It looks like another house in the suburbs, but the secret to number 35 isn’t in the bricks and mortar — it’s hidden in the memories.
Stan McKay is 93 years old, but his eyes light up like a child’s when he steps inside 35 Murray Street, Prahran.
Number 35. The four-bedroom house half way up the street, hidden behind the huge plane tree, hedges and white picket fence.
The house with its front garden, split down the middle by a path leading to a cracked, chequered verandah.
The house where Stan grew up in the 1920s. The house where he experienced kindness from a stranger, the tireless work of his mother, the cold shoulder of his father and a connection to God.
It is the house that shaped his life.
On a cloudy morning, Stan has agreed to go back to number 35 for the first time in nearly 60 years. When he knocks on the door, the man who answers can’t quite believe what he is seeing.
“I thought this was a joke,” Gideon Ptasznik chuckles, “but this is real.”
“It sure is real,” Stan replies, and soon he is bustling through the doorway with his walking stick.
Stan instinctively takes the first left, passing three neatly stacked surfboards in the front room. He smiles because the double bed is positioned exactly where his mother Ruth used to have it.
Stan’s early memories are vivid and precise.
He can picture himself wobbling down Murray Street while learning how to ride a bicycle. He recalls climbing onto the roof of number 35 to fix the loose slate tiles.
He’s still proud to tell you that when he was seven, it was his responsibility to chop the firewood.
“Gee, it looks smaller. But that’s always the case, isn’t it? When you’re a child, things appear bigger than they really are.”
‘When I was four I saw a woman being evicted’
In the grips of the Great Depression, Melbourne was unrecognisable compared to the bustling, multicultural metropolis of 2020.
Suburbs like North Melbourne, Collingwood, Richmond were slums and the nation’s unemployment rate hit 29 per cent in 1932.
“Everybody was poor,” Stan says.
“When I was four I saw a woman being evicted from a house because she couldn’t pay the rent. I went home saddened and realised that our landlord didn’t charge us any rent for many years and we didn’t even know him.”
While that random act of kindness gave the family a leg-up, Stan says his mother’s tireless work toiling in a “sweatshop” as a seamstress was what put food on the table to feed him and his three brothers.
His father James, a World War I veteran, struggled with the lasting impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stan says his parents’ love flourished through wartime letters but crumbled within two weeks of being reunited.
“Dad spent what he did or didn’t earn on alcohol and horse racing. He sought a better life. His objective was, ‘if only we had a better life, we could be happy’.
“But he missed the point. He could have been happy if only he had joined with his wife, instead of not speaking to her.”
Even if he didn’t feel love from his father, Stan says he was introduced to a role model by a Salvation Army worker, Miss Hearn.
Miss Hearn stayed with the family for a short while, and when Stan steps into the bedroom she occupied, you get a sense that her words are still ringing in his ears.
“Do you know you’ve got a father in heaven who loves you?” she asked him.
“I thought that must be better than an ordinary father,” Stan recalls. “I was just taken aback. I don’t think I’d even been told that someone loved me.”
Stan walks down the hall and into the large kitchen and meals area, and points to where the old dining table used to be.
During meals there were three simple rules that were always followed — sit up, eat up and shut up.
Meals are done pretty differently at number 35 these days. The current tenants are four mates in their mid-20s, who have been renting the property for about a year.
It has been a dream share house — the place where friends drop by to have a beer, cook and play Xbox in the same spot where Stan and his brothers sat silently every night.
The house also serves as a “fortress of solitude” after long, tiring days at work, 27-year-old Gideon Ptasznik says.
The McKay family sitting room is now Gideon’s bedroom.
Stan remembers spending countless hours at a desk in that room, burying his head in books while studying to become a doctor.
He later went on to become an infectious diseases specialist, and spent 14 years treating children in Papua New Guinea.
Gideon, himself a doctor in the nearby Alfred Hospital’s trauma unit, is studying for his surgical exams.
Stan imparts some wisdom to the young doctor: “You don’t get examined on what you know, you get examined on what you write down.”
Gideon says his heart has been warmed by meeting the spritely nonagenarian and is struck by the parallels in their lives.
“A lot of knowledge has been absorbed in that room,” he muses.
“Medicine’s very hard nowadays. It’s very saturated with capable people, and as science is getting better there’s more we need to know. But hearing about Stan’s adversities, they were about resources and funding to have a place to live and study.
“It puts into perspective what a privileged generation we are.”
Gideon and his friends also feel a sense of nostalgia about number 35. In a few weeks, they will be vacating when the property owner moves back in.
“It’s been a great place with a lot of great memories. I don’t think we can replicate what we had at 35 Murray Street,” Gideon says.
“I texted all my roommates and they were shattered they couldn’t meet Stan. I told them that if he was to come back we could have a barbecue.
“To get history randomly knocking on our door, I think we cling to that as much as we can.”
Stan says he doesn’t want to cling much to the past, but if you ask him, he’s bursting to share a treasure chest of memories and experiences.
Ask him about politics and he’ll tell you about the great leaders of generations gone by, and why he’s Labor at heart but always votes Liberal.
Ask him about what life used to be like in Melbourne and he’ll tell you about the sense of community the city once had, which eroded once the population swelled from one million to five million.
Don’t even get him started on multi-million-dollar property prices in the inner suburbs, or the way people walk the streets with their heads down, transfixed by smartphones.
Ask Stan about love and he’ll tell you about Jean Price, who went on to become Jean McKay and spent 60 years by his side.
Aged 86, Jean died peacefully in her sleep on January 28 this year.
They met while working at the old children’s hospital in Carlton in 1959. Jean was a stenographer and later became a nurse, and Stan, a paediatrician, was drawn to her love and care for children.
Stan knew he was onto a winner when Jean asked if he would be interested in seeing the famous Christian minister Billy Graham deliver a sermon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
They were married two years later.
“I felt more than just love at first sight — I didn’t understand love. It was God showing me this was the one he had for me,” Stan says.
Stan says his wife’s recent death wasn’t sad. She lived a “wonderful life”, he says, but her final years were cruelled by blindness and other health problems.
“We just learned to weave our lives together. By the time we got married I knew more about her and she knew more about me, more than anybody else would have by the end of marriage,” he says.
“We were not two people who got married. We were a unity.”
Stan and Jean had four children and seven grandkids. Of course, everything wasn’t perfect and there were ups and downs within the family, but Stan seems happy with his lot in life.
Even though his wife is gone, she still occupies much of his time. Jean’s funeral went well but there are still bank account details to be changed, and calls that need to be put in to Centrelink and superannuation companies.
Boxes of pictures, certificates and keepsakes need to be sorted and distributed to others. Mementos of Jean’s life are going to be of little use to him when he shuffles off this mortal coil, Stan says.
After spending Jean’s final year together in a nursing home, Stan has returned to their home in Balwyn and is living by himself.
In the time he has left, and while he can still get around without difficulty, there is some old ground Stan would like to go over.
He enjoys catching public transport and wants to sit and soak in the beauty of the city’s Botanical Gardens — a place his mother used to take him as a boy.
Stan’s mind may even wander back to the days at number 35.
“I remember very little of the life I had with my wife,” he says.
“That may sound crazy but I can’t remember details. The details of the whole of my time in New Guinea and a good bit afterwards are vague, but my childhood comes back to me.”