(pre­cious)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Joanne van Os Re­view this­[email protected]­tralian.com.au

Yes­ter­day I used the last of the bay leaves. They went into a soup I was mak­ing, their par­tic­u­lar flavour bal­anc­ing the split peas and ham bones, the cel­ery and onion.

Amaz­ing things, these dry leath­ery leaves of a tree I’ve never seen grow­ing. They last for years in the re­cesses of the 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. And now my bay leaf jar was empty.

I can buy more bay leaves. I can buy them any­where, but it won’t be the same. These leaves, a few bro­ken pieces in the bot­tom of an old cof­fee jar, were the last of a batch of bay leaves our daugh­ter bought in 2008.

We were run­ning away to sea. The house was sold and we were pack­ing up our land­ward lives. We could be sail­ing for years and our be­long­ings might be in stor­age for a long time. Card­board boxes are not im­per­vi­ous to cock­roaches and sil­ver­fish, but I’d read that a few bay leaves in a box would keep them out.

Ali, 16 years old, bright and gold and blos­som­ing, was sent down to the lo­cal deli for a halfk­ilo of bay leaves. Surely, if a bay leaf in a tea ch­est was pre­ven­tive, then a small hand­ful might be a nu­clear de­ter­rent?

She re­turned say­ing that the shop ladies had queried the amount. Bay leaves don’t weigh much — did I re­ally want such a large quan­tity? We set­tled for 250g, and when I saw the size of the bag I was glad we’d taken the ad­vice. Ali was amazed. “We’ll never need to buy bay leaves again!”

We sailed away, with all the prom­ise of the fu­ture, just her father, me and this golden child. Some­times bay leaves would fall out of things on board, and Ali and I would laugh about them. She’d add them to the cof­fee jar, say­ing, “These things last for­ever.”

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 books and clothes. The large cof­fee jar of bay leaves had come ashore, too, and for years, when­ever I took leaves from it to cook with, I’d think: there’s no end to these leaves. When our child died, I thought there would be no end to grief.

I put that last bay leaf into the soup, and thought about grief. It no longer over­pow­ered me, no longer took charge of my day and named it. But it’s still there, a quiet back­ground in­flu­ence, gen­tly round­ing out and mak­ing me who I am now.

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