We met at a cafe at Summer Hill. I immediately saw this person half my age: beautifully dressed, beautifully made up. We had a hilarious lunch. She was a kindred spirit. Absolutely. Very warm; a good face. She doesn’t chatter, chatter, chatter. When she talks, she talks sense. Interesting. Succinct. Opinions that you’re eager to hear and talk about. She’s very beautiful, which helps. It shouldn’t, but it does.
“When she moved to Sydney, people kept asking her for cooking tips. I ran free cooking demonstrations at David Jones for 11 years.”
I was delighted, because I hadn’t been at all sure; she could have been a very difficult person to talk to. I don’t know very much about her career or life yet – I’m dying to know! I expect very interesting jobs. She’s lived all over the world: in America for years, in Perth; there are children and grandchildren. And she was the letter-writer; there’s no third Rosemary Penman.
She did say that when she moved to Sydney in 1996, people kept asking her for cooking tips. I ran free cooking demonstrations at David Jones every Thursday lunchtime for 11 years: “Menu on the Run”. About 100 people would come, we had the most awful sound system, and we gave tastes to everyone. We did a Christmas coffee-table book, and a cookbook to raise money for AIDS. So that’s what people remembered, I suppose.
She’s the only other Penman I’ve ever met. Both of us married Penmans: her husband Andrew’s grandfather, and my once-husband’s father, were brothers. Now Andrew’s very interested in his family tree; he and Katie gossip endlessly about family connections. Thanks to COVID, Rosemary and I have barely been able to see each other. We did have a very nice cocktail at their house, then Sunday lunch here, and we’ve been exchanging texts.
She’s an avid reader, and a discriminating one, so she has supplied me with some books, which I haven’t read. She’s a great music person – she works as an usher at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place – and I am tone-deaf. But we could just talk for hours. I’m longing for COVID to finish so I can see her again.
ROSEMARY, AGED 70: I received this lovely letter, with the line: “If you would rather not meet, just forget it.” I loved that: I thought, “You’ve got a bit of zing about you.” It took me a couple of months to get in touch, but all the time I was thinking, “Is this the woman who used to plague me when we first moved to Sydney in 1996?” So many people, I can’t tell you, used to tell me I was this great foodie and I worked at David Jones. I used to say, “No, no, no!” For some reason it really annoyed me: “I’ve just arrived, don’t tell me I’m somebody else!”
When I called her, there was an immediate rapport. She’s a straight shooter, very gracious, but no fool. So I asked her and her daughter Katie to lunch. I remember going to the cafe that morning and asking for that table, under the tree, not inside, not too close to other people; telling this poor young waitress how important it was!
Rosemary was very dignified, with beautiful hair. Very sharp. We couldn’t stop smiling – it was just so lovely. We were all falling over ourselves talking. And I’d been worrying it would be like some dead dull blind date.
A little while later they came here. I thought about a meal, but then I thought, “No, I’ll make it more casual: not quite afternoon tea; could lead into wine.” So we had a cup of tea and cake, then about an hour in I said, “Would you like a glass of wine?”, and she said, “Ooh, yes please.”
There’s something about her that’s totally charming. She lives with Katie, who’s also wonderful, in this lovely house in Marrickville, with three dogs, several cats, a parrot and one of her grandchildren, Anna-Wili Highfield, the sculptor, and her two children – four generations. They’re building a house for Anna-Wili out the back, and she’s planning a big horse sculpture in the garden which will stick up above the wall. It’s not dull! And Rosemary holds her own. She doesn’t talk all the time, but when she does everyone listens.
Meeting her has provided a new family connection. She was only married 10 years; she never married again; Katie’s her only child. She’s close to her side of the family, but she hasn’t had any Penman relations till now.
Katie and [my husband] Andrew share the same great-grandfather; they’re second cousins. That’s very important to them all. And for me – finding new friends is wonderful. Sydney’s a tough place to make friends. It’s a bastard of a place. I mean, it’s home and I love it and I have fantastic friends. But you’d have parties, and people would send messages 20 minutes before, “Oh, sorry, can’t come.” You’d never do that anywhere else.
I want to be like Rosemary when I’m her age. I’ve always said I’m happy to go at 85, but now that’s only 15 years away! I know it’s COVID, and we’ve got to wait, and she is 93. As she said to me, “They’ve got me wrapped in cotton wool.” But I want to see her so much. As we keep saying, it’s like we’ve stumbled across treasure.
Amanda Hooton is a senior writer with Good Weekend.