Professor Terri-ann White, Director of UWA Publishing, delivered the following address at the Westerly Centre symposium for Veronica Brady. Brady, former Professor of Literature a UWA and Catholic nun, died in August 2015.
My testimony is all about care and community.
I was straight out of university, after a detour in rock and roll entrepreneurship: wild nights and risky behavior. At 23, because in those days BA degrees could last as long as you wanted them to, I opened a bookshop in Perth. A bookshop full of books I was interested in – one of those rare enterprises where self-interest works. Through my role as owner and operator of this bookshop, I was initiated into another world: of ideas, passion, politics and commitment to a personal ethics of care and responsibility. I became friends with many women who were a generation or more ahead of me, who trusted me in their circles and their lives. Women who were politicians, policy makers, activists, leaders in this society, artists and cultural commissars.
That was how I met Veronica: on the hustings, as it were; talking about books and ideas, on protest rallies, in shouty meetings of contestation, and then at dinners at Loreto. I recognize how lucky I was at the time. I had access to and friendship with people I’d describe as small-m mentors, unfettered access, intimate insights, trust. I was always the youngest person in the room, in the gathering. Now, at 57, I continue many of these regular meetings with my influential mentors, meetings conducted over wine and food usually: convivial, pleasurable, providing the backbone to the sort of life I chose for myself. Many of those choices came through these experiences in my 20s and 30s. They are the formative ones for me as a woman who made her own family through friendships that last a lifetime.
The dinners at Loreto were unusual at first. I had no experience of religion, really, since I was confirmed at my school because I had a crush on the Anglican priest and desired more time talking to him. All strictly in the realm of the life of the mind. To enter the convent was startling in its ordinariness. The large kitchen was impressive, and the women who prepared our food were very capable. As I had grown up living in hotels, I was not alarmed at this division of labour. The food was semi-institutional, but in those days Australian cuisine was a bit like that anyway. I don’t remember how many of these dinners I attended; it may have only been three. But each had a different set of women in attendance. On two occasions I recall that a woman, university connected, who had experienced life-changing trauma, was invited. She was barely verbal and very withdrawn from the vivacity at the table.
Veronica had the ability to allow her to sit there, share a meal, not speak but also not freak out, and it was clear that VB had returned her to the world of the social, as I expect she had been doing for this woman for the decades since the trauma that destroyed her family. I liked that hands-off approach – that was one, I think, that I paid attention to and stored away for later.
No topics – as far as I could see – were off limits at Loreto. Perhaps I am naïve in saying it, but that was my impression of those heady days upstairs at Loreto, and I’m sure many people in this room can attest to this, fueled as they were by Veronica’s favourite, all varietals of red wine.
Later, when Veronica moved to her beloved gum-nut cottage to live independently, a solution was smoothly, silently, and effectively found by her friends who wished to continue the pleasurable experience of dinner with Veronica. You see, the first time we attended dinner there, the food was a little idiosyncratic. VB had some unusual ideas about menus for guests and, to be honest, was more adept at reading and critical thinking than cooking for up to 8 guests. The system changed swiftly and each dish for any proposed dinner was supplied by a guest – in consultation with the other guests, and veronica was reinstated as host rather than cook. I could tell you about the warm fish milkshake, but I won’t.
I missed the late dinners in VB’s life: my working life at UWA became all-consuming for years and I missed out on much. But Veronica’s role as a colleague, a friend, one always up for verbal jousting, a role model and a mentor won’t be forgotten. She initiated me by example into the world of hospitality and the abiding friendships between women.