Saturday, 27 August 2011

My aunt Jenni

I owe my love for poetry (and my love for many things in this one wild and precious life) to my aunt Jenni Overend 28.2.1956 - 16.07.2011

For those who were not lucky enough to know her:
Born at Warburton to Ray and Olwyn Martin, her upbringing in the Yarra Valley cultivated a love of the natural - all things wild and imaginative.

She attended Healesville High School and went on to Burwood Teachers' College, and in 1978 married Chris Overend. They later settled in a fern-fringed home in the hills overlooking the valley, where she would raise her family of four children and write her award-winning children's books, short stories and prose - and appreciate the fact that Toolangi was home to much-loved Australian poet, C. J. Dennis.

Her first book, Princess Grandma (1994), was inspired by a family adventure to Fiji where the princess of the island on which they stayed was grandmother to her brother-in-law. The story was laced with tales of healing leaves, a weeping turtle, the Kava God and Shark Spirit, and would go on to win the Australian Multicultural Book of the Year Award.

Her next book, Richard The Elder, was published in 1995.

When Jenni's fourth child was born in 1992, the birth took place at the family home and was attended by midwives. This life-changing experience would be the inspiration for her third and best known book, Hello Baby, published in 1999.

At the time of writing, she couldn't understand why children's books about birth involved mum and dad going off to hospital and returning home with a baby in a blanket. The reality of birth, to Jenni, was much more primal and significant. Her three older children were present for the home birth of their youngest brother, and it was Jenni's belief that all children should be able to share in the richness and excitement that was the bringing of a new life into the world.

Renowned Australian illustrator, Julie Vivas (illustrator of Possum Magic) illustrated Hello Baby and the union was apt. Her signature plump, colourful drawings brought to life Jenni's lush story about a loving family, sharing together a natural birth at home. Illustrations such as the baby's head appearing from between the mother's thighs would make this book almost as controversial as it was popular. Amid rumours of conservative-minded schools gluing certain pages together, Hello Baby was short-listed for the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year awards, and it was published in the United States, Europe, Korea, Spain and Mexico.

In 2005, Jenni published Barking, followed in 2008 by Stride's Summer, which won an award as a short novel for teenagers.

Jenni's journey as a mother and writer would be enriched and marred from 1998, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began her healing with self-reflection and natural therapies that were successful for a time.

She was free from cancer for eight years until 2009.

Her final two years were a period of introspection and thought. She loved the mystical ponderings of those such as the Sufi poet Rumi and the Persian lyric poet Hafez, appreciating their abstract takes on God and the spirit.

After her death, Jenni's family were able to read her ponderings on life and death for the first time and her words were her final gifts of written wisdoms. One of her final poems reads:

If I noticed the warmth of the sun through the window

Or felt the cold of wattle blossom against my lips

Or kissed my husband, feeling the skin of his back under my hand

Or noticed the way the late sun glistened on the grass

Or the way new leaves sprouted from the stumps left by last summer's wildfire

Or heard how the blackbird's sweet voice filled the bottom of the garden

Would I then feel I was ready?

Ready to leave this world because I had drunk wholeheartedly of her richness

Loved her open mouthed

Drank deeply

Wept tears of unknown joy

Could I pass through that door blithely, knowing it was done? Completed?

I cannot tell, will not know, til that portal beckons me …

And even then …

Maybe not …

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