When I think of you, the clearest image that comes to mind is that of a tall, lean woman laughing while your eight grandchildren cluster on the front steps, shouting at the ninth, who silently acts out their charade. It’s a summer night and mosquitoes bite my ankles and moths cluster in the cone of light from the outside lamp. A quiet girl born into a noisy and boisterous family, I hate charades, but I suffer through it because of your laugh. At seven, I am the image of you when you were my age.
On winter nights, when we’re all there, we delve into the dress-up box which stretches the width of one room, adorning ourselves as kings, toads and cross-dressers. There is raucous laughter and shouting. We parade before you and our grandfather, amused and bemused in his armchair with a pipe, and enact our dramas. Every time we get together, now, we act them still.
On quieter evenings, it’s just my brother and I sitting by the fire eating Vegemite and cheese on toast while the dachshund, stretched out on the rug, snores and farts. Later, in one of our explorations of the creek, we found that dog — by then missing for several days — dead and bloated in the soft, grey gravel.
At night I crawl into my uncle’s old bed, my brother into the one opposite, and close my eyes. You stroke your thumb between my eyebrows until I am almost asleep.
There were times you couldn’t understand the direction our lives had taken. “All I ever wanted was a good mate,” you told me once, chiding me for workaholism and a seeming disinterest in men; and, on my brother’s sexuality: “Oh, is he one of those?” You couldn’t traverse the generations, but instead gifted us with the best of yours: propriety, good manners, generosity and kindness.
One afternoon, no doubt to distract me from the boredom of an endless summer, you taught me to embroider on a piece of white linen. Ever the perfectionist, I carefully copied your stem stitch in pale green thread. Later, you gave me a sewing kit you made, with short, shiny scissors, a pouch in which to put one’s bauble of thread, and a booklet of felt through which to fasten one’s needles. When I took it out ten years later, embroidering still, your delight was palpable.
In the nursing home you held my hands so tightly, and smiled at me with such ardent affection that, as I pulled away, it was impossible not to feel like a criminal.
There was prescience: a few days ago a friend called me by accident and I returned his call, joking that I was concerned it was an emergency, that his gran had died. In those early hours that you lay dying I dreamed I was walking through the soft green grass of the farm, alone. An hour before she knew of your death, my sister, unthinking, put on your engagement ring.
It was a trail, like drops of spilled water, to the knowledge of your death. Then there was a gush of relief that your suffering and loneliness, and the grief of loss upon loss of your husband and friend after friend, was finally over.
As a girl who was never openly demonstrative, I could never tell you that I loved you, but I like to think that the letters I wrote you from Armidale, Wollongong, Sydney, Berkeley and London would have held some measure of my feeling for you. And that in this, my last, you may understand that that rich childhood which you gave me will spill forever through my writing, and that I will always remember how hard you held me, how frail your shoulders were and how soft your cheek, as I hugged and kissed you goodbye.