"The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude."
Yesterday we received the very sad news that a friend from long ago died after several months of an undiagnosed illness.
The news filled me with sorrow for her family, but also with sadness, no almost guilt, that we had lost touch with her and her husband, except for very infrequent and very brief encounters at alumni style gatherings through the years. For Beryl - and her husband Dave - shown here in the centre in this photograph, were some of our very first friends in Australia. They played a huge part in making us want to make our home here. Let me explain.
That photograph is one of four that I have been able to find of Beryl and two of these are group photos in which she plays but an incidental part. Indeed I have very few photographs of our very first years in Australia, when we were young and unencumbered by children. Footloose and fancy free. Was it because it was expensive to buy and process film, and so we were careful about what we photographed? Or were we were enjoying ourselves so much we had no thought of photographs? A bit of both perhaps.
The photograph above was taken at Christmas - Beryl sports a Father Christmas hat. I am wearing a top that I loved for its vaguely hippy feel and for its colours, and which is long-gone. I'm guessing that my David took the photograph - the other lady is Beryl's sister.
So who was Beryl? The short answer is that Beryl was a programmer at ICL, the company for whom David worked for very many years, and who brought us out to Australia. She too, and her husband Dave, were English. The company they all worked for was the British computer company - the only one in Britain at the time and the result of a merger between ICT and English Electric - then called ICL - and long gone. We came to Australia when considering buying a house after two years of rental married life in London. We could not afford a house in London. Well we were too nervous to buy into those now exceedingly trendy and expensive areas of London which were pretty much no go areas back then. And so when the opportunity to work in the Australian part of the company came along we grabbed it. We only had to commit to two years after all. Why not?
So we joined the British diaspora - about which very little is spoken. The Brain Drain they called it in England. Ungrateful to the government for our free tertiary educations and a health system that had kept us alive and healthy. we looked to other shores for the opportunity to shine and make our fortune. Canada was too cold, and New Zealand had only one computer - well something like that - and so we came to Australia. Where we were greeted with open arms.
Beryl had one of the most welcoming of those pairs of arms. Being a British company there were very many British employees. Young people like us seeking a better life than Britain could offer. Or so we had decided. And so like all migrant groups we clung together, although, this being Australia, and, I suppose, to be honest, because we were from the 'mother country', the locals welcomed us too. We were all young, some married, some not - Beryl and Dave were not married until some time later - but none with children as yet. And so at weekends and holidays we would all go off to the beach - it had to be a beach - to camp and have fun. This seems to be the only photo I have of those times - alas no Beryl - or anyone else it seems - just we too. But she would have been there. There was much sitting around campfires, drinking and telling tales and cooking sausages - we had not yet learnt to call them 'snags'. So my first and most enormous debt of gratitude to Beryl is being one of the prime movers in our decision to stay - a decision I think, that took a mere couple of months or so. And it was winter too.
My second debt of gratitude is to her kindness with respect to bridge - the card game. ICL had a bridge club which we joined as another way of meeting people. We learnt the game and played games of duplicate bridge which entailed every table playing the same cards, to see who came out top of the heap. Beryl and Dave were two of the top players. I might well have been the worst. It certainly caused arguments with my husband who is very competitive. But Beryl was always very patient with me, and never judged me. She and Dave - primary movers here - were probably responsible for me learning a few things, as well as being made to feel worthy of attention and not just be yelled at for playing the wrong card.
The friendship continued and gradually people married, had children and instead of camping trips we gathered in each others homes around barbecues in gardens whilst bottling wine bought in bulk from Vermont Cellars, or to celebrate birthdays. And here I did find two pictures of Beryl - not good ones to be sure, but there she is in our little group.
Then came the children - as you can see from the above photo. To demonstrate how close the friendship was at that time, it was I who drove Beryl to hospital in the middle of the night for the birth of her first son - for due to a series of circumstances Beryl nobody else was available. At the time I felt a bit heroic but looking back I see that I should have stayed with her. She was alone and it was her first child, having someone to hold her hand might have been a kindly gesture to someone who had been so kind to me. I probably made the excuse to myself that I had a baby of my own to go back to - but David could have coped with that. Mea culpa Beryl. I'm sorry.
Christmas. A few words about Christmas. When we first came to Australia the ex-pat British would meet for a Christmas breakfast at the home of one of the more senior of our number - Owen and Marge were our hosts' names - because they were a little older, had children and a house with a garden. For we ex-pats had no family here - only ourselves. This tradition continued for many years, and when the children came along we would breakfast with Owen and Marge and then go on to Beryl and Dave's - now married with three children - just David and I and our two - for lunch. A tradition that continued until one year when I had a meltdown I think about then going home to cook Christmas dinner.
Nevertheless for many years when the children were young, Beryl, along with one other family, became a sort of pseudo aunt, with her children being pseudo cousins. We met frequently and the children played together, attended each others birthday parties and were just there. Part of the extended family group.
And then somehow, as happens in life we drifted apart. It might just have been that we moved to Adelaide. I can't remember now, but certainly on our return there was not the same continuing relationship. We met annually at ICL gatherings, which continue to this day - such was the power of that early companionship of the British ex-pats and the Australians who welcomed them into the fold. There were the very occasional parties too, but nothing on a more regular basis.
I guess this is what happens in life. At different phases of our lives we have different friends. They are related to where we live, at what stage of life our children are, where we work, outside interests ... Very few last at the same intensity for our whole lives. Some disappear completely, some appear infrequently like Beryl, and some remain in touch of varying degrees of intensity. I would think that only those who live in small communities and never move from those communities have the same friends throughout life.
I am sad indeed to hear of Beryl's passing. I did not know that she was ill - a sure sign that the ties were very loose. And yet this warm and loving lady played a huge part in my life. Thanks to her I have made Australia my home. Yes, of course, others played their part in this, indeed the country itself did, but she was one of the major players in our coming to that decision in however an intangible way. A major part of the Australian friendliness which infiltrated itself into our hearts. And for that I thank her. My entire family should thank her.
I hope that during the unconnected years that she had joy. I know there were difficulties - well we all have them in at least a small way - but I hope the joys, which I also know existed - made up for that.
Rest in peace Beryl.