Mi­grant’s tale has po­etic heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

and it is hard to hold on to the de­tails and re­la­tion­ships of so many peo­ple. We learn her par­ents were keen shoot­ers. “[In Switzer­land] My par­ents used to prac­tise in the long cor­ri­dor of their apart­ment with their air ri­fle. They would aim at the small door­bell above the en­trance door.”

The Morelli fam­ily’s tra­jec­tory was like that of many im­mi­grants. A block of land, a house that was al­ways a work in progress, a strug­gle to fit in and to find the best salami. Mr Morelli got into busi­ness and thrived. Stylish, well-turned­out Mrs Morelli had ex­cel­lent ref­er­ences as a de­signer-cut­ter from Zurich and worked her way up to a well-paid job at David Jones.

Both worked long hours. Soon the fam­ily moved to Syd­ney’s more salu­bri­ous north shore, where Va­lerie did well at a Catholic school. We learn about her father’s spear fish­ing, yo­delling and ski­ing ex­ploits and mother’s work ex­pe­ri­ences and col­leagues.

Mur­ray be­came a teacher of French and Ger­man and later moved to ESL (English as a sec­ond lan­guage) be­cause, as she notes, lan­guage teach­ing has not flour­ished in Aus­tralia. Mur­ray has bound­less ad­mi­ra­tion for her beloved and brilliant poet hus­band. She writes: “I have had the good for­tune to spend most of my life with one of the best masters of the word any­where.”

Life was never easy or com­fort­able, es­pe­cially af­ter they moved to the coun­try to look af­ter Les’s father. Les worked where he could and later gained in­come from grants, prizes and poetry read­ing tours. The fam­ily of­ten trav­elled with some, or all, of their five chil­dren, with vari­able suc­cess.

In­ter­est­ing di­gres­sions re­flect on top­ics such as why so many im­mi­grants change their names. Va­lerie’s given name was Va­lika. She notes how far ad­vanced Euro­pean doc­tors and den­tists were in their prac­tices in the 1950s and 60s. She de­scribes her mother and a friend go­ing to­gether to have their bunions re­moved (so they could keep wear­ing fash­ion­able shoes) and have face lifts. She frets about her age­ing and fad­ing par­ents and how poorly aged care homes deal with long-time im­mi­grants, many of whom re­vert to their first lan­guage.

Finally, she won­ders “what I might have learnt, and been, if World War II had not sent my fam­ily and me on the long road around the world”. How many of us im­mi­grants won­der about this too? Writer and critic gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant. is a first-

Va­lerie Mur­ray with her ‘mas­ter of the word’ hus­band Les at their home at Bun­yah in NSW

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