Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

My Sister Margot


May thirteen 1949 my sister emerged as the sun set and the sabbath arrived.


The doctor from the next town, nineteen miles distant, did not arrive – the Murrumbidgee had broken its banks and a sea separated Narranderra from our town of Leeton.

Dad was an accomplished accoucher.  The other doctors in our town did not come up to his standards so Mum had to give birth to her firstborn and to me in the City.  Third time around Dad had chosen that doctor in Narranderra – apparently he was competent enough to bring Dad’s children into the world.

But the waters held him distant.

So Dad delivered my parents’ third child, their first – and as it turned out – their only daughter.


She had red hair and she grew freckles, but my parents overlooked those abnormalities and rejoiced.

The baby’s name was Margot.

I look at the watercolour portrait of Margot that we grew up with and I see now she really was beautiful.

 

I could not see her beauty back then. She attached herself to her older brothers and wanted to go everywhere with them. One day when she was fifteen months old Dennis and I had urgent business at Iano’s Milk Bar. Margot, mother naked, wanted to come. We said no, closed the gate behind us and set off, ignoring her cries. 

At Iano’s someone said: Is that little girl your sister?

Margot had run across wide Wade Avenue and chased us three hundred metres. Here she was, unclothed in her girl way, and embarrassing. 

I said, I’ve never seen her before.

 

Margot grew taller and her golden hair grew longer. Eventually it hanged down to her freckled bum. The photographer from Melbourne Herald sighted all that flowing splendour and the photo appeared on the front page of the paper.

 

Margot married. In her innocence she was unaware her husband was a genius. She could not foresee how his talent would drain them from Australia to America where successive chairs in neuropsychopharmacology awaited his brains.


When Margot removed to New York our mother did the maths: a year was a twelvemonth; Mum had four children. Twelve divided by four equals three. Mum would spend three months of every twelve with Margot and the tribe she was creating in America. 

Dad stayed at home and worked and missed his freckled girl.


In my novel, ‘Carrots and Jaffas’ I create a titian-haired woman with freckled, sinewy legs who lives by the Hudson in Riverdale, New York. She runs like the wind and never tires. She is good to her brother.

 

She’ll turn sixty-six this may thirteenth.

Twenty Swear Words

I celebrated my 67th birthday recently. By the age of 67 my vocabulary should be just about complete: now that I’ve reached the age of forgetting, I’m not likely to remember new words.

But my eldest grandson believes otherwise. His present to me was a list of words that Shakespeare coined. He thought I’d appreciate them. He tells me they are swear words.

I drove that 10-year old and his seven-year old twin brothers to school today. In a chorus of loving name calling that began with the familiar “Captain Big Nose” they quickly turned literary.

“You Huge Hill of Flesh!” was something to contemplate.

“You Huge Bombard of Sack!” had me looking down to my lap.

“You Swollen Parcel of Dropsies!” was pleasingly clinical and accurate. My calcium channel blocker does in fact cause me some fluid retention.

“You Prince of Wales!” puzzled me. Surely no insult, unless we are supposed to hear Prince of Whales – the prince being the Sperm Whale – and the ejaculation some sort of perverse tribute. As I frowned in contemplation of the words of the Bard, the three kids were helpless with hilarity. This epithet somehow became me. The more they chanted “Prince of Wales” the funnier it became and the more we all four enjoyed it.

Eventually the ten-year old Shakespeare scholar moved on to “You Bull’s Pizzle!” He realized from my facial expression that this was a winner. Once they learned that the pizzle was the phallus of a farmyard animal (famous as the projectile with which Jude woos Arabella in the Hardy novel) they wouldn’t let it go.

I was a Bull’s Pizzle all the way to school.

As they dismounted from the car in high good spirits, they added “You Foot-Licker!”

I farewelled each with a kiss and “You Vile Standing Tuck!” – the last word from Captain Big Nose.

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