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Image by Kira auf der Heide

Something New (Nana's Gifts)

(c) Linda Hutchison January 2018

I have very fond memories of my Nana, mum’s mother, the grandparent to whom we were the closest, and who visited every Saturday for a catch up. She would walk from her house, catch the bus from Canterbury Road, walk to our place from the Mt Waverley shops, and then we would drive her home at the end of the day. Between her arrival and her departure, she’d recount, in great detail, everything she’d done during the week. Her husband, my grandfather, had died a week before I was born, and she had gradually cut herself off from her friends until her only contacts seemed to be the neighbours. Therefore, by Saturday, she had a veritable storehouse of words to set free. At the time we were not particularly receptive.
“On Tuesday, I got up at 7 and made myself a cup of tea, and then I went back to bed for a lie-in. Then I got up at half 8 and had my breakfast, some tea and toast, before I walked up Combarton Street to the shops and bought the paper and some fruit. And they had a Special on the tomatoes, so I bought four pound. Here’s two pound for you,” and so on.
My mother really struggled with this discourse, but we, as children and later teenagers, became very effective at tuning out. Plus when we went to stay with Nana, we would be treated to a hot water bottle each night in winter as we snuggled into deeply sagging, heavily blanketed beds. In the morning, she would wake us with hot, syrupy tea and a Teddy Bear biscuit in bed, but only one so that we didn’t spoil our breakfast. Breakfast was a celebration of bacon fat, ladled heavily over the sunny side up egg and toast. No one could ever reproduce her crispy bacon. Later, we’d head off on foot to Box Hill to do the shopping, checking for any discounts, occasionally stopping for a Welsh Rarebit in her favourite café, and always finishing with a large bag of Violet Crumble pieces. In those days, they were thickly coated in chocolate and came in all sorts of random shapes, so we were anxious to rip the packet open before we got home. Tea was made at every possible pause in the day – a tradition that my mother continues. And if we were lucky, Nana would have made sultana cakes shaped like mini-volcanos which rose to a sharp peak in the centre. Her ancient gas oven was always too hot for respectable baking. But, being the loving, indulgent grandmother that she was, we were allowed to eat two or three, and our appetites were appropriately appreciative.
If my sister and I had to stay for a few days, and the weather was poor, Nana would play classical music and we would dance around her tiny loungeroom. There was often a wide, flat frosted glass bowl of floating camellia blooms or roses on the coffee table that we had to avoid, and the elegant wooden tea trolley covered with her trinkets. The mantle clock would strike deep discordant chimes interspersing the violin and cello. One particularly exuberant afternoon she decided to shift the camellias and even the coffee table, and we were soon galloping around from chair to chair, imitating horses or small elephants on the thinly carpeted wooden floor. Classical music holds very happy, if not restive, memories for me, especially of euphorically uncontrolled bouts of laughter with my sister.
Having moved to Australia in the late 1930s, initially living in Boonah, Queensland, then shifting to the slums of Carlton in Melbourne, Nana had had to make do with very little. I can imagine that her time with us, later on in life, must have been very precious. Before the 1960s, her husband had been away frequently with the army, and was not always pleasant to be around when he was home. She had worked hard to find a nice place to raise her two girls and eventually bought a small two-bedroom house with a brick façade in Box Hill South. My aunt, five years older than my mother, developed respect for all she had achieved seeing it firsthand. But old habits die hard, and Nana was frugal for the rest of her life, tucking away a small part of her pension each week in an envelope into a different part of the closet just in case. When she finally moved into a nursing home, Mum discovered over $7,500 in notes in numerous envelopes, ranging from $1 to $20. I’ve never forgotten coming home to see Mum sitting on the bed, surrounded by money, wondering what on earth the bank was going to think of her.
On the whole, Nana was a “treasure” to us, as we were to her, even if the respect she deserved wasn’t fully realised until years after her death. But when it came to birthdays, she had a special knack of picking spectacularly interesting, if not welcome, gifts. There was a favourite bargain store that she liked to frequent, and one which we, too, loved exploring as children. But we chose things that we liked, or thought we wanted, and Nana’s taste was, shall we say, budget-conscious. It was based purely on what was on special at the time. One unfortunately memorable Christmas, we thought that she had outdone herself when my teenage sister and I unwrapped matching bright purple, bubble-woven, crimplene body shirts. We weren’t even sure if Dad could use them to polish the car. A few years later, just after I finished Year 12, we found ourselves the proud new owners of a battery-powered plush puppy. Once powered, it bounced feebly over the carpet, making a strangled noise as a poor excuse for a bark, and frightening the elderly cats. We laughed, although probably with a measure of disrespect and incredulousness. But my all-time favourite was the gift I received for my 21st birthday. It seems incredibly selfish and spoilt now, but I remember approaching the gift with trepidation won through extensive experience. It felt heavy but pliable in my hands, and impossible to predict. My immature new adult self was looking for treasures to reflect my worth to the world, but the slowly opened wrapping paper revealed a lilac, rubber bathmat, complete with suction caps to hold it fast. My ego deflated, I shoved it ungratefully into a cupboard, but it did come in handy when I moved into a place of my own.
I can’t help but wonder, as my season of grandparenting possibly draws nearer, if Nana bought these gifts just to see the expressions on our faces. Was there an element of mischief that we were never aware of? Will I be tempted to do the same with any future little ones that enter my life? Let’s hope that whatever their expression, when I gift them with anything, they’ll think, “Well, that’s something new!”

Something New (Nana's Gifts): Work
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