Monday, January 23, 2012

Loss and Life

This year seems to have started with many friends around me suffering the loss of someone close. A constant reminder of the fragility of life and a sense of fear about how any of us will make it through to old age. Chances seem slim when you hear so many different stories.

Since my father died, I have always found the new year particularly poignant. Another year that he will never know. Another year that pushes him further away from our lives. My greatest fear when he died was that my children would have no memory or understanding of him. His death prompted me to start writing; for the children and for me.

Last week Lily told my mother she had no memory of him whatsoever. Even when she looked at the photos of him holding her as a baby, she couldn’t sense him at all. Yet, when he died and she was not quite two, she talked about him all the time. So much so that her chatter prompted me to write the story below.

A story that not only helped me cope with my loss but more importantly a story I need to read to her again.

(first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 22, 2007)
A Shift in Perception

Lily loved her Pa. He was always reading to her. Everytime Pa came to visit, Lily would rush to her bookshelf and find a collection of books to read together. Afterwards they would pull funny faces and make each other laugh. Pa always made Lily laugh and Lily always made Pa laugh. He was always smiling.

Then Pa started to visit a bit less. When he did, he looked tired and was sometimes too tired to read to Lily. Luckily Mama was always with him, so she would read to Lily while Pa watched, still smiling.

Soon Pa stopped visiting at all and Lily’s mummy would take her to visit him. ‘We’re going to have morning tea with Pa today’, she would say and Lily would rush to her bookshelf to find different books to show him. Mostly Pa would be in a chair by the bed, looking out the window. Sometimes he would be asleep. Each time he looked very sad but as soon as he saw Lily, his eyes would light-up and he would give her the widest grins. Lily would run up to him laughing, kiss his cheek and rummage through her bag for her books. Pa couldn’t read to her anymore, so Lily’s mummy would instead. Lily didn’t mind — whenever she looked at Pa while mummy was reading, he was watching, still smiling.

Sometimes he slept while Lily’s mummy read, but he always woke up to kiss Lily goodbye. As Lily walked out of his room, she would turn back to wave and Pa was always watching, still smiling.

One day, they didn’t go to visit Pa and everyone in Lily’s family — her mummy, daddy, mama, auntie and uncle — looked very sad. Lily wasn’t sure why as she could see Pa in the loungeroom with them all. Watching, still smiling.

Lily missed sitting on Pa’s lap and having him read to her. She would often look at her books by herself, only she was never really by herself as she would look up and always see Pa watching her, still smiling.

Sometimes she would try and read her books aloud to him but she couldn’t remember all the words, as hard as she tried. Pa never seemed to mind though as he was still watching, still smiling.

Lily’s mummy was often sad and told Lily it was because she missed Pa. Lily wanted to make her feel better so would go to her bookshelf and find her favourite books. As Lily’s mummy read to her, Lily saw she had tears in her eyes. Lily couldn’t understand why as Pa was there too. Watching, still smiling.

That night Lily had a dream about Pa. Lily was so excited. She could cuddle him and sit on his lap. Best of all, he could read to her again — all the books in her bookshelf! They laughed and laughed together. He wasn’t tired anymore and he was so happy. Lily kept looking up at him as he read. Of course he was watching, still smiling.

After he finished the last book, he folded Lily in his arms and told her he had to go. He asked her not to be sad because it was good. He was all better now. But Lily didn’t want him to go. She wanted to stay on his lap and have him read to her forever. He hugged her and said that every time she read a book to think of him; he would be there, between every word and page. He would point at the pictures and laugh with her at the funny bits, just like always. Then Pa told her it was time to go back to sleep. She nestled her head in the crook of his arm and closed her eyes while he watched, still smiling.

In the morning, Lily raced to her bookshelf to find her favourite book and sat down to start reading. Straight away she felt Pa next to her but when she looked up he wasn’t there. She kept reading though, always thinking about him. And Pa continued to watch, always smiling.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to work but still time for a holiday read

I’ve mentioned earlier my love of Penny Vincenzi novels so you can imagine my excitement when, just before Christmas, I noticed she had a new book out. My idea of escapist reading has always been a 700-odd page saga with a cast of more than 20 characters that explores the huge, messy themes of life. My perfect holiday read.

To be honest, it’s my perfect-any-time-of-year read as her stories are so readable. Page-turning. As she said in a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview, “I write to entertain my readers and hopefully make their lives just a little better, not to win prizes. What I like best is when I get notes from readers who tell me they've had a long spell in hospital and my book has helped them get through it; that makes me very happy.''

I laughed. In the last few years, I have only been able to convert a few friends to becoming Vincenzi fans during enforced rest time: late-stages of pregnancy, or looking for something ‘easy’ to read during all the hours spent breast-feeding and most recently, a friend who spent a spell in hospital.

While pregnant with Ned, I had the opportunity to interview Penny for Good Reading magazine and leapt at it. Despite her success – 16 bestsellers and seven million books sold to date – she is extremely modest, spending much of our interview time asking me questions about my pregnancy and telling me stories about her own four children and grandchildren.

But, about her career and her writing, here is what she had to say...

First published in Good Reading magazine October 2005

Penny For Her Thoughts

Watching Penny Vincenzi pour our tea from across the table, I am struck by how unaffected she is. Despite having sold over five million books worldwide, she is more interested in my pregnancy and chatting about her husband and four daughters, than promoting her latest novel, Sheer Abandon. Settling back into our armchairs, the pregnancy conversation segues towards the idea for her latest novel.

Sheer Abandon follows the lives of three women who meet aged 18 on their way to Thailand. Nine months later, one of them returns to London, giving birth at Heathrow Airport and abandoning the baby. The book moves forward 16 years, when the women are reunited and the now-teenager begins the search for her natural mother.

“The original idea came from a story in the paper. I thought it was an irresistible idea for a book but there needed to be more. Then I thought of the three girls, not knowing who the mother was and the story slowly unravelling. I also realised that the emotional fallout of everyone finding out years later would be as hard to cope with as the discovery.”

As with all Penny’s books, she doesn’t know how her stories will end: “I start with the idea, marshal a few of my characters…it’s a bit like going to a party and thinking ‘He looks interesting’, ‘she looks smart’ and I gradually get to know them. Then I wind them up, off they go and I follow them. They very much shape the plot as they take on a will of their own.”

Indeed, she is often as shocked as the reader with plot twists: “I remember with one book, after writing all day I went for an evening walk with my husband. I was telling him about the terrible day I’d had with one of the characters and then I realised, oh my God, she’s died! And it really was a shock. The minute I said it, I knew it had to happen for the story to work.”

Any fan of Vincenzi’s work will know that all her books are at least 500 pages — and you still don’t want them to end — packed with extraordinary detail of the characters, their careers, and the era and society they live in. Unsurprisingly, research is one of the things Penny loves most about writing:

“I used to be a journalist and it was such a lovely, chatty job; whereas fiction is incredibly isolating. Doing research is like being a journalist again.” Politics plays a major role in Sheer Abandon; a world she knew little about: “I spent a lot of time at the House of Commons talking to MPs and political journalists, going to their restaurants and bars…soaking up the atmosphere. You have to get the tone of voice right, so I spent a lot of time listening and immersing myself in their world.”

With Penny’s natural flair for creating such readable escapist fiction, it is a shock to discover she never intended to write a book, or that even after writing the first one she would become a novelist:

“I was approached to write a novel and I had an idea so thought I’d do it and then go back to being a journalist. It was a complete surprise to me how much I loved it and how it has turned into something really wonderful. I’m amazed that I have all these plots and sub-plots in my head!”

After writing a book nearly every year, and Sheer Abandon being her 12th novel, it does seem the ideas have never stopped flowing: “I’m very workman like about what I do. While I have days when I can’t write, I just sit there and sweat it out. I think it’s a bit of a luxury to get writer’s block. I’ve always got a deadline, so have to keep going.”

Up at 6am every morning, Penny walks her dog and during this time does her plotting. She is at her desk and writing by 9am. “I work office hours really but as a deadline gets nearer, I’ll do six days a week, then sometimes seven.”

She is also very aware of balancing her life: “I have a family and it’s not fair to them so I do stop work in the evenings and cook my husband supper. I’m a good 50s housewife: I cook, shop and keep house for him because that’s how I was brought up and I can’t change it! My children and grandchildren take up a lot of time too…they’re the only ones I will stop work for.”

As we sit with our second cup of tea, analysing her characters as if they were real friends, it is evident that Penny is a long way from running out of fresh ideas. “I love finding these people, seeing their foibles and strengths. It’s my favourite part and it’s a hideous blank when you finish.”

As it is for her readers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Up and down the garden path

The 18th century architect William Kent once said that ‘a garden is a world unto itself, it had better make room for the darker shades of feeling as well as the sunny ones.’ This quote eloquently sums up my struggle with gardening my entire adult life – the emotional struggle. I couldn’t see past the ‘darker shades’, so much so that I stayed well away from getting my hands dirty lest nothing grew or worse, died.

I always loved flowers and appreciated beautiful gardens, I just never felt capable of growing my own. My mother is a gardener and over the years has grown gardens from scratch and tended established ones. The only time I remember her feeling stressed about gardening was when looking after her aunt’s orchids. She lived in fear for the four weeks her aunt was on holiday that she would do something that would inadvertently kill them.

It was how I felt about any sort of plant.

After getting married I realised I had found a man who loved gardening as much as my mother. I quickly took on the role of executive gardener; ‘Let’s grow a wisteria over the pergola’; ‘gardenias would look good near the back door and will make the house smell lovely’, ‘I really want hydrangeas along the back fence’, ‘what about lavender in the window boxes?’

And my wishes were granted. He was happy to be led and I was happy to let him do the digging, planting, watering, fertilising, composting. He would read the gardening pages in the weekend papers with the same enthusiasm I would read the book reviews. Sharing a cup of tea in the garden would involve me sitting on the deck while he walked around checking for aphids, black spot, stink bugs and other undesirables.

‘Why can’t you just sit down and enjoy the garden?’ I would ask.

‘But I do,’ he insisted, ‘I just enjoy working in it rather than admiring it from afar.’

A gardener’s work is never done, is it? Once you get rid of one lot of stink bugs, another lot fly in. Once you think you’ve solved the nutrient deficiency with the gardenias, the leaves turn yellow again. How is that enjoyable?

After Lily was born, mum would suggest ‘getting out in the garden’ while my daughter slept.

‘I always sit in the garden and have a cup of tea’, I told her.

‘No, I mean, why not water the garden? It’s a great stress reliever,’ she evangelised. ‘I couldn’t wait to get out in the garden and water it when you girls were little. It’s like meditating.’

No, I thought, it’s like another chore to add to the list of loading the washing machine and hanging clothes on the line.

But then something happened. As my children grew and the house became noisier, the garden and the gentle sound of the water trickling from the hose offered calm; even more so with a glass of wine in hand at dusk while Stuart took over the dinner battle inside.

And then on our trip to England, we spent time in Cotswold villages surrounded by cottages hundreds of years old. There were espaliered pear trees growing around front doors. And roses. Climbing, rambling roses everywhere. The gardening bug suddenly bit me hard.

‘I want to grow a climbing rose in our front courtyard’, I told Stuart during the flight home.

‘Okay’, he said slowly, unsure of why this thought had hit me somewhere over Russia in the middle of the night.

‘Roses can be hard to grow,’ he warned. I knew that already. He had been trying to grow a banksia rose for years but all it seemed to do successfully was grow some sort of mould.

I got home and started researching varieties of roses on the internet. How many could there be? Hundreds it turns out. Accepting my lack of even basic garden knowledge, I took mum and ventured to a nursery specialising in roses an hour’s drive away.

Cornering one of the gardeners as he watered the pots and pots of roses, I asked his advice.

‘You’ll need the Climbing Pinkie,’ he said pointing to a column with roses cascading all over it.

‘Is that what it will look like?’ I replied, awed at the sight of so many roses.

‘Yes, just water them every day, make sure the pots drain well, feed them with rose food every six weeks and after two or three years that’s what it should look like.’

For the first time I wanted to be the one responsible for making a plant grow.

‘Could you just tell me again how to look after them?’ I said while searching through my handbag for a scrap of paper and pen.

‘Just water every day and feed them six weekly.’

‘That’s it? Every six weeks, all year long? How do I know when I’ve given them enough water? How much soil did you say the pots would need again? Is there anything else I should know?’ I asked while writing down every word he said.

The gardener and my mother exchanged glances.

‘This is her first rose,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ came the reply. ‘You know, everyone thinks it’s really hard to grow roses but it’s not.’

As we spent the afternoon planting I mentioned that I could never lose the bit of paper I’d written the gardener’s advice on.

‘It’s funny,’ began mum, ‘but in old gardens that have been neglected you often find that a rambling rose is the only plant to have survived.’

A couple of weeks later, I walked past my old Italian neighbour working in his tiny front garden. The narrow patch of soil between the brick fence and pebbledash is home to three or four abundant roses, all in flower at the moment.

‘Morning, how are you’, he smiled as he does every day.

‘Morning,’ I replied. ‘Your roses are lovely.’

‘Ah yes, beautiful.’

‘How do you look after them?’ I asked. ‘Do you feed them?’

‘I do nothing but this,’ he said wobbling his watering can at me and laughing.

He shook his head with a look that seemed to say, ‘you young people worry too much’.

Maybe he’s right. Today my rose is growing, before my eyes. The kids and I water it each morning and count the buds appearing. I started counting caterpillars last weekend and even that didn’t stress me too much, because like with life, you take the good with the bad. For all the beautiful flowers that will bloom, there will be just as many bugs and caterpillars.

As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote ‘You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.’

Yes, I think I finally am.


Related Posts with Thumbnails