Telling Aurelia

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In the week following my mother’s funeral I wake up knowing I need to begin cooking again. For all of January my mother’s death has been my whole world. But now the gifts of home-made food have slowed. It is time to come out of the cocoon I have wound around keeping vigil and arranging the funeral.

Aurelia fixes Julie's collar (Illustration Chris Johnston)

In the small hiatus between the bushfires and the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve had the privilege of a communal farewell. Now I need to enter the world beyond my door. It takes me until lunchtime to coax myself out from under the doona. I will walk up to the local shops for bread and vegetables.

The Italian fruit and veggie shop has an open storefront facing the street. I recognise Aurelia as she stands in the aisle, lightly stacking gleaming fruit. She has worked here for as long as I can remember, though she only appears to be in her early 40s. She wears a navy blue uniform stitched with lime green highlights. It bears the names of the brothers who own the business.

As I approach her in the narrow aisle, Aurelia is deftly placing plums. Her coral pink fingernails flash amidst the dark purple. She turns towards me with a bird-like quickness in the movement of her head. Her hair is full of impish drama, the top sticks straight up, the sides are close cut. When Aurelia cocks her head to one side, her bright eyes meet my gaze.

I realise I’ve felt on my guard coming out into the world again, but here is curiosity and kindness. Aurelia’s eyes are alive and alert, undimmed by years of customer interactions.

The colour and sheen of the shop are open to the street and the weather. I have been feeling hidden, but Aurelia’s presence welcomes me back. Her face is mobile, attentive, there is no risk her strong make-up will mask her loveliness. The clean lines of her eyebrows, cheekbones and lips are accented and clear. ‘Hello,’ she says, ‘how are you?’ Aurelia stands back and rocks on her heels as she says this, then grounds her two feet slightly apart. Her ready stance tells me she means the question.

 

'Sometimes this would feel patronising, but not in these moments. I am one of the motherless now; the gesture is instinctively soothing.'

 

I realise I want her to know that my mother died. I don’t need her to do anything, just know. I tell her Mum had a good death at the end of a long life. There is a pause that marks that this is a new absence. Aurelia is perfectly tuned. Her eyes rest on me as she asks, ‘Are you OK?’

Standing next to the fruit stack, Aurelia tells me about her grandfather‘s death in Italy. She had visited him there many times but could not be there when he was dying. She rang while the family were gathered. Someone held the phone to his ear. He said her name. ‘Aurelia.’ And then he said, ‘Goodbye Aurelia.’ Later she learned these were the only words he spoke in the last weeks of his life.

‘You take care now,’ she says as she gently straightens my collar.

The evening Mum died, when it was finally time to leave the hospital, I stood in the corridor, outside her room. A nurse came to farewell me. She held a clipboard in one hand but with the other she reached up and patted down my crooked collar. Sometimes this would feel patronising, but not in these moments. I am one of the motherless now; the gesture is instinctively soothing.

When I am about to leave the shop, I look for Aurelia to give her a wave, but she’s gone out the back. It doesn’t matter. The transaction is complete. Something important in each of our lives is known to the other. Aurelia’s shining listening and quiet telling have allowed me to re-enter the world. In returning to ordinary life I don’t need to feel I am betraying or ignoring what has happened. One person in this shopping strip knows my truth.

I step out into the street, my collar neatly arranged, salad veggies and ciabatta loaf swinging in my shoulder bag.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer and oral storyteller. She teaches The Art and Practice of Oral Storytelling at Pilgrim Theological College in Parkville. Her collection, Tender: Stories that lean into kindness, is published by MediaCom.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, COVID-19, mother, motherhood, grief

 

 

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Existing comments

Re-entering is so difficult. Reality seems so unreal. I've had to do it after losing a son. Most people out there keep their distance. Then there are the Aurelias who, knowing they could never know how I felt, nevertheless knew how I needed. Hopefully, I've been there for others, since.
Ginger Meggs | 11 May 2020


Thank you, Julie, for sharing your experience of compassionate encounters in the midst of grief. Thank you too for the great gift of your book 'Tender'. Peace and best wishes.
James O'Brien | 11 May 2020


What an exquisite, gentle & heart-warming story!
Jim Noonan | 11 May 2020


A beautifully written story of life and death and our response to it. It is all those small intimate moments that enable us to go on living with the pain and trauma of loss. Thank you for sharing one of these moments.
John Regan | 11 May 2020


"Are you Okay?" Three little words but so, so meaningful.. Thank you Julie & thank you Aurelia.We all need to ask that question more often.
Maureen Caldow | 11 May 2020


The kindness of strangers. It can be that deep communication with another human being doesn't need a long acquaintance or friendship. Just an eye, and a heart, open to others.
Pam | 11 May 2020


My heart always quickens when I see there is an article by Julie Perrin in Eureka St. And I’m never disappointed. Thank you for the warmth and simplicity of your always engaging contributions. I’m with you there in the shop! You encourage me to take more time to reflect on the potential richness of everyday interactions with others, Thank you.
Julie | 11 May 2020


This brought tears. Sorry for your loss, Julie, and thank you for sharing an intimate moment. God bless.
BPLF | 11 May 2020


Such beautiful, honest writing. Wishing you peace and comfort; thank you.
Barry Gittins | 11 May 2020


My sincere condolences. I'm not sure how recent your bereavement was. If it was very, very recent you need to take excellent care of yourself. This is something we all instinctively know but often ignore. There will always be Aurelias and people like the nurse you mention but most of the time the crowd will pass you by, your fate unbeknown to them. There are also other people you can speak to about this. Skilled professionals. Very much caveat emptor and word of mouth here. From my own past career, I can remember so many who had an employment or educational problem which lay above deep, unburied grief. I had to refer so many on for professional help. It is often the male and Anglo-Saxon thing to battle on with the metaphorical equivalent of the 'tough' footballer's five broken ribs. Thank you for your article. It should go into school anthologies, if they still have them.
Edward Fido | 12 May 2020


Julie, thank you for your beautiful articles.
Georgina Greenhill | 12 May 2020


Such a genuine, dignified and refreshingly personal account of grief and care in a world increasingly and noisily preoccupied with ideology. Thank you, Julie.
John RD | 12 May 2020


Oh Julie, this is so full of heart that you hold us with you as you describe everything. We feel it deeply, with you. Thank you.
Ann Byrne | 18 May 2020


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