Joe was 84, and their first grandparent to die. Many family and friends had travelled, some from interstate, to support the family and say goodbye to a beautiful, kind old man.
The ceremony was in a Catholic church in a northern working-class suburb of Melbourne. We skirted the city on the freeway, and drove beyond through a sea of cream brick veneers with window shutters pulled down, past blocks of carefully tended gardens, with the sun blaring through the car windows and soaking into our black funeral clothes. I opened the window for fresh air and was embraced by a cool breeze tinted with the smell of freshly cut grass.
I hesitated in the car park: a long service given predominantly in Italian, lots of unfamiliar and solemn faces, plus the burden of my own leaky face despite only having met Joe a handful of times. Relief found me in the cool of the foyer, in a small, plain white envelope. While the Catholic church is known for being big and opulent, I was surprised by the palm-sized, simple prayer card contained within.
On the front, a kitsch picture of Mother Mary. Inside was a photo of Joe, his date of birth and death and a prayer on the right hand side. I’m not religious, and couldn’t read most of the Italian text. It was the dates that got me thinking.
When babies are born, everyone is after the numbers: the date and time of birth, the hours of labour, the weight of the baby. It’s all about the numbers. Death is similar: years on Earth, the rows of mourners, the number of loved ones left behind. The dates act as parentheses, and within their simple curved borders, an entire life. 84 years lived over two countries, two continents, speaking two languages. What was his life’s work, this short but strong Italian immigrant?
Joe worked hard: cooking, cutting timber, growing tobacco, dying textiles. But his life’s work can be seen in his family and in his vegetable patch.
While the priest pontificated, his voice bouncing around the walls in a strange but enchanting tongue, I lost myself in the faces and shapes of Joe’s grandchildren: so handsome and bright and full of life. Eight grandchildren, ages ranging from 13 to 26, all slightly different versions of each other – some taller, some rounder – but undoubtedly connected by an invisible but complex weave of inheritance. Handsome in their black tailored suits and clacky shoes. Their smooth, clear skin in varying tones from porcelain to olive: same silky, straight dark brown hair, same strong-coffee-coloured, smiling eyes. He leaves them behind but will continue to live in them, in the way they mow their grass, the way tell their stories, they way they eat their bread.
At the wake, Mr Karen and I walked around Joe’s vegie garden. As his grandkids artfully socialised and comforted their guests with confidence and pride, while tending to their newly widowed Nonna, we surveyed Joe’s other bounty: row upon row of tomato bushes. The family had picked most of the ripe fruit on Sunday, leaving only the rain spoiled, rotting fruit. All that was left were dry, straggly bushes, spent after a season of growing: their plump, fresh fruit carrying their seed into the next year.
Eight grandkids, the seeds within them seemingly infinite. That we should all live such a full life.