Retirement Life

Community Contributor

Why returning back to my childhood home was so emotional

Why returning back to my childhood home was so emotional

Ray Thomas left his family farm in South Australia when he was in his 20s and moved to New Zealand. He has always loved writing short stories and watching sport. He married an amazing woman 16 years ago and they both retired three years ago. They love family life, travelling, spending time in their large garden and fostering young children.

My wife and I had been planning the trip to my home state of South Australia, for many months. Now, after very little sleep because of our early flight, combined with great anticipation, we were finally on our way. Like excited young children off on their first overseas holiday, we happily boarded our aircraft. We grinned at each other saying, “Aussie here we come”.

This, in all likelihood will be final trip home to South Australia, the country I left about 45 years ago, but still the country I call home. I fully expected the holiday to be full of mixed emotions. Fortunately, I had my amazing wife beside me, to share it with.

So what the real reason for this trip, and why do it now? I have older siblings who are not in the best of health, so thought it would be nice to spend time with them, while I have the opportunity. We also thought it would be nice to visit places that meant a great deal to me, in my younger days, and allow myself to take one last trip down memory lane.

We arrived in Adelaide several hours later than we had expected due to cancelled and alternative flights. To arrive in a city I had once called home (but had obviously changed a great deal), with a Google map to guide us, in peak hour traffic before a long weekend, was somewhat daunting, challenging and stressful.

It was with great relief, when we finally arrived at ours friends home. Wayne and Wendy were relieved and delighted to finally see us. So began an amazing few days, full of laughter and great fun.

It was great to spend time with our close friends, and we really appreciated everything they did for us.

The following day was the first of many that were to follow of mixed emotions, as we took them with us around the district where I spent the first 17 years of my life.


First, we drove around the township of Gawler. It was great to revisit places that used to mean so much to me, and share it with my wife and close friends.

I noticed a sign above a shop door with the name of distant family members where they once ran a thriving business. Then we walked up to the house where my grandparents once lived. We then drove passed the church where my brother was married over 55 years ago, to name but a few of the places, we visited, all of which brought back happy memories. It had been decades since I last visited Gawler, but instinctively I knew where to go. I was home. Upon leaving the town, I had mixed emotions. I felt perfectly happy and content, but also a sense of not needing to return.

Heartbreaking sadness

And so we travelled out to Reeves Plains and our former home and farm. What initially struck me was how dry and barren the district was after months of drought. I had also forgotten how flat the country was. Despite little recent rain, and the high cost of piped water, from reservoirs many miles away, combined with the searing heat, the total absence of gardens still shocked me.

I noticed our shearing shed, but was then amazed to see our large sheep yards had vanished.

As I surveyed the nearby paddocks, I was deeply saddened that for whatever reason, no sheep were to be seen. I presume farmers now rely totally on growing cereal crops, which upset me, because the district once had large numbers of sheep.

It was desperately sad to see our old house and gardens looking so badly run down, almost like it was un-loved. The barn where we once spent countless happy hours playing table-tennis still stood proud amongst the drought and desolation.

We then drove passed the decaying and broken old school and the adjoining tennis courts.

The odd metal post which once helped to support the tennis net’s, stood strong and defiant. With overgrown trees and long since disintegrated tennis courts, we would never have known they ever existed. What was once one of the meeting places in the district is now confined to the minds of those who are old enough to remember the importance of the courts all those years ago.  

A short time later, we arrived at Redbanks and walked around what was once our local church and community hall. Many happy memories came flooding back. It was heart breaking to see what was once a fun filled building decaying and slowly succumbing to nature.

The once bustling township of Wasleys still exists, but like so many rural towns, is now struggling to survive. However, it was heartening to see the Bowling Club Clubhouse where both my parents once happily played with their many friends, had been rebuilt after the disastrous fire, which swept through the district a few years ago.

It was the only glimmer of life we had seen in the district all day. Was it a day of mixed emotions? The answer is undoubtedly yes. I now have closure with no desire or intention of returning to that part of my life. I found it to be deeply upsetting to see everything so badly decayed, largely because of time and I suspect, years of low rainfall.

I felt it was far better for me to remember our home and district, as it used to be, rather than (I fear) the inevitable total disintegration that will follow in the years to come.

Family time

The next day we visited my niece and family in Riverton. It was great to see them all again, and relive the happy time we spent together on their trip to New Zealand a few years ago.

Then we travelled to the Barossa Valley and visited my elderly sister. It was nice to share old family photos and happily talk about the “old days” with her and rekindle the relationship we once had.

It had been a long, hot, emotionally tiring day. Surprisingly, for the first time in many years, I began to realise I was missing MY family. It turned out to be a day of mixed emotions which I had not expected.

Childhood memories

Many decades ago, when we stayed at Port Elliot, our family often ate fish and chips for tea and then together went for a walk afterwards.  My wife and I found ourselves often doing exactly the same thing.

We spent many happy days walking along the many paths, which offered magnificent views of fantastic scenery, and along the quiet streets, most of which had not changed. Several great trips to nearby Victor Harbour and walking around Granite Island and climbing The Bluff were also highlights of our time spend in that amazing area. Both towns were fantastic places to relax and unwind.

Being our final night, it seemed appropriate to eat fish and chips overlooking the golden sandy beach. We then went for a leisurely walk, into the fast setting sun, sitting briefly on the rocks overlooking Green Bay, soaking in the sight and sound of the waves crashing on the rocks. We left the next morning, but not before our final walk, and say our “Goodbyes” to the many places we had frequently visited and enjoyed.

In my youth (55-60 years ago) I had only climbed over the rocks. The paths were only for “oldies”. Now, I was THAT “oldie”, and quite happy to do just that, while fondly remembering my “long ago” youth.

We were both sad to leave.  It was great to share the special area which means so much to me with my wife. Both of us would love to return, which we hope to do again sometime in the near future.

Overwhelming grief

Visiting the Mundalla cemetery however left me with very real mixed emotions. To walk around and see the names of many of my parent’s friends and bowling mates and people that I knew, was very sad.

A short time later, we located my parent’s headstones. We left flowers and tidied the around the area, “talking” to them as we did so. I had an overwhelming sense that Dad was quite happy, as he had Mum beside him, and he was surrounded by people he knew. Mum is also surrounded by people she knew, but when I kissed her headstone to say “Bye Mum” before turning to leave, I sensed her saying “Don’t go, stay here with me”. Walking away with tear filled eyes, I clutched my chest thinking and re-affirming “here is where you will always be and always stay”.

I once read: “A mother holds her children’s hands for a-while but their hearts forever”, and I thought how appropriate.

I joined my wife who was sitting on a nearby seat. We held each other, for several minutes, the silence broken only by the sound of the kookaburra’s in the nearby gum trees. Somehow, words were not required.

Visiting the cemetery affected me more than I thought it would. Very real mixed emotions and my feeling of home caught me by surprise.

More family time

And so on to Mount Gambier, where we stayed with my brother and his wife. Yes, he was very frail, but he still remained my much loved, admired older brother, with his wife I had known virtually all my life beside and taking care of him. We spent many happy hours, laughing together, sharing old ‘photos and reliving our younger days together.

On his 78th birthday, it was great that most of his family were able to celebrate his birthday with him. It also gave us the opportunity to catch-up with many family members we had not seen for many years.

All to soon it was time to leave and return home, but not before my brother said to my wife and I, separately and alone, in his softly spoken, frail voice “I hope I will see you again”, to which we could only mutter with voices choked with emotion, something that we hoped sounded bright and positive, knowing that in our hearts, it would be highly unlikely. After hugging and saying “Bye big brother”, and a “Thank-you” hug, for my amazing sister-in-law, we were on our way.

So was it a trip of mixed emotions as I had expected? Absolutely, and for parts of it, a sense of total and absolute closure. For other parts of me, a very strong desire to return, at least for a holiday.

The desire to suddenly want to live closer to family, has taken me by surprised, and I am uncertain what (if anything) can be done about it. With time, hopefully the concerns I am currently having with my mixed emotions will be resolved.