Today would have been my mother-in-law Maria’s 84th birthday. She was a kind and generous woman and as a fellow writer/obsessive, she and I formed a close bond. When I first met her I was writing on index cards. She insisted that I needed a computer and when she upgraded to a new model she gave me her old one. It was a revelation. When my novel was accepted for publication she was ecstatic, but she died before it went to print. Those of her family she left behind put together a memorial booklet recording our memories of her. The following is my recollection:
On the last Saturday of Maria Teichel’s life, early in the afternoon, I got a phone call from her reminding me to stop by on my way home to collect a cake. This, I knew, would be no special occasion cake, just one of her ordinary cakes; that is to say a mouth-watering, three-layered monument to hedonism constructed entirely of chocolate. The layers of chocolate cake would be separated by layers of chocolate cream and the whole creation topped and covered on its sides with pale chocolate syrup, drizzled through with jagged lines of darker chocolate. It would present a challenge, being difficult to divide because of its unconventional shape.
She had a cake tin that was not the usual square or circle. As I look back now, it seems incredible that I could have missed the clue. She could have baked in any shape, but the cake she always made for us was shaped like a heart.
Maria Teichel was born on the 3rd April 1933 and died on Oaks Day, 3rd November 2011. It was fitting she should have chosen Ladies’ Day, for Maria first and foremost was a lady.
She was also a writer. And writing informed and consumed her existence, second only to her love of family. She published two novels and a script for a play. Over two hundred of her short stories appeared in Hungarian Life, the weekly Melbourne newspaper for the Hungarian expatriate community. In 1970, her novel “Sziget Utca 14” (14 Island Street) received the Award for Excellence from the Arpad Academy of Cleveland Ohio.
As a writer, Maria was always creating and inventing, breathing life into her inventions, considering their motivations, taking meticulous care with their backstories. For as every writer knows, there is always ‘backstory’. It is what takes place before the character appears on the page. For all of us here today, Maria entered each of our personal stories as a fully developed character with a backstory as eventful as any of her fictional creations.
I first met her in 1988. She was living alone in Camberwell and working for Telstra as a data processor. Her phenomenal keyboard skills were something I could only envy but as I got to know her I began to realise there was more. The people with whom she worked held her in the greatest esteem. These were highly intelligent people; witty, entertaining, articulate and thoughtful. They regarded her as one of their own. In spite of her difficulty with English, they saw through the language barrier and understood her.
As I too began to understand her, the first thing I noticed was her obsession with food. Any visit called for a banquet and even the politest of refusals was a mortal insult that called for pistols at dawn. I found this obsession odd but was keen on her daughter and thought it wise to keep Maria on-side. As the years passed and Maria cemented her role in my life as Mother-in-Law and Chief Caterer I was force-fed like some doomed pâté de foie gras duck. Gradually she broke my will and turned me into a food-addict. I became a willing slave to her culinary despotism. Over the course of two decades I made a slow and steady progress from Anorexia to Flab City. It was a sojourn filled with such delightful stopovers as Goulash, Bean Soup, Chicken Paprika, Apple Pastries, Cherry Pastries, Crunchies, Doughnuts, numerous other gems that I never knew the name of, and of course Chocolate Cake.
Another thing I saw in Maria was her quirky take on life. She was not exactly a contrarian but she had her own unique view of reality. At times she was downright hilarious, though perhaps not always intentionally. Once she told me that she hated kookaburras. “Why?” I asked. How could anyone hate a kookaburra? “Because they’re always laughing at me!” she declared. With anyone else I might have suspected a joke. I couldn’t quite keep a straight face when she told me this, but I’m glad I didn’t actually laugh out loud, because it was then that I got a bit more of her backstory.
Maria Teichel’s life spanned 78 years and 7 months exactly. She lived through some of the worst years of the 20th Century. Born only weeks after Hitler came to power, as a child she witnessed the incomprehensible depravity of Nazism. At the age of nine she saw corpses in the streets of Budapest and starving people reduced to subsisting on rotting horseflesh. For the rest of her life she associated hunger with suffering.
After the war, Hungary was a shattered wasteland and a new oppressor stood ready to envelop her in his cold embrace. When the Hungarians rebelled in 1956 and the Russian tanks came rolling across the border, the lives of Maria and other idealistic young intellectuals were in danger. Together with her husband Rezső and their young son, they spent the longest night of their lives crawling through a snowbound forest, hiding amongst the trees, listening for Soviet patrols, hearing the thud of bullets striking human flesh and the desperate cries for mercy that went unheeded.
At last they made their way across the Austrian border to safety and their journey to the other side of the world had begun. When they came to Australia, they lived at the migrant hostel in Bonegilla, a clearing house for Europe’s dispossessed. She hated her time there. After life as a fledgling film editor in Budapest, rubbing shoulders with artists and intellectuals, rural Australia was a cultural desert. The raucous hilarity of the kookaburras was a constant reminder of the life left behind. Fate was laughing at her.
Yet in spite of the difficulties of her early years in Australia, she thrived in her role as wife and mother. She worked full-time in various unfulfilling jobs to help support her family and late at night and in the early hours of the morning she wrote. She loomed large in the Australian-Hungarian community. Her stories, although unknown to the wider Australian public, were a source of sustenance and succour to her fellow expatriates. And of course there was always the cooking. Food for her was a symbol of plenty, an affirmation of life. Feeding people, any people: visitors, work colleagues, friends and friends of friends, but above all family, became her life’s mission. It was for her, the purest expression of love.
There were times when she drove me to distraction – urgent dramatic phone calls at work, demanding that I stop in on my way home and collect the chicken soup or goulash or one of a host of other dishes. It wasn’t always convenient, sometimes it was a nuisance. “For God’s sake Maria! I’m in a hurry! We’ve got a fridge full of food and we don’t need it!” I was occasionally tempted to say, but never did.
On that last day when we spoke together it wasn’t really convenient to stop by. I was busy and needed to be elsewhere but I’m glad I found the time to collect the cake and take it home for us to eat. Just one of her ordinary cakes. Nothing special. Made of chocolate, covered in chocolate, shaped like a heart.