Jean

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

My granddad died the same year as my father, when I was five, and I only have a handful of memories of him.  I remember being picked up by my granddad in the living room of his house: hoisted high in  the air, gallows dropped and then caught again all the while I was laughing more in terror than joy.  And I remember him taking me on a long bike ride out on the back roads behind Mosgiel; the long flat back roads across the Taieri plains where the ditches by the sides of the road are full of frothy, white-flowering weeds and bees, and the hills lie off in the distance like a woman stretched on her side.  I sat on the bar between him and the handlebars.  It was uncomfortable on that bar and my granddad did not speak, but it was a companionable kind of silence.

I suppose that I was taken out for a bike ride for a reason.  Probably my father knew then he was probably dying and probably my mother and her mother and my dad were talking about it.  Maybe not.  I wonder what my grandfather thought about it all,  biking me around those country roads, unaware that his own death, in a way, was only just around the corner of the long road we were pedaling down.  Somewhere up past the crossroads that went one way down to the house where his own dad had lived, and the other up past the airfield where he had been in the reserves during the war.   During the war which killed both his brothers in Europe, while he was newly married with a little girl and a little boy at home.  He had often clashed with that little girl as she grew up, and now she was back at the old house with Jean, talking through things while he pedaled her son around Taieri.

After he died, at the dining table one morning of a heart attack, there were spaces where he had been that still seemed to contain him just in the way that an old jacket holds a little of your shape as it hangs in the wardrobe.  There was his chair at the dining table, and the neat arrangement of his tulip bulbs in the shed, with the push mower and the bike, and the gardening tools.  And there was his empty bed in Gran’s room, by the writing desk with the roll down top.

*****

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

The same day she was cremated, after the service, I went back to Mosgiel with my mother and one of my mother’s sisters.  We were all struck that day, as we walked around the streets, that there was no reason now for us to ever come back to Mosgiel except for loyalty to a memory, to see the jacket in the wardrobe, to touch the sleeve and smell the collar.  For both of us – for my mother and her sister, and for me – the memories we were drawing on were quite different.  For my mother and aunt it was the memory of childhood and growing up.  As they walked together they remembered a landscape that had disappeared: of poultry farms, and fields on the edge of town, and walks to school, and neighbours’ kids.  For me it was the landscape of suburbia.

The service in the home where my Gran died was fairly simple.  My mother spoke and the small programme had a picture of my Gran on the front from her wedding day which was taken, I suppose, some time in the 1930s.  It was not a photo I had seen before, and although it looked strange to see her quite dressed up (but not too much, really) and holding flowers, it was clearly her.  She had quite a stern face.  All I ever felt from her was love, but it was an unspoken love, and I can see now – looking at photos – that she must have appeared a little unfriendly to others, perhaps even cold.

She died when I was doing my second placement during my year of training to be a teacher in 2006.  When my mother called and told me the news I had no particular reaction.  It didn’t “hit me”.  My Gran was 96 in 2006.  We had expected her to die.  Not because she was 96 but because she was unhappy, and her life had been getting smaller and smaller for the previous six or so years.  I felt upset during the service and went through that strange repression of wanting to cry but not wanting to cry in front of others.  After the service but before the crematorium there was tea at the back of the room, and people I had never met before told me about my father.

Someone suggested that the grandchildren carry the casket out of the back of the hearse and into the chapel when we got to the crematorium.  I was surprised by the weight of the casket.  It was the weight for some reason that reminded me that I was saying goodbye.  When we had the casket at rest in the chapel, but before the casket was finally going to go through the little door at the end of the bench it was resting on, I felt the overwhelming sense of the end of it all, and the futility of trying to grasp the goodbye.  I touched the casket for what I decided was one last time.  I wanted to do that touch another hundred times before she went; knowing that there was no point to it – the endless goodbye has to end.

*****

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

I slept in the spare room with two single beds and a cot by the fireplace.  Those beds had layers and layers of covers.  There were blankets, a duvet, a tasseled toweling cover, and more blankets.  I loved the weight of it all pressing me down, warm and snug while the star-illuminated, bible-black night tightened its frosty grip on the grass and the bare branches of the plum tree in the back field outside my window.  In the morning the mill horn went and I padded down the hall and into the dining and living room and sat at the table by the net curtains while Gran prepared toast at the table or served me porridge.  The porridge needed milk and brown sugar and I carved paths through it and watched the canals of sugared milk flow.

And after she had cleared up the table and done the dishes we walked from her house to the Mosgiel shops.  It was a walk that we always did in the same way, past the same places.  Some of those place, often on the corners, had deep green holly hedges and paint peeling wooden houses, the same houses of my mother’s childhood when the land around each of these places was probably a farm, before they had been split up and sold off into the suburbia of my childhood; houses with little curbs instead of fences, and garden gnomes, and neat lawns for the low-maintenance, crinkly-tan-brick-houses.  There was the mail to collect at the post box in the post office which I would be allowed to open, and there was the supermarket to visit, but better than that would be side trips to the funny little tea rooms with oil pictures of horses running though water and lace doilies, or the old department store with counters and haberdashery and rolls of fabric and packets of pins, and the Chinese lady at the green grocer, and the bookshop with dusty, discarded books of games, and the shop that sold wool, and the park where we might hide in the bushes for a game of hide and seek.

None of those things, of course, still exist.  Not the games of hide and seek with my grandmother in the park, or the greengrocer, or the little department store, or the tea rooms.  How do these things survive when the world demands fast food, and malls, and super centres, and the death of grandmothers?

*****

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

I never realised at the time how important those trips were.  Much of my childhood was in flux and meant moving house, and an unsatisfactory stepfather who I have never felt comfortable giving even the once removed title of stepfather, and changing schools and losing and then making a new set of friends.  It was those trips to Mosgiel that were a rhythm and a routine.  Nothing changed in Mosgiel.  Nothing changed in Mosgiel because everything had already changed.  The children had all grown up and moved away and married and had children.  Parts of the property had already been sold off and the granddad had died.  It was normal that there were two beds in my Gran’s bedroom and that one of them was empty.  That my granddad was only an empty place at the  dining table, and a bicycle in the shed.  It was normal that there were three spare bedrooms for people who weren’t there anymore, and soft toys in a deserted crib, children’s books in a bookcase in a house with no children.

After all that tumult I arrived in my Gran’s house at a time when nothing changed in the routine of that big old place, and I loved it.  The mill horn, and the breakfast, and the walk to the shops, and then lunch with the particular tone of National Radio announcers reading the news at midday from the radiogram in the corner of the living room.  For the longest time that was the pattern of existence in Mosgiel when I was a boy and came visiting in the holidays.  It didn’t last of course.  Gran moved, eventually, to a smaller place, but many of the rituals carried on.  Although she did become a bit deaf and bit prone to complaint as time wore on and wore on.  As time does.  Looking back on it now I wonder how lonely it was for my Gran in that house when there were no visitors.  As she got older I suppose that the house and its section began to seem bigger and bigger with hedges that needed trimming, and lawns on every side, and sheds full of things nobody had touched for five, then ten, then fifteen years.

There was a plum tree in the back field.  The fruit from that tree was dark fleshed and sweet and is what a plum is for me.  It was an extremely fruitful tree that was harvested and turned into bottles of plum jam, and stewed fruit.  Sometimes in the plum jam at the dining table you would find a stone, or a bit of the skin that had escaped the straining.  For pudding we had the stewed fruit with vanilla ice cream.  There was always plum jam and bottles of preserved fruit in the pantry at my Gran’s house.  The pantry with the shelves of tins, and biscuit barrels, and a window at the end that looked out to a camellia.

Then one year I heard that Gran was burying the plums.  There were so many, buckets and buckets of them, and I suppose she had given away making the jam after the visits from grandchildren began to drop off, so she dug a hole and tipped them in it.  Was that the sign that she was going to need to leave that big old house?

*****

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

What was goodbye?  Certainly not touching the casket with my hand at the crematorium.  Perhaps it was the time I went down with my mother before I went to Japan in 1998.  The night we arrived at her house – the one she moved into after she sold up the place with the plum tree – she spent complaining, not even stopping when Coronation Street came on, and I felt sad and tired and wondered where she had gone.  In the morning I got up and went to have breakfast with some trepidation and she was there.  My Gran.  The one I knew.  She was quiet and got the breakfast ready, and we ate together and talked about nothing much and it was really beautiful for me – even then it was like time travel.  After the trip my mother told me she had more or less told Gran off the night before after I had gone to bed for ignoring me and complaining.  That telling off was a wonderful gift to me.  Perhaps the best I have ever been given because the next morning really was special and, as it happened, our last meal together.

But that wasn’t actually goodbye.  That was with Cathy in Gran’s small room in her retirement home in about 2002 when we visited her.  The diminishment was what upset me.  Not the smell of peas that seemed to permeate everything in the whole place, or the empty lounge with the empty lazy boys and the TV cycling meaninglessly, or the staff in uniforms just doing their jobs with name badges and a friendly “hello”.   Not that, but my Gran in one small bed in one small room alone.

I don’t remember much about our goodbye.  I remember feeling as if I was going to cry the whole time.  I remember noticing her language, the way she spoke and the phrases she used that were of another age, of her having been to the DIC in Dunedin recently on an outing and finding it a bear garden, and I remember Gran saying, her face suddenly illuminated with love and memory, “remember when we played hide and seek in the park?” and the barrier of time and age, of loneliness and death, collapsing for a moment between us as we both flew back those twenty years to be with each other again when the mill horn went, and there was porridge and a walk to the shops to look forward to.  A game of Happy Families or dominoes at the dining table in the afternoon.  Coronation Street in the evening and some knitting.  Milo and a biscuit for supper.

And I remember saying goodbye.  I remember the fierce, strength of her hug from her bed.  That was goodbye.

*****

When I was a boy I often went down to Mosgiel to see my Gran in the school holidays.

We went for a drive on Saturday out to the Kapiti Coast where I was born, and where I returned for high school.  The drive is a familiar one.  You come down off the hills of Pukerua Bay and see Kapiti Island across the sea, and you follow the ribbon of road to Paekakariki that fits between the high steep hills on your right, and the broken rocks jumbled in the sea on your left.  After the new motorway that soars across Mackay’s Crossing where the old road used to jigger to stop across the railway lines at the corner of Queen Elizabeth Park, you come roaring into Paraparaumu past the place where the Hot Bread Shop and empty fields used to be and into a Coastlands that was half the size but somehow seemed bigger then than it is now.  Past, in short, a set of memories that my daughters do not have of the place which is now a strip of fast food restaurants, and a petrol station in front of car parks and supermarkets.

We listened to Rufus Wainwright all the way there and all the way back again.  To Martha, Dinner at Eight and Montauk and Zebulon.

Zebulon is, I think, a perfect song about confronting death and memory and childhood because much of its lyrics are incidental,  and off hand – as life is – but also painful and hurt –  as life is – but the verses are punctuated by an awkward chord that refuses to resolve, a chord that instead pounds and drifts into silence, and then comes again, and again fades… demanding but not giving a resolution.

Which seems right to me.  Restlessness and a never achieved resolution.  It wasn’t the bike ride with granddad, it wasn’t the porridge and National Radio, or the clasping hug in the rest home, it was none of those things, Jean.

There never is goodbye.

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