Not many children can say that their parents trekked around India for three months and left their kids in the care of their New Zealand grandparents. And not many can say that their grandmother took them to school for their very first day, but I remember staring up at Jean as I stood by her side and she talked to my teacher, Mrs Woodley. I was determined not to cry, and stifled my panic at the thought that she was going to leave me there. In later years, Jean fondly recalled me stumbling from the bus after those early days at school, my plaits unravelling, my school bag slipping off my shoulder, my laces undone, ‘But in your hand, you always had a book.’
Her fondness dissipated, however, when I threw my school bag against the wall of the verandah instead of hanging it up on the hook.
‘And if you were asked to do something you didn’t want to, you gave them the dirtiest look,’ she added. Not much has changed.
John, her husband, once told me that he a lot of respect for Dad because he had never worked as hard as he did when on the farm for those three months. One might spare a thought for Jean however, for when making H’s lunch for school one day, H spontaneously burst into tears.
‘Whatever is the matter, dear?’ she asked.
‘You cut my sandwiches the wrong way,’ he wailed.
My sister remembers the excitement of Mum and Dad coming home, and of painting a sheet with the letters ‘Welcome back.’ No doubt Jean and John were just as excited.
On other occasions, whenever they came to the farm to stay, all activity promptly ceased at 5pm, whereupon everyone would settle under the liquid ambers for G&Ts. After watching this a few times, my very young sister suddenly realised, ‘Oh, so that’s what adults do. They drink to relax.’ Unsurprisingly, she now has a great affinity with gin.
If Jean wasn’t smoking or drinking booze, she was gambling. When visiting her in Christchurch, H took her to the pokies, because this was what she and John used to do. They agreed to spend only $20 each. Jean spent hers in an eyeblink, but H had never played the pokies before and needed to work out what to do.
‘Come on dear, hurry up,’ Jean said, so H gambled large amounts to catch up. Suddenly, his machine lit up like a Christmas tree. They both looked on in amazement as he clocked up $70.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We're ahead, so we're quitting.’ However, Jean leaned over and said, ‘Lend your grandmother a twenty would you?’
Hadley gave her the $20 and went off to cash his winnings. When he returned, Jean’s machine was flashing, beeping and racking up bonus rounds in an endless cycle of wins. When it stopped, Jean was up to $230.
‘Let's cash your winnings and get out of here,’ he said. ‘And I want my $20 back.’
H mentioned that Jean promptly spent all her winnings on cashmere.
He also recounts settling Jean into her new apartment in the nursing home, after which time they headed out to do some errands. When they went downstairs, they passed a common room of old people staring blankly into space or at the TV, or sitting in their wheelchair dozing. Jean stuck her head in and gave everyone a good look. H was concerned that she must be thinking this was how she’d end up, half comatose in a chair.
Jean turned to him with a frown. ‘They’re all wearing skirts. I don’t have any skirts to wear. Come on, we’ll have to go shopping.’ And off she went.
It’s nice to know that my own penchant for shopping and luxury is purely genetic.
Jean was a mild-natured woman – she had to be, to withstand her husband’s overbearing nature — who enjoyed other people and their business. At the nursing home she was forever wandering into people’s rooms to start a conversation. Once, on the farm, when I was leaning against the flagpole (for we had one of those), staring dreamily across the paddocks to the hills that were softening with dusk, she interrupted me to say, ‘What are you contemplating, dear?’ I hadn’t heard her approach and drew myself up with an inarticulate noise of irritation, then waited for her to go away.
Despite my occasional bouts of shittiness, she still adored me. While I was visiting Christchurch with mum as a 10 year old, she would look on with some amusement as I tried to get up in the mornings, dragging myself from the bed to the couch, the sound of the real world hurting my ears. That was the year that Christchurch was in drought, and the butter tasted peculiar because the cows weren’t getting any fresh grass.
Historically, letter writing gave rise to the form of the novel, and it’s possible that my obsessive letter writing to my grandmother jump started my career as a novelist. Our mail only came on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on the farm, and on those days I would burst through the door after getting off the bus and ask if I had any letters, so that I would have a reason for writing another. I wrote about what we were doing on the farm, skited about my school marks, and sent her my stories, typed up on a Commodore 64 and printed out with a dox matrix printer. Jean was no intellectual, though, and it was hard to talk to her as she got older and her conversation became like thin broth.
Unerringly cheerful however, Jean showed her sometimes saturnine granddaughter how to live happily and well in an increasingly difficult world. Her brightness will illuminate our lives for many more years to come.