In 1958, at 36 years of age, Anđelka Salečić (nee Tomašić) left her European homeland and all that was familiar to her to make a new life for herself and her family in Australia. For the next 30 years she called Australia home. A New Australian, she came to love her adopted land, and never sought to return to her country of birth.
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It was a cold, dull June day. Friday 24 June, to be precise. Outside the sky was grey and low clouds hid the sun. I had a heavy heart. This was going to be a tough day for me. Robot-like I showered, shaved and donned my suit and tie. My thoughts were elsewhere.
Dressed and ready to go, I clambered for my notes – I needed to go through them again. I sat alone for several minutes and read them, mouthing the words. My English was fine, but I was not so sure about the Serbo-Croatian. Would I get it right? Speaking publicly in the language of my childhood – this would be a first for me.
In less than two hours I would deliver the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. My brother made the funeral arrangements and the service was to be led by a Croatian-born priest at a Catholic Church at New Farm (Brisbane). For many of my mother’s peers who would be attending the service, a dialect of Serbo-Croatian was their first language.
My mother’s eulogy was my first. I had never delivered a eulogy before, but I felt it was the least I could do to honour my mother’s memory. After all, I had known and loved her, as she had loved me, my whole life long. This woman, until recently so strong, full of life and energy, had blessed me so much.
How dearly I had wanted to see her, speak and pray with her prior to her undergoing heart surgery at Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital on the Monday that week. But that was not to be. My mother died unexpectedly early the next day (Tuesday) due to complications arising from the operation. She was just 66 years of age.
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The early years, Korčula
Anđelka Tomašić was born in 1922 at Smokvica, a village on the island of Korčula, off the southern Croatian coast. She was born in the period between World War I and World War II and the formation of Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). Anđelka was one of seven Tomašić children – six girls and one boy. Her father’s untimely death was followed soon after by that of her brother. Although her mother came from a reasonably well-off family, widowhood and the economic situation at the time meant that she and the family struggled to mete out an existence.
From an early age, Anđelka and her sisters found life hard and uncertain. Anđelka left school at 12 years of age to help support the family, becoming a live-in domestic servant in the home of a well-to-do Smokvica family.
Years later she told me that her employer would often give her a loaf of bread (in addition to her meagre remuneration) to take home to her family. It was “black bread”, made with unprocessed or inferior flour. Clearly she didn’t like it. She longed for the white bread her employer’s family ate. In fact, my mother totally refuted the concept “If you eat white bread, the sooner you’re dead”. Maybe this is the reason I love bread so much!
The war years
Anđelka was in her late teens when much of Europe was again at war. Commencing with a German-led invasion on 6 April 1941, the majority of Yugoslavia was occupied by the Axis powers (chiefly Germany) from 1941 to the end of the war. Anđelka never spoke much about the war. Her descriptions were scanty – one snippet was that there was not much food and the family often had onion soup or soup made from the roots or tubers of a local grass.
Like most of her peers, Anđelka was a supporter of the communist-led Yugoslav Partisans and the Yugoslav Resistance which, during World War II, was under the command of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito.
Anđelka appears to have been politically active. Young and idealistic, she was attracted to the socialist ideology of common wealth, brotherhood and unity, better treatment of the poor and equality of opportunity.
Village life (as she knew it) was centred on an agrarian cycle and the Church calendar. She often spoke of working in the fields. Like the majority of village folk, she had been brought up in the Roman Catholic Church. Despite her socialist bent and the communists’ drive to rid society of religion (the “opiate of the people”), Anđelka maintained a strong belief in God. She often spoke about how the village folk celebrated the Feast Days of various saints, as well as Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter.
I’m not sure when Anđelka met Petar Salečić. I assume it was in Smokvica, where Petar was also born and raised. It seems theirs was a long courtship, interrupted by the war. Petar was a volunteer in the National Liberation Army (Yugoslav Partisans) during World War II. After the war, with little prospect of making a living on the family farm (Petar was one of many sons), he left the village to seek work elsewhere on the island of Korčula or nearby islands.
Marriage and a family
By the late 1940s, Petar and Anđelka moved into a flat in Korčula’s Old Town, where they married and I was born. Apparently mine was a difficult birth, as I was a big baby, over 5 kilograms. In those days, if you were “big” you were considered healthy, especially when you were pregnant. At the time of my birth Petar was working as a clerk on nearby Badija Island and Anđelka was left in the care of a midwife and neighbours. Sadly, they didn’t get much family support as I believe Petar’s family did not approve of their marriage. Nevertheless my birth, and that of my brother 5 years later, were reasons for great rejoicing.
Anđelka’s life was characterized by much pain, although she rarely complained. As a toddler I had asthma and spent many a day writhing and heaving as I tried to breathe. It was a constant source of anxiety for my mother. There was often fear in my mother’s demeanour despite her stoicism. I recall her worried look whenever I had an asthma attack and on many occasions after Petar left for Australia. I remember her tears and her prayers. My father left Korčula in May 1956, leaving Anđelka to care for their two sons on her own. I was 5½ and my brother Dušan was just 8 months old.
My parents’ decision to leave Korčula and come to Australia was influenced by several factors and, as was common, the man went first. At the time, Petar was working as an apprentice painter at the local shipyards and his tenure was uncertain. Two of Petar’s brothers who had already migrated to Australia encouraged him to join them there. In Australia there was the prospect of a better life for them and their boys – guaranteed employment, a home of their own, freedom and opportunity. I think Anđelka, in particular, had become disenchanted with Tito’s brand of post-war communism – it was not the panacea the people had been promised.
The couple agreed that, while Anđelka remained in Korčula, Petar would provide her with financial support from his earnings in Australia.
The next 2½ years were challenging for Anđelka. Despite having two children whom she adored and who gave her much joy, she was lonely. Petar wrote to her regularly, but his letters from Australia revealed that work was not easy to obtain, he had to move from Sydney to Cairns to find work, the work (cane-cutting) was hard and Petar was lonely too. His only social interaction was with his New Australian employer and other immigrant cane-cutters. Petar’s circumstances worried Anđelka. The situation was not what they had expected.
Worse still, the cheques from Australia barely covered the family’s expenses. Sometimes, when Petar couldn’t find work, there was no money at all. Anđelka had to go to work. I remember my mother being hospitalized during this period because of high blood pressure (a problem that plagued her most of her life). Kindly neighbours looked after my brother and me when my mother was hospitalized or when she had to go to work.
I believe Anđelka thought her endurance test was over once we left Korčula to join Petar in Australia. I have written previously about our journey to Australia (From Korčula My Island Home to the Canefields of Fishery Falls, September 6, 2017). The journey itself was an ordeal, especially for my mother.
We left Korčula in early October 1958 and arrived at our destination (Fishery Falls, near Cairns) nearly eight weeks later, on 22 November 1958. Of those eight weeks spent in transit, almost six were spent on board the ship SS Toscana, and at least half of that time my mother was sea-sick! Seriously sea-sick.
Early days in Australia: A New Australian
On arriving at Fishery Falls, after so much anticipation, Anđelka’s heart sank when she saw where we had to live. At the time, I don’t think I realized how upset she was. In Korčula we had been living in a small but well-equipped apartment in a new housing development. Now, our home was to be this big shed!
It had a bare concrete floor, corrugated iron roof and walls with prop-out corrugated iron “windows”, two small “rooms” including a kitchen/dining area, wood stove, beds with mosquito netting, one light per room and cold water. The toilet (“dunny” in Australian lingo) was outside, in an outhouse about 10 metres from the concrete apron of the shed. There was a shower, somewhere. Fortunately, we resided here for just a few months, as a small farmhouse up the road became vacant and we moved there.
1960: A house of our own
In 1958 Petar put a deposit on a timber cottage on a large residential block at Freshwater, on the outskirts of Cairns. In early 1960 the house became vacant (it had been rented) and we relocated from Fishery Falls to Freshwater.
The Freshwater house was our family home for the next 9 years. In 1966 the building was enlarged and remodelled to provide three bedrooms, a new kitchen-dining area and lounge room, and repainted. It was a source of much pride and thankfulness.
I remember my parents coming home from shopping one Saturday morning and shedding tears of joy as they reflected on their good fortune: They had a house of their own, enough money from a weekly wage to buy groceries, pay their bills, and have a few “bob” left over to buy an item of clothing or two.
As a family, we had many good times in this home. Petar and Anđelka hosted a couple of wedding receptions. They invited people home for meals, to play cards or celebrate Christmas. Lots of other New Australian arrivals were made welcome. There was always singing, storytelling and reminiscing about the old country. Ours was a happy home.
The period 1960-1968
The period 1960-1968 saw Anđelka settled and content, although it was not without its struggles. During the off-season (December through to June), Petar managed to get casual work here and there: yard hand at the Stratford timber mill, tobacco picker in the Mareeba area and house painter. One time he found work at Weipa and stayed there for 6 months. When there was no work, we lived on soup-off-the-bone, sausages and Zeje (a Croatian vegetable dish).
My brother and I did well at school, and this pleased our parents. Our receiving a good education was important for them. Anđelka was periodically sick with gall stones and high blood pressure and had to cope with my ongoing problem of non-specific dermatitis. I was hospitalised a few times until my condition was appropriately diagnosed and treated.
In 1966, the four of us became Australian citizens, in a Naturalization Ceremony (as it was called then). We felt so blessed to call ourselves “Australian”. Another milestone occurred in 1967 when my parents bought their first car (a brand new Ford Cortina). Owning a car was a major achievement for them, and they were very proud of it.
Work played an important part in Anđelka’s life as a New Australian. It contributed to her sense of worth, provided much needed income support and enabled her to make friends. While living at Freshwater, through a friend she obtained fulltime employment as a laundress at the Calvary Hospital, Cairns.
Anđelka enjoyed this work although it was laborious, repetitive and sometimes dangerous (they used hot caustic soda at times for some items). The Sisters of the Little Company of Mary who operated the hospital set a high standard, but were fair and helpful. Anđelka became known as the “ironing specialist”: She had strong wrists and a knack of presenting the nuns’ habits in pristine condition. Ironing was a task Anđelka had done for years as a domestic servant in Korčula, so it is not surprising that she was good at it. (For years, at home, she ironed all our singlets and underpants!)
The laundry staff included several New Australian folk (Poles, Italians and Maltese) and a few “Aussies”, and they became Anđelka’s friends. I’m not sure how they communicated with each other, but they did.
As a New Australian, Anđelka yearned to be competent in English. She attended classes in the early days, which helped a little. Over the years, she watched a lot of television shows like I love Lucy (she loved Lucille Ball), and movies, which also helped.
Fortunately, most people she came across were friendly and patient with New Australians like her. When it came to shopping, she worked out that if you have the money all you have to do is point to what you want. Her inadequacy was felt most during visits to the doctor, dealing with problems at work, attending school events and (in the latter years) trying to communicate with her daughter-in law and grandchildren (who spoke only English).
Nevertheless she got by. She developed what I nicknamed “Yuglish”, a comical mix of Serbo-Croatian (as it was called at the time) and English. It was funny for me to hear her say to my wife as they made the beds: “Give me that deka blanketa” which translates “Give me that blanket blanket”. This is just one example.
Another move, to Brisbane
After I completed my secondary schooling in 1968, my parents decided to relocate to Brisbane where I planned to undertake tertiary studies. I think they wanted to keep the family together. Although my mother supported the move, she found it difficult. It reminded her of the time she came to Australia, so she was afraid of what lay ahead.
In Brisbane they had no house, neither she nor Petar had a job to go to and she had no friends. Anđelka had never lived in a big city. The worst part was that, before Anđelka joined Petar in Brisbane (he went ahead of her, as before), my father put a deposit on a 50 or 60-year-old highset timber dwelling which my mother had not seen. She had no say in the purchase. It was not the kind of house she wanted! (For as long as I remember, my mother aspired to own a two-story brick house. It was a lifelong dream.) Needless to say, she made it home for the remainder of her earthly life and her dream of a two-story brick house was never realised.
My mother came to love Brisbane. She adapted easily to city life. The best part was the shopping – Anđelka loved to shop and she had an eye for a bargain. Both she and Petar gained employment: Petar as a builder’s labourer on high rise building projects and Anđelka as a cleaner on split shifts (morning and night) in the Primaries Building in the city.
Around the same time we moved to Brisbane, Mum’s sister and niece came to live there, and that helped a lot. And it didn’t take long for Anđelka to make new friends, in the neighbourhood and at work.
Anđelka’s next big test came in 1973 when I left home to take up a teaching appointment at Blackwater. Mum and I were close and she grieved the “loss” of her first son. Without fail, she wrote to me (in Serbo-Croatian) every week. It used to take me some time to read her handwriting and translate it. Her letters had quite an impact on me, because in them she poured out her heart. I used to phone her weekly and write a letter every second week.
Additions to the family
One of Anđelka’s aspirations was for her sons to be happily married. Thus it gave her much delight when Judy and I married in 1974 and, in early 1988, Dušan and Ellen announced their engagement. She loved having a daughter. There was more joy ahead when our children Ruth and Daniel were born.
Anđelka relished being a grandmother. Our children called her “Baba” (in our Croatian dialect, “Grandma”). Baba looked forward to our regular and surprise visits to Brisbane – Judy and I and the children lived in Bundaberg (5 hours’ drive north) and later in Rockhampton (8 hours’ drive north). On a number of occasions, my parents and brother drove to Bundaberg, then Rockhampton, to visit us. Many happy memories were made during our respective visits.
A humble servant, in Korčula and in life
What I remember most about my mother was her warm and cheerful disposition. Despite the hardships she endured in life, she was always thankful for her many blessings, and she said so. She was an extrovert, a people-person who loved company. With English-speaking relatives, friends or colleagues, what she lacked in language skills she communicated by her smile, her sincere demeanour and kind actions. I’ve never forgotten how she encouraged me, and I know she did the same for many others by her patient listening and wise advice. She was compassionate and loving. She happily shared her possessions with others.
From an early age, I recall relatives and friends visiting our home or staying with us. They were made welcome, regardless of our circumstances. Anđelka always had food and drink to share and I remember there being lots of excited, noisy chatter during and after meals.
It’s ironical that Anđelka died of a diseased heart when she so often gave from the heart. My mother was one of the most generous people I’ve known. Her bigheartedness touched everyone she knew, not least her family. She spoilt her children, and later her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, by her kind acts and liberal gifts.
Judy was totally overwhelmed when she and I were engaged to be married and my mother gave us a “glory box” full to overflowing with household items. Not just any items, but top quality ones: Actil sheets, Onkaparinga wool blankets, Noritake dinner sets, cutlery, cookware, bath towels, tablecloths and so much more. There was hardly a thing left for us to buy for our new home! My mother had been purchasing and storing these things for years.
Anđelka’s early years as a servant ended up being a metaphor of her entire life, one of humble servanthood. Judy remembers her always wearing an apron. In fact, Judy made several aprons for Anđelka when she was asked.
Throughout our marriage Judy and I learnt much about selflessness and generosity by the example my mother set. In little ways we were able to repay her kindness. During our visits to Brisbane Judy would cut, colour or perm Anđelka’s hair, sew for her, bake a cake or two, and help with the cooking. It was an encouragement to Anđelka that Judy was interested in learning how to cook traditional Croatian dishes.
In fact, were Anđelka alive, it would be a source of much pride that Judy has written about this and shared Anđelka’s recipes on her blog. Here are the links to these stories and recipes:
The later years
Anđelka’s final and greatest trial came in the guise of sickness, her own and Petar’s. For years she suffered from high blood pressure and angina, conditions that worsened in her later years. She was overweight (she loved food) so this didn’t help. Not that she complained. She suffered in silence.
On the other hand, she worried constantly about Petar. By the late 1970s, Petar was diagnosed with clinical depression and eventually bipolar disorder. Anđelka did not know how to cope with Petar’s mood swings and his unusual, uncharacteristic behaviour. When he spoke and behaved irrationally her natural response was to say, “Don’t be stupid”, and to prove him wrong. Unfortunately, this only increased his anxiety and made the situation worse. She “mothered” him, which he didn’t appreciate.
All her efforts to help Petar were in vain. Anđelka felt helpless and dejected. Indeed, the stress of trying to care for Petar and meet his needs, which she endured for at least a decade, took its toll on Anđelka’s weakened heart.
I’ve often wondered if my mother died of a broken heart. According to her death certificate, Anđelka’s death on Tuesday 21 June 1988 was the result of acute myocardial infarction and ischaemic heart disease. That’s the medical explanation. Petar survived her by 21 years. He died peacefully in Brisbane on Friday 10 April 2009, aged 89. Like Anđelka, he never returned to his country of birth.
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The church was about one-third full. Almost everyone was wearing black. I think I must have looked out of place in my beige pin-stripe suit and wide brown and white striped tie.
For those present who spoke only English, the foreign-language service was unintelligible. Hence, when I delivered my eulogy in English, as well as Serbo-Croatian, everyone paid attention.
I think my heartfelt words were well received. A few of my relatives commented on the errors I made in my Serbo-Croatian translation, but I expected that. “At least,” I thought, “they listened to my message.”
Here are a couple of extracts from my address:
“In her village of Smokvica, Anđelka received good teaching from the Roman Catholic Church. She had a respect for the Church and an understanding of what Christ had done for her. This she transmitted to our family. Although she was not a regular church goer she encouraged us to seek God. … In 1974 I gave her the Bible (Sveto Pismo) I have in my hand. You can see that it is well read. For 14 years she has treasured this book. Dušan [and others] said she even had it with her on the days before she died. We [she and I] had many discussions over the years and I discovered that she had a strong faith in Christ.”
“Someone said to me on Wednesday, ‘Dear poor lady is now at peace.’ That is true, but it is not the whole story. Her life was characterized by a trust in God and a search for Him so she is not only at peace, she is with her Lord. The Bible says that if we confess with our mouth the Lord Jesus and believe that God has raised Him from the dead, we shall be saved. Mum did that, so according to the Word of God, she is with Him. That is more than peace.”
After the church service, the funeral cortege left for the Nudgee Lawn Cemetery, where a brief committal ceremony was held prior to the burial. In the presence of her family and close friends, Anđelka’s mortal body was laid to rest in the soil of her adopted land.
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