Kathleen Downs, or Grandma as I knew her, was a keen gardener with every part of the back yard full of vegetables, fruit trees and the sweet, earthy smell of decaying compost.
When she wasn’t having friends over for morning or afternoon tea, she’d carefully put away her nice frock and homy peds and slip into a housecoat and some ancient thongs in order to be back in the garden again. Her Dame-Edna style glasses were kept on with a dainty silver chain around her neck.
Wally Downs, or Grandpa, was either helping her by edging the lawn borders or weeding. Sometimes he’d be in his shed but his handyman skills weren’t likely to make any other retired grocer jealous. To this day I’m still not sure what he actually did in there.
At least once every school holidays we kids would go to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a few days. Obviously it was to give Mum a rest, but seeing as it was never all three of us at once, her workload was reduced rather than eliminated.
For me, it was a taste of a new lifestyle. Even if I had to share my grandparents with bigger brother – and tougher puncher – Robert, or wheezy little – and better screamer – David, it was as though we unofficially called a truce on fighting, crying or whining. Looking back, it was really the behaviour that our exhausted mother would have yearned for but didn’t get, because she was very strict about how we were to behave outside the home.
Before leaving for school or a friend’s house or Grandma and Grandpa’s, she’d always ask:
“Have you got a hanky?”
“You’ll eat everything you’re given, okay?”
She’d give us a kiss on the cheek and a congratulatory footy players’ pat on the bum and then conclude with, “And remember your manners” before sending us on our way.
So, with perfect behaviour and yet neither parent to witness it, we entered the world of the retiree 1970s-style. No radio or records playing but everything stopped at 6pm to watch the ABC news on the telly. I never witnessed either adult changing the tv dial to anything other than the ABC, so we kids dutifully sat through all kinds of dry documentaries and British programming choices.
As such, we tended to amuse ourselves by watching far less television there than at home and play with the toys that our mother and her two brothers used. These ranged from the highly inappropriately-named 'Five Little Nigger Boys'. I'll blush and try to explain that in 1977 we had no idea as to the insulting racial vilification that such a game would provoke: to us it just had five cardboard golliwogs on a swivel stand. These were shot down by using a rubber band gun whilst lying further back in the hallway on the carpet like a gutter-crawling commando. Luckily, we spent even more time resurrecting the Meccano set and learning all kinds of card games that our grandparents regularly played after dinner.
A highlight for me was taking the bus into the city with Grandma. The newspaper-thin tickets would have a tiny little saying on the back of them, and we’d busy ourselves looking out the window and pointing out long-haired teenagers to disapprove of together. “Look at that young man over there,” she’d tsk tsk to me, “There’s a hooligan if ever I’ve seen one.” Being nine years old, I’d follow her lead completely. “You’re right Grandma. He’s just a Long Haired Layabout, isn’t he?”
Fortunately her censure never reached food. In her beaded white handbag she’d have tiny peppermints and squares of chocolate that she’d share very generously. When we kids woke up and crept into Grandma and Grandpa's bed in the mornings, there were more peppermints on the bedside table next to the false teeth soaking in glasses of water. Lollies in bed – how cool was that? Clever too – who needed three excitable kids with dragon breath only centimetres from your still-unfolding face?
When it was time for a cup of tea which seemed like the moment the last cup was drained, Grandma would bring out the little milk jug. It had a protective cover on the top that she’d crocheted herself and hung little beads on to keep it weighed down. There were no concerns about caffeine then, and we were welcome to have as many cups of tea as the grown-ups were having.
“Dreckly” was a real word at their house. “I’ll be there dreckly, Wally” she’d call out to Grandpa several times a day. ‘Often’ was pronounced with a clear emphasis on the letter ‘t’ and any surprises, disappointments or involuntary exclamations were always punctuated with ‘Crumbs!’
Speaking of which, dinner was often something simple and delicious like mince on toast and boiled veges straight from the garden (I love helping shell the peas), followed by lots of slices of fresh white bread with jam or honey and plenty of whipped cream. There was always jelly in the fridge and a batch of rice pudding as alternatives but these were more popular with my brothers than me.
It was at their place that I tried margarine for the first time. For such traditional people, it now surprises me to look back and realise that Meadow Lea was part of their diet. For a kid living in a country town that relied heavily on the dairy industry, margarine in a round plastic container festooned with bright cartoon pictures of sunflowers was the epitome of sophistication. I’d forgo the honey and just smear a centimetre-thick layer of marge on the bread.
Grandpa wasn’t far behind, but he’d then add another centimetre layer of peanut paste and complete the dish by sprinkling it with salt until the top was totally white.
Perhaps then, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he dropped dead of a stroke a year later at the relatively young age of seventy.
We children didn’t attend the funeral, but in the weeks following Grandpa’s death I was invited to stay with Grandma. Me, alone! At the age of eight-and-half I was well aware of the honour bestowed me. Grandma Cheerer Upper, Favouritest Grand Child Ever, Nyah-Nyah na na Nyah Boo Sucks Stinky Face to both my brothers.
The house was filled with bouquets of flowers, with more arriving on the hour. The green foam cubes that held the stems of roses, chrysanthemums and babys’ breath into a rigidly formal triangle arrangement were fascinating to me and I’d press my thumbnail into the backs of them where nobody would notice.
Friends arrived to pay their condolences to Grandma even more frequently than the bouquet deliveries, and each visitor was offered some tea. My job was to bring them in as Grandma made them. I’d walk very slowly so as not to spill a drop on the Axminster carpet or my pinafore dress and politely offer each person some slices of fruit and freshly baked little cakes.
Why fruit was a necessary accompaniment I’ll never know, but Kathleen was the best at peeling oranges and apples in a continuous, single ribbon. It was mesmerising to watch and as she cored and diced the apple and separated the orange into segments it made the fruit taste so much better.
It was only after a week of eating 6 peeled oranges and drinking eleven cups of milky tea each day that I was troubled with a crippling case of diarrhoea.
Unfortunately, the room I was in – snugly tucked into my 1940s canvas stretcher bed by Grandma several hours earlier – was miles away from the toilet. The dark and treacherous trip up the long passage, down the creaking hallway and around the corner into the laundry was too terrifying to contemplate. Even the increasingly strong distress calls from my colon weren’t enough to force me to make the trip.
There was a wicker chair in the corner of my room, and I remember during a previous stay having a giggle with David as we discovered a white ceramic potty hidden under the tapestry cushion. It would have to do......
I prayed that the cushion would never be lifted by Grandma so that she’d never see my desecration of her own mother’s antique bedside chair and be disappointed by the bad manners and callous nature of her granddaughter.
I prayed even harder that Grandma didn’t have any sense of smell so that the putrefying odour that was fogging up the windows, discolouring the net curtains and making me feel a bit seasick on top of my already unpleasantly gurgling intestines was instead going to float by like a blossom on the breeze without any notice or comment.
Several hours passed as I went again – then lay in bed, gagging, before going again – and again. I was thankful that Mum made me pack some hankies because they were a welcome alternative to toilet paper. Sleep still wasn’t forthcoming even when the attack of the trots finally seemed to be over.
When morning dawned, I cleverly rested my dressing gown on top of the wicker chair so that Grandma wouldn’t notice anything was amiss.
The day passed with more flowers, putting the older ones out on the compost heap and playing with the green cubes, visitors, remembering my manners, carrying cups of tea, nibbling fruit cake and sucking sticky orange segments. The wicker chair and its hidden secrets had been all but forgotten.
Until that night. I gingerly lifted the lid.....
..... and it was clean.
How on earth did she know? Crumbs!