The first thing I did was open the blinds, moving from one immense window pane to the next, flooding the living room with sunlight. A moment for the eyes to adjust and there it was: one hundred and eighty degrees of Sydney’s glittering harbour. The blinds had been closed for years and I wondered how long it had been since Shan-Yi had actually seen the water. I’d never really seen it before. Growing up, we always visited the apartment after dinner, eating at local restaurants with Shan-Yi and stopping by her apartment for coffee and dessert. In the window panes we could see our own reflections, a sea of darkness and distant lights. Now it was radiant blue, sailing boats, hills rolling down to the water, covered in houses, Shark Island, and on the other side of the harbour, the dense green of Taronga Zoo.
There was a little coffee table in the middle of the room, round with four quarter-circle stools that fit under it. The surface was covered in carvings, protected by a sheet of glass—an elaborate scene of people bustling about a village in China. When we were little, my brother and I always sat at that table, perched on the child-sized stools.
At first glance Shan-Yi’s dark wood furniture—heavily carved and towering—all appeared to match. It wasn’t until closer inspection that the forms began to separate—the cherubs and mermaids of the Hungarian dining table; the lions and dragons of the Chinese sideboard. The two cultures blended together in a shadowy mass of ornamentation, separated only by the olive green of velvet curtains, the burgundy of Persian rugs.
A wooden aquarium had been emptied of fish and filled with a collection of antique snuff bottles painted with miniature landscapes and tiny sculptures. A Buddha sat on a chess table, hand-painted plates stood on stands. The artworks lining the walls were labelled with gold plaques, ‘Turner’, ‘Velasquez’, and ‘Rubens’. The decadence of the apartment in Sydney’s luxurious Eastern Suburbs was a far cry from our own home in the laid-back Inner West.
It was a forty-minute drive to her place back before there was a deep tunnel running under Sydney. In those days we had to drive through the city centre to get from east to west—Mum and Dad in front, Tristan and me in back, peering up at the lights and signs and skyscrapers. At Christmas time, when the fairy lights were on parade and inflatable snowmen swayed in the warm wind; when fruit bats soared overhead and you could hear the cicadas chirping in Hyde Park. I loved that drive, I knew it by heart, and I experienced it with the wide-eyed delight of a tourist every single time. It wasn’t just a drive to the other side of Sydney, it was a drive to the other side of my life.
My mother was a country girl, raised on a cattle farm in northern New South Wales, the youngest of ten. I’d never lived on the land, but hers was the realm that I orbited in daily, a network of uncles and aunts and cousins, of dozens of kids lumped together, instant and irrevocable friends. We went to Catholic schools and were together for christenings and first communions and confirmations, for birthdays and Christmas and for no reason at all. It was a world of family potluck lunches, squeezed onto benches or sitting on the floor, of running in backyards and tearing through houses, of wanting nothing more than a frozen cordial ice block on a blistering summer’s day.
My mother’s childhood infiltrated mine and informed my every habit. When you’re the youngest of ten you eat fast or you don’t get seconds, you talk loud and laugh louder and aren’t concerned if you’re rarely heard. I was the eldest of just two, but the lessons of big-family life on the farm were written in my blood. My mother, the athlete among her sisters, was always fighting to be picked first for a team in family games of rugby. Don’t cry, take it on the chin, affection should always be communicated through well-intentioned mockery and jostling. Hers was a childhood of constant company, a hubbub of activity. My mother couldn’t stand to be still or alone. So I never sat still, and I was never alone. She filled our days with outings and adventures, finger-painting and stories and train rides around town.
My father’s childhood was rich in culture but sparse in characters. Matt, the little boy from Piazza Mattei, the square with the turtle fountain in central Rome—La Fontana della Tartarughe. The Hungarian-Australian-Italian child who read Tin Tin books in dim rooms clouded with cigarette smoke—who drew pictures and made models and played alone with toy cars. When his parents divorced, his mother and her boyfriend stole him away to Switzerland for high school. It was a swift move, in the night. Ten years later he fled his fractured childhood and flew to Australia, the country of his birth but a land he’d never known. Picking out a university near Sydney on the map, his European eyes miscalculated Australian distances—he chose the University of New England, six hours from the city.
The southern hemisphere Baloghs were the handful of Hungarians who lived in palatial houses in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. They were a first- and second-generation migrant family, stitched together along extended threads—great uncles and cousins once or twice removed, holding each other close to create a community. It was a world of beachfront gardens and staircases that wove up and up through homes, a fascinating, expansive world—equal parts splendid and unnerving.
Dinners in the east were composed and quiet, tables were vast and laid with care. Brothers and sisters didn’t yell over one another to be heard, greetings were more polite than effusive. When those same relatives crossed Sydney to visit us, I watched as their eyes scanned our house with bemused interest. Peering into my bedroom, I hoped I’d left it neat enough, my Barbies caught in a scrum of strewn arms and legs. I listened as they marvelled at the fact that we didn’t have a dryer but relied on the hills hoist and expressed worry that we didn’t have private health care. In my second world, where the houses looked different and the food tasted different, I was different too.
I spent much of my childhood glued to my mother’s knee—freckled, limp-haired, and quiet. The explosion of eccentric energy that existed within me wasn’t obvious at first glance. I was terrified of new faces and loathe to speak up. It took time for my personality to leak out around strangers, escaping over time in flickers and sparks until I was at ease. In my first world—my mother’s world—I was already unleashed, comfortable in my role as the boisterous, excitable chatterbox. In my second world—my father’s world—I kept the blaze dampened. Nervous to be exposed, I offered up little of myself.
That is, except around Shan-Yi. She was the constant presence at the heart of my father’s world. Young for a great-grandmother, she was the same age as my maternal grandma and had the energy to keep up with us kids. She could be terse in her disapproval and always spoke her mind, but in Shan-Yi’s home I was always free to roam—free to climb over furniture, to climb all over her.
When Dad moved to Australia as a student in the early eighties, his grandparents treated him like a son. Andrew and Shan-Yi were his home base in Sydney. From 1992, when Andrew died, it was just Shan-Yi—the Balogh family in Australia was a one-woman show. By the time I was twelve, she was the only living grandparent I had.
Visiting Shan-Yi was the ultimate in trans-Sydney travel. It was something more like international travel, or interstellar travel. Her apartment didn’t belong to Sydney, it didn’t belong to Australia or to any other country. It was just like her—it belonged to the whole world. Sitting in the back seat, Tristan snoozing by my side, I was wide awake and ready to run down the spiral staircase and be ushered through her door. I was obsessed with the minutiae of the apartment—a childhood wonderland, home to an other-worldly grandmother, dark and at times even scary. But now that she was gone, the blinds were thrust wide open—now I looked down from above. As the sunlight revealed the thick layer of dust that coated everything, I realised there were bigger things that amazed me.
Shan-Yi’s apartment was built for another time, an era of cocktail parties attended in swinging taffeta skirts and bow ties. Art deco was the order of the day and a curved alcove off the living room was home to a fully-stocked bar which could be revealed or concealed behind green velvet curtains. The doors from kitchen to living room swung both ways, enabling waiters to use their backs to glide through with trays full of canapes. There was a powder room for women to disappear into and gossip. I wondered if there was anything else like it in Sydney—a completely circular room, drowning in pink and furnished with nothing but an ottoman, an ornate sink and a collection of soaps and perfumes. The dressing room was a separate affair, a walk-in wardrobe the size of a small bedroom, with the kind of illuminated dressing table you see in old Hollywood movies. The bedrooms were lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves, stocked with an extraordinary library of books.
I explored rooms that had never been my domain before. It was difficult to reconcile the dust and smells with the glamour of the apartment. I went from room to room with a bucket full of cleaning supplies, scrubbing and vacuuming and depositing scent diffusers. It was an apartment frozen in time—I had no desire to drag it into the twenty-first century, but I was determined to disinfect every nook and cranny. I cleaned until I was exhausted. We moved in my own bed, my things, but they were lost among Shan-Yi’s.
You could barely tell that I was there.