Last year while Mum was undergoing open-heart surgery, Dad engaged in the olive harvest. This was the excuse for him to stay home, instead of travel to Melbourne to sit at his wife’s bedside. It became the mantra, the procrastinator the important task at hand should we die of starvation tomorrow! Dad’s demeanor is like a cat’s, he is not able to leave the comfort of his home, house or territory for fear of losing himself.
The olive harvest of 2014 saw Mum and Dad working together, a honeymoon, relived under the olive trees. Their tools, a long wooden stick for banging the branches, a ladder and hessians strategically placed so as to catch the falling olives. Dad’s one for using ‘old school’ techniques – his bare hands – frugally, gathering the ones that had missed the hessian, as if each olive were a delicate fragile flower that needed to be caressed and understood.
One year it came to their attention, an industrial olive press, a trip to Adelaide purchased a second hand machine, allowing the olives to go in one hole and come out the other end as pure virgin olive oil, not like making the oil of yesteryear. When using ancient techniques, achieving the virgin press was difficult, it was all mixed together press after press, no distinction of the finer qualities.
Mum told me stories of how she would reuse old hessian sacks that had delivered flour, corn and wheat. She would hand sew them into round pods fashioned for the wine press machine. The olives were crushed in a machine that had been used to process animal feed and then scooped up with a small metal shovel, sandwiched in between the pods and stacked one on top of the other. Boiling water from a nearby caldron poured over the stack, pressed down squeezed out the steamy juices into concrete pipe vessels. Over time the oil rising to the surface.
We grew up on this oil, our olive skin, clear and vibrant. Many compliments were given for the Italian beauty I had become. Could I attribute it to the olive oil? Was it good genetics or that being Italian had suddenly become fashionable and I was no longer considered a dirty dago, but a beautiful goddess with a shimmering olive complexion?
My youngest sister had taken photos of them working together- a celebration of sorts- witness to their industry, their inventiveness and their desire for partnership. It was still there, the relationship they had struck and forged, 55 years- a golden tribute like the golden oil. Here they worked together again, aged seventy four and eighty one, doing what they knew how to do, grade three education– but still making a good life. God gave us Australia, this was the cross we had to bear- enough oil to anoint the lips of our six children and some for sale to the locals, let’s make a few bucks! Ah! Tastes just like home!
I had made a seasonal calendar that honored the traditions they had brought from Calabria. Their farm was a time capsule of memories, recreated and reincarnated year after year, season after season, etched in the red earth of Mildura- piccolo Italia.
When Mum left to have her heart surgery, Dad started the olive harvest alone. Using a ladder, he started from one end working his way across the 150 trees, picking methodically, purposefully and intentionally, olive by olive, tree by tree, dip tin by dip tin all by hand. Here was a different mindset -work was life and life was work and one could not exist without the other, interwoven, interconnected like breath itself. An expression of what it means to love, he prayed that his wife would come back.
In Mum’s absence and during her rehabilitation Dad picked for the six weeks. He continued to pick six weeks after her return. By the time he finished the harvest and crushed the five hundred dip tins, Mum was well enough to ladle and funnel the oil into bottles.
Heart felt olive oil; nectar that nurtures; a beating heart craves love to flutter.