In just over a month my Grandmother turns 100. It’s not going to be one of those birthday parties where the news reporters come around and the birthday girl gives a chirpy interview about what she did that made her live so long, in fact we’re not completely sure that she’ll make it to the line, but she’s held on this long by force of will so if it’s important to her to turn 100 I’m pretty sure she’ll do it.
Granny is one of the strongest people I know. She’s been an amazing influence on my life and I’m so grateful for her.
One of the stories told by the family is about when Granny decided she wanted to learn to drive. She didn’t ask anyone permission, she learned in secret, and presented Grandad with the fait accompli by stating that she was going to pick up one of the children from kindergarten.
Not that she drove particularly well, but that independence was incredibly important to her and very difficult to give up as she aged.
Granny had five children. Two planned children (David and Gill), then my Dad (John) was the first ‘accident’. Wendy came along by accident quite a bit later and Lil came to keep Wendy company. When I asked Granny how many children she thought was a good number she said ‘two’. Hilarious. She was not the ‘earth mother’ type but she was totally devoted to her family.
Granny and Grandad emigrated to Australia when Dad was 3. They lived in very cramped quarters with Granny’s brother for a while and then got their own housing department house at Warrane, where they started by furnishing the house with packing boxes until they could afford something better. They really started life here with nothing.
It must have been the Warrane house that I stayed in as a baby when my own parents went overseas for a while. I feel like Granny and I have a special bond because of that. But I’m pretty sure that every single one of Granny’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel like they have a special bond with her. She’s good like that.
One of my earliest memories (quite a bit later than babyhood) is of staying overnight in the Warrane house. I remember that if we put our dressing gowns at the foot of the bed and went to sleep, we would find a lollipop in the pocket as we awoke. Nothing like bribery to get your grandchildren to go to sleep quickly!
Granny taught Sunday School at St Phillips and I remember working the bar at the local RSL for one of my casual jobs during high school where my trainer remembered Granny very well from her Sunday School classes. Granny had made quite an impression. She didn’t care about where people were from. She cared about people. She was out to share God with everyone.
Granny looked after her ailing mother for years, and shortly after her mother passed away, Grandad also passed away. While preaching. At the church I attend now. It’s a great story. But Granny was not impressed.
I joke about it, but it was quite serious, Granny did not cope and had a mental breakdown. Of course, I didn’t know about it, I was still very young at this stage, but the breakdown changed Granny’s life. She started to limit herself. She stopped going out so much, stopped seeing most of her friends, and totally dedicated her life to her family.
I remember going to visit and staying overnight in the end bedroom, the sewing room. In the bedroom and in the hallway were bookshelves and my love of Gorgette Heyer was built from those books. Granny taught me to sew and she taught me to knit. I do neither of those well, but what I know I learned from Granny. She sewed all her own clothes and she was one of those knitters that can do it without thinking, while carrying on a conversation. She knitted for all of us and I also remember later in her life that she knitted a plethora of baby blankets and little hats and jackets for a local charity.
We moved away to Canberra for a few years and when we’d come back for holidays we would do two things: visit Nanny for afternoon tea, and visit Granny for dinner. We weren’t really home until those were complete. My younger sister knew that Nanny had the tic tacs but Granny had the lollies. The end of every visit to Granny would involve her going to the pantry and pulling out a jar of Columbines or Fantails and allowing each person ‘just one’.
When we moved back to Hobart every Monday would involve a roast dinner at Granny’s place. How she got her potatoes that crispy on the outside and fluffy inside I will never know. I’ve tried to replicate it, believe me.
We would start by heading to her West Hobart home straight from school. Granny would let us watch afternoon TV – something we never did at home. Our memories of Captain Planet and Round the Twist are solely due to her largesse. Or we’d sit at the organ in the corner with headphones on and bash away – no-one could hear the music except the child with the headphones, but everyone could hear the clicking of the keys and the pounding of the foot pedals. We were all given a small glass of sherry before the meal, then we would squeeze ourselves around the table in her tiny kitchen, sitting on chairs and small stools. Once Moz and I were an item he would come too making seven around the table. The roast consumed, we would finish with peaches and ice-cream and ice magic. My sister would have the peaches separate from the ice-cream. Either consecutively or in separate bowls. I also have a memory of my brother accidentally throwing beetroot at me across a snow white table cloth. It must have been a lunch visit with buttered bread (cut into quarters), salad, and spam. Yes, spam. And meat paste too. All things I only ate at Granny’s.
We ate properly with the proper accoutrements. Even when we were staying over and eating dinner in front of the TV we would eat off tray tables and use linen napkins and have a bread and butter plate on the side of our dinner plate. While Nanny would watch Wheel of Fortune over dinner, Granny would watch Sale of the Century. It really separated them in my mind.
Granny’s kitchen wasn’t flash, and after dinner us children or our parents would squeeze around the tiny corner sink and wash up the dishes by hand.
As far as I can remember I was the first grandchild to get married. Granny gave me her grandmother’s wedding ring to use as my own. A blessing I don’t feel I deserve.
Granny revelled in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All five of her children had married and had two or three kids of their own, and many of us grandchildren produced offspring as well. Each baby that came along gave her a new lease of life.
Life wasn’t all wonderful though. We all had a great shock when Wendy saved two children from drowning and she herself died in the process. She gave her life for others all through her life and she gave her life at the end. Granny told me she wasn’t supposed to outlive her children. She was devastated. But very proud to go to Government House for the awarding of a posthumous bravery medal.
There were other struggles too. I won’t go into them all here.
I remember having Granny for a meal at our house. She and Lil came over and we had made a tuna casserole with pasta. Oh dear, I should have stuck to roasts. Lil told me afterwards that Granny didn’t eat pasta – I guess while it was a staple for us, it was a foreign food to her. Not that she was a stranger to strange food – during the war she had eaten whale meat. She told me it looked like steak but tasted like fish. I really don’t need to experience that for myself.
And making a cup of tea for Granny was also scary. The tea had to be served in a cup and saucer, with exactly the right amount of milk. And while we were allowed to put the sugar in, the stirring was for Granny to do. If we didn’t do it right she would send it back and we would have to start again.
As Granny grew older her world shrank until it was completely contained in her West Hobart house, and the mental illness flared again. All of the children and grandchildren would visit whenever we could but we could often hear her talking, no, arguing with herself as we let ourselves in, and while we chose to laugh and love, we knew something would have to be done. Granny had not seen a doctor in thirty years, and no dentists either. She just wouldn’t go. She must have been in a lot of pain but she didn’t let that show to us. She just kept going. Her will power was amazing. She was existing on cups of tea and sweet biscuits. All the meals that were made for her by family were stored in her chest freezer and never eaten.
It had to end of course. And it ended in style. My Dad, and Lil, and the mental health authorities, and the ambulance, and the police were required to get her out of the house and into hospital for treatment. But once she was getting the right medication and had moved into a lovely nursing home her life got significantly better. She had people to talk to again, things to keep her occupied, concerts and dinners and of course the beloved family came and visited.
I have always admired Granny’s great strength. Even when she was pushing hard against something that would do her good I would be just so proud of the strong woman that she was and is. She knew what was important to her and she stood up for those things. She loved her family with her whole life. Every part of her. She shared everything that she had. Her food, her house, her books, her space, her wisdom, her knowledge, all that she had she gave away.
Granny loves Jesus. She has tried to live according to his example. She knows where she’s going. And he will stand to welcome her with a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’
I only hope that I hold to her example however long my life will be.
Edit: My beloved Granny passed away 12 hours after I wrote this. I was privileged to be there as she passed and I look forward to seeing her in heaven.