“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
Today is ANZAC Day in Australia – a day where we stop to remember the fallen – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps of the Great War – and all of the service men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country with that same ANZAC spirit.
In the 1970s when I was a little girl, my grandparents lived in a humble war service home in Brisbane. My Pa was a veteran from World War Two, and next door to him lived Mr Mac and Norma his wife, both also war veterans. The Macs had never been able to have children, so they doted upon my brother, sister and I.
Mac was a cook on a ship with the British Merchant Navy when Singapore was bombed. He was taken prisoner and ended up in Kanchanaburi – a Japanese-run prisoner of war camp – where he became one of the men who worked on the Thai-Burma railway. He was later transferred back to Changi Prison. When the Changi prisoners were finally released they were repatriated to Australia for treatment and recuperation. Norma was an army cook who met Mac as she nursed him back to health. Love blossomed, and they married at the war’s end.
Sadly, Mr Mac suffered from poor health for the rest of his life, due to his treatment and the many years of suffering and near-starvation during his time in the camps. He never cooked again, and food was always an issue for him. Looking back, I realise that Mac was deeply traumatised, and was never given any help for post-traumatic stress. Everyone else in the street (there were many war service homes) seemed to know and understand. They all looked out for Mac, and accepted his often eccentric ways.
When I stayed with Nana and Pa as a little girl I often heard Mr Mac crying out at night. Sometimes he would run into the yard, and Norma would go after him and bring him back inside. One moonlit night as I peered through the curtains to see Mr Mac hiding behind some banana trees in their back-yard I witnessed Norma physically pick her husband up, as though he was a child. I remember being so very embarrassed and ashamed to have eavesdropped on that very private moment.
Mr Mac was small, hunched and thin with the saddest face, and Norma was a very large lady with a perpetual smile and arms made strong through hard work.
I remember clearly the day that Mr Mac told me about his war experience. One school holidays when I was about ten, my siblings and I were sitting on the veranda of the Macs’ home eating afternoon tea while Nana walked up to the shops to get something for dinner and Pa mowed the lawn. Norma was feeding us her excellent banana cake and cordial, and Mr Mac was sitting quietly in the corner smoking rolly cigarettes and sipping cold black tea. I took him over a plate with some cake on it, but he wouldn’t eat it. Instead he showed me in his mouth (hardly any teeth!) and then told me that cake often made his guts crook. When I asked him if it was from the war Norma looked at me fiercely – the only time I ever saw her not smile – and I knew I’d said something wrong.
Mr Mac told me that when he was young he’d loved cake and steak and sweet milky tea. His mother had been a grand cook and had worked in a hotel, running the kitchen. She had taught him to cook at home, and then Mr Mac joined the navy and became a properly trained cook. He’d been famous for his roasts and puddings. But during the war there had never been enough food. While Mr Mac had been a prisoner-of-war all he’d dreamed about and talked about was food, and how he would cook for his friends and himself when they were free again.
Almost all of his friends died during that war, and by the time Mr Mac was freed he was almost dead too. After the war Mac was mostly only ever able to stomach boiled rice, plain fish or chicken, an egg or two, bananas, and black tea. He told me something that made me so sad that day, and I have never forgotten it. Mr Mac had tears running down his face as he told me that he felt guilty being able to eat, when so many of his mates had died hungry. His face was contorted with emotional pain. Mac took my hand in his weathered nicotine-stained hands that were not much bigger than mine, and looked me in the eye.
‘You eat that cake, love,’ he said. ‘And you enjoy it for all of us. Me mates who didn’t make it, and for me who can’t stomach it. I wish I’d paid attention when I had good food in front of me, back before the war. Someone needs to eat it and enjoy it, and it would make me happy if that was you.’
That was my first lesson in mindful eating. I went and sat back down and drank green cordial and a very grown-up mug (my little brother and sister weren’t allowed any) of sweet milky tea that I had asked for, on behalf of Mac. I ate my banana cake. I truly tasted and savoured everything, tears spilling down my face as my heart broke that Mr Mac couldn’t enjoy Norma’s good cooking and all of the food we had in a country as bountiful as Australia.
I then gave Mr Mac a blow-by-blow description of my afternoon tea, and what a great cook his wife was. Thankfully that made Norma smile again.
Before we went home I went and hugged Mr Mac and told him earnestly that I would keep enjoying and appreciating food for him.
‘That would mean a lot to me,’ he said. I knew he meant it. It felt like a big responsibility had been given to me.
Last night I related that story to my husband, as well as my memory from the night my Pa died. Pa died at home during the 6pm news one evening when I was sixteen. My Dad was away so Mum and I went over to be with Nana and wait for the coroner and the police.
Nana asked me to go next door to tell Mr and Mrs Mac about Pa.
The Macs were having dinner in their kitchen. The night was already surreal for me, and I seemed to notice and soak up every detail. I saw that Norma had set the kitchen table for two, and she was at the table eating a chop with mashed potato and pumpkin and green beans. At the place opposite her was Mr Mac’s dinner going cold. It was the same meal as hers.
Mr Mac was sitting on a tiny stool behind his place at the table, his back to the kitchen wall and his knees up near his chin. In his lap he held a chipped old enamel bowl from which he was eating plain boiled rice and mashed up banana with a spoon.
The kitchen was a sea of calm and love.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt your dinner,” I blurted out, awkward and upset. ‘Pa just died. Nana wanted me to come and tell you. She will talk to you tomorrow.’
I rushed from the room and back to Nana’s, not giving the Macs another thought.
‘That’s the same food he would have eaten in Changi,’ my husband observed last night. ‘Rice, fish, banana, a little chicken, maybe a few vegetables or a precious egg. Black tea.’
I’d grown up thinking it was because Mr Mac had a sore mouth and not very many teeth.
‘He felt safer with his back against the wall,’ my husband continued. ‘No-one could hit from behind when he sat like that. He could see anyone who was coming.’
The gravity of that, and of Mac and Norma’s life after the war really hit me then. This war that followed them all the way home to their tiny suburban kitchen and then never left.
So, today, on ANZAC Day, I’m going to ask you to do me a favour. When you eat your food, when you have a cold or a hot drink, when you are preparing your meal, think of Mac and Norma, and really savour and enjoy whatever it is that you get to eat today. Enjoy it for them, and for all of those affected by war who have also had to go without, or to make do.
Lest we forget.