Day Sixteen - Appreciative August
Wally and Kathleen Downs passed away about a year apart when I was only nine and then ten years old, but the memories of them are still strong. I used to be allowed to stay at their place in the school holidays, sometimes on my own. This was such a highly anticipated treat for me - no big basher brother, no pesty little brother and no parents to keep reminding me to 'Remember your manners, always take a clean hanky with you and eat whatever you're given.'
A week in their company was like immersing my tomboyish, ABBA-lovin, Malvern-star riding, bookish self into another universe. We'd take the bus into town for shopping, have picnics at the beach or visit friends who'd all make a fuss of me in my dresses (made meticulously by Mum, with matching ribbons in my pig tails and only worn on these holidays and at birthday parties); and end up slumping in front of ABC television that night after the last dish had been dried and put away.
I'd quickly get over the disappointment of not being able to watch 'The Six Million Dollar Man' and 'The Bionic Woman' and immerse myself in Uncle Alan's childhood Meccano set, Mum's old Gnid Blytons or the cringe-in-retrospect game of 'Five Little N*gg*rs'. This set consisted of five cartoonishly cheerful looking golliwogs set up on a swivelling stand against the far wall that were then shot at with a gun loaded with rubber bands by me as I lay on the carpet at the end of the hall. All I can do is hide behind sheer innocence at the time; they could have been purple frogs I was aiming at for all I cared.
I remember drinking endless cups of milky tea, sweet oranges picked and peeled straight off the back yard tree and rice pudding and jelly for dessert. Morning and afternoon tea was a ritual that was never over-looked. Gardening would stop or all the finery pulled out if a visitor (and they had many) popped in. We don't do the 'pop in' much these days, but Grandma was always prepared to provide an assortment of fruit cake, rock buns, jam fancies and chocolate biscuits to anyone who showed up between 9am to 9pm. Similar to a well-known roll-on deodorant advertised widely at the time, my manners would never ever let me down. It's still a mystery as to how they'd instantly disappear the second I got home and started yelling at David to "Get lost, you annoying little turkey!"
I'd usually also return home with a savage case of the runs ("Mum, we really appreciate you having Katherine for the week, but why did you let her have ten cups of tea and five oranges every day?") and parroting Grandma and Grandpa's quaint sayings and habits. "Oh, he's a real larrikin," I'd sniff disapprovingly, whenever a teenage boy with hair longer than his earlobes walked down Murray Bridge's main drag. "I bet he drives like a maniac too."
Nanna and Grandpa's place in Rosslyn Park wasn't as straitlaced as Grandma and Grandpa's place in Fullarton as they'd discovered the joys of overseas travel since the late 1960s, and the house was crammed with Indian carved coffee tables, brass elephants, Japanese figurines, Swedish horses, Russian matroska dolls, African beads, Arabian jewellery, US napery and Nanna's own artistic efforts. Nanna was into wood carving, making designs out of wool, beads, sequins and threads, glass painting, flower planting and painting anything she saw her favourite colour, blue (we have their 1933 mantel clock, their wedding gift, above our fireplace and yes, she'd stained the dark wood blue). Her wrists jangled with ethnic copper and enamelled bangles and she'd make the most wonderfully moist chocolate cakes that slowly sunk under the weight of smarties, marshmallows, freckles and lolly snakes joyfully plonked on the top.
They had a long sloping block that was mostly filled with fruit trees and vege patches, through which two ducks would waddle contentedly through. I learned at a very early age that ducks produce crap in larger amounts than their own body weight each day and that cracking their abandoned eggs behind the wild bamboo in curiosity leads to staying inside the sunroom with Nanna trying to find "those funny burning sticks with the nice smell" to hide the stench seeping in from outside.
Alzheimer's claimed my Nanna far too early - by my teens she was already smiling, nodding and asking the same questions over and over, and Grandpa was leading her so solicitiously by the hand, always looking ahead for any physical or mental obstacles to herd her around, but there were still flashes of the original girl.
"In 1933 your grandpa would call me from his teaching post in Ceduna, when I was in Robe," she said to me suddenly one night, as they drove me home to my sharehouse in Hackney.
She's right, Grandpa nodded back silently to me.
"The connection was so bad that we'd spend all two minutes of our precious monthly trunk call saying 'Whaaaat?'" she chuckled.
This magic moment was only marred a little by Grandpa forgetting that Hackney Road has a traffic island running all the way down the middle combined with his rarely-cleaned, wood-turning dust-crusted glasses, which meant that we scraped the bottom of his Mazda for the next kilometre. "Ah well kiddo, at least I'm not in anyone's way."
Grandpa remained sharper than his driving skills indicated. One Christmas he decided to give everyone money instead of a gift. He looked at Rob, my cricket-mad, always-active, reluctant-reader brother and said, "I was going to get you a book for Christmas, but then I remembered you've already got one."
And no, it wasn't the quaint five bucks in a card every year until he passed away in 2006: this retired headmaster knew what inflation was. What started out as a huge ten dollar bill in 1978 was $160 by 2000. He always loved to hear what we spent it on, even if I admitted that sometimes Love Chunks (yes, partners got birthday and Christmas money too) and I would say, "Oh it was with Grandpa's money" several times over.
He was there at my graduation - he the first Read, Dad the second and me the third in our respective generations to have studied at Adelaide Uni. He looked at Bonython Hall and whispered, "I know it's a lovely building but even fifty years later I hate it because all of my exams were held in there." He was never stuck in his ways or beliefs and told me how happy he was that his church (Uniting) had accepted gays and lesbians as ministers. "It makes me remember a nice young chap who played our church organ in 1946. I now realise that he must have been (careful pause) a homosexual and he eventually left. I don't think anyone really made him feel as though he was welcome or belonged and I'll always regret that I didn't know enough to do so either." How many other blokes born in 1913 would have said that in 2001?
My father and his sisters made him step down from his volunteer post as Kensington Gardens Uniting Church maintenance man at the age of ninety: they were concerned about his failing physical strength and assured him that surely someone younger could now take their turn to do the job. Grandpa fretted that he was still able to do the easy things like getting up on the 12 foot ladder to clean out the gutters and was more than happy to open the hall to Tae Kwan Do and Salsa dancing classes during weeknights and lock up again at midnight.
When Sapphire was born, he observed her mental and physical growth with interest and was an active great grandfather that she'll always remember. As she grew taller, used longer words, grappled with complex thought processes and proudly gave him a collection of beautiful horse drawings she'd done of those grazingn in the paddock outside his old folks' home window, he noted, "As she develops more skills, I lose more of mine." He wasn't sad, just accepting, and squeezed my hand.
He died in 2006, at age ninety two. His painful, agonising and undeservedly cruel physical decline had taken six months before it was over, and I remember standing by his bedside, stroking his face. "Is this OK, Grandpa? If it is, I'll keep doing it. It might make the rest of it (his emaciated body, gasping breaths, milky eyes, shudders of pain) seem further away." I did this for hours and felt honoured to finally be able to do something - even something potentially useless and miniscule - to help him for a change.
If I'm lucky enough to have inherited even an ounce of his strength, kindness, humour, generosity, progressive thinking, genuine interest in other people and his determination to help out whenever and wherever he could I'll be pretty bloody honoured. My life is so much the richer for having loved and known him for as long as I could.