When I was in year one or two at Ourimbah Public School I was performing at a school event – probably an assembly – and was so excited. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, I suspect it was reading out one of my creative writing pieces, but one of the reasons for my excitement was that Nanny was coming to watch. As I was standing on the makeshift stage, in front of my peers and teachers, I looked up to see Nanny standing there, smiling serenely, and I did a double take. You see Nanny had a beautiful dress on, with slightly heeled shoes and a handbag. I had never seen my Nanny dressed like this and I was so thrilled she had considered one of my presentations worthy of such an outfit.
The Nanny I was more familiar with wore long pants, a pastel or floral shirt and a woollen jumper, usually with a hole somewhere, because the Nanny I knew best lived and worked on her beloved farm at Ourimbah. When we visited we would go on long walks as a family, checking on the cows (three of which I remember were called Julie, Jennifer and Johanna), or inspecting the water lilies in the dam and, if you were lucky, there might have been a ride on the tractor. But you had to get used to Nanny stooping down every few steps to pull out fireweed at the root. Those tiny yellow flowers must have haunted Nanny in her dreams, I think! If you wanted to earn some extra pocket money you could help her collect it. Her going rate was 20 cents a bag – but that was only for a full bag.
After a walk around the farm there was usually a walk around the garden. And what a garden it was! Nanny’s pride and joy, and a constant source of pleasure for her. The garden was never far from her mind, and she always made sure there was enough water in the tank to keep those flowers blooming beautifully all year round, despite having to share it with the odd escaping cow, crazy peacocks and hungry goannas.
Depending on the time of day we visited, there was tea and biscuits, or dinner, with the meal determined by the day of the week. That practice was not of my time, but anyone who spent more than one meal with Nanny would have been familiar with roast dinner and those impossibly crunchy vegetables cooked in her trusty electric frypan. Or her curried sausages, or steak, all served with vegies that had been cooked and cooked and cooked in those old battered aluminium saucepans. Dad still reminds me about the time I said I didn’t like the mashed potatoes, when I was actually referring to cauliflower.
While I’m on Nanny’s cooking, I think it’s fair to say nobody has ever cut coleslaw as finely as she did. And, as a fairly proficient maker of baked treats, I am still trying to replicate her sponge cakes, served with jam and whipped cream, with a dusting of icing sugar on top. They were the best!
Nanny always had a book on the go, reading racy romances while eating her lunch, or over a cup of tea when she took a break from her work. I used to look at the covers of the books – often with a lovestruck couple, or a brooding man – and wonder what was contained within, constantly impressed that there was a different book each time I visited.
When I was much younger, we delighted in running to Nanny’s room to play in her dress-up box, no doubt leaving a huge mess for her to clean up afterwards. That box was a treasure trove for a kid with a big imagination, and a look into times past.
The fridge was always covered with artworks from the grandchildren, which gave me lots of insight into my cousins, as I’m sure my contributions did for them. And Nanny proudly display framed photos of all of us, as well as her siblings and children, on the sideboard behind the table. She was blessed with a large family and was a loving matriarch.
Nanny wasn’t just Nanny though, she was also Ailsa, and Mum, and Great Nanny. And she was a friend and a long-term resident at IBIS Care, where she was cared for so well. There are so many of us here today who could share similar stories to what I’ve just told, but Nanny was the one with tales to tell. She lived through wars, through changing times for women, travelled Australia and parts of the world, brought up three children and still kept her feet planted firmly on the ground.
Even at 101 Nanny’s strength was still evident, leaving this life and she lived it – on her own terms. I admire that strength and the grit Nanny showed throughout her life, which had as many ups as downs. Nanny was the epitome of what it means to be a strong woman, and we are all greater for having her in our lives.