If you’d asked me what objects in my parents house might call up memories and ties to childhood, I might have said my mother’s 1970s Tupperware collection or a wooden spoon my dad made that’s smooth and shiny with age. Something domestic and from inside.
I might not have readily recalled a wheelbarrow.
My parents have sold their holiday accommodation business and moved this week to another coastal town where they plan to live out their retirement. It’s been a several years since they downsized and left the family home, the house where each of us moved out into the world, and so apart from photos and trinkets, there aren’t many objects left that link us to our childhood.
Perhaps that’s why news of the wheelbarrow struck me.
The wheelbarrow? Yes, I know, not an obvious item to cause a rush of sentiment. But that’s exactly what happened.
My mum wrote to all four of us a few weeks ago with a sweet, funny note attached to a photo of the beat up old wheelbarrow. Dad felt sad about saying goodbye to a piece of gardening equipment he’d had for 37 years – since I was two years old. He had bought it in Melbourne in about 1974. We took it to Tasmania. It followed us to southern New South Wales and here.
There wouldn’t be room, or use for it at the new house with its tiny patch of retirement village lawn. They decided to leave it behind, selling it with all the other gardening equipment so that the new owners of their business could use it around the yard.
Mum attached a photo of the old barrow. I felt at once that something so integral to every single home I lived in until I move out was deeply significant. If it had come this far with us, it could go further.
I read mum’s email on my phone while I was sitting in the car at the shops and within seconds I called my parents.
‘Don’t sell the wheelbarrow! You can’t! Please let me have it!’
Mum put me on speaker phone so Dad could hear this ludicrous request.
‘But it leans to the left,’ Dad said. ‘And it’s ancient.’
‘I don’t care. You’ve had it forever and you’ve pushed all four of us around the yard countless times in it. You can’t get rid of it.’
I heard myself, choked with sentimentality. Where was this coming from? My heart was pounding with the urgency of it. This decision had to be reversed!
The thing is, we now have a wheelbarrow just like it. It’s an old one too. It belonged to Sean’s parents. The tire doesn’t hold air. It’s rusty. It’s probably no more functional than my dad’s. It must have been standard issue at hardware stores all over the country and probably still is, although you can buy more modern styles now.
See, here is Alice riding in ours last year. It’s even red like my dad’s.
I’m sure if I went back through old family albums I’d find countless photos of all of us doing just the same thing.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in my wish for the wheelbarrow. Each of my siblings wrote to mum and dad saying at the very least they should keep it and grow flowers in it or something. After all, if Dad’s claim that it ‘leans to the left’ (following a shaft breakage years ago) is true, how useful is it to anyone else? And wouldn’t the new owners replace it with a shiny new, lean-free model at some stage, relegating OUR wheelbarrow to the scrap heap?
We couldn’t let it happen. I hate to think what the outcome would have been if Mum hadn’t snapped a photo and sent it to us. Where would we be now? Our important object would be in the possession of people who would know nothing of the years of labour. The soil it has carried, the bricks it has moved, the endless loads of garden waste and, of course, all those fun rides around the yard.
We decided one of the very earliest photos, which I wish I could scan, is of me and my dad on our driveway in 1974 or 1975. Dad is laying concrete on a sunny afternoon and I’m there beside him with a wheelbarrow full of concrete mix nearby. It’s possibly where an early nickname, Helpful Helen (who had an Assistant Adele not long after) originated. How many weekends did we spend as children following Dad around the yard, trundling behind the old faithful wheelbarrow?
See? We couldn’t let it go.
The wheelbarrow isn’t here yet. It’ll sit in storage until my parents can bring it next time they come to town (it won’t fit in our car).
I think I will, as suggested by my siblings, make garden art out of it. I’ll plant annuals, perhaps daisies or pansies every year and hope the chickens don’t decide it’s a piece of play equipment for them, but before I do, we’ll push Alice around in it. My nephew Willem has certainly had his share of rides and probably Alice has too – but she can have one last ride before we fill it with dirt.
Like my parents, the wheelbarrow can now retire and have an easy life. After all, there’s been a lot of heavy lifting.