My father, Barry John Ridge, died in the early hours of 9 August 2017. He was 89 years old, and had been living with Lewy Body dementia for around seven years. This is the eulogy I gave at his funeral.
Growing up, the four of us kids were what’s known in the trade—the church trade, that is—as PKs. PKs, parsonage kids, we’re a tribe tens of thousands strong, across the country and across generations who share a common language and experience that is quite unlike that of most kids growing up. There are lots of assumptions made about PKs; we must be incredibly rebellious or else unbelievably sanctimonious and dull, and our parents, especially our fathers, must be strict, uncompromising, and our lives therefore confined and restricted from the freedoms and pleasures other kids enjoy. I’m sure there’s not a PK alive who hasn’t heard some variation on the question, “What’s it like to have a minister for a father (or, of course, mother)?”, the only answer to which is, well, I dunno. What’s it like to have a mechanic for a father? Our father was the only one we had, and our life the only one we knew. And how fortunate indeed were we to have Barry, our father—and Edith, our mother—and the life that they gave us.
Dad, as I am sure all of you who knew him will immediately recognise, was none of those things that our schoolmates assumed. He was neither strict nor boring, and while he had very clear ideas and a firm and unwavering sense of his faith and the values by which he lived, he was neither uncompromising or punishing in his dealings with people in general, and his children in particular. In his role as a Minister of the church, Dad viewed service to others his highest calling, and the absolute expression of his faith. For us, his family, his responsibilities to his parishioners, the broader community and the church meant that there was no such thing as 9 to 5, no reliable “quitting time”, and even his one day off a week was rarely left to him and Mum to share and enjoy without interruption. Perhaps we kids felt it the most on family occasions—only PKs know the peculiar agony of having to wait to open Christmas presents until after Dad’s second or maybe even third service of the day. But while Dad’s working hours may have been unconventional, when he was home—and that may well have been at 3 o’clock when we got home from school, only for him to disappear again after dinner for meetings or Bible study or marriage counselling sessions or youth group—he was absolutely with us in a way many, many fathers of Dad’s generation were not.
In the same way, Dad was a most modern husband in the way he took on his fair share of the housework. He changed our nappies as babies, he cooked and cleaned, he ironed, and he especially loved to work in the garden.
Dad was a practical and pragmatic man. He could turn his hand to pretty much anything; a true child of the depression, nothing was ever wasted, and he took great pleasure in doing up toys, bikes and so on for us kids and the grandkids; they never felt second-hand, but rather, remade with love. His grandson James remembers with great affection the hours they spent pottering in the garage, and the time they made a possum box for a family of ringtails in the backyard at James’s family home house. No piece of wood, no useful piece of rope, no nails and screws, no matter how rusty, were discarded unless absolutely beyond the pale (and not even then, often!). Council clean-ups were a challenge; while Dad loved finding treasures in other people’s unwanted items, convincing him to get rid of dried-up old mops and other things that “just might come in handy one day” was not so easy. He wasn’t miserly, but he was conservative about money, and he hated waste in any form.
Dad genuinely and clearly loved being a father. Fatherhood was so much more than mere duty; it was a pleasure, as well as a responsibility. He enjoyed playing games with us, be it tether tennis or Scrabble, Cluedo or cards (although only simple card games like Snap and Happy Families because, you know, Methodist…). Our strongest memories as a family are associated with music; Dad had a fine singing voice and he was a good pianist. Playing Mum and Dad’s record collection and singalongs around the piano are favourite memories for all of us kids. That piano, his childhood piano, has been lovingly restored by his eldest grandson Peter, in whose home it now resides, and I know Dad would be thrilled to think that Peter and Emelia’s children, Bennett, Isaac and Zarahlinda, will grow up listening to music played on their great-grandad’s piano, and perhaps playing it themselves. (That’s playing it, Ben, not sitting on it!)
I remember stories of he and Mum told of times long before I was born, when they allowed that new-fangled rock and roll music to be played at church hall socials, and the dust the young people raised dancing. Dancing in the Methodist church hall! I can imagine the raised eyebrows this decision caused. When I was 8, Mum and Dad took us to see the first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I think even then I had an idea of what this said about our parents; that they were interested in new ideas and ways of thinking about the world, and that their faith, character and intellect were strong and certain enough to be open to challenges, and not just musical ones (that rock and roll music again!).
Which is not to say they always liked the music we listened to, but they put up with great grace Linda’s period of mild acoustic guitar folk music led teenage rebellion, our collective Barry Manilow fandom, and endless Sunday nights watching Countdown and my seemingly endless obsession with ABBA. In my teenage years, they allowed me to take an overnight bus to Sydney from our then home in Canberra to attend an Elton John concert. They trusted us, they respected our choices, they never once attempted to censor or very rarely expressed disapproval, which is not to say they didn’t offer guidance when required.
Mum and Dad took us to movies and stage musicals from as early as I can remember, and there are many I cannot watch or listen to without associating them with Dad. I think we all remember the night they took us to see Sweet Charity at the Gosford Drive-In without realising what it was about, but to their credit, they didn’t leave, and again, I turn to the words trust and respect—which of course meant we in turn trusted and respected them.
The night after Dad died, I played the movie of Fiddler on the Roof as I wrote a notice about Dad’s death to share with friends on Facebook. David has since reminded me that Mum and Dad made a special trip with us to see Fiddler at the cinema in Sydney, as it wasn’t going to be showing in the cinema in Katoomba, where we were living at the time. They didn’t want us to miss out on a thing we didn’t have to, just because a.) we were living on a Minister’s stipend and b.) we were living what was then a very long way away from the city. Watching Fiddler again I was reminded again how the character of Tevye always makes me think of Dad; it’s without doubt both the unswerving faith in a loving and wise God, and a deep devotion to their children that makes me associate one with the other. Fiddler also has great songs, and Dad, as we know, loved to sing.
One of Linda’s early memories from the Toronto years is Dad along with one of the women from the Couple’s Club, dressed as tramps, singing a duet of Underneath the Arches and Side by Side. I wonder if in another life Dad might not have enjoyed amateur theatricals. He could be a bit of a ham; we remember fondly his appearances in musical reviews on stage at the Victory Hall in Auburn, including his turn in A Murky Melodrama and a pun-filled musical soap opera; I can still hear Dad singing “I’m a Lux Change Daily Girl” with Mum and Dad’s good friend Lynne Drabsch, who is here today.
And of course, none of us will ever forget his lovely voice leading the singing in church. Mum tells us Dad never joined a choir because he wasn’t quite a tenor nor quite a baritone, and he didn’t think he could sing parts. He could sing hymns, though, full-throated and heartfelt. In his later years, when the Lew Body dementia affected his throat muscles and he could no longer sing, it was for us all a significant turning point in his decline, and we missed, and miss, his voice terribly.
Dad always liked being around young people, and he truly enjoyed our company, at home, on Sunday drives, or bushwalks in his beloved Blue Mountains, and especially at the beach, Macmasters (Macs, as we called it), which was in many respects our family home. A small fibro shack when he and Mum bought it in the early 60s, our house at Macs redefined the word “modest”, but lovely as many of the church homes we lived in were, Macs was the only one that was truly ours. And while even on holidays Dad was always busy; building extensions to the house, clearing gutters, calling the snake man to come and relocate an unwelcome visitor, he always, always had time for us. I think we all have in our heads a clear image of Dad emerging from the surf, hair pasted to his head like Mo from The Three Stooges, laughing with the sheer pleasure of being in the surf, and more often than we’d have liked, at the sight of one of us kids emptying our togs of sand after being dumped. The photos where you saw Dad at his most relaxed in the slideshow were nearly all taken at Macs. He loved Macs perhaps more than any of us; his final ritual of every holiday was one last swim, just by himself, no kids allowed, before we loaded ourselves in the car for the trip home.
Dad was also genuinely interested in us as people; interested in our thoughts and interests and lives. Not in an intrusive way—Dad respected our privacy as much as he valued his own—but in an admiring and deeply respectful way. He never mocked us for our ideas or passions as children; as adults, he was always completely supportive of everything we set out to do, utterly and unconditionally proud of us and our achievements, and practical and kind when things didn’t go to plan.
As I was writing those very words, a video of Bennett, my great nephew, Dad’s first great grandchild, landed in my email inbox. The video shows Ben riding a pushbike on his own for the very first time, and in the proud, loving and encouraging words of his parents, Peter and Emelia, I can hear echoes of Dad, and the way he raised us to always give things a go, and of the unselfish, admiring pride Dad and Mum both have always taken in us, and subsequently their beloved grandchildren. Some of Dad’s last words were about his great-grandchildren, and I don’t think that’s any kind of accident. Family was everything to Dad, and in the last difficult years of his life, as the Lewy Body dementia began to take away his ability to engage with the world, his memories of his parents, grandparents, his adored Uncle Jim, his cousin Mavis and other family members were what brought him the greatest comfort and pleasure.
Alison remembers with great fondness her and Dad’s shared love of baseball and softball, and the hours Dad spent with her practising pitching and hitting. Dad played baseball as a kid, and this was a unique bond Alison and Dad had—that is, until she had a son of her own who also became a baseball player. Dad loved going to watch James play, and I think was quietly chuffed about the continuity across the generations.
Some of my own fondest memories are of having serious conversations with Dad about politics and social justice, feminism and other issues dear to my heart. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that Dad held his own intellect in fairly low esteem, but I think he was wrong about that. To me, the mark of intelligence isn’t just about formal scholarly achievement, but about having an agile, open and curious mind. Dad proved over and over again in his lifetime that he had both the capacity and the willingness to change his mind and to accommodate new ideas, while remaining true to his most deeply held principles.
I think in many ways this is the aspect of Dad’s character that I admire and hope to emulate the most.
Dad was also funny, sometimes surprisingly and wickedly so. He was patient, organised to the point of intractable, slow to anger, but righteous in his anger if the cause arose. He was, it has to be said, stubborn, and could therefore be, as Mum has said from time to time, a most infuriating man. But I think it’s the kindness, the compassion, the patience and the good humour that we will all remember most.
We have many stories about Dad we’ve been sharing this week; here are just a couple.
Linda says that, being the eldest, Dad had to learn on the job how to be the father of a teenage girl. She remembers the discreet flicking of the outdoor lights, and the “ahem” of milk bottles being gently rattled—Dad’s way of saying “time to come inside now” when he felt she’d spent enough time saying goodnight to the boyfriend of the day.
Dad’s compassion when we faced heartbreak and disappointment was constant and consistent. Alison remembers, after a personal heartbreak when she was a young woman, that Dad came and sat with her, just sat quietly as she grieved, not speaking, just stroking her forehead and being there loving her. Alison says she thought of this often when, at the end of his life, she reciprocated his loving care, sitting with him in the nursing home, no words spoken, stroking Dad’s forehead and just being there with and for him, loving him.
In the days since Dad’s death, the family have received many messages of love and respect about Dad. The words that keep coming up about him are these:
Kind—and as Dad’s friend Pamela once said to me, kindness is not to be undervalued as a virtue.
Many have spoken of Dad’s guidance and mentorship; my friend from my teenage years, Sally, wrote “I had some of my most important and life-defining conversations with him and loved his mix of kindness, humour and genuine care.” Others have spoken of how Dad supported them in their ministry; others still simply spoke of what a good man Dad was. There have been many more similar messages, and it has helped us all so much to know how much our beautiful dad was so important to, and so loved by so many. He was indeed a good man; he was without doubt the best man I have ever known, and ever expect to know.
I would just like to finish up by reading a passage from a book that informed a great deal of Dad’s ministry and faith, and also reflects exactly who Dad was. It’s one of my most treasured possessions—Dad’s copy of Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Early in the book there’s a section called “MEEK-AND-MILD”, several passages of which Dad has marked; they clearly contained ideas that resonated with him. The section is essentially a critique of the child’s prayer Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, or rather, what it suggests about the character of Christ. Phillips objects to “the impression of a soft and sentimental Jesus (supported, alas, all too often by sugary hymns and pretty religious pictures)” that the words conjure, reminding us that Jesus was a man who did not hesitate to challenge and expose the hypocrisies of the religious people of his day, and who was considered a danger by the authorities. A rebel, and a radical, in fact; not the first things we associate with someone described as “meek and mild”.
Now, Dad wasn’t a boat-rocker in the obvious sense, but nor was he one to stand down from what he believed to be right and true. I think there’s a danger in mistaking gentleness—and Dad was indeed a gentle man—with indecision, weakness or passivity. Dad was none of those. He tempered determination with caution, justice with compassion, and passion with pragmatism.
There is a further offshoot of the worship of this false god which must be mentioned. It is the sentimental Christian ideal of “saintliness.” We hear, or read, of someone who was “a real saint: he never saw any harm in anyone and never spoke a word against anyone all his life.” If this really is a Christian saintliness, then Jesus Christ was no saint. It is true that He taught men not to sit in judgment upon one another, but He never suggested that they should turn a blind eye to evil or pretend that other people were faultless. He Himself indulged no roseate visions of human nature: He “knew what was in man,” as St. John tersely puts it. Nor can we imagine Him either using or advocating the invariable use of “loving” words. To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable: though, equally obviously, His genuine love for men gave Him tact, wisdom, and sympathy. He was Love in action, but He was not meek and mild.
And that is our Dad in a nutshell.
We love you, Dad, we are grateful to have had you for as long as we did, and we will always miss you, but we are glad for your sake that your troubles are behind you. Rest well, dearest Dad, and thank you for everything you did and everything you were.