The Bay Leaves of Australia
Yesterday she used the last of the bay leaves she said. They went into a soup she was making, the soup her mother taught her to make.
The soup that originated in their particular region, in their small village on the other side of the world.
She remembers, she told me their particular flavor. Her mother always used to breathe their aroma deeply before adding them to the split peas and ham bones, the celery and onion. She used to say the soup needs bay leaves as your favorite dish needs salt balancing the taste and make it just right.
I have been holding the jar full of freshly dried bay leaves I picked from my garden that morning to share with my new neighbor. A tiny middle aged lady with her dark neatly combed and her dark eyes painfully resigned and kind. She took the small jar from my hand like it was a jewelry box. She opened it and breathed in the aroma whispering, “Amazing, things, these dry leathery leaves of a tree I’ve never seen growing”
“You are welcome to visit my garden,” I smiled taken aback by her appreciation of that humble spice that grew around my house unnoticed: “Anyway just keep them in that jar, they last for years.”
My neighbor continued holding my bay leaf jar closely to her chest: “Yes they last for years in the recess of your pantry, ignored and unappreciated until they are tossed into a simmering pot. Unlike spices that take charge of a dish and name it, bay leaves quietly bring out the best in the other ingredients: they round it out, complete it.”
“Right,” I sighed thinking of my new neighbor being a bit strange. Well they warned me the boat people allowed to settle in the area may unsettle us all. I felt uneasy and was ready to leave when she pointed out on a pair of second hand deck chairs on her porch.
I relaxed eventually over the pot of freshly brewed jasmine tea biting into a tiny passion fruit biscuit the lady laid in front of us.
She also looked much less distressed with her new bay leaf jar safely tucked in her kitchen.
“I was planning to buy more bay leaves today in our IGA but it wouldn’t be the same, thank you so much for your precious gift.”
I waved my hand: “They just bay leaves, nothing special.”
She looked at the distance, the cup of steaming hot tea in her hand: “The leaves, a few broken pieces in the bottom of an old coffee jar I used yesterday were the last of a batch of a bay leaves our daughter bought in 2008.”
“Your daughter?” I smiled delighted: “My daughter would be so happy to have another girl around, she has two brothers you see, how old is she?”
The lady looked down at her tea and sighed: “We were running away to sea. The house was bombed and we were packing what we could. We knew we could be sailing for years and our belonging would be tossed and kept under deck for a long time. Cardboard boxes are not impervious to cockroaches and silverfish, but my mother said a few bay leaves in a box would keep them out. She didn’t survive bombing, my old mother…”
“I am so sorry,” I have suddenly felt very close to this strange lady as my own father passed away just few months back.
The lady nodded through her teary eyes: “But we had Ali, ten years old, bright and gold and blossoming and I sent her down to the local deli that survived the bombing for a half kilo of bay leaves. She returned with 250 g bag, all they have left in the shop: “We’ll never need to buy bay leaves again!”
“Ali, what a beautiful name for a girl, my daughter’s name is Ashley,” I smiled sipping the tea.
“We paid all our money to the middle man like all the others who survived the destruction and sailed away,” the lady continued: “With all the promise of the future, just her father, me and our golden child.”
“So happy that you managed to reach us,” I smiled brightly: “And Australia has become your new home.”
The lady smiled lost in her memories: “Sometimes bay leaves would fall out of things on board us all being squeezed among many boxes and people, and Ali and I would laugh about them.”
“She seems like a very happy child,” I nodded.
“Ali would add them to the coffee jar, saying, “These things last forever, you are going to make many pots of our Granny’s soup in our new homeland mum.”
“She was right,” I added brightly sipping the tea.
“Then one day, thousands of miles later, a stranger’s momentary error at a marina in Thailand broke our hearts, and our child was gone. For a long time after, when we returned ashore and had brought the boxes out of storage, bay leaves would sift out of clothes. The large coffee jar of bay leaves had come ashore, with us to the Christmas Island Detention Centre too.”
My eyes filled in with tears: “Have you been locked on the Christmas Island too? They say it’s a dreadful place and they treat you badly there, I mean you refugees?’
“For years stranded behind that barbed fence, whenever I took leaves from the jar to cook with for my husband, I’d think: there is no end to these leaves. When our child died, when we’d been put in prison in Australia, I thought there would be no end to grief.”
“And is it there now?” I enquired gently wiping out the tears flowing freely down my cheeks.
“When I put that last bay leaf into the soup and thought about all those dead or suffering still on the Christmas Island I forgot about my own grief. It no longer overpowers me, no longer takes charge of my day and names it. But it’s there, a quiet background influence, gently rounding out and making me who I am now.”
“We are so lucky down here, us Australians you know,” I exclaimed suddenly and she smiled sadly: “Maybe therefore you don’t like us here, because we are just like those bay leaves of yours.”
“What do you mean?” I asked confused: “Australians are just scared to share their good lives I guess, we have it too good I guess because it is a huge country full of natural resources and few people.”
“Refugees unlike Australians that take charge of their county and name it, they just want to go quietly around their daily business and work hard to eventually bring out the best in Australia, to round it out, complete it.”
“I think some are scared you take over,” I smiled and quickly finished the tea: “I am so sorry, I hope you settle here nicely in our neighborhood.”
My neighbor smiled at me kindly: “I wish for nothing more, only if you let me.”