We are ten, all women, celebrating a birthday, a ritual amongst a group of friends. Catherine, who is hosting the lunch, only weeks ago was sadly and unexpectedly widowed and we, together with many more, stood in this same room, an expansive living/kitchen/dining space overlooking the sea and the town beyond, in another form of ‘celebration’ to commemorate her husband’s life.
Having been ‘at home’ recuperating from my new hip for several weeks, I have been looking forward to getting out and seeing this group of friends again and connecting with Catherine in person rather than just by phone. So, now we stand chatting, delicate champagne glasses in hand, room full of catch-up and smiles and an excited birthday ‘girl’, now turned seventy-six! Nonetheless, it is in a sense, and certainly for Catherine, a celebration in the shadow of loss.
After a time, Catherine moves to the kitchen area, keeps busy. She is a wonderful cook and stands at the stove tossing fat prawns in a hot wok to add to the green curry which sits patiently, rich, and smooth, in a large shallow pan. I stand with her, giving the prawns a final toss as she steps to the sink momentarily. They are ready! Would you like me to call people to the table? Yes please. she replies. As I approach the ‘gaggle of girls’, a memory from early childhood in the kitchen with my mother appears from nowhere. Whenever my German-speaking parents had dinner guests, elegant table set, my mother, also a wonderful cook, would bestow upon me the honour to inform their guests when it was time to eat. Tell them Zu Tisch bitte, she would instruct me, to the table please. So, in my best seven- year- old German, I repeat these words while the charmed adults, many of them childless, smile indulgently. Somewhat shyly I find the same words now shyly popping out of my mouth, Zu Tisch bitte, to the gathered group, thinking it needs an explanation, but they are too preoccupied.
It is customary at our get-togethers, that everyone contributes to the meal. Accompanying Catherine’s green prawn curry and bowl of fish bites are dishes made by others- a pasta salad with an excellent Indonesian-style dressing, and a spectacular spicy Vietnamese salad, a complex array of colour and taste. I make a note to ask for the green curry and Vietnamese salad recipes. Between courses, she quietly slips to the kitchen area. I notice too late that she has already cleared and cleaned benches, filled the dishwasher, everything is in place. I grab my trusty crutch and make my way over to keep her company. I understand her compulsion to ‘keep busy’, her coping mechanism. Nonetheless I marvel that she is up to all this.
Kerry has made the birthday cake. She glides across the floor toward the table, petite, palms upward, bearing the cake on a white platter. As she approaches the birthday girl, I gasp. It is so pretty. The cake consists of three golden spongy layers; citrus yellow lemon curd oozes between each. On top, whipped cream. In its centre, a single sparkler spurts and fizzes, a pale pink hibiscus bloom beside it. On the rim of the white platter two more hibiscus nestle. This striped wonder now sits in neat triangular pieces on our little Limoges plates. It is a tangy orange cake, the lemon curd still more piquant, served with mixed berries-plump blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. I can’t help myself- as always, I’m uttering words and making sounds conveying how delicious it is.
Do you remember the cake Cath made a few years ago? I ask, and describe the rectangular, cream-covered cake encrusted with fruit, flowers, and petals of every conceivable colour. I had never seen anything quite like it, a culinary artwork, and am astonished that no one else remembers it. Of course, my obsession with documenting keeps things forever alive in my memory aided by occasional revisiting of images as I flick through stored photos on my devices.
After the meal, Roz, the ‘birthday girl’ unwraps her presents -a quirky tea-towel with an image of a cockatoo on it, chocolates in a heart-shaped box, a small handbag, Turkish delight, soaps, a bottle of a scented liquid for laundry items, a book, all selected with care and beautifully presented. Catherine picks up her chair and moves between Roz and me. We are now able to indulge in more intimate conversation. She comments on the ring I’m wearing, one of my late mother’s, an unusual design consisting of strands of twisted gold. As I lead a quiet, casual, home-based life, the opportunity to ‘dress-up’ and wear such a ring is infrequent. I wish I knew the story of this ring, I say, but I have an inkling it is Italian as it has that ‘look’, possibly purchased on one of their trips back to Europe.
Catherine’s eyes next move up to the coral necklace I am wearing, also something of my late mother’s. Although she has seen it before, she asks about its origins and so I begin to tell her the story – a story I love to tell as I have quite often done. But first I must backtrack.
Of the jewellery which came to me after my mother’s death in Melbourne aged one-hundred -and-one, were two items that had been gifts from her dear Italian friend, Giovanni-the coral necklace, and a silver Roman coin ring. I knew Giovanni only through the stories my olive-skinned, once dark-haired mother and my father, had shared with me. She had met the fair, blue eyed northern Italian when they were both students at the university in Vienna, her home city, in the mid 1920’s. Studying German literature, she subsequently obtained a Ph.D., her thesis on the great German poet, Mörike. Giovanni was studying medicine. They shared a deep relationship but I understood from her that, as he was an Italian Catholic and she a Viennese Jew, marriage was never a prospect, and presume he returned to Italy on completion of his studies.
I came to realize, after her death, that despite hearing about him and his family over many years, there remained gaps in my knowledge about their relationship. I believe they were lovers but don’t know for how long they were together, what form the relationship took once they had finished university, and for how long they were ‘lost’ to one another before reconnecting again.
Subsequently, my mother met my father at a ‘tea dance’ sometime after she completed her studies, and after a long engagement, married in 1937. The National Socialist noose was ever tightening and in March,1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria. With enormous difficulty my parents managed to leave Vienna by the skin of their teeth in December,1938 for the safety of Australia. At the same time my mother’s only sibling and his wife had emigrated to the USA and, as with my parents, arrived in their new country penniless having lost everything. Tragically, together with other relatives and millions more, their parents, who they almost succeeded in saving, perished at the hands of the Nazis.
My father, step by persistent step, was working to establish himself as a photographer in Melbourne. Meanwhile, my uncle in America served in the Pacific during war, subsequently studying Accounting under the American GI Bill. After some years, and in advance of my parents, he was sufficiently financially established to be able to afford a first trip back to Europe. Since they were to spend time in Italy, my mother asked him to try to locate Giovanni which he succeeded in doing, and from that point on my mother and Giovanni enjoyed a regular correspondence.
Being an excellent linguist, she began studying Italian, her fourth language, through Adult Education classes, conversation classes and rigorous self-study and corresponded with Giovanni in Italian. My parents learned that he was happily married with four children, a daughter, Antonella, and three sons, and was a professor at the University in Bologna. And so unfolded another chapter in their deep and enduring friendship, embraced and accepted by the respective spouses. When my parents were able to afford trips back to Europe, they met with Giovanni and his wife, shared holidays together and got to know their children. I don’t know when he gave these beautiful gifts to my mother but presumably on such get-togethers.
In 1967, a year after completing four years at university, I was bound for Europe to join my then boyfriend to live together in Rome. We didn’t make it as a couple, but already a resolute Italophile, I made Rome my home for six months, began the painful process of recovering from the relationship breakup, and remained in Europe for six of the next seven years. In Rome, enthralled by the city, I found myself amongst a community of artists and musicians, including American Fulbright scholars and supported myself teaching English at the Berlitz School of Languages. I was busy, buzzing and fulfilled living my daily life in this brilliant city amongst stimulating new friends. Probably imbued with a healthy sense of young adult rebellion and independence, I did not pursue my mother’s suggestion to contact Giovanni, whose daughter Antonella was about my age. More fool me!
And now, the final part of this story unfolds. When Giovanni died aged about ninety, Antonella sent my parents his memorial card together with newspaper clippings. On reading the articles and clippings, my mother commented proudly that she hadn’t fully appreciated ‘what an important person’ he had become, acclaimed as a professor of medicine and all that attends that. So, when she died, I returned the courtesy. Just as Giovanni’s memorial card touched us, so too Antonella was touched on receiving my mother’s memorial card. Thus began a correspondence between us and found we had an immediate rapport. We planned to meet when Jon and I, now free to travel, would be in Italy.
I consider myself blessed that, having reached the age of seventy-six, I can with honesty say I have almost no regrets; but one I do have is that I didn’t follow my mother’s offer to connect with Giovanni and family in 1967. In retrospect, regardless of ‘healthy rebellion’ and establishing my independence, it now seems negligent not to have made an effort on my mother’s behalf and I wonder if it hurt or disappointed her? And I am surprised at my lack of curiosity about her first love, such a deep and enduring friendship. Perhaps there was an underlying assumption that they would be too conventional and wouldn’t interest me. How arrogant this now seems and how wrong I was about Antonella!
Jon and I have met up with Antonella twice since my mother died, also meeting members of her family including her much loved nephew, Giovanni junior, then in his mid-twenties. We found that we share a great deal in common – humour, eccentricities, left leaning political views, cultural interests, and our ‘way of being’ in the world. We have been to their home, eaten in trattorias, had little guided tours around the city. A single woman with enormous energy, she almost runs us off our feet! Her flamboyance is contagious. As we drive around, she wants to stop to show us this or that and, like so many drivers in Rome, pulls the small car over and parks up on the verge at right angles between two parked cars! A nearby carabiniere, police officer, ambles over. An Italian-style interaction unfolds before us- she gesticulates, he gesticulates, she points to us in the car, the carabiniere then shrugs his shoulders accompanied by the matching palms-facing-up hand gesture. She then happily escorts us from the car. We walk a short distance to enjoy a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the city before driving on to dinner at her brother’s elegant home in a leafy suburb. On another occasion she takes us to the famous Cimitero Acattolico, or non-Catholic cemetery, which has special meaning for her as it holds the graves of many famous people including Antonio Gramsci – the Italian philosopher and organiser, and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party- and poets Keats and Shelley. It is a beautiful place, serene, green, gently undulating. On a sweltering day, we walk a section of Via Appia Antica, the ancient Roman road I first learned about when studying Latin in High School and which I had always wanted to experience! Our conversation is in a mix of my poor Italian and her considerably better English. But once back home, it is more difficult to keep in regular contact. Sadly, she does not use email and we both find talking on the phone in the other’s language a bit difficult. So, we communicate by occasional letters, and emails to Giovanni junior who speaks excellent English, now lives in London and is in close contact with Antonella.
I feel a special closeness to Antonella but know that having refused my mother’s ‘introduction’ to the family as a young woman, I wasted fifty years of a wonderful friendship! At least when wearing either the necklace (infrequently), or the ring (extensively) there is some recompense – I am honouring my beloved mother, the enduring special relationship she shared with Giovanni, and my friendship with Antonella.
And a Happy New Year to all. Let’s hope 2022 is better for everyone than 2021.