Clarity by Candlelight

When we were kids, every second year Mum and Dad would carry us gently to the car before the birds began chirping, buckle our sleeping bodies in and set off on the road. The first night would be spent in Tumbarumba, the tiny town at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains where Grandma and Grandpa lived. Cabramatta was the next pause, with a visit to Baba and Deda and a chance to slide into a food coma from the bountiful selection of fried food and cakes. And then, after a total of eighteen hours on the road, usually filled with plenty of bickering and ‘her foot is on my side!’ arguments, we rounded the corner, car rumbling over the gravel on the palm tree lined driveway, and there it was.

The Lumley’s House.

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We tumbled out of the car with relief and shyly waved to our cousins, usually a matter of minutes before we had sufficiently warmed up and were running off to make mischief together. At night time, the floor would be covered in mattresses for a giant sleepover, complete with secret midnight snacks and strategically placed fans to stave off the oppressive heat. We would wet face washers and drape them over our bodies to keep cool, giggling and talking until the escalation of glee drew the attention of a stern parent.

As the years wore on, we put on elaborate shows and plays for the parents, once spending days in the carport to transform it into a palace for the now infamous production of ‘Esther’. We spent our days at the beach, walking to the Byron Bay Lighthouse and begging parents for extra money so that we could buy trinkets and jewellery. Cubby houses of every kind were constructed, one on the top of the water tank in the far corner of the property. Treasure hunts were organised by the colourful Uncle Mark, as we traipsed through deep brush, waded through murky creeks and balanced over dead logs to find the elusive clues. Once we got more than we bargained for and had to be individually combed over for ticks at the conclusion of the hunt. When night fell we played Sardines, shrieking with laughter when the lone searcher finally stumbled upon the mass hideout of not-so-silently huddling bodies.

It was, in short, paradise.

I had the opportunity to return over the weekend for my Aunty Louise’s 60th birthday. Family flew in from Tasmania, from Christchurch, Melbourne and Sydeny to gather once again and celebrate with her. Dave and I seriously discussed a mammoth road trip so that we could all be there, but it proved to be too close to the end of the holidays. Ivy and I flew up together with my Mum and Dad, Ivy’s first plane trip (and probably the last if the disastrous leg home bore even a slight chance of being repeated!).

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As I stepped through the wire mesh door at the back of the house, memories came flooding back. The house smells of adventure, sea salt and love. The staircase has a comforting creak, a overlooking window casting moonlight through the bannisters at midnight. It is a home – filled with character, life and much laughter. From the kitchen verandah you can catch a glimpse of the ocean, a shimmering blue in the distance. The rest of the property holds a sense of mystery, from the resident python in the shed, to the pumpkin vines creeping in the abundant garden, the scent of the frangipani in full bloom.

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Grandma (or ‘Gigi’ as she is fondly known by my boys) occupies the bungalow adjoining the house, a cosy and welcoming abode that allows her to duck in and out of the whirlwind of activity in the big house. For a number of years now, Grandma has been gradually going blind, unable to paint, read or pursue her writing. The gradual loss of so many outlets for independence and creativity would be a sure road to bitterness for some, but not for Grandma. She is perpetually positive, though honestly admitting to difficulties, still using her time to serve others – volunteering weekly with Aunty Louise at FoodCare which offers low cost groceries to those in need.

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Family began to slowly trickle in, filling the house with politically incorrect conversations, recollections of memories and unending cups of tea. Uncle Mark assumed his usual role of house entertainer, issuing provocative statements and colourful tales, never allowing the mood to grow dull. Aunty Louise was distractedly selfless, stopping any task at the drop of a hat if there was even the hint of a suggestion that she could help or listen to someone.

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Mum and Dad easily slotted into the roles of house clean-up and organisation, endlessly helping me by whisking an unusually subdued Ivy off for walks through the gardens when all the new faces became too much for her. Ivy became renowned for her scowls, unfortunately, as it took her a couple of days to adjust to the new family situation. Poor Jordan, accustomed to the flowing admiration of friends and strangers alike, worked hard to gain her affections until he was soundly upstaged by his baby-whispering girlfriend, Antonia.

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On the afternoon of the party, the house was in full swing – decorating, running errands and picking up supplies. The boys had convinced themselves that a fire basket would be the key to a raging night, and promptly set about constructing one. The girls busied themselves foraging for flowers, traipsing through the extensive grounds to pluck vines and blossoms for the table centrepiece. The scene of the celebration was the front verandah, long tables stretching the entire length of the house to accommodate the generous crowd.

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As night fell, the fairy lights began to twinkle, and the plethora of candles flickered invitingly. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong crooned from the speakers and Uncle Mark concocted Ginger Beer mocktails to savour in anticipation of the feast. Despite a near mishap with burning the rice and a last minute panic over whether the final two guests would make it in time from the airport, when we all gathered around the table, it was perfect.

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We heaped our plates with a bounty of Thai curries and filled our glasses with wine. Humorous memories sprung from all corners, causing bellies to ache and tears of laughter to stream down faces. It isn’t a family gathering without someone recalling the story of when our cousin David, feeling lucky, had the misfortune of getting his hand stuck in a toy vending machine. Half an hour later, with Firemen, State Emergency Services, Centre Management, a Police Officer in attendance and a large crowd of shoppers craning their heads to view the drama – the jaws of life released poor David into the arms of his mortified mother.

Over delicious bites of berry swirl ice-cream birthday cake, the mood shifted to nostalgia as we all took turns to share fond memories of Aunty Louise. As my Uncle Phil put it, she is pretty much impossible to dislike. When you have a conversation with her, she stops everything to smile into your eyes and absorb every word. Thoughtful, selfless, generous, passionate, humble and self-deprecating – just a few of the words that spring to mind when I think about my Aunty. Each of us at that table readily acknowledged that we are so much the richer for knowing her.

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It was a moment during the laughter and tears that I felt it. ‘This,’ it hit me suddenly, ‘is what life is all about.’ Family gathered together, making space during otherwise chaotic and busy lives, to eat and drink, laugh and cry. To celebrate and reminisce, to appreciate and uphold sacrifice and love that has been flowing as an undercurrent for decades. A sustaining force, with the dependable rhythm of a heartbeat, showing up selflessly and asking nothing in return. Mother, Aunty, Sister, Wife, Daughter, Nurse, Artist and Friend.

It was the express request of the birthday girl that we bring our dancing shoes, so we moved the party into the courtyard. The story went that the ‘oldies’ were the last on the dance floor, shaking it tirelessly to tracks from a bygone era, but it should be noted that the young went hard early before their elders had properly warmed up. I wound up the night reclining on a banana lounge reminiscing with Annelyse, the fire glowing and crackling through the fissures in the crafted basket.

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Seventeen people conked out on the property that night. Or should I say sixteen, because little Archer (my cousin Gillian’s son) was determined to restart the party around 3am, to the dismay of his exhausted parents having just given their all on the dance floor.

When the sun rose the next morning, many of us were already on the go thanks to two bright eyed children.

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Annelyse suggested we visit Harvest, a collection of heritage buildings housing a cafe, bakery, deli and takeaway coffee shop in Newrybar. It was magical. Pastries, croissants, warm jam donuts, freshly baked bread and thick sausage rolls were arranged in bountiful array. We made our selection and settled in the edible garden to savour each bite. Effortlessly chic women strolled by with their children in tow as fashionable miniatures. Rustic houses now converted into artisan displays of wares, antiques, leatherwork and linens. There was a sense of life as it should be- local, crafted, slow, savoured, designed.

 

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All too soon the window of time travel began to ease shut and we bid a teary farewell to achingly familiar faces. Even the ghastly flight home which had Ivy screaming like a girl possessed for the entire descent did little to efface the glow that the adventure had forged.

Life is but a moment, and it is such a pleasure and privilege to be able to spend it with family like this.

 

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