I woke up this morning and was struck by the visceral thought that I had become my maternal Grandmother. Not only did we share rheumatoid arthritis as a hobby, but I had done something the night before that could have come straight out of her rule book. To put this in context, we have to go back a few years…screen ripples with flashback identification protocol, cue the undulating sound of a harp…
When I was perhaps eight, my family was at the opera. This was not an uncommon thing, my mother sang in the chorus of the Australian Opera Company, so we always had tickets. We were sat in those red and cream folding seats in one of the concert halls of Sydney Opera House. I was always frightened mine would snap back up and I’d be wedged with my legs sticking in the air and my head firmly lodged between my knees. It never happened, but the fear was real.
The overture poured forth from the orchestra pit, roiling around the hall with perfect acoustics, every nuance identifiable. The audience was lulled and excited at the same time. Expectation hung like dew on a spider web. And then…rustle, crinkle…rustle. A few heads turned. What was that? the sway of silhouetted early 80s perms seemed to say. A muted torch flicked on at the side of the aisle and danced over a few seats.
The curtain opened to display an elaborate set filled with figures in fantastic costumes. Crinkle…rustle. I craned my childish head. The noise was close, perhaps two seats away. Yes, my Grandmother had brought along a packet of Arnott’s ginger nut biscuits to the opera, in a plastic bag. All eight years of me was mortified. I shrank into my folding chair, almost willing it to gnash its padded jaws and swallow me. Rather my legs stuck in the air than biscuits at the opera.
The torch flashed on, travelled down our row of seats and alighted on my Grandmother’s lap. The beam was followed by an usher, who leaned over and said a few hushed words. My Grandmother said a few words back. My father squirmed. I looked the other way. My mother, somewhere backstage was oblivious. The usher confiscated the contraband biscuits.
My Grandmother was born in December 1903, but her birth was not registered until a couple of months into 1904. She is hard to find in genealogy searches. Her mother died of a burst appendix when my grandmother was six. Her father, having survived France in WWI, had an accident when he returned home and was never quite the same. She was sent to live with her maiden aunts in a huge house on the cliffs overlooking the broiling ocean in Newcastle, NSW, Australia. When she was a teenager, she fell in love with an Irish sea captain who promised to whisk her away. He never did. She pined for him, staring at the ocean from the upper floor balcony of the weather beaten house. Before she was twenty, around 1921, she escaped the clutches of her maiden aunts, and ran away to Sydney. To prove she could look after herself, she worked in a shop. She was a very strong, stubborn young woman.
I’m not sure of the full story, and I must speak to my father about it, but I understand she was dragged back home and forced to marry my Grandfather, a handsome Anglican minister. She didn’t want him. She wanted her Irish sea captain. They did, however marry, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. I believe she grew to love him. She became the parson’s wife, a secure prospect for insecure times. I once asked her how she lived during the Great Depression. She told me they would collect newspapers “for the poor homeless people to stick under their clothes to keep warm, dear.” My Grandmother needed control. She ran her household with military precision. Looking back on her life now, I can understand her level of bossiness and obstruction was due simply to the fact she had no say in how her life turned out. She had her early years dictated to her, and in her full adulthood and later years, she would be damned if anyone was going to tell her what to do, and that included eating ginger nut biscuits at the opera if she so chose.
So what did I do the night before last that was so much like my Grandmother? Firstly, I demanded my cousin drag a wheelchair to our office Christmas meal as I was petrified of falling off the restaurant chair and not being able to get up off the floor because I can’t kneel or squat any more. I also knew because I am just as stubborn, if I had fallen to the floor, I would not have asked for help. I would rather lie there trying to figure out a way of standing up myself. This would probably have meant dragging myself to the disabled toilet and using a combination of leverage against a wall with my feet, and upper body strength with a grab rail to haul my ass off the ground amid a scream of pain. I have done things like this before, thankfully not in public. Secondly, I could not eat all of my dinner. It was a rather large T-bone steak. Horrified at the thought of wasting food, especially food that cost £23 for what you see in the picture to the left, I did not even think. I delved straight into my bag, pulled out the zip-lock bag I usually keep my medication in, dumped that into a separate pocket, and snidely slipped in my half eaten medium-rare T-bone. To top it off, I accepted a donation from another diner of their partly eaten steak. Into the zip-lock bag it went. My cats ate well the next morning.
As I get older, I’m now forty-two, I have a new appreciation for my maternal Grandmother, not only because I now understand her struggles with arthritis, but how her stubbornness made her seem aloof and quite often entitled. When I think about it now, she really did have an I don’t care what other people think of me attitude. Back then I thought it was because she was stuck up. Yet a girl who runs away from home to work in a shop to prove they can stand on their own two feet is not stuck up or entitled. An old lady who takes biscuits to the opera isn’t some feeble minded old bat, but someone unafraid of convention. Isn’t that something we are constantly telling ourselves? That we should break the mould? That we shouldn’t let other people’s judgments affect our behaviour or self worth? That we should be our own person, forge our own path, and not worry about living up to false expectations whether they be set down by family or society? My Grandmother clearly had that going for her back in the 1920s.
So here’s to my Grandmother. I wonder if I will begin to exhibit more of her traits with advancing age?
Do your actions sometimes remind you of your origins? Do you find yourself sitting or standing in a way that reminds you of a family member? Share in the comments.