I’m sitting on a bench at Buraneer Point. Far below me is the blue ribbon of the Port Hacking River.
My aunt walked here every morning until her legs gave out and she was reduced to a shuffle and finally to bed. She passed away recently and this is my tribute to her.
The Lady of style. She introduced 10-year-old me to French perfume – Je Reviens by Worth. It came in an aqua box, smelled exotic suggesting other places, other lands and the wide world. Because of Je Reviens I could never use Avon, Charlie or 4711 again. There were other gifts that were wildly inappropriate for a teenager but gave me the taste for offbeat jewellery. Jean bought Vogue when other ladies of my acquaintance bought the Australian Women’s Weekly. She was a dressmaker, an unofficial stylist and an accessory queen.
Mother to 2 sons she was warm, nurturing and supportive. When my older cousin was 21, he went off on a trip around Australia. She created a cookbook for him in a spiral-bound notebook. He still has it. She became an unofficial mother to me when my own mother died. The physical resemblance between them was quite startling so I have always felt there was a little bit of mum still around. Jean’s great joy in becoming a grandmother in her 8th decade was delightful to see. She was always proud of her granddaughter’s achievements and activities even though they lived far apart.
Jean introduced me to Elizabeth David, or rather her food. She cooked like a gourmet cook. Maybe in another life, she could have run a catering business or a cafe. It’s a pity her food wasn’t shared with the world. She cooked Mediterranean food before it was fashionable. The first time I had gazpacho was at her table. Ditto roasted red capsicum and homemade muesli. In her kitchen, there’s a drawer full of recipe cuttings from The Sydney Morning Herald, handwritten recipes on the backs of envelopes and shopping lists. If she had a filing system it was in her head. That said, It was rare that I ever saw her use a cookbook— she was one of those who could cook by instinct.
With a straw hat on her head, wearing an old green shirt and immaculate gardening gloves she tended her beloved garden till well into her 90s. At an age where knees had given out, and bending should have been a distant memory she continued to weed, hoe and plant. She built this garden on country that was sand dune and bedrock. The garden was a mix of exotics and natives and succulents and presided over by two enormous eucalyptus trees. She persevered with the sandy soil and was so proud when she won an award from the local garden society.
Jeane collected friends over the years. From school, her first job, the WAAF days and her life in Wollongong and Sydney. She always remembered birthdays, she knew the little things that counted in a small child’s life and she was a prolific letter writer. She enjoyed creative people; those with interesting lives and stories. In many ways, she and my mother were very different but they were as close as sisters can be who live interstate. Letters flew back and forth. As old friends moved away, new ones came along often decades younger and gave her a new spring in her step.
The Back Story
Born in the middle of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919 Jean had a happy upbringing in Surrey Hills, Victoria. There was always something happening in the extended family; picnics, street cricket, singalongs. She loved dance and gymnastics and for years she attended Lilla Willaton’s School of Dance. There was a family legend that at the age of 4 she accompanied her brother Don to a cricket match at the MCG. Apparently, she had started to complain, and Don marched her out of the ground and sent her home on a tram to Surrey Hills – several miles distant. Full credit to her tenacity in managing to get home safe.
She became a dressmaker working in the rag trade district of Flinders Lane, and then at a long-closed department store- Mantons. The war intervened and she joined the WAAF. There was a broken engagement in there somewhere, a stay in a TB sanatorium and then a meeting with a young British sailor in the Merchant Navy, George. By this stage, she had moved to Sydney, joining my mother and they lived in a whirlwind of parties with demobbed American soldiers buying them nylons on the black market.
She lived with my uncle and 2 cousins in a mid-century house in a beachside suburb. There were dinner parties and yachts and stints abroad. she went to Bali before it was on the overland hippie trail. She attended a batik workshop and for years created her own Batik. For a time they lived in London where she wandered around the galleries, gardens and grand houses. There were trips to the continent where she drank in the culture, the fashion and the lifestyle.
Jean was a great dinner party host and loved exploring Sydney and beyond. She was a member of a dinner party club and a garden club. Everything seemed charming and easy but underneath something was brewing. She and her George separated. She was stoic and determined and brave. If she was mourning his departure she never said so.
As her world got smaller she shrank back in her past. Dementia took hold In the final year,s she was in the twilight world of her childhood talking about the view to Port Phillip Bay, family excursions and her father’s veggie garden. She called me Sylv and her son, Don, though at times there was absolute clarity in her words and she was the ‘old’ Jean.
I wish I’d seen her one for one last chat, one last cup of tea and one last hug. But border restrictions prevented that and I missed her by a day. By the time I arrived there was little to do except pack up her room at the nursing home. Now, sitting at Buraneer Point, I remember her and her quite remarkable 102 years.
And a bonus for the festive season:
Aunty Jean’s Christmas Pudding recipe