“Oh, so this year you can wear your very own sprig of rosemary on Anzac Day”, my neighbour remarked as I was scratching about in our new herb garden. I had no idea what she meant and to be honest even the exact history of Anzac Day required a quick internet search. I was happy to learn that rosemary grows wild on the Gallipoli Peninsula. As wild as fennel on Malta, I presume, the aromatic plant that conjures up so many beautiful memories of a holiday my daughters and I spent at my brother’s on this small archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea many years ago.
Anzac Day 2020 (25 April) marks 105 years since the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps landed at Anzac Cove, where thousands of soldiers, part of the amphibious invasion of Gallipoli, died. Most people I’ve met since arriving in Australia had family members killed or maimed in that dreadful campaign. I didn’t know of anyone.
In 2020 the coronavirus pandemic had forced the cancellation of traditional Anzac Day services for the first time since World War II. Instead, everyone was asked to be up by 05:30 and stand on their driveway at that hour in solemn contemplation. Reflecting, remembering the brave soldiers who served and died in war, in conflict and in peacekeeping operations. But especially the Gallipoli heroes. Candles and flags had been encouraged.
I set my alarm for 05:00. Prime Minister Scott Morrison would be in Canberra at the War Memorial delivering a speech and laying a wreath. I wanted to be part of it, albeit via streaming on my mobile phone. I was also hoping that someone in our neighbourhood would maybe dig out a bugle or bagpipes.
I opened the front window. Everything on the estate was quiet. The birds were still asleep and not a single dog barked. In the pitch darkness I noticed a flickering candle, then another and another, dotted along our street. The amber glow warmed a little piece of my heart. As my eyes got used to the darkness I saw people – some all by themselves, standing at the edge of their driveway; I saw two couples; and at my next-door neighbours there were four men, obeying the physical distancing instruction, chatting quietly. I recognised some of them as the guys that wave when I drive past, but then I saw the very sight that used to astonish me during my first Victorian winter – they were wearing short pants and slops. In single digit temperatures! But what compelled me to call my husband to come and witness the spectacle was the fact that each man was holding a beer in his hand. At this hour? Long before sunrise? I’ve heard of coffee and Anzac biscuits for breakfast on this special day, but beer? I was dumbfounded.
Across the road my biker neighbour was standing on his own with head bent forward. A sentry half asleep. He didn’t join his beer-drinking mates but just stood on his driveway next to his little light for what must have been half an hour or more. He clearly had someone very dear to him die in combat, I thought. I wish I knew him better – I would certainly have enquired.
Leaving the Aussies to their private memories, I returned to my bed, more aware than ever that I am not part of this land and never will be. I have no history here. I do not feel their pain. It would just be wrong for me to go outside and stand on my driveway. Even worse to light my own candle. To intrude in that way.
As I watched the sun rise over Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance on my mobile screen I reminded myself that although I’ve made beautiful friends here, have travelled a lot locally and have visited more states and places than most Australians, have been made to feel welcome, have integrated in many ways, and absolutely adore our picturesque coastal town, this was not my country. This is not my Anzac Day. It is not for me to pin a sprig of rosemary to my coat lapel. I have not lost anyone in Fromelles, Hamel or Arras. I do not even know the name of a single prisoner of war. Immigrants have to live with the heartaches that come with the privilege.
We give two steps forward, and then one back. ‘Lest we forget.’
I did ask about the beer drinking…that is evidently cheers to the soldiers who received a tipple of rum in their milk before daybreak on a day of battle, to “give ‘em a touch of courage”.