the evening.. It is cold in these hills.  The family is huddled around the woodfire. The father is reading aloud: Henry Lawson, Dickens, Shakespeare and CJ Dennis.

Joe is nine years old. He is in school at his desk. Outside the window the adults and the dogs are creating huge noise. The teacher is saying, ‘Peace is declared in Europe.’ Joe is making noise with anything that comes to hand, whooping out onto the street. 

By 2021 John Healy is posted to Kew Railway Station. I have in my hand Joe’s treasured ‘Merit Certificate Grade 8 1922’ from his only city schooling. He is thirteen years old. His childhood is over.

1923 to 1926:  Joe is fourteen and on the way to manhood. He has a job. His father is Station Master at Moonie Ponds; they live close to the bustle of inner-city Melbourne and the beaches of Port Philip Bay. He turns 15 and works full time with a plumbing firm. At night he studies at South Melbourne Tech. He tops his class and is awarded a scholarship. He learns to swim, to dive, to drive and to tinker with engines of all kinds. He is a member of the Catholic Young Men’s Society and the Mordialloc Life Saving Club. He is learning his way around.

1927-1931: At 18 years old Joseph holds his ‘First Class Licence and Certificate of Competence MMBW’. This plumber’s licence will remain current until the day he dies. Joe finds work with a topmost contractor, first as a journeyman then as foreman-in-charge of plumbing, gas fitting, ventilation and heating.

Joe learns ballroom dancing, as young men do in his day. He meets Vera Martin at a church hall dance and falls in love. (Hyper link to previous story ‘Joe Healy Meets Vera Martin’ goes here).

1932 There is worldwide depression, but Joe’s firm has a contract from January 1st to work on the iconic Manchester Unity Building.  This is constructed as a demonstration of precision and speed: one floor every 10 days, 36 floors to be built. By December the building is complete.  Joe’s firm has no further contracts, it goes broke. It is impossible for Joe to find other employment. He teaches for a few hours at night-school at the Tech and the Working Man’s College. He is engaged to Vera, but they cannot start a life together with no income and no house.

1934:   At last, in October, Joe’s glowing references from the firms that have employed him are noticed.  He accepts a humble job of technical maintenance worker at the State Savings Bank in the city. Within a year Joe and Vera have a beautiful wedding, an unfurnished house, a mortgage, and a baby daughter, me. 

From this point I must rely on my own understanding of my father.

My earliest memory convinces me that Vera is the love of Joe’s life, but that he loves me too.  He comes in through the back door from work. Vera is distressed at my implacable naughtiness. Joe needs to give me the smack I deserve. I know that, little though I am. I run down the long passage towards the front door. My father comes after me but cannot manage to smack me. He is profoundly non-violent.

Joe has his standards for behaviour and deals with them in his own way.  At home, around the meal table, he is likely to quote Shakespeare or Dickens.  When I start whinging about something he says with a grin, ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.

As years go by, I watch as Joe greets three more little daughters with tender care and pride. I also begin to watch what he is doing in the world outside our house.

A family at the end of the street has many children and no hot water service. Joe spends his Saturday afternoons doing the plumbing for their house while they go to the football. His knowledge and skills are for helping people in need. Vera worries that he will be exploited.

Joe’s Catholic faith is important to him. There is the story in the gospel of the one by the wayside needing help. Whenever Joe helps someone who is doing it tough, he cannot charge, and he can’t say no.

Joe will stay in the job in the basement of the State Saving’s Bank until he is certain of the family’s security. Seventeen years! Meanwhile has more talent to give than this work requires.

He is becoming a local leader. East Coburg is a new development of young families with big mortgages.  The nearest Catholic school is a long way away. Joe talks to Mick O’Connor, both are new young dads. They want a school to be ready before their babies reach school age. They are marshalling interest, getting a green light to try.

Together with other young parents they bid for the funding needed to buy a block of land in a side street.  With great effort they raise funds to build three school rooms. These can convert to a hall when the partitions between the school rooms are opened. They are working together for what is needed while enjoying each other’s company. There are dances, balls, sports competitions, fetes, high teas and concerts.

My sister Veronica and I are growing up in a community that is rather like a village. We are surrounded by people we have known all our lives. We go to school here, in our makeshift Church/hall. We use the school grounds for weekend sport. We grow up here, learn to dance and are welcomed to the ball, the major fund-raiser of the year.

The parish community consumes a great deal of time. Vera ensures that family is at the heart of the matter. (Hyper link to previous story ‘The Blue Chev’ goes here). If it is Sunday, we are driving to the bush after eating a roast dinner. If it is summer, we are camping at the beach. If there is enough money saved for a special treat we sit in ‘the Gods’ where we watch one of the great Musicals of the era. These are special occasions.

In 1951 the time is right for Joe to leave the Bank.  He is applying for work in the State Government Public Works Department. He attaches the whole of his CV to the application and is successful. His leadership is valued in his new workplace. The Bank offers more money to entice him back. The PWD tops it.  This is the right place for Joe to thrive.

Joe is still working for justice for all. He is enthusiastic about Trade Unionism: Plumbers Union, then Public Service Association Technical and General, then, by election, the Deputy Chairperson of the Public Service Association of Victoria. When ‘Tech and General’ give him a farewell as he moves to greater responsibilities he says, ‘Remember that if you have a question or a problem I am as close as the nearest phone’. 

The family moves to Blackburn ‘among the gum trees.’ Vera and Joe celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, see their daughters settled, enjoy their grandchildren, and travel to New Zealand for an international holiday, the one extravagance of Joe’s short retirement.

When doctors tell Vera that her husband’s cancer is inoperable and that he has two months to live I drive him home from hospital in his precious dark green Mazda. He is 69 years old.

We have two months precisely. During this time the doorbell and phone keep ringing. Friends we know, and many people we have never met, come to the door with gifts of food, with stories of the way Joe had helped them in their darkest times, with a request for just-a-moment to tell Joe they are grateful or that they stand with him in solidarity.

There comes an afternoon when the front gate clicks shut and the only ones at Joe’s bedside are his wife and four daughters. He has what is closest. Mary holds his wrist. Then nods. He dies quietly, at the time of his choosing.

A man of his time, a man of faith.

Did he give too much in loving, in working for justice and fairness, in leading, in gathering family and community together?

There are those who say, ‘Don’t give everything.’

Joseph, my father, did give everything.  I am so grateful.