A birthday on the ward

January 7, 2010

Kat spent her seventeenth birthday in hospital. Christmas time was her undoing. We had established a routine at home since her previous admission. She was eating each meal and staying out of the bathroom for thirty minutes afterwards and putting on tiny amounts of weight each week.

Our family’s tradition is to head for the beach for Christmas. Our beach house has a reputation as a place where people can drop in anytime and join in with whatever activity our family is up to, whether it be sailing, surfing, beach combing, snorkeling, cooking, barbecuing, watching a movie… This Christmas was no exception. My brother-in-law and his family rented the place next door as they did last year. Cousins were often in our kitchen before anyone was up for breakfast. Tents were erected on our back lawn in preparation for New Years Eve, where we planned to do the usual – open house barbeque and a walk in along the beach to watch the fireworks on the pier. We accumulated a loose group of around 25 children and 15 or so adults. We decorated the children in glow sticks so we could find them on the beach walk in the dark. We counted down and danced after midnight.

This we have done every year for a decade. A decade ago leading up to New Year’s Eve the media worried us about the Y2K bug, Sally was three months old and Kat was six going on seven. This New Years Eve, Sally was ten and three months and Kat was sixteen going on seventeen – her birthday is on the 2nd of January.

The chaos of our life at the beach left Kat anxious and unable to maintain her health. Too many people and too much food. She lost two and a half kilos in the week beginning on Christmas eve. Her blood pressure dropped. Her heart rate soared. She ended up back in hospital on December 30th.

Rosie and I drove back to Melbourne to visit Kat in hospital for her birthday. We had given Kat her birthday present early – a pandora charm bracelet. All the relatives knew this and by the end of christmas and her birthday she had eight charms. With nothing to give her on the day, Rosie and I decided to buy some helium balloons.

We went to the party shop on the morning of Kat’s birthday. Hung above the entry to the shop were dozens of brightly coloured pinatas.

“Oh a pinata!” exclaimed Rosie.

“Yeah. Good idea”, I immediately agreed. Memories of stringing up pinatas for our children over the years flashed through my head and it felt like the right thing to buy. Something fun. Something a bit ‘out there’ for a hospital ward. “You choose which one”.

Rosie chose the orange stegasaurus:

We ordered seventeen helium balloons as well. I paid for the pinata and the balloons. For the balloons we had to wait half an hour.

“Hey we need to buy lollies to go in the pinata!” Rosie exclaimed.

“Oh yeah!” I said, “I forgot about that but there’s a supermarket just up the hill. Lets go while we’re waiting”.

“Good idea”.

Taking the pinata out of the shop to put it in the car, I queried the need to buy lollies because I couldn’t see a hole to put them through. I enlisted Rosie’s help. It had been so long since we’d had a pinata I could hardly remember.

“There’s a hole at the top” said Rosie confidently. Together Rosie and I located the hole. I was reassured that it was indeed empty and that lollies were needed.

“We need the type that come individually wrapped”, Rosie added.

“Yeah. I do remember now. And maybe lollipops”.

We schemed as we walked to the supermarket, charged with the excitement of giving and fun of surprising. We were halfway up the hill and in mid conversation before we both suddenly stopped, looked at eachother and in a moment of realisation, almost unspoken, but I think one of us did say something like “Oh god, hang on. Its a ward of anorexics”, but both of us began to laugh and laugh on the street almost doubling over with tears of mirth springing into my eyes. “What were we thinking!” A pinata for anorexics! It was suddenly the most absurd idea in the world and the more we thought about it, the more we laughed. Partly at the idea we laughed, and partly at ourselves for not thinking it through earlier.

In the end we found one packet of low joule sweets, two boxes of confetti and some novelty erasers. We kept the sweets packet so Kat and the other anorexic teenagers could check the contents and calorific value if they had the need to do so.

Kat adored her pinata! She adored her balloons. She peeked into the hole which we had roughly covered over to see confetti ready to burst underneath and with a laugh decided not to crack it in hospital. She was only in hospital for a week. I picked her up yesterday and she is doing well. Yesterday evening she said, “I didn’t mind having my birthday in hospital. I felt happy and we had fun anyway”.


Compromise and Dignity

June 24, 2009

As you know, my sister and I are planning a ‘surprise’ party for my father to celebrate his 70th birthday. What was to be a surprise party at my place with perhaps a three-piece jazz ensemble and home made-pizza from the oven (see pics) has spiraled into something completely different. We decided to involve my father in the organisation.We needed his input concerning who to invite. Once he was involved, his ideas had to be factored into the equation. The result was like a domino effect as all concerned exhibited their predictable traits, especially when in negotiation with each other.

Jeffs Camera 22.04.09 043

Jeffs Camera 22.04.09 042

Here’s what happened:

The players are my sister, my brother, my father, my brother’s wife, my children and me.

My sister had dad around for dinner to break the silence about the party plans, save for one surprise element.

Dad rang me a week later to discuss his own plans. He had been to two other seventieth parties, one at Sky High on Mt Dandenong and the other at a suburban RSL club. He’s the sort of person, who takes a good idea on board and thinks its the only way to go.  As far as he was concerned, his party would be either at Sky High or a suburban RSL.

The surprise element was my brother John and his family’s attendance at the party, down from Queensland. But my brother’s wife, Kaz, emailed me to say her folks would come up from Tassie for the party. She asked me to suggest accommodation for them. Dad often likes to put interstate visiting relatives up at his place. I gave him the option, and in doing so unavoidably “spilt the beans” .

A day or so later, my sister phoned me to tell me off. “Did you tell dad John was coming down from Queensland for the party?” was her accusation.

I explained how it came about but my sister continued her tirade. She was not happy. She did not approve of dad’s preferred venues. “I’m not going to an RSL club”, she ranted. And she did not approve of dad hijacking the organisation. “If dad wants to do that with his friends, he can. But as far as I’m concerned thats up to him. We can do a family thing separately”, she determined.

In the past I may have become cross with my sister. This time however, I explained to her that it was a special occasion for dad and that it would make him happy to have his family and friends together (perhaps for the only time), a seventieth was a special occasion and she wouldn’t have to stand around chatting to his friends because there would be enough family there for our separate table. I told her that she didn’t have to do anything. That I would work with dad to get the invitations out. I promised we wouldn’t go to an RSL, but that I’d booked Sky High for a buffet lunch on the Saturday (his actual birth date) and it would all be okay.

She calmed down. She said she wanted to go for a family drive and lunch at a winery perhaps at Kinglake to survey the township recovering from the fires and support local businesses there. I agreed this was a good idea, especially with our interstate guests staying for the weekend, and suggested we could do that as well, perhaps on the Sunday.

I spoke with dad after getting off the phone with my sister to confirm with him that a buffet lunch at Sky High was booked, and immediately my arrangements were blown ‘sky high’. He expressed his preference for their function room, which he had found out could  serve finger food from two until five in the afternoon for twenty dollars a head. I expressed my preference for a sit down lunch (I was considering two things: 1. the boredom factor for my children; 2. Seventy-plus people standing around in a cocktail situation. And I sensed EPIC failure). I expressed my reservations to dad and he agreed to reconsider it.

A state of limbo lasted for about two weeks after which time I phoned dad to give him the hurry on. “Have you decided what you want to do yet? We need to get on with the invitations! Its only seven weeks away”. Dad re-expressed his preference for the 2-5 time slot, assured me his friends were all fit enough to mingle in this way. I told him to book it asap, cancel my lunchtime booking and get the contact list to me so I could start phoning for people’s email addresses (dad doesn’t have a computer). Dad expressed such deep gratitude that I had rung him to basically manage him into getting a move on that he almost cried. “You’re a great daughter”, he gushed.

Anyway, he sprang into action. He bounced into my place last weekend with his contact list, reporting that the Sky High was booked. He apologised that there were over double the number of people he originally thought he’d invite. He’d grouped them into categories: Bushwalking Club, Cycling Club, friends, Family and had found himself thinking of more and more people as he wrote.

The contact list was written in his familiar draughtsman-style neat and precise handwriting. I’ve been making calls to the hundred or so on the list. “Hi, I’m jenne, Bill’s daughter”. “Oh is Bill alright?”. “Yes, I’m helping him organize his seventieth birthday…” etc. My kids have reacted to my activity in various ways:

Emma, “Are you ringing Poppy’s Pals again?”. (I laughed so much that I wrote the heading on the list, “Poppy’s pals”).

Rosie, “That must be the most boring and tedious job, talking to old people all day”.

Kat, “Don’t expect us to ring all of your old friends when you are seventy, mum”.

I finished contacting every one after two days. I sent the email out last night and have seven letters to post for people not connected to ‘the net’. I’ve called for people from different aspects of dad’s past and present to make speeches on the day.  My brother was the first to be nominated (by his wife), and I’m looking forward to securing other speakers as the rsvps come in.

With a sense of achievement I reflected on the process of compromise. Originally my sister and I would have taken all the organisation out of dad’s hands. What has been achieved now is a party for my father which he feels as though he has organised  by himself. Its reaffirmed him as an agent in control of his own life. I’d forgotten something about him: he organises weekly cycling trips for his riding group, and leads bushwalks for his walking club. He is a very capable organiser in his own right. Usually with his daughters he steps back (and often he grumbles from the side-line). Not this time! Isn’t that great? I’ve learnt that he doesn’t need to be treated like a child. He needs some support. But he doesn’t need to be stripped of responsibility.

Parties for Old People

April 25, 2009

My father will be seventy years old this August. My sister, brother and I decided last year that we would put a surprise party on for him.

The last time we organized a celebration for my father was at his fiftieth. Twenty years ago in Melbourne, Thai restaurants were a new thing. A Thai restaurant in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, was particularly well known as the place to be. The name of this restaurant was Patee Thai. Its probably still there. But like any good thing, there is now a chain of these ‘same name’ restaurants around Melbourne. Just quietly, like anything I used to do in the eighties, I wouldn’t go there now. Been there done that… to death. If you’ve lived through eighties fads and fashions yourself, I’m sure you would understand the sentiment…

Anyway, in the eighties in Melbourne it was all the rage at Patee Thai to book the low tables at the front of the restaurant. The novelty was to sit at these low tables on funky, triangular cushions. From memory, the way you arranged yourself on a triangular cushion was to tuck your knees under one of the triangular corners and sort of kneel resting your butt on a flat edge. 

My sister, Heather, and I booked Patee Thai for my father’s fiftieth and invited a large group of his friends. His friends were all obviously around his age and some of them considerably older. Of the considerably older ones, none are still with us sadly. 

My sister and I were in our twenties. We considered ourselves fairly funky and with-it. We knew booking a party at Patee Thai was the hip thing to do. We never discussed it in this way at the time, but booking dad and his friends into Patee Thai for a sit down meal at low tables on triangular cushions felt like privileging the olds with (our) funkiness. In fact we were so absorbed in the funkiness of the situation to miss the obvious point that asking fiftty-plus year olds to sit-kneel at low tables for over two hours was a rather stupid thing to have done. It was a physical challenge to almost everyone there except my sister and I.  Many of them found the experience ranging from unpleasant to excruciating. Those who managed to sit for that long barely managed to stand after the experience. I remember Uncle Keith(rest his soul)’s large form, supported by two people either side, being hoisted back to standing. The sight reinforced just how low these low tables actually were. He was unsteady for some time either due to the stress of standing on his circulatory system or from the cramping in his legs or both.

Obviously we won’t be making that mistake again. The seventieth is going to be at my place. We’ll fire up the pizza oven and possibly hire a jazz quartet. Seating needs to be well thought out. This is a hurdle we haven’t cleared yet. It will depend upon the numbers. In recent planning discussions I realized neither my siblings nor myself knew how to contact dad’s friends. We’ve now put ‘surprise party’ into the too-hard basket and decided to enlist dad’s help putting the invitations together. This is in line with the KISS principal of organisation (Keep It Simple, Stupid). 

Dad will still get a surprise: We have decided not to tell him that my brother and his family are flying down from Queensland to attend. 

Action in the kitchen

March 15, 2009

My daughter Sally, who is nine, has a terrific little cookbook that has been inspiring her in the kitchen.


Lately she’s been flicking through this book and ‘independently’ making stuff. On Friday after school I found her sitting at the bench with her apron on. “I’m going to make garlic bread!” she announced.

“Great, we have half a baguette left from yesterday. How much butter do you need?”

“One hundred grams”. Sally took the butter out of the fridge and placed it on the cutting board. She took a paring knife out of the drawer. 

“Do you know how much one hunderd grams is?”

“Yes. This much”. She indicated her estimate with the knife and tried to cut the firm block of butter”.

“Perhaps only make half the recipe”, I suggested, “we only have half a baguette”.

“Yeah, great idea”.

“So fifty would be there. Would you like me to cut it?”

She moved back and allowed me to cut the butter for her. She expressed her relief. It was quite solid just out of the fridge. 

With the precarious job of cutting over, I decided to let her work independently. I knew she’d call me if she needed me. I flicked the oven onto preheat and went back to my study.

A little while later, she called out to me from the kitchen. “What colour is garlic?”

I keep the garlic together with onions and shallots in a wooden bowl in a drawer. We had red onions. The shallots are red.

“The garlic is in the drawer with the onions”, I replied.

“Yeah I know, but what colour is it?”


This was all the information she needed and things became quiet in the kitchen. After a few minutes I decided to go in to help her with the garlic press. I found her microwaving the butter. She was reading the instructions aloud. “On high for forty seconds”. She was engrossed and busy. I picked up the clove of garlic and while I sliced off the excess skin asked her if she’d like me to show her how to use the crusher. She looked confused. 

“Oh, I didn’t know you had to use that part of the garlic”, she said.  I suddenly noticed little flecks of white garlic skin in a bowl that she’d carefully peeled off the bulb and desiccated. “Ah Sally, this is the skin!”. I demonstrated to her which piece of the garlic is of interest and placed the skin in the compost. I showed her how the press worked and demonstrated the removal of the skin from the inside of the press. She watched me with a serious expression on her face but said nothing.

“Well, you learn something new everyday!” I said, jollying her with the cliched expression. She replied with a half-smile,”No, I don’t! Not everyday”.

She watched me crush the garlic into her melted butter, then she stirred the mixture vigorously. I hung around because the next step was to slice the bread. 

“Don’t slice it all the way through”, I advised.

“I know that. It says so in the book!”.

I watched her use the bread knife. 

“Just use a butter knife to spread on the mixture”, I suggested. 

With the butter knife in her hand she hesitated over the runny mixture. I suggested that she spread it on both sides and demonstrated it quickly. I went to leave, but she said “I just need that paper stuff to wrap the garlic bread in. Where’s it kept?”.

“Don’t you mean foil?” I corrected as I opened the drawer.

“No! Its a microwave cookbook mum. I need waxed paper because you can’t put foil in the microwave. That’s the point of the book! Its all microwave! Kids can do it all by themselves! All the recipes are safe! No hot oven!”. 

“Oh”, I said, standing corrected. I handed her the roll of waxed paper and turned off the preheating oven. 

She finished it off by herself and called me and her sister into the kitchen when it was ready. She had placed it on the table and put out three plates. It was actually delicious. I was most impressed and so was her sister. Sally puffed up with pride.

I’m pleased because we often have day-old baguette that ends up in the compost. Now we have a handy solution to prevent waste and a willing little cook.

That was Friday. On Saturday her sister made Brownies. On Sunday Sally was back in the kitchen again. She had begun making marmalade from her microwave book before I was aware of any action in the kitchen. She called me in to help when she needed to use the blender. She was in her apron and she’d already peeled and sliced carrots, chopped oranges and a lemon.

I showed her how to operate it safely and prepared to give her a demonstration, but the blades seemed to get stuck over the slices of carrot and in the skin of the citrus. It was with much frustrated effort that we worked out that it wasn’t the size of the pieces she’d cut that was making the blades stick, but that the motor in the blender was broken. 

My plans for the morning were forgotten as I took out my cooks knife and resolved to be her “blender”. I have a wonderful new knife (from the Japanese range ‘Global’). The work of chopping was strangely satisfying. I ran the knife quickly over and back through small portions of fruit and veg she’d already cut into small pieces. These I scraped into her mixing bowl in increments making room on the cutting board for the next small portion. As I worked Sally watched, half mesmerized. 

Halfway through the process the door bell rang and her grandfather (my father) entered the kitchen. He’d been on a cycling tour in country Victoria. His impromptu visit was on his way home from our local station. He sat at the bench in his cycling gear and had a cuppa and spoke of his trip whilst I chopped. Sally supervised the growing mound of chopped stuff in her bowl with satisfaction. Her grandfather took an interest in what she was making and asked if she had enough jars. She’d found one she told him. He offered to drop a couple off for her, which he did an hour later.

I watched her as she added the sugar to the chopped ingredients and followed the cooking instructions, which included stirring after an initial blast in the microwave on high. Finally the mixture had to cook for thirty minutes on medium. “When its cooked, Sally, don’t take it out without supervision, will you? It’s going to be very hot”.

I’m pleased to report that it was another cooking success. She scooped the marmalade into the jars after it had cooled. I tasted some on bread and it was delicious. I told her so and had a second piece. “Try some”, I offered, holding out my piece of toast for her to bite.

“No. I hate marmalade”, she admitted.

“Why did you make it if you hate it?”, I enquired, laughing.

“It was the only thing in the book without butter”, she said matter-of-factly. (We’d run out because her sister had made the brownies with the block that was left).

Sally was proud of her work. She made labels, set one of the jars aside for her grandfather and informed him by phone.


So far the summer is whizzing by in a whir of socializing with house guests and relatives visiting from far and further away. My favorite cousin from Brissy and his family of five left today after three weeks here. We’ve also had the hub’s brother and his family of five here from the UK. We’re on to our fourth set of house guests, with a change-over happening on Friday. At various pinch points we’ve needed to put up tents to cope with the numbers – in total five tents and one camper van!

People have been asking me how I cope with all the visitors and house guests so well, and ask whether I’m getting tired of catering for the hoards. My answer is the same each time. It’s not really much effort at all. For a start, we have been cooking combined barbecues. I’ve been placing orders at the local fresh sea food supplier. There is no effort in placing and picking up an order, putting out freshly shucked oysters and wrapping a fresh barramundi or salmon fillet (big enough to serve 10) in foil with lemon and a bit of butter and whacking it on the barbie for others to supervise while throwing together a couple of salads. There was one time that the two kilos of prawns I ordered needed peeling before marinating and barbecuing, but my friend, Cath (one of our house guests for New Years Eve) did it with me and made it fun. The result was worth it by the way. Prior to barbecuing them, we marinated the prawns in garlic, lemon juice, sambal oelek and half of the bunch of coriander that Cath had brought with her for her fried noodle salad. 

And further, I have not been cleaning the house from top to bottom every time new friends or relatives arrive. I’m on holidays and the house is as they find it (even down to them bringing their own towels and linen). I do occasionally ask the girls to tidy the upstairs bathroom. With four daughters the bench in there is so out of control with products for every thing you could imagine that it almost warrants a photograph. For example, how many pump packs of Impulse, and how many bottles of Listerine could girls of nine, twelve, fourteen and sixteen actually need to have in their shared bathroom? On last count there were three of each. I’m not even beginning to count the number of hair products, moisturizers, body glow and makeup products.

I do check to see that the guests have all they need, and do make sure they feel entirely at home to put the kettle on or take over the kitchen any time they feel the urge. All in all, they muck in and the result is shared labor. Every body’s happy!

For my father (who is almost seventy) the internet and email have had no intrinsic appeal. He has not been curious to know what everyone else is up to. He does not own a computer. He could not see how owning one would improve his quality of life, for he his (apparently) content with his life the way it is.

He is a very active man. He retired at the age of fifty-three, taking a retirement package to leave the government job where he spent his entire working life. In his retirement he has been through many ‘fads’. I’m sure he would not think of it in this way, but my brother, sister and I would agree on the nature of his interests. They can be plotted in waves. Initially he went through a dancing fad. He danced almost every night of the week. He went round dancing, line dancing and square dancing! That’s right: he used to dance every possible ‘shape’. His next fad was a bushwalking fad. This continued for many years and resulted in my brother’s old room becoming a store room for all of the gear he accumulated in the process of becoming a bushwalker and leader of walks for others. The latest fad is for cycling. He joined a local riding group and cycles more days in the week than he stays home. He often goes away for extended trips into country Victoria.  He has riden up every mountain in Victoria and a few passes in New Zealand. 

Its the bike riding that seems to be the most enduring fad. It has the social element, the experience of the natural world and a health and fitness element without his aging body needing to shoulder extra weight. It is also through cycling that he has strengthened his relationship with his grand daughters (my girls). He used to take them riding every saturday morning. Now that they play basket ball on a Saturday, the routine of being with them has morphed into attending their games and often taking them to them (especially if the times clash and their parents can’t manage to be in two places at once).

But I digress. I was talking about his relationship with technology. However the brief sketch of his interests during retirement will give you a picture of his life and the fulfillment he feels living it without technology. 

Recently he has been considering becoming ‘connected’ technologically. Modes of communication have become largely email orientated to the point where he feels he is missing out on important planning discussions within his riding group. He feels this even more acutely with the deteriorating health of one of his friends from this club who whilst physically able (he is suffering from a degenerative asbestos-related disease) had been printing out important emails, sealing them in an envelope and posting them to my father!!