A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION, THE SECRETS OF JEWELLERY, A GREAT ENDURING FRIENDSHIP, AND WASTED YEARS

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.

Catherine in happier times -last year at my place

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.

Roz, the birthday girl, at head of table

Ten of us now sit around the long, beautifully set table in this new, contemporary space, graced with items of Catherine’s family inheritance- Limoges plates, glassware, linen napkins. Large, handsome pieces of French antique furniture sit spaced around the walls. I feel so ‘at home’ as our shared, though distinctive, European heritage makes for a familiarity and is one of the things that draws us together; less significantly, our love of spicy food, really spicy. Catherine is the only person I know who takes hot chillies when going out to lunch, always adding them to whatever she is eating, offering them to me also. Ever the gracious hostess, she announces that, to suit the varied palates the green prawn curry is only a little spiced.

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.

Throughout the meal I find myself thinking about what a ‘foodie’ I am or have become. I had not understood this about myself until my friend Dure, one-time partner of the eminent Melbourne restauranteur Stephanie Alexander, described me as such, thus offering me a new view of myself. I am fascinated by the process of discovering anew and how such an engagement changes something within oneself. As a young woman in Europe, for example, I recall visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid where the nightmarish visions of Goya’s Black Paintings, Pinturas Negras, fourteen late works from around 1820, overwhelmed and deeply affected me. They portrayed his personal distress and bleak outlook on humanity caused by the political and social upheavals in Spain of the time. Precursors of Expressionism, these works left an indelible impression on me, offering a new insight into the power of the visual image. So, although Goya’s work was ‘known’ to me, I had not really ‘seen’ it.

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.

17 thoughts on “A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION, THE SECRETS OF JEWELLERY, A GREAT ENDURING FRIENDSHIP, AND WASTED YEARS

  1. G’day! Blog a good read as usual. Food, art, life, love & death. (you forgot cricket) Maryanne watches the ashes with me whooping, cursing & groaning. (not so much spitting & punching sofas) Exzmas family celebrations divided by border this year but happy get-togethers none the less. I’m including a brief vid. of the boys after their vegan lunch at Arna’s (Limpinwood) Chrisso, Martha’s other) on the hammock ,Pancho, Martha’s 19yr.old., and Sunny , the boxer, Arna’s 24yr. old. “Power of the Dog” with Benedict Cumberbatch worth seeing. Just read Death of a Riverguide & currently one of Tom Shapcott’s called *Theatre of Darkness*. About the death of a famous singer in the Torres Strait at turn of century.(MA corresponded with Tom when she was writing.) He was big on the Literature Board in the 80s/90s. A very good writer/poet for an accountant. Happy to hear you’re on the mend after hip op. I made a note to write you at the time but……preoccupied with torn shoulder tendons. No tennis for forseeable future. Keep doing your re hab. exs. & lots of pool walking. But you do that anyway, don’t you? 2022 /77………………………………..phew! Must go & check my rendang.x michael

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  2. Thank you Bonney. B. that was a beautiful blog,I feel that Ive had an insight into your family life and travels. Plus of course birthdays birthdays birthdays and wonderful shared experiences, what fun!!!

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  3. Thank you darling girl for another beautiful and moving piece of writing – I wish and you Jon were here to share my eightieth birthday celebrations – will send some photos – have a safe and wonderful new year and I hope we will be able to catch up in 2022 xxx

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    1. It is my pleasure and I take your compliment most seriously. Having been a visual artists for 40+ years and then coming to writing as a main form of expression has been quite a journey, ongoing. I always loved writing, ever since primary school and would have loved to study English Literature but took the path of psychology and headed in that direction for a decade before giving it all up to make art, as you know. But I only started taking writing ‘seriously’ a few years ago, focussed on poetry…where has that gone? Maybe more to come. I got your birthday wrong, eh? Will be calling you sooner than soon xx

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    1. Oh PJ! Hello!! I am quite amazed at the responses I am getting to this blog. It does seem to touch people in various ways. Thanks you so much, feedback is so welcome. Will be in touch soon x bb

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  4. Dearest Bonney Jill Your post has arrived and I have just enjoyed sharing Catherine’s birthday lunch and Antonella with you. You are such a vivid and thoughtful writer, thank you.

    Also very pleased to get the email because it is the very first I have received to my iiNet address since Friday as iiNet has been down and I fear any emails I should have received in the last 4 days have been lost forever. We have learned to rely so heavily on emails. I do wonder what I may have missed.

    We had a very good Christmas Day at Frankston with many nieces and nephews, grandchildren and three new babies. Poor Sean stayed home suffering from dental surgery.

    Much love Janet

    >

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    1. Janety, ‘vivid and thoughtful writer’. Well thank you so much…it remains an ongoing challenge to always try to improve what one writes, so many revisions etc, but not as painstaking as poetry, which is maybe why that has gone on the backburner for now. Still, I am aware when the writing is more ‘present’ and less so, and thought this one a bit patchy so am a little surprised and delighted at the several lovely comments I am getting. Will talk to you elsewhere re Xmas, family gathering etc but great that it was enjoyable xxx

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    1. Wrote and lost a long reply, here goes again! Thanks for comment, always appreciated. You are a thoughtful reader. Intimacy…does my writing always feel so? I think not, and someone recently commented that they preferred my ‘direct’ voice rather than the informational/researched parts. In any case , it raises issues a writer must contend with….how much to reveal, how brave to be? An equivalent to putting up an exhibition of my artwork in the past especially in the earlier years. The more personal the work (art or writing), the more one exposes vulnerabilities. It’s confronting. But if not now, then when? Time isn’t as much on our side as it used to be! xx

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  5. Bonney as always your writings are interesting, & thoughtprovoking. I too have coral jewellery, 2 necklaces ; one red , one pink, & both purchased in Rome at an outdoor market. Historical coral collection in Italy is another story!
    As are ‘friendship’ stories.
    Jill

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    1. Thanks, Jill, ‘interesting and thought-provoking’ are descriptions to be valued indeed. Be interested if you feel like elaborating sometime here or on phone, especially re ‘thought-provoking’.
      Historical Italian coral collection-completely unfamiliar, thanks for the alert. Had a quick look and will now read up on it. Definitely food for conversation, my dear!

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  6. Hi, I recognise most of the ‘girls’ around the table, a fine celebration for Catherine 😊 And lovely coral necklace memories. It must have been something about that era, I have one from my Mother who travelled by ship around 1950 to Zanzibar, Kenya, the Red Sea and Suez to Europe. And another of beads from one of Jonkie’s aunts in Holland! Very beautiful, just difficult to wear when we know what’s happening to coral reefs everywhere…. ☹

    Looking forward to Thursday.

    X Suzette

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    1. So appreciate your reply. This Post seems to have hit a chord with a few people. I would love you to bring the coral necklaces to show me or when next I am at yours. And also would like to hear more of your mother’s life/travels and Jonkie’s Dutch aunt! see you Thurs x

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