You stood beside me as the workmen gutted the kitchen, stripping the carcass to its constituent framework. Twenty-eight years of old Formica and lino, wonky hanging doors, spilled food stains and enough crockery broken through accident and anger.
“Hey Dad, I’m Jonah trapped inside the belly of the whale,” you said waving your hands beneath the exposed timber beams.
You winced as a crowbar jammed into the doorframe leading into the dining room and levered the old timber.
“Please be careful,” you said. Almost an invocation and the workman stopped. You walked over to the bending wood and ran your hand over the names and numbers. My hand followed yours down the lists like a medieval scribe interpreting the sacred texts and pictograms.
I remember when it started, when you were a wobbly one year old, unsteady on her feet. Against the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room I measured your life in centimetres.
On the evening of each birthday you stood with your feet flat on the floor and I placed a ruler on your head and scratched at the mark with a pencil. You slipped out from under the ruler at the first instance to compare it against last year’s mark. I reached for the permanent marker and fixed your height against the wall like the rising marker of a flood level.
When you were smaller you bounced on the balls of your feet, pigtails dancing in unison, the tape measure in your hand. You wanted to hold the end of the tape measure flat to the floor, looking up it extended towards the ceiling. Scrambling up, you watched me scribe your height onto the wall, writing the secret code shared between us on the wall.
“How high am I now, Daddy?”
“How tall are you now.”
“How tall am I now, Daddy?”
“One hundred and twenty one centimetres.”
Sometimes I would catch you measuring yourself against the wall in-between birthdays.
“Measure me today Dad because I’m taller.”
“It’s not your birthday.”
“I can’t wait that long.”
“You’ll have to.”
A resigned smile followed by a mental calculation of how many days remained until your birthday.
Against the markers the extended family was subjected to a heightist conspiracy: uncles, aunts, cousins, friends. And Gary Brown remains the tallest person you know and measured against the wall, even taller than your younger brothers.
Your mother refused to be measured after a certain age, convinced she was shrinking. Especially after you celebrated the day your line passed your mother’s. You even tried to stand on your tiptoes to prove you were taller than me when you maxxed out at nineteen.
You charted and graphed the growth of you and your brothers for a maths assignment, logging the differences in height from year to year; the growth spurts and the gradual slowing down.
And when I thought you were too old to care about measuring your height, when your friends became more important, you sidled up to me as I was sitting in my chair working on the computer. In your hand was a ruler, pencil and permanent marker. You kissed my forehead, took my hand and pulled me towards the doorframe and said, “You have to measure me, Dad. It’s my birthday.”
Now the wall is flaking and peeling in a thousand layers of sunburnt skin. Or pulled up by the Batlow Red Delicious apple stickers (your favourite) applied around the doorframe. A trail of two hundred and twenty six minute green stepping stones traversing the frame beginning at the floor, following the markers of your height and extending beyond until it came back down the other side of the frame. It annoyed your mother but she relented.
“At least she’s eating fruit,” she said.
This is your life, measured in increments, dated and catalogued until you were taller no more. This is my photo album, my filing system of memories.
At each evening meal you sat on my left hand side to see the television better but I watched your face and matched it to the lines on the wall.
And then there’s the photo on your wedding day, crouched beside the doorframe pointing at your first height marker. The freckles are still there, I know they are, hidden beneath the layer of makeup. You played dot-to-dot on your nose with a purple texta when you were seven. You scrubbed your face until it was red and raw. Going to school the next day you were so embarrassed about faint lines evident on your face.
Taking your hand from the wood the workmen continued and you waited for the delivery of the totem.
You cradled the wrenched wood as you would a child. Moving out of the noise of the renovations I followed you outside where you leaned it against the wall near the back door.
“It won’t be the same without the old height marker there,” I said.
“It would be nice if you started a new one,” you said. “For the grandchildren.”
You circled your stomach with your hand, looked at me and smiled.