Eulogy for Patricia Diacono by Phil Diacono

Can I just start by saying what an honour it is, to be asked to give a eulogy. Some of you may recall I had the honour of giving Dad's eulogy 8 years ago. I was prepared to step back and let another one of my siblings give Mum's but they thought I'd done such a good job that they said "Don't worry, just do it again". "So I should start with 'Patricia Diacono was born in Port Said, Egypt in 1916 and was a lieutenant in the British Navy...'". "No" they said, "You have to do a fresh one", "Gees, if I'd known that ..." Anyway, here's what I've got so far:

Mum was a hard-working, resilient, devout, wise, funny, loving lady, unhindered by her truncated education.

Patricia Maria O'Leary was born at home in 1927 in Waverley in Sydney to an Irish father and a New Zealand mother of French extraction, the second youngest of eight siblings. When she was four they moved next door to her unmarried maternal uncles and aunties in Brougham St, Kings Cross. A few months later her mother tragically died and then, when she was 11, tragedy struck again: while walking her to school, her father collapsed and died. Mum and four of the kids had to move next door to number 62 to her aunties and uncles. It was a bit of a squish – in one bedroom three kids, shared beds head to tail with three aunties. Mum was one of those kids. When she was 13, her aunties pulled her out of school to look after their house. In her mid-teens Mum managed to get to night school but was pulled out of that after 9 months because her aunties said the streets weren't safe. She cared for her invalid aunty and her brothers, getting up at 5:30 in the morning to prepare breakfast for the men, stoking a fire to heat water outside in the copper, carrying bucket-loads upstairs for her brother Stan to have a bath after his day working at the foundry.

So an orphan, denied a secondary education, spending her days as a menial scrubbing floors, living in overcrowded conditions, in Sydney's red light district. What we now call "disadvantaged". What was the understandable result: crime? alcoholism? drugs? working the streets? Well, Mum fell prey to none of that despite the modern expectation that these are the inevitable result of disadvantage. "We weren't poor!" she said, "we were fed and [could rent] a house - there were some people a lot worse off than us: they had no jobs".

Her strong Catholic upbringing meant she was devout, honest, upstanding and open-minded. She was proud she'd been to the "School of Hard Knocks", she was a good judge of character and, typically Australian, had a fine-tuned BS detector. She'd come out with these wise and insightful observations; her favourite saying was "Up there for thinking, down there for dancing".

When she was 20 she met this polite, handsome man in a white naval uniform. Like the family of her best friend, Josie Camilieri, he was Maltese. Evidently he was taken aback when, on first hearing his name, Mum sang "Walter, Walter (Lead Me To The Altar)", a song made famous by Gracie Fields, who, it turns out, was born Grace Stansfield. [Hmmm, a Josie and a Stansfield were instrumental in this couple getting together – was it fate that 35 years later I'd marry a Jose Stansfield?]. So impressed was Walter Diacono, that when Pat said "Well, I'll see you later", he immediately asked "What time?"

I should note that in the late 1940s, an Anglo-Aussie girl marrying a Mediterranean man was semi-scandalous. Her older sisters nearly had a fit: "Wogs! Common!", until Mum introduced Dad to them and then they all fell in love with him.

A year later they were married and Roddy, the first of their five children was born 15 months after that (in those days the equation 15>9 was very important). Marc, Vivienne, I and Brendan followed every couple of years thereafter. So five kids by the time Mum was 32. She retained her good looks and slim figure and on meeting her, people were constantly amazed that she was a mother of five.

There were some tricky pregnancies - Marc was premature, I came out whinging for the next five years. And when Mum was pregnant with Brendan she had to go to Macquarie St to see a specialist. Being heavily pregnant, she caught a cab. Anyway, this cabbie started talking about how he owned a guesthouse at one time, and "the women they were filth"; and he was running the women down, how filthy they were, "they used to wee in the sink ... not talking about you, love, I can see you're a lady". And from the time she got in he was talking about women, how filthy they were. Mum was pretty relieved to get out of the cab at Macquarie St. Anyway, she went into the doctor's and at the end of the consultation he asked her for her urine sample he'd requested her to bring. Well, she searched everywhere but ... she reckons it must have fallen out of her bag into the taxi.

She loved us all unconditionally, kept us disciplined and did everything she could for us.

Mum bridged the gap between Australian and Mediterranean cultures effortlessly, and was as much loved by Dad's family as Dad was of hers.

With her seven siblings and Dad's six, Mum had lots of in-laws and loads of nieces and nephews and loved to see them and keep up with their news. She learned to cook pizzas (which we kids initially turned our noses up at: "Wog food!") and barbecue lamb koftas, to be eaten on Lebanese bread with tabouli and Dad's tahini (by the late 70s it had become cool to be a wog, so we happily ate those). And of course, Mum's baked macaroni, the archetypal Maltese dish, was famous down the generations. We kids were in the lucky position to experience both these cultures which have become central strands of the story of modern Australia.

Once her kids were in school, Mum was able to take up a variety of part time jobs to help make ends meet: working in a sandwich shop (where she met her longtime friend Jan), selling advertising (where she met her longtime friend Margaret) and as a dental assistant (much loved by the patients who appreciated her calming serenity - I suppose if you've kept a husband contented while keeping five kids under control, any other work is pretty much a doddle).

One of the perks of Dad's job as a travel agent was that Mum finally had a few chances to experience the glamour of overseas travel which she embraced with gusto.

Despite the opportunities denied her, Mum was a passionate believer in education. It wasn't unusual for us to spend Friday nights up at the Kings Cross library - try suggesting that to your kids these days. Mum and Dad went without, to give us kids the best education possible: we all went on to further education after secondary school.

Which, perhaps, is the origin of her famously unfunny joke: two blokes are in a pub when one says to the other "hey, that looks like the Dean of University over there". "Does it?" says the other. "Yeah, go over and ask him". So his friend goes over and asks "Hey mate, are you the Dean of the University?" but gets the answer "Get lost or I'll smash yer face in!". The friend comes back and sits down. "So" the first bloke asks "Was he?", and the second bloke says "Gee, I dunno, he never said". If you're laughing, I told it wrong, because somehow when Mum told it the punch line got lost and everyone just looked at each other. We used to fondly tease her about it.

Mum was always thrilled to meet our friends from school, Uni, Tech, work and the surf club. Her warm down-to-earth welcome was always treasured by them. Their condolences on her passing away have come flooding in.

In later years, she and Dad moved to Elanora Heights where she was equally warm and welcoming to her children's spouses, her much-loved grandchildren and, in the last few years, her delightful great-grandchildren. It is no coincidence that nearly every photo we have of Mum is her, celebrating with Dad, her family and friends - and if you look carefully at the photos, you might spot a glass of beer in her hand.

After Dad passed away in 2008, Mum moved into a lovely apartment in Dee Why and was able to continue to live independently. Towards the end, one of us kids visited her every day: Brendan would pop up and do her shopping, Marc would bring her coffee and a newspaper, Rod cooked these amazing gourmet meals, (I'd let her have a couple of my fish and chips) but I'd like to pay tribute especially to our sister Viv who has devoted the last year to Mum's care and comfort. So she was able to live in her own place until about a month ago. As her health deteriorated, we were all able to gather around and be with her, especially for her final couple of days. And despite the pain, which she described to us as "oh, not too bad" and to doctors as "oh, 10/10", she was bright and sparkling and laughing. The nurses couldn't believe she had so many visitors and that so much laughter rang out from her room.

So how do you sum up Mum? With her limited education, Mum never went on to become PM or GG or, like another lifelong supporter of the Labor movement, run for Secretary General of the UN. We, her extended family, her friends and our friends, were selfish – we managed to keep Mum all to ourselves. For that I suppose we should apologise to Australia and to the world, but I suspect we will just have to keep this, our little secret:

We knew and loved Pat Diacono, tough, hard-working, wise, funny but most of all loving.

You made us who we were and who we are. You were the sun around which the family orbited.

Bye, Mum, rest in peace.

Phil Diacono
Mon 1 August 2016

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