Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Royal Telephone

The three of us sat together at Grandma’s funeral. Three women, my mother, sister and I, there to pay respects and say goodbye to the woman who shaped our lives. We sat on smooth wooden pews, cool to the touch and hard to the bones. If it were winter, the bitter icy draughts of the town would have crept beneath our outer garments, infiltrating our inner thermostats to leave us shivering. But today we sat in reasonable comfort. Grandma could not have chosen a better season to die .

Sitting around at home, we had cried tears of sadness and joy, the memories and emotions bringing forth release of many years of struggle and pain. But now we had to make a decision - what song to choose for Grandma’s funeral? It was a hard choice to make. She was a great person, who had worked hard and faced many personal challenges, but it had to be admitted that Grandma was never headed for sainthood. Although this funeral was in the Anglican church, where she had married my Grandfather many years earlier, I don’t recall her attending any services. She was born a Baptist, married an Anglican and at the end of her life, though it was never official, I think she may have considered herself Catholic. She once came home to her family as a teen to announce with gusto,

‘I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ!’, much to the great mirth of her family. I don’t think the conversion lasted long. She sang ‘Yes, Jesus loves you’ to me in my childhood and gave me a Bible in my adolescence, stating that it was her duty as my godmother, but I think she’d given up on the idea of any other traditional god-mother duties. When I successfully passed my driver’s licence, proudly driving to her house to show off my skills, I was presented with a St. Christopher’s medal, for protection of travellers. She’d bought it from the nuns down the road, two women who had become an important source of company and support for her during her last few years, when she was housebound.

After much discussion, her daughter, my mum, suggested playing Jimmy Little’s song, ‘Royal Telephone’, as the main funeral hymn.
We sat on those pews, hip bones starting to ache, as the song, popular in the 1960‘s, began to fill the church, and we swapped the name ‘Jesus’ for ‘Grandma’:

‘Telephone to glory, oh what joy divine,
I can feel the current moving on the line,
Made by God the Father, for his very own,
You may talk to Grandma on this royal telephone.’

The telephone was a strong symbol of who Grandma was. She called my mum every day and her grand-daughters at least a few times a week. When I went to uni, she would ring at the most inconvenient of times, much to my annoyance! But as irritating as her calls could sometimes be, they were also a comfort. Some years later, when I went into labour with my eldest daughter, Grandma was on the other end of the line, talking me through the contractions. Her voice provided the link I needed as I entered a new and somewhat terrifying stage of my life and prepared to give birth in a big city hospital where you were just a name on a page. I had no idea about how she would have been feeling then, but in hindsight, I realise now that the birth would have brought back many difficult memories for her. Her first baby, a perfect little boy, had to be dismembered during a botched delivery, in order to save my Grandma’s life. After this, she fell into depression, hiding herself from the world for months, until a doctor ordered her to stop feeling sorry for herself, and then she became pregnant with another baby, this time a little girl, my Mum.

Mum’s relationship with Grandma was an unwritten contract. Grandma was, understandably, overprotective and Mum was afraid to push her boundaries. Grandma’s desire to control everyone and everything led my mother to become more attached to her father, who she adored and idolised throughout her life. Grandma chose who her daughter could be friends with, refusing to let her play with those she didn’t approve. As her daughter became increasingly independent, Grandma became frustrated and clingy. She didn’t approve of her first marriage to my father, nor of her second. When my sister and I were born, she never allowed us to visit the ‘other’ grandparents, who lived a couple of blocks away in the same town. When we got older, she voiced her opinion strongly about which boyfriends were suitable and which were to be despised, calling them ‘It’ or ‘The thing’ if they weren’t up to scratch.

Helping clean up her house after she died, I noticed that every item of furniture had left a pale outline on the wooden floorboards. They had stood in the same place for twenty-five years. It would have been longer if it wasn’t for the house fire that had burned her old house and furniture to the ground, twenty-five years earlier, apparently from a burning cigarette. Grandma was a smoker for years, keeping it ‘secret’ from my Grandpa by spraying air freshener around the kitchen after each smoke. She never did come clear about her habit, although it was obvious to us all, including Grandpa.

She was always fastidious in the house, and everything had its place. If I moved an ornament to one side, she would always notice and ask me to move it back. Even a box of tissues, always the same brand, had an established spot on the bookshelf. A cardboard cut out Christmas pudding that I’d made in kindergarten was hanging in the kitchen, stuck with a piece of yellowing sticky tape, curling at the edges. I peeled it off reluctantly before I departed from the house for the last time, leaving a shadowed outline in its place.

Grandma’s greatest desire, since she was a little girl, was to become a nurse. Because she was growing up during the depression, and her father struggled to support his family, Grandma had to leave school after the eighth grade. She worked in factories until she was married, then took on home duties full time. Although she never became a qualified nurse, she took on the job of nursing her own child and two granddaughters with great satisfaction. She was always overjoyed if we were coming down with a temperature, hoping we would soon be taking on the role of patient.

Grandma enjoyed her work at the Lincoln Textile Mills, where she worked between the years of 1939 - 1945, a job opportunity which arose as the men left for war. The stories she relates of her time there are of strong friendships, good company and support in times of crisis. One story she liked to relate was of a black out that was held one night, when she was helping out with the Red Cross, packing food to send overseas for the soldiers. The lights were all out, as required, during which time the ladies giggled and chatted to pass the time and take away the fear. When the lights suddenly came back on at the end of the black-out, a lady was heading out the door with a huge stick of German Sausage tucked under her arm! Grandma and her friends had a good laugh over that one, and the story was retold with much mirth many times over.

Her brother went missing during the war. She remembered the postmaster coming to the door,
‘Mrs McQueen,’ he said. ‘Your son is missing, presumed drowned.’ Grandma heard her mum screaming at the door. They wrote after three months to say that for official purposes, his death must now be presumed.
‘In my parents’ hearts, they never did believe he was dead’, she recalled sadly.

On her visits to Bendigo, she would slip me a block of chocolate, saying,

‘Enjoy it by yourself, love, don’t give any away!’ She was always worried that I would lose or give away my belongings. I once lent an electric fan to my boyfriend, who had moved into a flat. Grandma asked about it every time she visited. When he and I parted company, she made sure I asked for it back. When it was finally returned to its rightful place, she joked about it, ‘Jim’s come to give back his fan(ny)’ She had a wicked sense of humour. She loved to turn nursery rhymes around when we were little, a favourite was;

‘Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was black as charcoal,
And everywhere that Mary went,
The wind blew up her ….’

She once rang up to tell me a funny story. The Anglican minister had visited, trying to talk her into attending a service. He had sat on a cushion I’d sewed in one of my crafty moments, which was filled with tiny white bean bag beans. The cushion had split and the white beans clung to his dark trousers with a strong static determination. She tried to help wipe them off, balancing on her walking frame for support, but it was to no avail. He left in a huff, looking like he’d been caught in a Kyneton blizzard.

Grandma was a woman who never had a chance to live up to her potential, because of the times she was born into as well as her personal circumstances. Her letters were long and lively, her handwriting a perfect, flowing script, grammar and spelling always accurate. She’d studied elocution as a child, and always loved reading poetry to herself and anyone who wanted to listen. A man once wrote to the ‘Australian Post’ magazine, asking who the mystery reader was in the Kyneton library who would circle the number nine on page nine of every book they read. ‘They must have read every book in the library’, he wrote. It wasn’t a mystery to us, we knew how many books Grandma read and her favourite number had always been nine.

If only there was a phone to glory. I could call Grandma and talk about my life. I’d discuss the ups and the downs and talk about how living sometimes involves so much pain, but also so much joy. I could talk to her as an adult, not a child, and I would tell her I’m sorry for not spending the time with her I should have as a teenager and ask if she’d forgive me. If the phone rang and someone called out,
‘It’s only Grandma!’, I wouldn’t leave it ringing, cross at the interruption. I’d dive for the phone, sit back in a comfy chair with the receiver to my ear and prop my feet up on the ottoman, ready for the best night of my life.

Copyright © 2012 Sue Oaks