Last night my grandmother, Isobel Preston, passed away, age 93. She had a sudden fall in the early hours of the morning, or perhaps late the night before, and despite being found sometime later (she’d been fiercely independent and still lived by herself) and taken to hospital, she died early evening.
She was the only grandparent I knew. I don’t have any memory of my father’s parents at all, and her husband died when I was only 1 or so. Many kids I knew had both ‘nans’ and ‘pops’. I recall the first time I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with all four of Charlie’s (ostensibly bedridden) grandparents living in the same house, in the same bed, and thinking, weird. Four grandparents, I thought. Grandfathers. Odd stuff.
To me there was and only would be nanna.
I suspect nanna itself came from the Australian integration of Scottish heritage; she was, before marriage, a Macdonald – there’s no coincidence in that being my middle name. Despite being teased at times mercilessly at primary school for having a middle name of Macdonald (yes, you little jerks, I know how to sing Old Macdonald Had a Farm), I’ve always been proud of that middle name. My initials aren’t PdG, they’re PMdG, and that M goes everywhere with me.
Widowed at a relatively early age, my grandmother seemingly left that part of her life behind, and eventually moved to Parkes, where so many of the rest of my family ended up, us included.
She was always a fixture of my life – at least, until I moved away for University, and subsequently, work. From that point the times I saw her grew fewer as my trips back to Parkes reduced. For the last six months I’d been thinking I should get out and see her again soon. But there was always more time to do it later, or so I thought.
As an atheist, I’m of the opinion that what we leave behind of ourselves is the memories others have of us, and I have overwhelmingly good memories of my grandmother.
…of the four or more hours I followed her around in a department store while she couldn’t decide whether she should or shouldn’t buy one blouse. At the time as a bored little boy I found it intensely irritating; for years though it’s been something I’ve thought of every time I’ve felt indecisive in a store.
…of the time I stayed at her house for a few days not long after receiving a pair of roller-skates for christmas. I think I drove her half mad, skating round and around her kitchen table on the linoleum.
…of her pianola; she didn’t play, it was an instrument she’d bought for her children to learn to play on, but it also had actual rolls of music, and very, very occasionally as a treat we’d be allowed to carefully put one of those rolls in, pump the pedals and watch and hear the piano play itself.
…of the family jokes that the only wedding photos she didn’t have sitting on the piano were of the children who didn’t get divorced.
…of all my life hearing her call my father that bloody bugger Guisey.
…of peaches or pears; she’d start so many stories with a totally unrelated statement. She could be telling you about an alien invasion she witnessed that happened after she left the supermarket, and she’d suddenly stop telling the story when she couldn’t quite remember if she’d gone in to buy a tin of pears or a tin of peaches, and she wouldn’t go back to the story until she remembered. If I start getting hung up on something that’s not specific to what I need to do, I’ll often end up thinking peaches or pears and get on with it.
…of her helping us out when my mother had a terrible hospital experience when I was still quite young. At most, no more than 8, and likely a lot younger. How she told mum later how aghast she was at the way my father and brother mercilessly tormented me for fun. She was my staunchest defender, and saw it for what it was.
…of her christmas tipples … she was never a drinker, but for my early years at least christmas day meant that nanna would have a glass or two of Creme de Menthe and lemonade.
…of her splashing around in a pool with her grandchildren. She was a water baby through and through. She loved the pool, she loved the freedom of water, and she loved being surrounded by her young grandchildren in the pool.
…of her garden that she worked on so devotedly. Every trip to nanna’s was accompanied by a slow walk around the garden as she pointed out the flowers and vegetables she’d been growing and of the victories she’d experienced against nefarious bugs or nearby pets who thought her garden was a convenient toilet.
…of her mulberry tree, a huge entity she’d grown from a clipping taken from the side of the road many decades before. With her lavish attention it spread its shade over almost a third of her yard, and the yearly crop was bountiful. I experienced many purple fingers, purple cheeks and a full belly thanks to that mulberry tree.
…of her box brownie camera, and the photos she’d take of us. She’d hold the camera low and squint as she stared down into it, directing us to be still, often for minutes at a time.
…of her beautiful embroidered tablecloths. Her attention to detail was so exquisite that when she was younger and her eyesight was better, people would often use them upside down, not being able to tell the difference between top and bottom. But she could, and would invariably point out the transgression in horror if she visited.
…of her being harassed week after week by Seventh Day Adventist door knockers who insisted that they had the good word for her. She was an atheist through and through herself, having no time for religion, and certainly not for kookie religions like that. It was always on a Sunday morning, the one morning she’d allow herself to sleep in. After weeks of trying to politely tell them she didn’t want them coming back, she finally told them she’d leave them sopping wet if they came back another time. Sure enough when they knocked on the door the following Sunday, she opened it and threw a bucket of ice cold water all over them. I remember us all falling around laughing hysterically to her description of two bedraggled women and one very unhappy little girl – none of whom ever knocked on her door again.
…of a roll-up wooden print of her favourite football team, the St George Dragons, that hung in her kitchen. On the other side was a print of The Roosters, the Eastern Suburbs football team that my mother barracked for. It was a running joke that whenever I visited I’d find a quiet time to flip the print over.
…of her jams … tomato jam, mulberry jam, gooseberry jam, apricot jam and so many other jams. During jam making season you could never walk out of her house without an arm-full of assorted jams. Everyone in the family fought over her gooseberry jam, but even after I went to University she made sure to save me a jar, even a small one. She knew how much I loved it.
…of her relishes and chutneys – in just as many varieties as her jams, if not more. While she loathed relish herself, she was masterful in her production of it: her tomato relish was sought by not just the family, but vast numbers of family friends who had been introduced to it at times. You might leave the house with an arm-full of jams, but for the relishes and chutneys you’d need an entire box.
…of bingo … school holidays when I was younger was spent sitting beside her, quiet as a mouse while she played bingo. And boy could she shout Bingo loud and clear when she needed to. If you’d let yourself get distracted, you’d half jump out of your skin.
…even the recently acquired memories; discovering that she’d forgotten my niece’s birthday three years running, then one year when she finally remembered, got a bit distracted or dotty and slipped her water bill in with the birthday card rather than the normal $10 or $20 she’d put into a card.
…of hearing that at age 90 she’d wanted to start giving blood, and being bitterly disappointed that she couldn’t. Then wanting to become an organ donor, and being even more disappointed that she couldn’t. Then having someone jokingly suggest she donate her body to science and she did.
So many memories, too many to list. When those around us pass, what we have left are our memories, and with those memories we carry those we love with us regardless of whether they’re a body in the ground, ashes in an urn, or as it turns out, being studied for medical science.
Vale Isobel Preston, missed but never forgotten.