Grand old auntie at 90

Auntie Lilian, my father Frank’s younger sister turned 90 and I threw an afternoon tea for relatives to celebrate . The old lady, who lives in  a self-contained hostel unit, is the matriarch of our large extended famil. My 93-year-old dad and my other two surviving aunties, Yvonne and Betty, her widowed sisters-in-law were other elderly guests.

As they sit on the settee sipping from pretty porcelain cups, I mull over their lives and how tragedies in Lilian’s and Yvonne’s lives taught me profound lessons about  grief.

Yvonne’s only son was 15 when he had an road accident in Crafers and was killed instantly. I will never forget that evening when my mother sent me, the oldest of her five children, to comfort her the same evening as the tragedy.

I didn’t know it then but I experienced a hard lesson of life in the cruel nature of grief, how it renders people emotionally numb. My auntie was so grief-stricken that I could hardly stand to look upon her pain. Recently, Yvonne also lost an adult daughter, my younger cousin to cancer, which has left her with only one daughter, Trudy, because her husband, Uncle Alan died about a decade ago.

Lilian, too, has had a walloping of grief in her early married life. She has only one son, who did not attend her birthday party, but she also gave birth to a little girl, named Heather in Renmark Hosdpital on Christmas Day. She was the second child and nobody noticed in the skeleton staff that Heather was a rhesis baby, which meant her blood was different from her mother. Despite an ambulance dash to Adelaide, tiny Heather died. I can still recall that little white coffin propped up on the arms of a chair in grandma’s humble State Bank bungalow alongside the railway line at Islington.  I was five or six years old. I can picture Lilian that day, sitting, prostrate with grief, unable to say anything to anyone.  I can still remember watching the sad troupe of family and church friends walking behind the hearse over the railway line  to the Islington Cemetery opposite grandma’s house.

Ten years ago, when I interviewed Auntie Lilian on her 80th birthday, I asked her the saddest moment of her life and the gentle old lady wept for the daughter she had lost 50-something years ago. Yet, today, the sun shines outside and myt Auntie is all smiles as sister Anne leads her to blow out the candles on her cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday’.

My grandmother, Emily was pregnant with Auntie Lilian on the sea voyage out from England in 1921 when she and grandpa, Harry, migrated with their two little boys, my dad, who was 2 and Uncle Les, who was one year old. When we travelled back to meet the English family in  1978, we learnt that grandma had been sick every day of the four-month voyage she described as a “never-ending nightmare’’.

Dad’s family has not been close-knit, but Auntie Lilian and I have shared our lives sporadically and I have taken the aunties out to lunch for Lilian’s birthday for the last few years.

I had not seen Trudy for 35 years, but we connected again instantly although I am almost a decade older.

The elderly aunties arrived with scones and shortbread to add to the cup cakes, apple tarts, , spinach turnovers, quiches and sausage rolls that I made this morning. My mother, Florrie, always cooked up a wonderful afternoon tea, and my sister Anne upheld family tradition by bringing rum balls, It looked a magnificent spread around the birthday cake.

The  Aunties are ageing well, but it is dad, who is visually impaired and deaf, who holds court, leading conversation. But first he weeps, touching his sister and saying “Is it really you, Lil?’’

He lives in low residential care at Renmark and had telephoned me to ask to see her for her birthday. Dad makes rare requests and so my son, Tyson went to Renmark to pick him up and he is staying with us at our home. Once he is settled in his chair, next to his sister, he reminisces how Lilian had played a pivotal role in meeting our mother, who was working as a Land Army girl on picking fruit block on the adjoining block.

“I saw your mother on the bus, this stunning looking brunette in shorts and I said to Ted (Lilian’s husband) “how do I meet that girl”?,’’ dad recalls.

“He answered ‘Well, Jim borrowed my ladder and you can go and get it back if you like’,’’ he says.

He laughs and adds “And look at all the people here today from our meeting.’’

There are 15 people here today, by no means all the family, and not my two daughters particularly, who live interstate, but we are bonded by blood and marriage and. amazingly, we are aged from 17 to 93. My only regret is that mum isn’t here to enjoy the party.

As the old aunties, full of thanks and praise, climb into Trudy’s car, it occurs to me that I feel uplifted by giving pleasure to others – and in retirement I have the time to enjoy.


Welcome Giulia, Farewell Loulou

The year in France had its moment of joy with the birth of Giulia Sarkozy, daughter of one-time supermodel  Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, 43, and the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy. (Hands up those who thought the marriage wouldn’t last).

Mr Sarkozy missed the birth because of an urgent meeting in Frankfurt to try to stitch up a rescue package for the Eurozone crisis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.    He spent a mere 50 minutes with the infant and her mum before rushing off to a waste disposal centre in western France, thus dismissing his paternity leave rights.

“We are fortunate enough to have a great joy,’’ Sarkozy told the assembly of workers.

“All the parents here can understand our very profound joy, a joy that is all the more profound for the fact that it is private.’’

They cheered the president and presented him with a bib for the new bub, an oak tree for the garden and Mince Alors, a book for Carla. Ironically, translated as “Thin Then’’, the book gives advice on losing weight, particularly after pregnancy and how not to become obsessed with dieting.

Ironically, Carla is making a very public appearance right now in cinemas around Australia with a bit part as a tour guide in Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris.

French media reckons France’s First Lady is unpopular,  yet Italian-born Carla has proved to be a stylish, gracious and beautiful consort to the President.

Marriage matters in France and family is still the foundation of French society, and although opinion polls show that Mr Sarkozy is behind his socialist rival, Francois Holland, a baby in Elysees Palace could well be a trump card.

On a much sadder note, French fashion legend, Loulou de la Falaise, Saint Laurent’s colourful muse, died at her home in northwest France this year, aged 64.

Louise Vava Lucia Henriette Le Bailly de la Falaise acted as Yves Saint Laurent’s “creative partner, confidante and sentinal’’ for three decades from 1972 until 2002, according to the obituary published in The Times.

She had eccentric roots with a wild Irish beauty, Rhoda Lecky Pike as her grandmother and a mother who said she christened her newborn daughter with perfume instead of water in 1948. However, because of her mother’s many affairs, little Louise was placed in foster care.

At age 20, she was a junior editor of Queen magazine when she met Saint Laurent, who had established his fashion house six years beforehand upon the death of Christian Dior in 1958.

De la Falaise and Saint Laurent immediately took to each other. “Apart from her striking red-haired, wisp-thin beauty, he was attracted by her directness of manner and edgy sense of humour.  After a disastrous showing in 1971, she appreciated his gesture in sending her a box of high-cut emerald green fox fur coats,’’ The Times reported.

Within three years, Loulou was in Paris working with Saint Laurent, making jewellery for his fashion shows.

Loulou launched her own fashion label and eccentric accessories upon the retirement of Saint Laurent.

Once when asked what clothes she collected, she said: “I don’t collect clothes – I hand them down. They do sometimes turn into a pile of dust, but that’s tribute to a good life.’’


Oscar has overtaken our house

Meet the newest member of our household, a handsome, hybrid poodle/Maltese/Shi Tsu named Oscar. Our new puppy is an adorable bundle of fluff, champagne coloured with an angelic face which belies his wicked playfullness.  He is the tiniest little soul and yet he is like a charged electric current of energy in our household.   He wakes at  about 6am, he whines to be let into our bedroom and he then bounces about our bed like the bunny in the battery TV ad. The four-legged dynamo does not stop racing through the house, chasing his own tail around the lawn, and already at 11 weeks of age, he has developed eccentricities.  He loves shoes and shoe-laces and has a thing for smelly socks! His teeth have the strength of a lion already because he will drag husband Olivier’s big shoe – bigger than Oscar himself – down the hall to his lair. His new padded basket is where he deposits his precious things and he doesn’t mind being popped into a carry bag provided he can poke his head over the top.

His favourite toy is a fluffy mouse and he has learnt how to stamp his paw on a pirate toy which squeaks.  Some of our well-meaning friends questioned the wisdom of buying a puppy because of our harrowing journey with Olivier’s cancer, which continues. Yet Oscar has been the best decision. He is one big bundle of joy to us both and we are like doting parents, laughing at his antics throughout the day; worrying if he is out of sight. But the best outcome is that Oscar has become our focus on happiness – an antidote for the sadness which lurks in our life. And his playful tricks keep our minds off Olivier’s cancer prognosis.  He is a big part of the art of living fearlessly in the shadow of terminal illness.

However, one of the big problems with owning a puppy is toilet-training as this is crucial for the future enjoyment of having a pooch in your everyday life.  Luckily, Oscar’s breeder, an efficient woman named Rae, had trained him to piddle on paper and our beautiful new home is now strewn with patches of newsprint at every doorway,  which he uses most of the time.  The idea is you gradually reduce the number of newspapers to just one, by the doggie door. However, his poops are another matter altogether and we must watch our feet and keep the carpeted bedrooms closed.  This is the reason he has been banned from sleeping in our bedroom overnight.

Any words of wisdom about toilet training puppies out there in cyberland?

Meanwhile, here are the latest pix of our 11-week-old puppy.