Every year, for as long as I remember, our family would travel to Perth for summer holidays with Nanna and Poppa. We stayed in their house at Bird Street, Mosman Park, with its great back yard. It was near Cottesloe Beach, the Swan River, Chidley Point Golf Club and the local cricket nets. It was a great holiday spot for two boys from the inner city of Sydney.
I remember one summer when I was six or seven, Poppa picked us up from the airport. As I was getting out of the car at Bird Street, I tripped and skinned my knee. I started to cry, but when Poppa rushed over he looked intently at the bitumen where I’d tripped and said: “I hope you haven’t damaged the road”. He was distracting me with humour, but it also in a way encapsulates Pop – things are pretty good and it’s not all about you.
If I was in a sulky mood he would say, “Go out and find smiley”. If I was unhappy, it was “chin up m’boy”. When I asked him anything about his childhood he would say, “We was too poor”. If I asked where to look for something, it was always “up the bum of the black chook”. When I asked what was for dinner, it was always “H, P & H” – hen’s poop and honey. Every time we went on a picnic, or were floating off Cottesloe he would invariably say, “I wonder what the poor people are doing”. He would ask me how I was, and when I said “good” he would say “I know you’re good, but are you well?”. Pop had a phrase for every situation, a vocabulary that lasted him to the end.
Even in the holidays he went into the Sunday Times most days. Every night he’d arrive home from work, with his grey New York magazine bag over his shoulder full of that night’s work. “Ho Ho”, he’d say, as he let himself in the front door. After dinner he’d go up to his office to begin the evening’s work. I remember Pop writing in his little pocket diary, several times a day – a habit that served him well when he started to lose the small details.
I remember on their trips back and forwards to New York, Nanna and Poppa often stopped over in Sydney. They stayed on the fold out bed in our spare room. It was easy for him to go from their Trump Tower penthouse to that small cramped room. It was the same when he left Bird Street and moved into a retirement apartment and then into Peter Arney. He always saw what was good in a situation.
When I think of Poppa and the kind of person he was, a couple of things spring to mind. He was someone you knew would always do the right thing, someone with a deep sense of loyalty and someone with a ferocious work ethic. This may make him sound kind of boring, but with his honesty and determination, he managed to have a sparkling career, to be a part of television history, to give back to the community and to marry his sweetheart – Sheila. Sheila knew that loyalty – he always stood by her, they were a team.
It has been very hard to see him fade over last few years. But despite his memory loss, the essential Poppa has continued to shine through. His “how are you m’boy?”. His smile and his salute. Every time we visited, we would get the salute. There he was, ready for duty – which hopefully involved a view of the ocean and a glass of beer.
TURN AND SALUTE COFFIN