My grandmother has her birthday this week. This bad, nasty granddaughter is not quite sure of how old she is but it’s 93 or 94 or 95. In that vicinity. Bad granddaughter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the last 90-odd years and the things my grandmother must have experienced, how much life has changed. Also about how much time I’ve spent with her that I have straight out wasted. She has so many stories and experiences that are now locked up inside, stories that I never thought to ask about when I was growing up.
There was a routine whenever we’d visit Grandma Dulcie. The adults would sit in the dining room with coffee and biscuits while the kids would sit at the kitchen table with glasses of Coke and our own plate of biscuits. As soon as we finished, we’d race outside to build cubby houses, go to the park and pick macadamia nuts from the tree in the neighbour’s yard. We were never there for the conversations. Our parents would eventually call us and we’d emerge, sweaty and covered in dirt, for our goodbye lollies from the jar on top of the fridge.
Grandma Dulcie always had an insatiable sweet tooth. Her house was always full of soft drinks, cake, Arnott’s Assorted Creams, and the lolly jar on top of the fridge. I was the last one of the cousins to grow tall enough to reach it, despite being one of the oldest. She used to make the most incredible cakes. Once I got old enough for birthday cakes to be more about the flavour than the shape (thank you Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake book), I asked for her cheesecake every year. Her Christmas trifle is the stuff of legends. Even now, the drawers of her room in the home are filled with a stash of chocolates and she loves the occasional piece of cake or ice cream. There’s a gorgeous photo of Grandma and my cousin’s 3 year-old daughter eating ice cream cones with equal enthusiasm.
As we constantly remind ourselves, she’s doing incredibly well for someone in their mid-90s. She repeats her stories, she calls me by my mother’s or my cousin’s or my aunt’s name, each time I visit there is a look of blank confusion when I first arrive. I have to introduce myself. But despite this, she’s doing well; she asks about Singapore and about my brother in Melbourne and my parents in Brisbane. She gets frustrated when she can’t remember things but occasionally comes out with a crystal clear anecdote. Last time I was there she told me about when her mother taught her how to sew. I wish I’d taken the time when I was younger to ask about life on the farm, to ask about her childhood, to ask her to teach me how to make cheesecake.
It feels strange though, asking these personal questions of family. You feel as though you should already know, by rights of being family. This hit home on the way to visit my grandfather (on my mother’s side) in hospital over Christmas. Partner 2 asked a fairly innocuous question about Grandad’s career before he retired. I had no idea. When we got there, Partner 2 posed his question to Grandad. Grandad sat up a little taller and told us a great story about how he became a shipping engineer. Not a uni course in those days, a lot of hard work in tough conditions. It was a great story, one that I had never heard before. As the grand finale of the tale, with a segue that would put the most seasoned radio presenter to shame, the story turned into an argument about why we should get married. As a poor apprentice, he was hoping to save money by moving in with Grandma Jane who would not have a bar of it. No ring, no housing. It was mortifying and hilarious and generally pretty lovely. I wish I could have had more of those moments with Grandma Dulcie.
I won’t be able to make it back home for the celebrations but I have it on good authority that birthday plans are in place. There’ll be flowers and lavender hand creams and cake and ice cream and probably chocolates too. I’ll send a card, maybe a postcard with a nice picture of Singapore, and I’ll get some Arnott’s Assorted Creams in honour of the occasion. Happy birthday, Grandma.