memories ....

Deb Macfarlane remembers Meredith Borthwick

I would like to write something about Meredith Borthwick, who was a good friend of mine at school. I still deeply regret that I did not know of her illness and did not see her before she died.

I first met Meredith at Griffith Primary. I have a feeling she wasn’t there in the earliest years – her father, who was in Foreign Affairs, was probably on a posting somewhere. Meredith came from a large family of nine children, which I thought was a little odd, as the Borthwicks were not Catholic but High Church of England. The only other non Catholics I knew with a lot of children were the Burns, and they only had five. I thought it was pretty nice to have so many brothers and sisters and her parents were pretty relaxed and easy-going for those days. In third grade, I remember going to a terrific birthday party at her place where one of the party games was putting a fishing line outside a window and calling on a magic fish to put a present on the other end of the line. A beautiful toy was attached to the line I dropped. Although some of the other children said someone in the family was attaching these presents outside the window, I thought it likely that magical intervention was the correct explanation, as her father had told us. Meredith thought so too.

Without being eccentric, opinionated or arrogant, Meredith was very much her own person, always original in her approach to everything, even in adolescence when most would much rather conform to group norms. She was also an amazing speller and always topped the class.  She would have been a good candidate for that famous spelling competition in the United States.

In about fourth grade Meredith’s father was posted to Thailand, and I didn’t see her again until she reappeared at Telopea in second form four years later.  Unlike most students whose parents went overseas, she had not gone to an international school in Thailand. Instead she attended a local school where she learnt to speak, read and write in Thai, the literary form of which I seem to remember she said was not so dissimilar from Sanskrit, a subject she later studied at Melbourne University.  Such intimate contact with another culture at an impressionable age meant that Meredith had permanently taken on many of the expressions and mannerisms of the Thai children she had mixed with.  This often gave her a distinctly exotic look, accentuated by her dark hair and eyes.

What was even more exciting to a distinctly Australia-bound child, was that her parents had brought back a Thai cook and housekeeper, and had a table with two round bits in the middle which turned in order to facilitate the distribution of food to the multitudes present at each meal (in addition to the family of 11 and the two domestic help, there were always lots of the children’s friends present at mealtimes). Hearing Meredith speak in Thai to the Thai nationals was a terrific thrill. Her face took on a completely different appearance when she spoke in this other enthralling language. She also wrote their strange script beautifully, while her handwriting in English, fallen into disuse during the four years she was in Thailand, remained a little childish. This also added to the sense of the exotic which always surrounded Meredith for me.

As many of us did, I really loved Meredith for her intelligence, her kindness, her non-judgmental nature, her total absence of adolescent malice and despite a rather serious nature, her sense of fun.  She was in a group of 8-10 girls, including also Moira Scollay, Christine Harris, Bridget Whitelaw, Kaye Hargreaves and I, who would have lunch outside the sewing rooms every day, gossiping largely about boys, teachers and other girls and occasionally schoolwork.

When we left school, Meredith and I both went to Melbourne, Meredith to Melbourne University and I to Monash.  I bumped into her a few times over the years, but always knew about her life because of my mother’s connections with the family. Thanks to her, I knew that Meredith was doing very well in her career, a fact that did not surprise me at all.  Like Moira, her intelligence was not only marked, her people skills were well developed. However, Mum had been away when Meredith died, and I only found out some months later. It was pretty devastating to know that one of the people who light up the world, warm and talented, with so much yet to give, had gone forever. I was glad that she had experienced the things that really matter in life – loving parents and brothers and sisters, a happy marriage, children and an interesting career – but it must have been very hard to leave all that behind.

That sense of sorrow came back to me quite sharply at the reunion. Meredith - and Bridget too - were so much part of my life at school that I felt their absence keenly.  I thought of all the years they had missed out on.  It would have been so wonderful to have them both there.


Deb Macfarlane, November 2011


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