It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday on the weekend.The family got together to celebrate it. We all gathered in a small multipurpose room that the retirement home lets people use for such purposes. The room has ugly lighting and blue carpet that had seen cleaner days. There was light purple napkins with white polka dots, light purple plastic spoons, a chocolate cake with butter cream icing and decorated with purple flowers and macaroons. There was a slab of soft drink cans. We all sat around and chatted untill everyone was there. Then it was time for Grandma to be wheeled into the room. She gets very bad vertigo now and can only sit up for short periods of time. My Uncle Wes had a camera for photographing. The children posed with her for photos, and the grand children and great grand children. Out of my siblings there was Adam, Romy and I. For one I sat on my brother’s knee, not putting all my weight on him, so as he did not get injured by my bony behind. For another photo I sit at the feet of my grandmother’s wheelchair and grin up at my uncle. ”Squad goals,” my brother comments and I laugh as I hear a shutter click. My cousin Lauren and I have a photo with Grandma. My cousin Lauren is blonde and very pretty. She and I see each other rarely, but, when we do we chat together like old friends. Lauren sits on the left chair and I sit on the right. ”Gran and her sassy single ladies.” I say as Lauren and I put our arms around our grandmother. Grandma smiles at my silly comment. Or, I hope she is smiling at my silly comment. We smile for the photo and I try not to cry. I wish there was champagne to be drunk out of glass flutes, I wish we could all cheers to this amazing women and drink fancy booze in honour of her 90 years on this earth. I know why we are not doing this. I respect that. But, still…In circumstances like these, Lift and Fanta cans do not do justice to the lady we are gathered to celebrate.
When the photo is taken I stand and then turn to hug my grandmother. I say into her ear, ”Happy Birthday, Grandma. I love you very much.” It is at that moment that I am super happy that I was lucky enough to spend a year living with her back when I was 16. I had moved to Bendigo in order to complete my victorian certificate of education at a large senior secondary school that had all the art and creative subjects you could possibly imagine. I had needed somewhere to live and grandma had a small room in her granny flat that was situated in the backyard of my aunt and uncle’s house. Everyday after school I would come home to my grandmother’s, dump my bag and make some toast. Then I would sit on the floral couch next to my grandmother and we would watch Bold And The Beautiful together. There was a cat that Grandma had taken pity on and begun feeding every now and again. The stray cat was called Dawson and it did not like me. It used to sit o the wooden rail of grandma’s tiny verandah, and swipe at me as I walked past to get in through the sliding glass front door.
My aunty Becca cuts up cake and passes it around. It is pretty good. I would have liked it more had I eaten some breakfast before coming. It is as we are finishing our cake that Grandma gets wheeled back to her room. I want to ask my mum if she is ok. I think better of it as it may simply make her cry. I go and hug her and tell her she looks great. She does. Her curly grey hair has been cut into a more even bob type style. She is wearing dark skinny jeans and black ankle boots. ”They are from an opp shop.” She tells me. ”They are Windsor Smiths!” I show the parts of my outfit that are from opp shops. Like mother. Like daughter. It is then time to go to my aunt and uncle’s house for a lunchtime feast.
If I had known that the last time I got to sit with my Grandmother and hear her tell me stories about her life, was going to be the last time, I would have paid more attention. I would have gotten a photo taken with her in her tiny flat in the backyard of my aunt and uncle’s place in Heathmont. It was a sunny day. My grandma was in her pink and white check flannel pyjamas. She had stopped getting dressed. She was mixing up her medication or simply not taking pills when she should or at all. She would call the house instead of coming over if she needed something. Sticking to routines even of my aunt and uncle were wanting to switch things around. Basically she was acting a bit like a surly teenager who suffered from vertigo and depression.
So, on that afternoon, I sat on the couch with her and watched some ABC news with the sound turned down. There were chocolate wrappers inbetween the couch cushions and around the magazine stand by the couch. Her face had lit up when she saw me, ”Hello, Jessica.” She said, pronouncing my name the way only she did, as if it was of French or European dialectical roots. When my grandmother was simply a young woman growing up during world war two in England, Croydon to be exact, she had a number girlfriends and they would work together and g out together to see films and discuss what they would do if the Germans won and they were powerless to stop it. Apparently there were a lot of discussions around suicide pacts. There was one particular friend that young Iris had who would get very weird around the time Iris would be dating a young man that would seem to be more serious. If Iris was meeting a boyfriend and unable to meet up with this friend, there would be tears and recriminations and all sorts of drama.
”That must have been difficult.” I say to my grandmother.
”Oh, I am pretty sure that she was one of those women who liked other women.” My grandmother explained. ”A lesbian.” I was about to ask my grandmother what it was like to live in London under the fear of invasion by Nazis. I wanted to ask her if she was happy with how things turned out. ”Your not married are you, dear?” My grandmother asks me.”Like your cousin, Lauren.”
”No.” I say. I’m pretty happy as i am.”
”You know that your mother went to a Young women’s fireside once.” My grandmother told me. ”She sat there with all these other young women and one of the district Young Women’s presidents from America, stood at a podium and said. At this my Grandmother put on an American female’s accent. ”Not all of you will find a husband.” I laughed at my grandmother’s total and unabashed mirth at this statement. It made me think that perhaps the feminist thing had simply skipped a generation. Perhaps I was like my grandmother, Iris and it made me happy. My grandmother was not finished. ”And so, your mother sat there with all those other women and she thought to herself that she was not going to be one of the ones who did not find a husband.”
Oh, Mum. I think. I hate that that was what she was told at such an age. She was not told that she was wonderful and special and that her worth was not encapsulated in the successful mission of marriage. I am glad she married my Dad, though. It weirds me out to consider the prospect of having one of those boring Book Of Mormon thumping, kind of Dads. Perhaps I was more like my mother than I thought, in that I am the version of her that exists in an alternate universe. A universe where she did not get married and have babies. A version of my mother that would have existed had she been encouraged to go university and read more and write more and evolve and develop as an individual, as apposed to as a wife and mother. My mother did do both, I think, if the way I turned out is any indication. I wish there was a way for me to be able to tell her that.
Sitting there on the very floral patterned couch, with my pajama wearing grandmother, with the afternoon sun falling throuh the window and onto my grandma’s unmade bed. She told me about the bear sitting by her heater, it sits in a little rocking chair. My uncle gave it to her. The uncle who lives alone and never married. On the mantel there is the embarrassing and amateur oil painting of iris flowers that I painted for her when I was 16. She had gotten me an easel and it had thrilled me no end. I loved it and loved painting. I loved getting turpentine in my eye, a great deal less.
When I notice that my grandmother has lost her chattiness and seems to be tired of company, I decide to leave her be. I hug her and feel how thin her skin seems when pressed to my cheek. I kiss her and squeeze her a little. She used to always be on the move. It occurs to me that I will never again see her with a plastic bag full of fresh and brand new flannel pyjamas.
Every winter my siblings and cousins would be presented with a new set of winter pyjamas. Not expensive or fancy, but, new and bright coloured. They would get worn until they were nothing more than threads.
I wanted to ask her what she was thinking that time, years ago, after meeting my first boyfriend. My cousin Elly had told me days later that while she and my aunt were watching television, my grandmother had walked in, stood in front of the television and asked my aunt,
” Are Jess and Josh having sex?”
As my teenage and very good mormon girl cousin sat and squirmed with discomfort, my aunt had responded with an awkward pause and then an honest answer. ”I think so.”
After my aunt’s answer had sunk in. My Grandmother had simply walked back to her place.
As I was about to exit out the front door, my grandmother says, ”Do you remember those big black boots I payed for for you?”
”My eighteen hole Doc Martens? Of course, Grandma. I loved them.”
”They were so expensive.” My grandmother says, still sitting on the couch with the Television turned up a bit louder.”
It was a few months after that visit that grandma called the ambulance for herself while my aunt and uncle were out of town for a few days. She was taken to hospital and did not want to go home. She did not get carted of to a retirement home by ungrateful children. My grandmother put herself there. She is happy there, her room is near the comings and goings of nurses and fellow old people. There was one afternoon my aunt and uncle came to see her, expecting to find her in a bad state. She was unwell and very much in pain. My aunt and Uncle went to visit with the horrible expectation that they would find her even more unwell than the last time they saw her. Instead what they found was my grandmother sitting up and knitting. She saw them and immediatly started talking excitedly. ”Oh! I have so much to tell you!.” She exclaimed. ”I love it here. They are all so nice and I have people around me all the time. It is so funny, though. Do you know, if I knew I was going to live until I was ninety, I would have remarried.” My aunt and uncle were so happy to see her so improved.
It was not to be a regular thing, unfortunately. The drug amount they had given my grandmother was an overdose. They could just giver her a smaller amount, surely? Muy uncle said. The amount my grandmother was given, was the smallest amount it was possible to give. It was not possible to simply half the pill. So, that was the last time grandma was able to express herself in the way we all were used to. It was good for my aunt and uncle’s piece of mind. At least now, we know for sure that she is happy.
I will just have to visit her with my own little bottle of champagne and toast her all by myself. I hope that Im allowed to that. If Im not I will simply smuggle the booze in under my purple hooded jacket.
I will continue to be the tiny, feisty and fierce go getter that makes her proud.