Portrait

Gathering stories to piece together a family history. By Jennifer Down.

Lorna, retired florist and grandmother

Monday, May 16, 2016, at 18:51

Hi Darling Girl. Have just finished Helen Garner. Absolutely loved it. Didn’t want it to finish. Will be going to the library to hunt out more of her work. Would love to be able to just sit and “chat” with her – she sounds a lovely lady. Married three times so there’s a story there. Luv U Nan.

 

Lorna is 81, retired florist, my maternal grandmother. Fond of cappuccinos; emojis; her rescue dog Rosie, a surprise from my aunt. Height: about 160 centimetres. Complexion: olive. Eyes: grey, I think.

This began as a comical exercise based on the text messages we exchange from time to time. But our text messages, like any other words, do not exist in a vacuum. In the end, I phoned to hear the stories I’ve heard time and again. I ought to be able to write them from memory, but the reliable narrator does not exist in our family. Veracity in storytelling has never been our strong suit. It’s not malicious, or even intentional: the lore simply shifts with time, speaker, audience. Whenever another detail is introduced, or changes, or disappears, I think of the way journalist Sarah Koenig, in the podcast Serial, described trying to chart a time line of seemingly inconsequential events 20 years later as “like trying to plot the coordinates of [a] dream”.

How to package intergenerational trauma in neat, newspaper-sized format? How to navigate the complexity of filial relationships? How to summarise a story that is in my marrow, but not wholly mine to tell? I decide it’s a matter of what to hold back; what to leave out.

 

Monday, July 3, 2017 at 16:12

Hi my lovely [heart-eyes emoji]. Yes have a new bed buddy. We are still getting acquainted. Not completely sure I really wanted a dawg but here she is. It’s like having a small child following me around. Doesn’t know its name, neither do people who were fostering her. Called her Rosie, but she’s not a Rosie??? [emoji with sloping, uncertain mouth] Love Nan.

 

I could begin here. When I was small, three or so, my mother worked in Dandenong. Early in the morning she dropped me off at her parents’ in Upper Beaconsfield, in the foothills of the mountains, before driving to work. Nan and Pa had sprawling paddocks, a labrador, and a cat named Cinders who was rescued in the Ash Wednesday bushfires, in which their house also burned. My childhood was idyllic. With Pa, I hammered and sawed, walked scrubby bush trails, learnt the names of flowers and trees. With Nan, I baked cakes, wrote stories, made craft from things in her “flower room”, where she conducted her florist business.

They separated when I was five. They still seemed, to me, like a married couple. Sometimes they accompanied us on family holidays to the beach, though more often it was only Pa in the back seat with my sister and me, entertaining us for hours. The act of separation, as told by Nan, is strange and sad. “When I think back, he was suffering depression, but he wouldn’t ever admit it. He’d come have dinner a couple of nights a week. He’d stay over. Then it got to the stage where he’d stay for nearly a week, and I was falling back into the same situation as before.”

 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017 at 09:26

Mornin my lovely. I’m glad you enjoy the workplace environment. Makes a difference of going every day!! My bed buddy has settled in “nicely”, thank you. Think we’re two loose tarts together. Vet thinks she is young, bout 2-3 years, and just had a litter. Bit sad really. Love you and take care. “The big tart”??

 

I could begin, like a therapist might, with childhood. She was raised by her father and grandmother. Nan’s mother left the house after a fight. When she returned, the locks had been changed. Again, there have been different versions of this story: her mother left or was sent away.

Nan says her mother was “cast adrift”. She saw her mother twice a year. “They used to put me on the tram at Preston by myself, and I’d go through Thornbury, Collingwood, all the way to her flat in St Kilda. She’d have me for the day, then send me back.”

She was four, five years old. The final time, her mother was surrounded by suitcases. “She was shifting to another flat, but I was too little to work that out. She didn’t put me on the tram that night. She kept me. I remember vividly. There were police, screaming out that they’d found me. They took me home. I was five. That was the end.”

She saw her mother once more. Nan was 21, working for the florist on the concourse of Spencer Street station, where she’d been employed since leaving school.

She read of her mother’s death in the newspaper by accident. Missed the funeral by a day. Not having reconciled with her is a great regret.

 

Sunday, September 24, 2017 at 13:23

Hi Jenn. Thank you once again for my gift. I remember the day that photo was taken. It was in Bendigo. I had on a tartan skirt (Fletcher Jones) courtesy of (baby bonus) £10. The years pass so quickly. Make it all count. Love Nan xx00 [red broken heart emoji]

 

I call her Nan because that was what she chose for herself when my mother asked, almost 30 years ago. Is it strange that she would adopt the same name as the one she called her grandmother all those years – lonely childhood through to middle age? “I know that my grandmother loved me, but she was never a demonstrative person. She never put her arms around me.”

I remember being a child, curling against Nan in bed on cold mornings. Once I asked my mother what she would like to be called, were she ever to become a grandmother. She shrugged. “Whatever they want,” she said. “Liz. Dickhead. I don’t care.”

If the three of us were to stand shoulder to shoulder according to age, we would make a mountain, Nan and I both short, my mother tall and lean between us.

 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 at 7:03

Mornin!! my lovely. The music festival sounds great. (Keep yourself nice and keep your hat on.) RING at any time. Home now, expecting a call between 5.15 and 5.45, so any time around those times that is convenient to you [emoji with sunglasses] love xx

 

Even last night, when we talked, I learnt new things.
“I used to do all the hotel work in Melbourne,” she said. “That’s how I got to do the flowers for Elizabeth Taylor. She was staying at the Menzies, which is now the Rialto. They wanted flowers in her room and a bouquet.”

I didn’t know that, I exclaim. Oh, yeah, she says. Flowers for Ava Gardner. Gregory Peck. Johnnie Ray.

 

I swear I’ve never heard any of this.

And so I begin. Over and again. Plotting the coordinates of a dream.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Dream catching". Subscribe here.

Jennifer Down
is the author of Our Magic Hour and the forthcoming Pulse Points.