My grandmother’s death
In November, my grandmother celebrated her 110th birthday. The oldest woman in Queensland, she had become increasingly frail, slipping towards death even though she surprised us each day by clinging to life. Five days before Christmas, she passed away quietly in her sleep. One moment she was here, and the next she was not. It is fragile and tissue-paper thin, this line between life and death; the smallest break and we pass from one to the other. I am writing this on the day my grandmother finally let go.
And so the planning for death, or rather, for the celebration of life, began. Early morning phone calls between my father and his brothers and sisters, scattered across the country for the holidays. A looming deadline to insert the death notice into the local newspaper before it closed for the Christmas break, the wording deliberated and gently bickered over. Unilateral agreement between the families of all of her four surviving children and a stepson was required. Why was this not done months ago, I wondered, like a newspaper obituary, pre-prepared and ready, to avoid confusion or misunderstandings in the emotional aftermath of loss? But perhaps that would have been mercenary; too much like we wished her death into being. Because for the longest while now, she has seemed almost immortal. As each Christmas arrived, as each birthday passed, we feared it would be her last. And yet her heart kept beating and her blood kept pumping. She seemed determined to outlive us all.
Five of her eight children remain alive; my oldest uncle is 90. All have families of their own, from children to great-great-grandchildren. The family tree has flourished and spread its branches around the globe. Today there will be phone calls and emails to London and to Copenhagen, to North America and to Belize. Some, the youngest ones who live far away, may never have met the matriarch of our family. But those of my generation – me and my 25 first cousins – share similar memories of this woman, our grandmother, who featured so strongly in our early lives.
Phillis Lee (nee Naylor) was born in England on November 3, 1907, and travelled with her family to Australia when she was a toddler. She spent her early life in the western suburbs of Brisbane, and her adult years in Stanthorpe on the Granite Belt, most often in the news as the coldest place in the state, home to huge granite boulders and with a history of bushrangers. The district’s apples, grapes and stone fruit – and its fine wineries – lure tourists from around the country.
As a child, my grandmother played tennis, ate kangaroo tail soup and drove a pony and sulky. As a young woman, she imported fine English china and Venetian glass. She was one of the few female automobile drivers in the 1930s, and still drove in her 80s, transporting “the old people” and delivering Meals on Wheels. At 105, she hit the ball so hard in ping-pong that she ran out of opponents at the Carramar aged care home.
She and my grandfather grew their own produce: fresh mint for sauce and jelly; an abundance of chokos, which went into everything from casseroles to apple pies. They grew peas and beans, carrots and spinach, apricots and zucchini. Her canning and bottling skills were legendary. Her pantry was filled from top to bottom with jars and tins of jellies, jams, pickles, relishes and sauces. She always had a condiment to accompany a meal. She always had a jar of something homemade to give as a gift.
She baked, too. Cakes, pies, sponges, rolls, biscuits, bread, scones and pastries. Sweet and savoury. Leading up to Christmas, her small kitchen table was laden with homemade shortbread and mince pies, with fruit cake so dense it was served in matchbox-sized slices, luscious puddings served with whipped cream and egg custard. There was never a shortage of food.
But my grandmother had lived through the Depression, and the privations of two world wars. She knew how to save. Wrapping paper was carefully removed and reused the following year. Ribbons and bits of string were wound into knots and put away for next time. Nothing was wasted.
It was not only the food that was homemade. Often her gifts were her own handicrafts, a knitted jumper, a crocheted blanket, a framed tapestry or a needlepoint cushion cover. She took her time with her craft; she was careful and attended to details. When her eyes were still good, she produced stitches so fine they were faultless.
She was my last surviving grandparent. Her husband, my grandfather, died in 1982, leaving her a widow for 35 years.
My mother’s parents died a few years ago. They, too, had taken pride in producing things with their own hands. My grandfather turned beautiful objects from wood: furniture, vases, lamps. He made a cot for my first-born; she will use it this year for her own child. My maternal grandmother cooked like there was no tomorrow; I still use her recipes, written in her sloping hand. I have whole layettes of baby clothes she knitted for my children 25 years ago: bonnets and booties, cardigans and singlets, beribboned jackets and lace-edged receiving blankets.
There is something special about that generation, something that is now lost with their passing. Something inexpressible, but to do with frugality and honesty, with love and care, with the attention that is paid to the small deeds done for those dear to us. My grandparents were of a generation who had known loss and grief on a large scale. Some of them went to war, and some of them stayed home and waited for news. They cooked on wood-burning stoves with no temperature control and ate whatever grew in their gardens. They fed the chooks and collected the still-warm eggs. They milked the cow and sat around the radio at night and escorted each other to the outside loo. They cobbled together presents made from bits and pieces, and made their own fun.
They had time. The fondest memories related to all my grandparents is that they had time. They were never too busy to talk with me, to help me, to teach me, to walk with me. They made my relationship with them a priority. They made me feel special.
And that is the great honour and privilege of grandparents. That is the reason we mourn them so when they leave us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Time to reflect". Subscribe here.