I’ve spent a bit of time reading the beautiful blog at pearlandelspeth.blogspot.com.au. These bloggers wax lyrical about living sustainably from their land in their handbuilt straw-bale cottage. (They even have a rooster called John Howard, for his cranky face and bushy eyebrows). It’s a lifestyle that makes me green with envy, and one that I hope to take steps towards when we move to our little patch of farmland in a few months.
One of their posts mentioned “garden volunteers”, which are those unexpected veggies that just pop up in a corner of your patch for no particular reason. The notion of garden volunteers made me think of Norm and Flo, who we shared a back fence with for our first few years in Yarraville.
When O and I first moved into our house (in the love-struck days before wedding rings and dirty nappies), we were greeted by a welcoming yoohoo from a voice over our back fence. It was Flo, a pint-sized octogenarian who was pleased to meet the new “nice young couple” and promptly handed me a plastic bag filled with tomato seedlings from her garden. She pointed to a rusty nail which was half-hammered into my side of the fence.
“I’ll leave things for you here. Fruit, tomatoes, whatever’s around. There’s a nail on my side too. You do the same.”
Turns out this fence-nail barter system had been in place since sometime in the mid 1950s.
I would find all kinds of things left on that nail. When I was pregnant with the Little Miss, I found a bag full of baby-sized crocheted coathangers. There were often flowers from their garden, and the occasional Tupperware container of homemade biscuits, and always, always in summer, cherry tomato plants.
In return I left lemons from our grand old dame, the occasional cake, and jars of homemade jam. I once overheard Flo scolding Norm from over the fence when he refused an offer of a jar of my strawberry jam, on account of his diverticulitis.
“Take the jam and say thank you, Norman. The girl is giving you a gift she’s made with her own two hands!”
O and Norm were regular back fence conversationalists. They both grew up in the same part of rural Victoria, albeit 50 years apart. Even a time warp of this magnitude couldn’t break down country connections and they still knew many of the same families, just members of different generations.
Norm once told us what Christmas was like when he was a child growing up around Bendigo in the 1930s. His family would travel by horse for a day to get to his uncle’s farm, where all the other cousins were staying. The kids camped in the barn, and on Christmas Eve they would carefully place their socks at the end of their bedrolls. On Christmas morning each of the kids would wake to find an orange in their sock, a rare Christmas treat.
In one conversation with Norm he was fretting about Flo – she’d had a bad turn and was in hospital and he didn’t know if she would make it out. Fortunately she did recover, but Norm died unexpectedly within a few weeks. It was the last chat we were to share with him.
Flo never adjusted to life without Norm. She would potter around in the garden on her own, without Norm to badger in that mother-hen manner she had finely tuned over 60 years of marriage. The house must have seemed so strange without him. He built it himself, with his own two hands when they were newlyweds, when land was cheap and there were no other houses around in the gaping plains of 1940s Yarraville.
Little Miss was born shortly before the first anniversary of Norm’s death. I took our newborn bundle to visit and we sat in Flo’s living room drinking cups of tea as she reminisced about the three babies who she’d raised within those walls. One of her daughters had been born under that roof, and when she couldn’t breastfeed the nurse said to feed her tinned condensed milk instead.
I left Flo’s house that afternoon warmed from the glow of her nostalgia.
Two days later there was a knock on our door. It was another elderly neighbour who I’d never met, but she was a friend of Flo’s. She’d come by to tell me that Flo had passed away the day before and that her funeral would be held the following week. She knew we were friends and thought I might like to know.
I thought of the sixty years Norm and Flo had spent raising their family in the one house, tending the same garden, cooking in the same kitchen, sleeping in the same room, and sharing the spoils of their garden and kitchen with the parade of families who had passed through our house over the decades. I loved that my visit to Flo’s house the day before her death had gifted her with a final trip down memory lane. One last present from the family over the back fence. I’m glad she had the opportunity to hold a newborn baby one last time in the room where she had nursed all her own babies in years gone by. There’s a part of me that wonders if our conversation helped her peacefully let go.
The volunteer tomatoes that Flo used to leave on that fence nail still pop up in our garden every summer, and each time I let them run rampant. It makes me smile that after 60 years there is still a little piece of Norm and Flo that lives on in our patch of Yarraville.