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U3A Writing: Aunt Mae's Garden

Naomi Haddrick tells an intriguing tale of sibling jealousy.

It's not fair. It never was fair. Fran always was the favourite. Perhaps it was understandable, she had blue eyes, fair curls and a soft little voice, and I was nothing like her. It was when we gathered as a large family that I most noticed that everyone preferred her to me.

"Fran's fair skin will burn in the sun. Would you like me to put on some cream?" Even Granny was just as bad as the others were.

"Fran would you like to help me? I'm going to pick some strawberries." Auntie Jean had two boys, and always played making Fran her pretend little girl when she could.

To our Dad Fran was always his "Little bit of Dresden", and he nursed her gently or held her hand, matching his stride to her smaller steps. The irritating thing was Fran never seemed to contrive this preference, that wide-eyed innocence being helped by those round metal framed glasses so thick they looked like jam jar bottoms.

Dad called me his "Little Tiger." He pretended it was after his chosen footy team but I just knew it was because I stirred up a fight with him whenever he had been showing his preference for that bit of English china.

Our times with Aunt Mae were an oasis for me. I could relax. We two were often with her and there we seemed to be equal. I could relax, not needing to fight for recognition. She was an old maid, my great-aunt Mae. Granny explained she was an unclaimed treasure. We thought we were pretty lucky as we skipped along narrow paths winding through her closely planted garden, which was Aunt Mae's pride and joy. Compost was familiar to us long before "Earth Garden" made it popular. Aunt Mae didn't have green bins or re-cycled plastic worm farms, she had heaps in unobtrusive, strategic places around the garden, covered with thick pieces of hessian. Her kitchen scraps alternating with wood ash from her fire and manure from her chooks rotted splendidly. We would marvel at the warmth of the pile, the proliferation of wriggling worms and the wonderful produce from her garden. No commercial soil improver was needed there.

Superstition played a part in the garden too. Leeks protected the garden's luck and kept out lightning, and it must have worked. We learnt that particular tasks were best performed according to phases of the moon, especially planting. We heard planting parsley from seed would result in babies coming, wondering a bit when the numbers of babies didn't match the frequency of parsley planting. Birds were frequent and welcomed guests in Aunt Mae's garden. No poison baits were laid for slugs or snails. Bran, with orange peel, on the ground, covered with a large cabbage leaf was their temptation. In the morning there they'd be, food for the chooks, and the birds and plants were safe.

My sister Fran and I were always cautioned about the care needed with plants deemed poisonous. The chooks must not be fed the leaves from rhubarb although we enjoyed the stalks stewed in a pie and a Norfolk Island hibiscus, which had beautiful pink flowers in January, had seeds which caused intense skin irritation. This sort of knowledge all became second nature to us, just a part of our lives in that garden.

We loved ladybirds. We would gently hold our fingers in front of a ladybird as they crawled on a leaf or a blade of grass. If we were lucky the ladybird climbed on our finger. We sang the rhyme and nearly always the ladybird flew away at the end. We knew it was very unlucky to cause the death of a ladybird.

Our days of lying in the warm grass passed, we forgot following the paths of beetles and ants, the caressing winds and earthy smells, we entered a different world. We were grownups.

Now Fran and I were together again, after the sad years, and best of all for us we were in Aunt Mae's home. The garden was largely unchanged, although very overgrown, but we set about reclaiming our territory, often saying to each other how she was looking down and giving bits of advice. This became a game for us. We were now the funny old folk to the younger family members, for us the circle had turned. We were disappointed the young ones weren't interested in visiting. For us there were no little girls happy to sing along with, "Mary, Mary, quite contrary."

But it was not plain sailing either. Our years apart had changed us, as we settled in it was evident our priorities now were different. Fran enjoyed the indoors and cooking and I really like being outside wearing a pair of boots, with a woolly beanie in winter or a floppy cotton hat in summer.

We sometimes differed about plantings, should we try bulbs here or perennials there, but it all was sorted amicably. I really felt proud whenever I brought in vegetables for the table. Still no sprays were used here, so everything was safe to eat.

But Fran's nature had asserted itself. She was surer of herself than in our childhood.

"You've brought me that silver beet have you?"

"Yes. Was there something else you'd rather have?"

"Almost anything else would do, broccoli even."

I would smile and bring broccoli for the next three days, until Fran suggested a change, or I needed one.

If I picked some daphne for the lounge room, "The small vase still has pansies in it, I thought you might have seen that and today picked daffs or even that lovely double pink camellia. The larger vase is empty as I'm sure you can see."

So, understanding I couldn't win, outside was the place for me. I stomped in gumboots along the paths where we'd one time skipped. My head felt full, sometimes I couldn't think clearly. Only Fran, Fran, Fran. She's so well, so strong. It's a pity but perhaps a little illness might bring her to her knees.

The flowering cherry was looking lovely, even innocent. Now, what had Aunt Mae said about that tree?" I couldn't for the life of me remember.
Next day Fran started early.

"What vegies are ready today? I suppose it'll again be something I've no use for."

Walking along the path I just happened to pick some leaves of the flowering prunus and put them in the front pocket of my khaki coveralls.
Midmorning Fran brought us out a tray of tea onto the veranda, (a pity if I should soil the floor indoors). After I'd poured mine, with surprise I found myself popping the prunus leaves from my pocket into the teapot while Fran leaned over the railing, checking up on the progress of my work.

Fran did her routine turning the pot three times, then poured hers. I felt myself holding my breath while she drank it. I was curious but I'd no reason to expect anything would happen. At lunchtime I repeated the procedure and was rewarded with Fran not feeling too well. She seemed short of breath and fidgety, she skipped dinner and so I had poached eggs, no vegetables.

The next night I brought in carrots and bok choy. Fran was herself again.

"Humph, that green stuff. I always find it bitter."

Just to show how I liked our own garden produce 1 ate it with relish. But I had to agree it was bitter. Very.

Next day it was Fran's turn to be solicitous. I was under the weather.

"Not to worry, you must rest. I'll use the rest of the vegies you brought in yesterday. There's plenty because I added some leaves from the pot near the barbecue hoping to make that bok choy bland."

I spent the day in bed. Sometimes vaguely planning another crop, perhaps broad beans. Or when my mind had been wandering, I was with Aunt Mae, gently holding a ladybird. Singing, "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home."

And all the time I'd been poisoned myself, with monk's hood! I was lucky to be alive. Now my worry was, did Fran know what she'd done?

I was unwell for a time. After I'd undergone several medical tests our family doctor prescribed pills and potions which I took faithfully. Of course I was very, very careful in the garden produce that was used in our kitchen. I put in quite some time and energy redesigning the different garden beds, no mistakes would be made again. I said nothing to Fran because I wasn't sure what had happened and well, I didn't want to give her any ideas. That was my forte.

One day a younger cousin of ours invited Fran for a visit to Sydney. Roma was newly widowed and wrote she remembered our young days with such fondness and was sure Fran would be able to help her cope in her time of grief. Still the favourite I thought. Well Roma was welcome to her, I'd have a great time on my own anyway, there'd be no one to give everlasting explanations to.

Before Fran left for Tullamarine in the airport bus we had a snack to keep her going. What with the length of time required before boarding nowadays you never knew when you would get your next cuppa, and the short national flights had cut down on inflight refreshments. I smiled to myself. There was just enough calomel in the ginger jam to make her trip memorable without lasting too long. I certainly didn't want any nosy person to suppose I was careless or anything but a loving sister.

The days passed pleasantly for me. Time was my own. Once again I looked about, noticing ants and beetles and smells long forgotten. In a moment of insanity after I'd remembered our singing when young, "Once I saw a little bird come hop, hop, hop. And I cried little bird will you stop, stop, stop." I found myself trying to put salt on the tails of some birds!
How glad I was there were no witnesses. I did no dusting, slipped under the doona each night, without bedmaking in the morning, and Fran had left me meals in the freezer to tide me over until her return.

It was about time I thought after three weeks, for moping to be over and asked Fran when she phoned, how much longer she thought she'd be. She was a little evasive; perhaps I'd have to buy some frozen dinners when I finished those she'd prepared. Well I'd actually been eating lots of fresh vegetables, egg on a bed of lettuce and so on, I'd not exhausted the supply yet. Nearly down to the end I defrosted a beef curry, there'd been three of these and I'd found the other two really tasty. The flavour of this one was unusual, nothing I could put my finger on. No sooner was it down but my intestines were in the grip of almighty agony, i knew instinctively what had happened and phoned 000. The emergency department went into swift action, the doctor putting it down to incorrect freezing action, but I knew. Oh yes, I knew.

When the phone rang the next night at the usual time, after seven p.m. for the cheaper rate, I didn't answer. Nor the next three times. Then one day I heard a taxi pulling up at our gate, peeping around the camellia I saw Fran looking quite comfortable, there was certainly no sign of concern for a sister not able to be contacted over the last week or so. Smiling a welcome, I turned to meet her as she rounded the path.

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