Saturday afternoon I sitting on the beach at Hastings with my bare feet sinking delightfully into pebbles washed smooth by the sea. The call of gulls and cries of children resonated up and down the beach. There were children swimming in the water, children splashing in the water and children riding boards and boats in the water. Next to me a gull tagged A7UL called loudly. I considered calling back to it but figured I looked odd enough without adding further oddity to my appearance.
I had been silently reflecting on moments, places and people past. Some of the strongest, most vivid, memories of my childhood centred around or in ‘Grandma’s House’ – a comfortably sized bach at Otaki Beach which sat near the bank of one of the streams that flowed into the sea. I moved a number of times growing up and regardless of wherever I ended up, Grandma’s House was always constant. Grandma’s House and its occupant never changed.
I have memories of playing cricket with my brother in the backyard, of climbing the bank that rose on one side of the property (at one stage it had a hammock on the summit which seemed a very exotic thing to me as a child) and from there looking out over a field to the dunes and the sea. I have memories of playing beach cricket with my cousins at Christmas and of summer days in general spent at Grandma’s House.
It was a somewhat mystical place as a small child. To get there involved a proper journey (45 minutes in a car being an eternity for a child). Children’s stories will attest – journeys are always exciting, something unexpected and exciting might happen! In reality something exciting rarely happened but that hardly ever mattered. Once there it was like another world. There was a beach! There was garage full of toys! Well, a garage with bicycles! I think most of the grandchildren learnt to ride using these bikes and back then the bicycle was exciting enough for me.
Then there was Grandma herself. Grandparents are something special to grandchildren and I reckon my Grandma was a pretty awesome lady. Physically she was neither near or there, she was Grandma-sized which was a unique height and shape to her. Her hair, which I only remember as being shades of silver and grey, was always neat and often pinned off her face. She would sit neatly, hands folded in her lap. She could cook, sew and embroider. Grandma’s food was something special, if not unique. Below is a photo of me as a two year old mimicking how Grandma bent down to look at what was being cooked in the oven. I adored her and as I grew older I also grew to respect her. Not just respect her because she was a grandma, but respect her for who Grandma was as a person.
Grandma was born in 1911. She lived through World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2 and remembered all three events. She could recall the names of people decades after she had met them. At age 90 she could still read the phone book. She raised four boys in sometimes trying circumstances. She was an iron fist in a velvet glove and she could wind up others something wicked – watching her in action was at times like reading a particularly witty passage by Jane Austen.
Last year I went back to New Zealand to celebrate her 100th birthday. On the day of her party she walked into a hall with nearly 100 friends and family gathered to celebrate her birthday. She came in neatly dressed, wearing a small heel (I can hardly remember her not wearing a heel) and using only a Zimmer frame for assistance. That moment is one of my enduring memories of her.
When I moved from New Zealand to the United Kingdom I brought with me the possibility of three nightmares coming true while I was in the UK. One of these nightmares was Grandma passing away.
I fully acknowledged that it was an irrational nightmare. Realistically, scientifically, I knew that the event was more than a possibility. But it was Grandma and the irrefutable fact was that my heart ruled my head in this case. Grandma had always been there and it felt like she would always be there. She was the oldest living being I knew; it seemed unbelievable that Death could ever catch her now.
Grandma passed away in February this year. I met it with a deep sense of loss. Her passing initiated a very intense period of introspection and at times a feeling of suffocating isolation. It’s no coincidence that my posts become none existent from February till May. I wasn’t ‘feeling’ writing and I don’t like to post just for the sake of posting something.
During this period I learnt the importance of being there to say goodbye when someone passes away. I learnt this painfully because I haven’t been there to say goodbye. As a result her passing doesn’t yet feel very real. When I can next get back to New Zealand, I’ll visit her grave and say goodbye. If I’m lucky my conscious and subconscious mind might let it feel real and allow me to say goodbye earlier.
The smell of the sea instantly evokes Otaki, the House and Grandma. It’s an involuntary sensory reaction. The smell, place and person are irrevocably linked for me.
Saturday August 18 would have been Grandma’s 101st birthday. I knew in the weeks leading up to that date that I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but London. I wanted to be somewhere new where I was the only person that I knew upon entering the town. I wanted to be near the coast and smell the sea. I wanted that time to reflect and maybe have the opportunity to heal a little bit. In the end fortune smiled favourably upon me and Saturday afternoon found me on a beach writing the draft of this post, discretely wiping away the tears while I wrote. To the casual observer I might have looked a little bit mad but I didn’t care. I was trying, in my own little way, to honour how important Grandma had been in my life. I was also healing a little bit and that felt wonderful.