A couple of weeks ago I visited my grandmother Mamie in her bright room at a nursing home near Newcastle. She was bedridden after a stroke six months ago. Sitting up in bed with her hair freshly washed and bouffant, she asked me to open the curtains so she could look out onto a garden as she dozed. That afternoon, with my mum, uncle and two aunts, we sat around her chatting. I stroked her hair, held her hand and cleaned her nails for her. As we all finally left for the afternoon, she said: “Abyssinia Samoa”. I didn’t understand at first, but mum translated the 1940s-style play on words for me as “I’ll be seeing you some more”. As I left the room I looked back in to see the others saying goodbye and, with her face left almost expressionless by the effects of the stroke, her eyes twinkled back at them.
My final visit to her perfectly summed up the Mamie I loved and the woman I hope to emulate.
Her shiny ebony hair dotted with a trim of bright silver was the final hint of her glamour. I never thought she dressed like an old woman; she wore bright blouses, red lipstick and Chanel perfume. She would wear beautiful, delicate rings on her olive-skinned hands.
Her request to open the curtains to look at the garden was kind of symbolic. She managed to take pleasure in the smallest of things and was always sunny and positive. Mamie would often loudly give thanks for everything around her – the music, the view, a vase of flowers, a friend who had sent her a card, a good article in the paper, an excellent cup of tea, a delicious chocolate.
Her silly joke to me was also pretty typical. She had a cheeky sense of humour and would have a real belly laugh at jokes, with her head tilted right back and her hands gripping the couch cushions. When she got a bit tipsy from her nightly scotch or a couple of glasses of wine, her cheeks would go red and the jokes would get as close to dirty as she could muster.
Her twinkling eyes were something she saved for people she loved. She would twinkle for her children, her grandchildren, her beloved sisters, her friends and, in the end, her loyal carers, and even her pharmacist. She had a habit of referring to everyday people as “my friend” because she was social butterfly, constantly seeking out good company. Everyone who ever got to know her well got the privilege of her twinkle.
Even though that afternoon was my final moment with her, I will also always remember the years when she was able to play with us in the surf, climb rocks, collect shells, indulge herself and us at the David Jones Food Hall or makeup department, take us to concerts at the Opera House, dance around the house to our choice of music, play imaginary games with us and chat for hours on the phone, often about her world travels and childhood.
Lots of people look underwhelmed when you say you’ve lost a grandparent. For some, I think it goes hand in hand with “I have a cold” or “the dog ate my homework”. But my sisters and I were fortunate enough to build real, loving, long-lasting relationships with each of our grandparents to the point where I felt they were an extra set of parents.
I’m not sure I’m doing Mamie justice. I think my sister Julia did it much better, so did my sister Mary.