My eldest son stands in the hallway with a bunch of yellow wattle. Flowers and shrubs that hang over fences or alongside the creek are fair game, and he brings me many such gifts. He enjoys making me happy and together we search for an appropriate vase. My middle son doesn’t think in floral terms but gives me pottery and glass and the wattle looks perfect in a 1950s brown and cream pot made somewhere in Israel. The youngest son is colour blind and once presented me with a bunch of quite unusual dyed chrysanthemum.
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I’m interested in genetic inheritance and can see a clear horticultural link between my eldest son and his grandmother. Sadie, my mother, loved to walk through municipal parks. Her own small house in outer suburban London was part of a terrace row and the back gardens I remember were all the same: long strips of grass surrounded by indifferent flower beds; the coal shed and mangle in one corner; a cement slab outside the French windows and a rope washing line with a wooden pole.
I missed out on the natural history gene. A ‘ten pound Pom’, I have always found the Australian landscape far too challenging. The flora confuse me and the fauna are alarming. Bush walking, camping, caravanning – they’re not for me and I belong in a concrete jungle.
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As we arrange the sunshine of the yellow balls I flash back to 1957, to a young man throwing his hat into the crowd outside a suburban synagogue. He came out from the dreary little building with his new wife, his ‘Pommie’ girl. It’s the bride who usually throws her bouquet, but from the start this marriage was different. The mandatory male head covering was the first and only hat the young man was ever to own and discarding it was a statement of some kind – a gesture of defiance? Against all odds the wedding had taken place. He was penniless, working with a West Indian crew shifting mailbags at a London terminus: almost suicidal at one point because he’d spent his return fare money to Melbourne on a Lambretta motor scooter in Milan and felt stranded in bleak London, unemployable, hungry, homesick.
The bride, let’s face it, at twenty-six was just about ‘on the shelf’. She was the family’s ‘black sheep’ rebellious, unorthodox, didn’t mix well with the Jewish community (‘stuffy’, ‘conservative’, ‘boring’ she called them). Even worse, she’d left home unmarried and was living in what was at the time ‘bohemian’ Hampstead. She might even be having affairs! Nothing about her was quite right. Marrying this nobody from Australia; an only child leaving her parents to go and live twelve thousand miles away; the indecent haste of the wedding (‘Was she pregnant? Oh the shame!’). It was touch and go whether a cable would arrive from Australia in time to confirm the groom’s Jewish credentials. The suburban rabbi barely knew where the Great Synagogue in Sydney was and probably took an altogether dim view of Jewish life in the ‘colonies’.
Outside the synagogue the people watching were all from her side. The groom had only a small bunch of ex-pat Aussie students to support him. They reported afterwards that getting him to the ceremony had involved many stops for ‘heart-starters’. The bride was in what their grandsons now call a ‘different zone’. She didn’t know of, or care much, about Australia; she was making her escape. If you’d asked her what she was escaping from she might not have been able to articulate it but freedom is somewhere in the mix. She and he had been living together for a few months but neither had any real knowledge of the other. They just fantasised about riding the Lambretta to exotic places and maybe one day having four children.
There had been barely three weeks to prepare for the wedding. He had a proper job back in Melbourne – advertising manager for Rockmans Stores – and if he didn’t get back soon his employers would find someone else. The bride’s parents were hard-pressed to organise a decent send-off, and they weren’t affluent. It was also the time of the Suez crisis: no petrol for cars although the scooter, running on a teaspoon of fuel, looked smug as the bride and groom rode away from the reception into the icy night.
The bride had thought it might be ok to be married in a National Trust type mansion by candlelight, wearing red velvet. Her family said that it wasn’t remotely ok and the boring synagogue ceremony was totally unmemorable. She wouldn’t countenance a dress with lace or frills but chose a Pierre Balmain copy in plain white grosgrain, calf-length with a little jacket that had a stand-up collar.
The groom was consulted about flowers. It was probably the only item on which he was asked his opinion. In England freesia bloom in February and now they are in my Melbourne garden in his honour – of course at the other end of the year. The boy from Bondi wanted wattle too, the only link with his home. The local florist had never even heard of it; so he settled for French Mimosa flown in from the south of France.
‘Settling’ is a pretty accurate description of the marriage. She kept everything more or less on track; he decided whether the Australian government would raise taxes or go to war.
c Ros Collins 2015