Thursday, 27 October 2016

Throwback Thursday: 8 years, 100 years, forever

100 years ago today Dorothy Dellow (later Mitchell), my Nanna, was born. Eight years ago, in September, she died.



opening lines from the poem I wrote after Nanna died. 


It feels like forever; it feels like yesterday. I wish I could tell her all the things I appreciated about her,  especially that she is the first to come to mind when I am asked to think of a person who has influenced me, taught me, shown me how to be human. She wasn't overly sentimental, so I suppose she would have waved her hands at me as if I was speaking nonsense, or the unnecessary.

celebrating my 21st birthday


Seacliff, or as we call it, 'Nanna's', beach
It's been a while since I said it, though, to anyone. So today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, when my parents and sisters and niece are having lunch at the pub down the hill from her old house, across the road from 'her' beach in Adelaide, I will tell you.

When I watch tennis, especially the Australian Open (flicking between that and the cricket on lazy summer days in January), I think of her. The lounge and her old-school TV, on wheels so you could turn it around and watch it from the dining room, whose white slatted sliding doors were never closed.
On the table in that dining room was usually a puzzle, and often something quite complicated and challenging. Nanna was generous in allowing us to add pieces when we visited, and I remember hours of near-silent companionship as we worked on a puzzle together. 
From that dining room table for many years, she would write and collate and label the newsletter for what was then the Arts Society for the Handicapped (now Broughton Arts Society). She was art teacher, treasurer, and newsletter editor/distributer for much of my childhood. Sometimes we (my sister and I) would help package up the newsletters. Other times, we would accompany Nanna to the Arts Society for exhibition launches and celebrations, at certain times of the year delighting in running beneath the wisteria growing over an extended archway in the gardens. I have clear pictures of her friends, who came to know us, as well; these artists whose paintings were accomplished with brushes in hands or mouth or feet, from wheelchairs, out of struggle and hardship, illness and isolation, came such works of beauty. Through Nanna's work with these artists, I learned to value every human, as they are, not to condescend or patronise, but welcome and celebrate. For this work, Dorothy received an Order of Australia medal, and my respect and gratitude. 
The carpet, brown, not soft, but not scratchy either, on which I would sit with my back to her chair, one of the orange-flowered armchairs, when both of them and the two-seater lounge were occupied.
On that carpet, grandchildren, sometimes just us three, my sisters and me, sometimes all ten of us, when we gathered for Christmas, would play Boggle, or Scrabble, both games with words, Nanna's gift to us all. The teachers, the writers, musicians and painters, her daughters and sons and grandchildren, all inherited the gift of play and creativity. I am so grateful for the gift of playing with words: she studied French and Latin, and at 91 trotted out a line in Greek from long-ago learning, when she heard that I was studying the Greek of the Bible.
My great-grandmother Sarah, & the brooch.
On that carpet, or the arm of her chair, I would sit as I grew older, close to her, as she told me stories of her childhood and university days in New Zealand; she told me of following my grandfather to Sydney alone, after he proposed on holiday back home from his teaching post in Australia. Apart from her fiancĂ©, she knew no-one there, not even at her wedding. It was war time, and even her seat on the plane was not guaranteed, had a soldier needed to travel. Sitting in that chair, she told me of my great-grandmother, her mother-in-law, Sarah, as she gave me a brooch of two doves and the word, 'Jerusalem'; a gift from her son, my great uncle, for whom she waited until she died. It was not until much, much later that we discovered the plane he'd been flying during WWII had indeed been shot down, with no survivors. 
She also insisted that mum make sure a certain gold pendant Nanna wore every day would come to me, when the time came. Apparently when I was little, and she held me in her arms, I would grab onto the pendant and put it in my mouth, as little ones do, and test out my new teeth on it. It was when we were little that my grandfather died. Nanna told my mum once that having us little ones around helped her remember the joy of living, in the midst of her sadness and loss.  
The brightly coloured metal cups from which her grandkids would drink fizzy lemon: we divided the set up after she died, and there's one with each of my cousins now.
Those cousins are good friends, celebrating each other's beings and lives and never forgetting the one of us who died. Too young, at 17, and all of a sudden. We remembered what we valued about our family, as we gathered to say goodbye. Nanna couldn't travel by then, and I think of her remaining in Adelaide alone, as we joined the others from around the Eastern states. 'A parent shouldn't outlive their child,' I remember her saying, her heart breaking for her son in his grieving.
We don't have cousins-in-law, but cousins, and this is a gift from our Nanna (or Grandma, she went by both names). Michelle's gratitude was spoken at the funeral, for the welcome she received from Grandma: even before she and Pete were sure they were an item, Nanna considered her family. 
The backyard, and its wild garden and wonky barbecue; the front steps, white speckled stone of the deep, circular porch usually covered in sand from the beach. The smell of the ocean, especially when the wind blew the right way; the shaded lawn, cool to the touch of feet burning from the melting bitumen. The yellow plastic stool in the hallway by the phone; the cabinet my grandfather made, which now serves as my 'bar'. The study, right in the centre of the house, it's only window the skylight above, and the record player with equaliser and connected to speakers in two rooms in the house. The paintings; her paintings, the ones from her brush, and the ones that she loved.
I have two of those paintings, my sister another. Gifts for special occasions. My sister has a classic beach scene painted by Nanna. I have one of her experimental surrealist-come-impressionistic paintings, which I chose because I loved that she did it. And I have an Umberto Eco: she had a book on him, so I think she liked his work, and she was almost disappointed when I took it away from her study, though she said I could choose any painting I wanted. It is of Paris, Montmartre and the Sacre-Coeur in the 1930s and I love it. For itself, and because she loved it. 

The piano beside her chair.
When her hearing diminished to the point at which she could no longer enjoy music, Nanna gave her piano to my sister and me, as ours was with our parents in New South Wales at the time. She gave us money towards a new car we had to buy, bought us lunch from the fish and chip shop most Sundays during the years our parents and youngest sister were away. We refused to abandon her at Christmas when most of the extended family were planning to gather in Melbourne: she couldn't travel, and we would not have her without family at Christmas. We insisted our parents and sister join us in Adelaide, and we became a very tight unit of six. We weren't back to five for very long before Morgan joined our family; a tight unit of six again, until I left them all for Scotland.
I think Nanna would be pleased to see where my studies are taking me, to know I have published my poetry, and have opportunities to perform and preside around the world. Still, I wish she was here to send postcards to, with stories of my adventures just for her. 

celebrating Nanna's 90th birthday

One hundred years ago, my grandmother was born. It sounds so strange, so far away; especially when the eight years I've lived with her absence seems itself a lifetime. In 100 years, she touched the lives of so many people, as outstanding student; as teacher and mother and wife; as lynch-pin of the Arts Society and committed member of communities of faith; as neighbour, as friend; as grandmother. It's the 30 years in which she was my grandmother, my Nanna, for which I am most grateful today. I see a lot of her in me, and I always carry her with me. She wasn't the warm and indulgent grandma some have had, there was always some holding back on her part. But when she did open up, I sat at her feet on that ugly brown carpet, as she told me stories of who we are, our tribe, our clan, our family of creative, eccentric, wonderful Mitchells descended from Dorothy and Alan, artists, teachers, musicians. One hundred years. And I got to share 30 of them with her. I'd gladly take more, but I'm happy with that.


2 comments:

Marnie said...

Thank you,Sarah - so many memories,so accurately remembered and so beautifully expressed. You know my response: tears of gratitude and pride - in both you and my mum.

Annette Buckley said...

What a beautiful, poignant, warm, heart-felt tribute. No wonder your mum is so proud. Thank you xo