Max

When Linda first took me to Canberra to meet her folks all they knew in advance was that I liked footy. So, to make me feel welcome as we sat in the living room, her father Max talked about Sydney Swans’ hard man, Barry Hall.

‘He a bigga and badda man,’ Max said in his melodic Italian accent that always makes me think of homemade wine and red and white checked table cloth.

Besides that Max took a back seat allowing Linda’s mum Anna, with her greater grasp of English, to do the interrogating. An old aunt popped in to give me the once over and the evening meal was served at 5.30pm.

That’s the way it is with Max. He’s happy to sit quietly as his loud, dramatic, lovable, infuriating clan cause chaos around him.

On this post-Christmas trip up the Hume – Eloise’s first – Max and I sat together on the front patio on a warm and still night. Canberra’s suburbs had emptied out for the coast and the streets were sleepy.

Despite initial awkwardness – this was the first time we had sat alone together – conversation flowed once I asked Max about his life’s journey. It was as if the question unlocked a big, heavy door in his memory.

Max grew up in a village on the side of a hill somewhere between Rome and Naples. Anna’s family lived on the next hill and villagers communicated by calling out to each other across the deep, narrow valley separating them.

To escape conscription into the military and the intense poverty gripping Italy following World War Two, Max, aged twenty, sailed for Australia with his brother in 1955. They spent years working the cane fields of Queensland and fruit crops of Shepparton before settling in Canberra and reuniting with family and friends from their region who had also migrated.

Max and Anna married and the family home in the suburb of Griffith was bought in the late 60s for 12,000 pounds. A typical double-bricked, three bedroom cottage with no cooling to subdue stifling summers and the only heating during winter, with temperatures regularly below zero, was provided by the kitchen’s wood stove. The house gradually expanded to accommodate four children and today, the walls are filled with family photographs connecting the generations: stern black and white wedding photos from the old country alongside colour digital shots of grinning grandchildren.

For nearly two decades Max tended the gardens at the Governor General’s residence on Lake Burley Griffin. He served under four Queen’s representatives and showed me Christmas cards from the Haydens and Deanes and a photograph of Rev. Peter Hollingsworth presenting him with a plaque and watch on retirement.

Nowadays Max devotes his time to his own garden with every inch of this large corner block, in faithful village tradition, geared towards self-sufficiency. The backyard is given over to grapevine canopies and rows of vegetables, including cucumbers the size of small cricket bats. While in the front fruit trees offer beams for the grandchildren’s swings and shade during family feasts. The watering system is a maze of furrows and old washing machine piping that would make the ancient Romans proud but local water authorities suspicious.

Max moves serenely amongst his produce, watering, digging, sampling the odd tomato or apricot. He escapes the mid-afternoon sun under the olive tree with a coffee and Jezzabel, the dog, by his side, perhaps considering his next project – completion of the bedroom and kitchen in the garage.

The morning after our chat, Justin, a childhood neighbour, visited with his young family. He and Linda reminisced about the hole in the adjoining fence, firecracker fights in the street and riding their bikes to Manuka pools as if recalling scenes from ‘Cloudstreet’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. We ate homemade bruschetta and despite protests from their mother, Anna shovelled ice creams into the boys. Everyone posed for a group photo.

Justin has a brain tumour and at best has only a few years left. He’s spending the holidays visiting old friends and family and has the look of a man making the most of things. As he bundled the boys in the car, a tearful Anna reminded him he will always be considered family in this house. Max quietly nodded.

Comments

  1. Ben Footner says:

    I travelled through the region of Italy that Max originates from a couple of years back. You’re not wrong about the habit of using every inch for self sufficency – the verges and median strips of the highways around there were divided into little shanty blocks full of fruit and vegetable growth!

  2. Beautiful stuff, Andrew. There are many stories like Max’s crying out to be told and I’m sure his family (and perhaps Max himself, if he’s not too shy) will be so glad that you’ve told his.

    A wonderfully moving read.

  3. Andrew

    A really, really, really lovely story, beautifully written. Thanks for haring it.

    Nice family you’re part of.

    Sean

  4. Andrew Starkie says:

    Thanks guys. Have learnt alot from being apart of this clan. mainly, life’s about family and food. Pretty simple.

  5. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Max would get on well with my husband (from Nepal) who likewise was born into self sufficiency. He has every spare inch of garden planted with vegetables, including stinging nettles to make his soup with (I’m told it is high in vitamin c). We usually have enough spinach to feed 40 people even though the kids have left home and there are only the two of us to feed. Have just used the last of last year’s potato crop .
    I love Manuka pool in Canberra with it’s old bath house atmosphere and gorgeous shady trees and green lawn. Lovely place to swim.

  6. Lord Bogan says:

    Great work Starkie,

    Max is from the same vintage as my parents. Gardens gave them hope and a feeling of self-sufficiency that our generation is now beginning to appreciate.

    Can’t help picturing you as ‘Mickey Blue Eyes’ in Griffith :)

  7. Andrew, you have painted many beautiful pictures here. Wonderfully evocative stuff. I”m sure Max is very proud that you’re now part of his family

  8. What a beautiful story.
    Thank you so much for sharing it, Andrew.

  9. Colin Ritchie says:

    Thanks Andrew for reminding us of the importance and delight of talking and reminiscing with the older generation. Perhaps we all should make the effort and talk with an older member in our family or community so stories such as yours can be heard and shared. I’m sure it will be a rich and rewarding experience for all concerned.

  10. Paul Daffey says:

    Hi Andrew,

    My in-laws are also Italian, from Sicily and Calabria. They came out in the 1920s so they’ve been in Melbourne for almost 100 years, but they still carry very strongly the Italian traditions of basing life around food and family. As you say, it’s very simple.

    Everything you’ve written rings true for me – the vege garden, the chaos. They have a gift for life. You can learn much from the in-laws!

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