Christmas Round Robin 2008 - Andrew Neaum


It is a lovely grey day as I begin this letter. Grey is not a much celebrated colour. It has no place in the rainbow or in our affections, being too close a relative to black, which is an absence of all colour. Its equal kinship to white does not redeem it either, because that too is no colour, or is all colours blended into no colour. I myself, however, love grey. Yesterday we had over an inch of rain and never once saw the sun. North of “the divide”, here in Victoria, sunny days predominate and are relentless, unending and often hatefully hot. Grey days are to be rejoiced and revelled in. There can be no hope of a white Christmas in Shepparton, but I long for a grey one and dream of a sojourn on the Aleutian Islands, as grey and gloomy as anywhere on earth, I believe.


Grey is a common colour among birds, and my ornithological predilections have caused me to befriend and admire many of them. The most fondly remembered is the grey loerie of Rhodesia, the “go away bird”. May Robert Mugabe and his horrible henchman heed its call and depart to the hell that their evil renders a moral necessity, if not a credible one.


We delight in birds galore in the middle of Shepparton, not all of them grey either, for the glorious rainbow lorikeets thrill us at this time of the year. A fountain and water-lilied pond in the middle of the secluded, walled lawn and garden that we sit and look out on to everyday, has as a nearby companion a large feeding tray, invented and made by Margaret for me as a birthday present many years ago. It hangs from a tree branch, and with the fountain attracts birds in both variety and number. There is a most welcome crested Australian dove called a “topknot pigeon” that takes me back to happy days in Rhodesia, reminding me of the far more beautiful and remarkable crested hoopoes that walked our Gatooma lawns.


                                                                        Oh how I long to travel back,

                                                                        And tread again that ancient track!


                                                                        Some men a forward motion love,

                                                                        But I by backward steps would move

                                                                        And when this dust falls to the urn,

                                                                        In that state I came, return.


It was in Gatooma that Henry Vaughan’s wonderful poem “The Retreate” was first brought to my attention, quoted to me in response to one of my sermons by Noel Brettell, himself the finest poet I have ever had the privilege of knowing. It has been a favourite poem ever since.


The past year has had a certain greyness to it, though in being a bonus year for Margaret and myself it has been a greyness dawn-flushed by blessing and happiness far more than by misery and disaster. Her inoperable lung cancer has been held at bay by her quiet acceptance of it, by her good decision to refuse chemotherapy, by palliative radiation and by an effective and not impossibly toxic drug called Iressa.


We both dislike the battle and fighting imagery commonly associated with cancer. Margaret hasn’t fought the disease, she has accepted it, even, perhaps, embraced it. This requires more courage than any fight and is a more profoundly Christian approach, for our sweet Faith enjoins us to embrace our enemy and to turn to him the other cheek in order to enable love’s alchemy and God’s grace, sometimes at least, to disarm him and work wonders, even if only for a while and in unexpected ways. We have been granted a wonderful year that we thought we would never have. One that has seen the birth of a first grandchild and the priesting of a son, among many other good things. So although, as I write, Margaret’s condition is more dire than it was this time last year, and although this Christmas is all but certain to be our last together, we will rejoice and make merry as best we can. She has to walk with the aid of walker, or be wheeled in a chair these days and is on a number of sophisticated pain killers. She continues to sew (especially and imaginatively for little Meg the granddaughter), to read, help about the house as much as she can and remains positive, grateful, accepting and a credit to her faith, her family and her humanity. Deo gratias.


The last three years for me professionally have been testing in that personal and family matters have obtruded to blur my focus and lessen my effectiveness. It all began with my own brush with cancer, a couple of years ago and continues now with Margaret’s. I worry that I am not doing my parish justice, though its parishioners assure me that this is by no means so, and they are certainly doing me justice in their support and care. They authenticate the Christian faith in their daily, practical, selfless parish living and loving and so incarnate into reality for me the God and Spirit I delight so much to pontificate, theologise and theorise about.


In the diocese at large I have been one of the six clergy and six laity responsible for choosing a new bishop. We installed John Parkes earlier today, in a packed cathedral with an impressive service. Born and educated in England, but well Australianised he was the Dean of Brisbane until he accepted Wangaratta. He appears to be just the man for a difficult job and I look forward to working with him and under his guidance.


I am beginning to learn from my increased domestic duties and in caring for Margaret, just how unworthy and superficial has been my self-satisfaction with my own domestic involvement and capabilities up until now. Never once has Margaret said “I told you so.” She appears to accept my ineptitude with gratitude, though I think with an inward smile or two as well.


Our oldest son Peter remains working for Vision Australia in Albury. Having successfully undertaken a computing course with a teaching component to it, he has supplemented his already impressive I.T. expertise and been promoted. He now does more travelling to visit the homes of visually impaired folk advising and teaching them how best to choose and use suitable software on their computers. He moved to another house in the middle of Albury early on in the year, a gut-wrenching, back-breaking business performed by him, me and a trailer. For most of the year he has shared the house with his sister Rachel who, having finished university in Canberra, took up a year’s work as a research assistant in the Education Department at Charles Sturt University in Albury. Peter has also acquired a red, jazzy little four wheel drive car and does a lot of roaming and camping. He remains a droll, witty and argumentative fellow, far too soft of heart for his own good, but to the great joy and benefit of those around him.


David and his wife Rachel are now happily resident in Sturminster Newton in England. David was priested in Salisbury Cathedral on June the 28th, and so once more there is a priest called David Neaum to grace the Anglican Church. Because Margaret was not up to the trip, our family was represented by Nathan, Elizabeth and little Meg, barely four months old. David is now the curate of a Dorset village called Marnhull. His wife Rachel was deaconed in Salisbury Cathedral, on the 27th September and is assistant curate in the parish of Sturminster Newton, Hinton St. Mary and Lydlinch. They appear to be enjoying country parish life enormously and also earning a salary each after so many years of study and of student austerity. David tells me that clerical life is considered so good in the fair county of Dorset that “it kills ambition”. However Rachel continues to polish up her doctoral thesis and David contemplates further study himself, possibly a PHD. In the meantime congenial parish life and good and contented country living absorb them . We have photos of them plucking pheasants, of David fly fishing and of both of them walking the lovely countryside. A civilized pair they are a delight to converse and banter with regularly by way of Skype.


Nathan and Elizabeth have had a hugely eventful year. First of all little Margaret Isabel “Meg” McGrath was born in Canberra on the afternoon of the 20th of February. She weighed seven pounds and a bit, and to me looked like a diminutive and swashbuckling little oriental pirate, an appearance that largely disappeared with the departure of early jaundice. She was baptized into the Church of God at the Easter Eve ceremonies here at St Augustine’s wearing a lovely christening gown made for the occasion by Margaret. Pretty well all our immediate family was present because my sister Sue and her husband Bob who live in Cape Town were in Australia, the very best of good company, and my brother Peter from Brisbane joined us a day or two later to join in the fun with us all. While down here for the baptism, Nathan, a countryman at heart, hailing originally from a farm in Tumbarumba, enquired about employment as an accountant in Benalla (sixty kilometres east of Shepparton) and was offered a job immediately. After some negotiation he accepted the offer, and so to our great delight he, Lil and Meg moved from Canberra to Benalla in early May. We now see a good deal of them all and can really get to know Meg as well as be known by her. Shortly after arriving they all headed off for a four week stint in England and Ireland, staying in David and Rachel’s recently vacated residence in Cambridge to start with, and then joining them in Sturminster Newton for the ordination. Elizabeth is a wonderful mother as is Nathan a father and they are also a great source of strength to both of us in our trials and tribulations.


Our Rachel, as I have already noted, also bade farewell to Canberra this year, and after a little vacillation, wondering whether she should get a job in Shepparton to assist her mother and father, was persuaded otherwise and accepted the offer of work as a research assistant in Albury. With a first class honours degree from a good university she has all sorts of options open to her and felt that she needed a year to work out what next. Although offered a contract by Sturt University she has elected to move to Melbourne to do a little interim study for a year, possibly to gain a masters degree in theology, but also to do an internship with a reputable literary magazine for a day a week. She then favours doing a doctorate, either in England or America on a topic that brings together her three great interests, namely philosophy, literature and theology. She is a quick-witted, very articulate and easy going person, a delight to have around.


So although it has been a grey year for us it has been a lovely grey year, full of familial love and achievement. As with the Galah, the most ubiquitous of all Australian cockatoos, below the surface ash grey of the obvious have glowed the rose-pink embers of beauty, grace, love and godliness. Deo gratias indeed, and a blessed Christmas and new year to you and yours from us and ours.