Bread and butter and hundreds and thousands

Sometimes I think that the only things that have not changed in my lifetime are arrowroot biscuits, and pass-the-parcel at children’s parties.

Sometimes I think that the only things that have not changed in my lifetime are arrowroot biscuits, and pass-the-parcel at children’s parties.

At my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party last month I experienced the shock of the old when I realised that a child’s indoor birthday party is basically the same as it was 70 years ago. My friend Anne, a great-grandmother, and I found that soothing, I think. The parents playing the pass-the-parcel music cheated to ensure every child was a winner, in just the same incompetent way as I used to, decades ago.

I half expected an appeal to the court of disputed results, but those little children knew both the rules and when they should be broken. The table groaned with good things, of course, but my humble offering of fairy bread went down like a dinner. Bread and butter with hundreds and thousands forever! Completely tasteless, but traditional, comforting, absolutely unchanging party food. The balloons stayed up (they didn’t in our day) and nobody cried. It made me ridiculously happy, though I realise that was not quite the point of my granddaughter’s party.

Third agers need these little touchstones of continuity now and then to counter the continual thrust into our lives of the new, especially at those times, as Henry Francis Lyte’s doleful hymn goes, ‘change and decay in all around I see’. Of such sadness, here is an example: When we were young we built our houses and planted trees to shade them. Now builders rip out trees and bushes, fill up the block with a house. Then they cover up the builders’ rubble with some sad soil and shove in some spiky yuccas that go with the verandah-less, jailhouse domestic architecture of today.

I cannot be doing with yuccas. They could take out the eye of an unwary person, especially a child, and they provide no shade at all. Trees that survive, especially big shady ones, have no security of tenure. There’s always an excuse for chopping down or mutilating a tree, it seems. The man behind my house trimmed a neighbor’s gum tree and in doing so changed the microclimate of my small back garden without a by-your-leave. Councillors cave in to all sorts of requests to kill off trees, which are deemed ‘unsuitable’ or ‘dangerous’ with little proof that this is so. Skin cancer is a lot more dangerous and prevalent than shady tree danger.

My Yates garden club contact tells me: “At last gardens are moving away from the spiky, clumping plants that have been so much in favour in recent years. While there will always be a place for structured plants, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as a garden filled with colourful flowers.” For structure, read yukky yuccas.

Flowers, yes, always, but where are the garden trees and substantial shrubs of yesteryear and who, if anyone, is planting them? Flame trees, jacarandas, wattles, gum trees, oleanders, hibiscuses, bottlebrushes, weeping myrtles, bauhinias, crepe myrtles? Where I live there are some old gardens left from the 50s, tangled and mysterious and beautiful, with height and understoreys, hiding cottages that developers only see as ripe for demolition. I seek these gardens out like old, lost friends and risk lace curtains being twitched as I stare and touch if I can. An old camellia can make my day; honeysuckle brings tears to my eyes. An apple-scented magnolia is all the sweetness and drama I need for a week. I am watching those beloved old bauhinias in the street near the new river development on the former Channel 7 site at Gilberton. If some bugger argues that he can’t get his truck onsite without their removal, I will do something drastic, I know.

A garden is a potent metaphor. Squabbling birds, rampant climbers, lemon trees firing off lemons in a storm, barren figs, woody pears, the gardener’s constant struggle with pests and efforts to grow something where the aspect is wrong… I used the complex habitat of my last old garden as disguised political commentary for years in a long-gone column, evading the censorship of my then editorial master who never quite got it. But my readers had no difficulty getting the message. And now we have few trees, many yuccas and even plastic lawn… what better metaphor is there for certain aspects of modern life and human behaviour?

Lesley Cains is a woman who worries about gardens. She works at Semaphore Garden Shop, one of the last small garden shops to survive against the competition of the big hardware/garden chains. Lesley knows that her 35-year-old garden will not survive her. Gardening makes one realistic. About the likelihood of suburban garden tree planting, she says Generation X and Y can’t visualise a tree that takes 15 years to grow when they expect to move on in three or five years. Lesley made her garden from cuttings from her older neighbors’ gardens when she moved to a housing trust place in Pennington. The old neighbours have gone and so have their gardens, but there is something of them still in Lesley’s place.

She thinks young people are getting interested in eating from their gardens and enjoys advising them. Don’t be like the old man who waited until his flower-loving wife died to expand vastly his vegies patch. Without the flowers, bees did not come to the garden and the vegies died. She has excellent advice for old people struggling to maintain their gardens, too. Get friends in on a rota to help. Someone among them will have a strong back, someone else some good knees. That’s the theory anyway.


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