Mum celebrated her birthday last month, so I sent her a jar of my home-made marmalade. She lives in England which made it as expensive as buying her a jar of Périgord foie gras!
There was, however, something special about both the birthday and the marmalade.
Mum was born on the twentieth of November 1917 in a small railway town called Sapucay, Paraguay, which means she is now 103 years old. Her memory is not so good now, but recollections of her early life are still strong and we always have a good laugh about something or other during our frequent telephone and FaceTime calls.
After Dad died some 20 years ago, Mum decided to write her life story in case her grandchildren should ever be curious. Coming from pioneer stock and thus of a frugal disposition she wrote long-hand in an old foolscap ledger, writing from spine to edge and leaving no margin top or bottom! It was three or four years before she showed me what she was doing and I resolved to transcribe and edit her manuscript – something made more difficult by the fact that every page needed at least two A4 photo copies to squeeze it all in!
Although her story is by no means complete, I had copies bound for her 100th birthday. It is now a valuable starter when our conversations falter – somewhat in the vein of The Notebook!
Well, there’s a story behind that too.
In 2008 I took Mum to visit her family in Paraguay. At 90 she was still an indomitable traveller and, with barely time for her to draw breath after arriving in Sydney from the UK, we flew to Buenos Aires and on to Asuncion.
It was her first visit in over 25 years and, to honour the occasion, one of my cousins decided to organise a family reunion. All of Mum’s siblings are dead, but within ten days over 430 cousins, nephews and nieces had been rounded up – all descendants of Mum’s grandfather, James Craig Kennedy.
It was quite disconcerting to be surrounded by so many strapping young lads and comely lasses with Scottish names like James, Craig, Alexander, Iona and Ailsa who spoke only a word or two of English! The lunch at the Asunción Golf Club was a resounding success with Mum even dancing a spirited Paraguayan polka with a cousin.
JCK, as he is referred to in the family, migrated to Paraguay in 1898 with his second wife and three young sons to join William Lane’s Australian Utopian socialist experiment. New Australia was established in 1893 following the collapse of the Queensland shearers’ strike. Some 600 souls, including poet Mary Gilmore, sailed to Montevideo in Uruguay aboard the Royal Tar, a 600 ton three-masted barque. The Paraguayan Government had granted Lane and his followers 1,874 square kilometres of land on the proviso they would settle 1,200 families there. Paraguay had lost some two-thirds of its population, including about 90% of its men, in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and was keen to repopulate with white migrants.
On their way to the site of the new colony the advance party of Australian settlers stayed at a timber mill in Villarica that was owned by Mum’s maternal great grandmother, Anne Urquhart. Anne was a widow and had migrated to Paraguay from Scotland about 1880 with seven of her eight children, the youngest only 8 years old!
While in Paraguay we visited Mum’s birthplace, Sapucay, which used to be the centre of Paraguay’s railways. Another day we went to lunch with members of the family still living in what was the colony, known today as Nueva Londres. Although JCK’s slab hut is long gone, we had lunch with Uncle Nigel, the only surviving son of JCK and his second wife, and Mum’s half cousin. When Nigel and Mum were children they used to play and swim together in the hills and creeks around her home town; it was wonderful to hear them reminiscing in a mixture of English, Spanish and the native Guarani language.
We were treated to a splendid lunch of traditional Paraguayan dishes including borí borí (a soup with cornmeal dumplings), sopa Paraguaya (which is not a soup but a delicious cornbread) and pira caldo (fish stew). Junket and stewed fruit was served for dessert, the junket made not with a packet of rennet, but in the traditional way by stirring the milk with a quajo, a dried strip of the 4th stomach of an unweaned calf – it is rinsed and dried after each use, ready for next time!
After lunch I spent a couple of hours rummaging through the small room in which were stored the family archives: hundreds of studio photographs of solemn, formally dressed men and women with photographer’s addresses in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Lancaster and Kendal. There were letters written home from First War battlefields by Mum’s uncles, Malcolm and Kenneth who had served together as observers and snipers in the Lovatt Scouts from 1915 to the end of the War. Both miraculously survived Gallipoli and Palestine before travelling through Italy to Ypres and the trench warfare that saw out the end of the War. Sadly, we found no letters from Mum’s father who served with the RFC in France and then in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. He too survived the experience but chose not to return home to Paraguay. In fact, it wasn’t until 1950 that Mum met her father for the first time.
Later we visited the grave of JCK and his wife Sara and sat in the shade of the orange grove behind the farmhouse drinking tereré (the National drink of chilled maté, served cold) and nibbling chipá (a savoury bread made from mandioca* flour and cheese.) Oranges were introduced to Paraguay by the Spanish invaders subsequent to the 15th Century and flourished, growing wild everywhere. Amongst the trees in JCK’s orchard were Seville oranges, grown primarily for the petit grain extracted from the leaves and exported for use by the parfumers of Paris. As we sat there talking about the family’s adventures in Paraguay the temptation to take a little bit of history with us became too great and, picking a ripe fruit from under one of the trees, Mum saved the plumpest seed.
Which brings me back to the marmalade!
Twelve years on, my orange tree is growing vigorously in a half wine barrel on the patio at my Bowral home. This year it bore enough fruit to make four kilos of beautiful bitter-sweet marmalade.
A marmalade made from memories, laughter and love.
*cassava or manioc
David Haines’ great grandfather, James Craig Kennedy, was President of the Colonia Nueva Australia from 1900 until his resignation in 1926. The utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay was founded by William Lane and the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association in 1893. The township is now known as Nueva Londres, has an area of 883 square kilometers and a population of nearly 4,000. Orange trees grow wild and in abundance.