It was not until Grandma died that I realised she was Scottish. It was, apparently, clear from her brogue. She migrated aged 13, when speech patterns are already set. To me, it was just Granny’s familiar voice, and there was nothing foreign to it.
And it was not until some years after she died I understood that, in so many ways, she embodied the Scottish stereotype: the ingrained thrift, the refusal to indulge in the drama of the cancer that she battled privately for years and that eventually took her.
When my mother told Grandma’s closest friends she had died of cancer, they refused to believe it. “Nonsense,” said one of her book club buddies. “She’s never been sick in her life.”
Grandma left specific instructions for what her husband, who was by then slipping in and out of dementia, should be told of her departure. “Tell him I’ve gone back to Scotland,” she told my mother, apparently assuming this would hurt him less than the truth. During more than 60 years in Australia, she had not once returned to Scotland.
I did not hear Grandma give this instruction to my mother but perhaps it was during our last visit to her in hospital. Her skin was grey, her cheeks were concave, her hair was wispy and she wore her cotton nightie. Until then, she had always pretended for us children that she was still in control, but this time she looked hollow and wasted. Her determined character seemed to have deserted her, leaving only her tiny and shrinking frame. As a pre-teen, I was already taller.
I was bursting with news: I’d been made captain of my small primary school and thought this should impress her. Her response when I told her might seem harsh, but I loved it because it was the grandma I knew. Her cheeks regained their shape, when she put her dentures in to congratulate me in her own unsentimental way. “Well, you’re going to have to pull up your socks then, aren’t you?” she said. And those are the last words I remember her saying to me.
Then Mum sent us to watch cartoons in the hospital lounge, which I guess is when Grandma, contemplating her imminent departure, may have proposed the return-to-Scotland scheme for explaining her absence to her husband of almost 50 years.
It was a dying wish that my mother and her sister chose not to honour. Granny’s sendoff was a clinical affair, at Cannon & Cripps funeral parlour, attended only by her two daughters and their families. I remember feeling confused when the minister recited platitudes that bore no relation to Grandma. “You can remember Grandma’s cuddles,” he said. She was not a cuddly grandma. Then I felt sorry for the minister, who had to try to say something meaningful about someone he did not know and would never know.
There was no wake, but after the funeral my mum, my aunt and I went to see Grandpa at the nursing home where he had been gradually losing his marbles for the past few years. When we arrived at the euphemistically named Sunset Home, the nurse who greeted us was in a bit of a tizz. “He knows something’s up,” she said. “He’s not himself.” The matron confirmed he had been upset for much of the morning, even though he had not been told of his wife’s death. When we got to his room, I sat by his bed, stroking the sun-mottled skin on his hand, the hand of an accountant but also the hand of a golfer and keen bodysurfer. Standing at the end of the bed, my mother gently broached the subject. “Mum’s been sick,” she said.
“Oh, thank God,” said Grandpa in a rush of relief. “I thought she had died.” Somehow, he knew. And when it was confirmed, there were tears, on and off, for the next hour. To see the two of them together in life, you would not have suspected this attachment, this love. Towards their end, I remember her nagging him while force-feeding him fruit salad that invariably stuck in his moustache, to be wiped off on the next grandchild who leant in for the obligatory kiss. Theirs seemed a gruff relationship, based on years of duty, badgering and mutual understanding, rather than overt affection.
But he was unmoored without her. I had seen Grandpa grow more childlike as successive strokes and encroaching senility wore away at his once-sharp wit. That afternoon, I felt almost as if I were comforting a younger child who had lost his mother. He veered between tears of what-am-I-going-to-do woe and dry-eyed discussion about the new car that his half-brother Bill was driving, or might have been driving at some point in Grandpa’s memory.
A few months later, his sun had set at Sunset Home and we were back at Cannon & Cripps for his funeral. When my mother went to arrange it, she had been made an offer that would have pleased Grandma greatly. “If it’s the second funeral in six months, you get a discount,” the funeral director said, prompting the family in-joke that nobody should tell the remaining grandma of this markdown for multiple deaths.
Ignorant of the savings on offer for a timely departure, my paternal grandma lived to 102 and was sent off with a big celebration that could not have been more different to the impersonal ceremonies at Cannon & Cripps. At that funeral parlour, I remember watching my maternal grandma’s coffin, a rather plain and budget model, as she would have wished, disappear on a conveyor belt behind the curtain, to the piped strains of “Amazing Grace”. Her name was Grace, but she would never have claimed to be amazing.
She was amazing, though, in her own way. And it’s only since she died that I’ve learnt more about her life. Her father was the gatekeeper to a manor house in Scotland and was the son of a servant. Family legend has it he was encouraged to emigrate with his wife and young daughter as his uncanny resemblance to the older laird was raising awkward questions about past liaisons and future claims. After boarding school in north Queensland, Grace was one of the first students from her girls’ school to attend the University of Queensland.
She kept some contacts in north Queensland and later dabbled in journalism, writing a “southern letter” for the North Queensland Register for more than 30 years. Apparently, she relied heavily on one very good source. There was one dress shop that the dames of the north would always frequent on trips to Brisbane and the sisters who ran it fed Grace gossip about what frocks the ladies had purchased and where they planned to wear them.
These stories make me wish I had known her when I was old enough to appreciate her as more than just a frequent babysitter. There were also the tragedies that she never dwelt on, and perhaps never really knew how to deal with: the stillbirth, the unexpected death of an adult son. Like her cancer, these hardships were apparently all but ignored. She just pulled up her socks and carried on. When I knew her, minding the grandchildren was her focus and she would always be there at the school gate for pick-up. Until one day, she wasn’t. And soon, we were visiting her in hospital and farewelling her at Cannon & Cripps. That did not feel like a real farewell, though. Perhaps that’s why, all these years later, I’m writing this.
Grandpa’s name lives on in the small accounting firm he started. It’s probably on a plaque somewhere. A few decades after you died, Grandma, there’s nary a physical trace left of you. I don’t have a keepsake, not even a photo. I don’t know where they took your ashes. You weren’t sentimental like that. Still, I do remember you. And sometimes I see echoes of you in my mother’s devotion to my children.
You were a big part of my childhood. You encouraged me to write, which I still do. You also tried to teach me to knit, which I don’t. You supervised many hours of colouring-in, telling me repeatedly to “stay between the lines”. Often, in life, I stray beyond them. Thankfully, you never tried to teach me to cook: I’m being charitable when I say it was not one of your strengths. You were not particularly cuddly, but yours was a solid Scottish love. I’ve since visited the fishing village of your birth and found someone who knew you as a child and showed me the manor and the gatekeeper’s cottage, of similar size to your little blond brick residential unit at Sunset Home.
And when I was there in the village of Pittenweem, I enjoyed the thought that maybe we hadn’t left you in your cheap coffin at Cannon & Cripps. Maybe you had, indeed, just gone back to Scotland.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Granny’s home". Subscribe here.