A woman stands in a garden holding her granddaughter in her arms, swaying gently back and forth.
“All the pretty lights” she croons. “All the pretty lights.”
An evening ritual; watching the lights from Surfers Paradise twinkle on the horizon as she calms the little girl for sleep, pointing out constellations and looking for shooting stars.
“All the pretty lights” she repeats. “All the pretty lights.”
This is a treasured memory of mine. It’s more than 35 years ago now, but I can still hear her voice singing to me and smell the jasmine hanging in the air. Those nights stargazing, just the two of us, were the start of an unwavering bond we shared. My mother’s mother, she was my partner in crime, my mischievous sidekick, fellow rainbow chaser, whim indulger, biggest fan and safest place. I adored her, we were inseparable.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t dread the thought of grandma’s passing. I knew she was a delicate treasure I was lucky to have. I hated knowing that one day she just wouldn’t be around anymore, that I would be forced to face the world without her reassuring hugs and quiet wisdom. When the time came, in the very early hours of May 2nd 2003, I was sound asleep at my parents’ home. I woke suddenly, sitting bolt upright in bed; a few minutes later the phone rang. By the time mum came and knocked gently at my door, I knew she’d gone.
It wasn’t strange to me that I had felt her passing before the nursing home called. We had such a strong connection. I had moved back home from Sydney just five weeks earlier because for some inexplicable reason I felt I needed to. Actually, she’d been what made me move away in the first place. Leaving had been a difficult decision, because my grandad was dying at the time, and she had been moved into a nursing home suffering dementia. One afternoon, while we sat in the sun, I told her I didn’t know if I should still be moving away. She turned, looked at me, and in an all too brief moment of lucidity said “I would if I were you” before disappearing into the fog again. So when I felt something pulling me home three years later, I listened. I’m sure Grandma was calling me.
It was a funny feeling at the time. In a lot of ways, the ravages of dementia had meant I’d mourned Grandma long before her actual death. We all had. It seemed forever since she had raced about the kitchen in her pinny, baking favourite family treats and organising grandad’s tea. It had been years since I’d seen her with her knitting needles or tapestry; making porcelain dolls or quilting a new throw. And it had been a very long time since any of us had been called a “bisim” or a “scallywag” or a “blighter.”
Being the oldest grandchild by many years, I had Grandma to myself for a long time. As a little girl, she would take me by the hand and we’d go exploring. She had a wonderful way of seeing the world through kids’ eyes, and was fascinated by the tiniest things – flower petals, butterflies, caterpillars (although they were stomped on violently if it was her gerberas they were munching on), the scent of roses and freesias growing in the garden. We’d pick Hibiscus flowers and lay them in little dishes of water, and wait for them to close up at night time, like they were going to sleep too. When I was older, we would still walk together and wonder at the simple things – but it was me holding her hand as I helped steady her. We delighted in each other’s company; being together brought out the best in both of us. She was my favourite and, although she cherished all her family, I think secretly I was hers too.
We spent most days together while I was growing up. We played dress ups with her old clothes, baked sweets, and danced to Oscar & Hammerstein show tunes. Side by side, we’d conspire against a grandfather who always wanted the music turned down, a mother who didn’t want her children eating any more cookies, and little brothers who wanted to lick the mixing bowl clean too. If I needed a nap, she would sit on my bed and read me Little Golden Books, stroking my leg until I fell asleep. When I was older and in what felt like an unbearably long stretch of teenage angst, she was the only one who could hush the turmoil and discontent raging inside me.
Grandma’s later life was a sea of shockwaves and disappointments that took away any assertiveness she may have had, and left her a timid little thing. What was left of her was almost entirely taken from us by a brain that held her captive. For years we watched Grandma trapped inside herself as her dementia became another member of our family. It was hard, but we all adjusted as best we could. We got used to having one sided conversations with her as the illness stole her voice. Sometimes it was funny, when we made up ridiculous answers she might give and watched as she reacted accordingly. Mostly it was sad though, and terribly frustrating for her.
The only thing that made it bearable was that she never lost her childlike sense of humour, her joie de vivre. Enough of her spirit survived for me to miss it terribly when it was gone. The twinkle in her eye stayed until the end. Less than a week before her death, she’d blown a big wet raspberry on my cheek as I went in for a goodbye kiss, then laughed so much I’d had to call a nurse to help her to the toilet. I loved making her laugh, even when it was at my expense. She had a laugh of pure joy, and would dissolve into uncontrollable giggling fits.
It’s impossible to believe today marks ten years since she left us. Impossible not that she died, but that I’ve managed this long without her. There hasn’t been a single day in the last 3654 that I haven’t thought about her, and wished I could be held against her soft chest just one more time.
That funny, quiet little lady, so unassuming and shy; always watching, never missing a thing, laughing, pulling faces, and worrying far too often. I am so lucky to have such wonderful memories of Grandma, to be able to recall with complete clarity how her face would light up when she saw a puppy, or a baby, or just me arriving for a visit.
I am lucky to have known such complete and utter love.
Smooth hands of thinning skin
translucent in some places
Yellowed nails from wear and work
A lifetime etched in traces
Across her lovely face
And in her shining eyes
Hardship and a life lived tough
A woman of no standing
And yet she was my sun and moon
My night and day, my breathing