little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: a grandmother and a great-aunt

Good spot

20160605_173612I think Granny would whole-heartedly approve of a small boy using her chair to warm his toes by the fire.

Being old

I’ve seen a meme floating around Facebook and it’s really grinding my gears. I won’t link to it, but it originated on the page of some bloke called David Beansprout Beare or Paul Apple Foxi or some such. It shows two women. One is very muscular, is in gym gear and is smiling at the camera. The other is in a flowered blouse, has soft grey hair and it looking out of a window with net curtains on it (subtle touch, that). The caption says, “Both of these women are 74 … what choice are you going to make?”

Some thoughts:

  1. Great. We’re body-shaming 74-year-old women now.
  2. These pictures tell me nothing about the women depicted apart from the most superficial — it’s not even straightforward to assess their health, let alone how they have lived their lives, what they have accomplished, the sorrows they have faced, the love they have given and received, the learning that has marked and shaped them.
  3. The woman in the blouse looks a bit like my Granny, and she was a gardening, walking, whiskey-drinking, agile, sociable ninja-nana for most of her old age. At a certain point, her choices became much harder and her resilience took a blow too many and her physical health deteriorated. To blame her for that (to blame anyone for that, at any age) seems cruel and illogical. The individualising of health messages without recognising structural impediments, inequalities, privilege and disadvantage is bullshit.
  4. I’m 40, I go to the gym three or four times a week, I eat reasonably healthily and my life is generally happy. I have never had the physique of the woman in gym gear, and the thought that I might get there by the age of 74 is laughable.
  5. Do we really fetishise youth to the extent that we value the body of a gym bunny more highly than wisdom and life experience?
  6. The expectation that women should be beautiful has not served me well at any point in my life, and the idea that I will still be measured against that ideal and judged on my physical appearance when I’m 74 is utterly depressing.

Anyway … another day, another dose of internet outrage. My granny wasn’t on Facebook either. Might be time to introduce whiskey to my life.

Then I got curious and decided to find out who these women are and why Donald Beetjuice Ramface was using their images. The woman on the left is Ernestine Shepherd. She’s the world’s oldest competitive bodybuilder, a marathon runner and personal trainer, she was inspired to compete by her sister’s death, she likes Sylvester Stallone and Michelle Obama, and I hope she gave permission for her image to be used like this. Here’s her website. If the meme was just about her, I might be fine with it.

But there are two women in the picture, and the one on the right is more elusive. Her picture comes up when you google ‘elderly woman looking out a window’. The image is by Chalmers Butterfield, but I can’t find anything about her name, age or life.  To use an image of someone like that as a marker of what bad or unthinking or socially driven choices look like … well, it’s just damn rude, isn’t it?

International Women’s Day

Lucy of Lulastic and the Hippyshake is hosting an International Women’s Day 2016 Blog Link Up. You should check it out immediately. It inspired me to write about this woman’s day.


6.40am: Alarm goes. Do not want to get up. Curl up for just five minutes more.

7.15am: Ooops. Stumble to kitchen and find that partner has made the school lunches and put the coffee on. Domestic equality winning. We get through breakfast, tidy-up and have showers, then the boys leave for school.

9am: Beautiful Women’s Day text arrives from one of the most inspiring women I know. Think of the women I love, the ones I miss, the ones I look forward to seeing every day, the ones I want to hang out with more.

9.10am: Head to the gym. Struggle with feelings of inadequacy and middle-agedness, but smash the rower, nonetheless. No longer give a shit what I look like in gym gear.

11am: Stop on the way home for groceries. Forget the chicken food. Listen to an interview with a terrific bonsai expert on the way. She sounds about 80, and when Kathryn Ryan asks her what the deal is with air bonsai, she says, “Well, if anyone would like to find out more about that, what they really need to do is Google it.”

12pm: Lunch, coffee and a chapter of the book of feminist essays I’m re-reading.

12.30pm: Attempt to work, admit to self that day is something of a write-off. Am distracted and irritated by a Facebook discussion about training girl children out of shyness. Try five times to articulate anger and pain caused by discussion, decide it is all based on white capitalist patriarchy, delete all drafts. Send love and solidarity out into the ether and hope they will reach all my favourite shy people.

1.30pm: Find out that a woman has been shot in Seacliff. My friend’s mother lives nearby, my partner is being called out to report on it, and it just never, never stops, does it? Do the things women do: get in touch, cry, look out the window, write.

2.09pm: Receive invitation to a Cilla McQueen book launch. Respond YES with whole being. Put event on calendar and discover it clashes with partner’s return home from Australia and elder son’s futsal match. Can vaguely appreciate the irony, I suppose.

2.10pm: More work.

2.35pm: Decide to walk to school. Fresh air’s gotta help, right? Smile at every woman I pass, lean into the hill.

3.00pm: Exchange comfort, hugs and stories with the mothers and grandmothers at school. Embrace my boys. Join the girls’ team in the after-school soccer match. We lose, but with a strong sense of solidarity, y’know.

3.40pm: Walk home with my boys, feel tender towards the world.

4.10pm: Enter the afternoon tea, animal feeding, chores, dinner vortex. Decide to be cheerful about all the domesticity in a kind of “Making the World Go Round” way. Remember my favourite exchange along those lines.

Friend: What makes the world go round?
Me: Curves.

6.51pm: The afternoon went much better than I expected, which might have been the walk home — or perhaps the sisterhood is even more powerful than I imagined because the boys put stickers in a space book together, did their screen time, had afternoon tea and then put away their dishes and set the table with nary a scrap or grump. My approach of deliberate good cheer seemed to work too, although the glass of wine and feminist reading while stirring the risotto possibly worked better.

Ian came home and we debriefed the day. The Rabbit made himself a homework book while the Cat checked top goals of the week.

7.30pm: Update blog while supervising the Rabbit’s photocopying. He is making alphabets for the kids in his class.

7.40pm: Publish post. There’s more of the day to go, but I’m done. I mean, I’ll update if anything REALLY THRILLING happens, but it’s not that likely.

Cracking open the cage

P1080487I’ve been tending to my back for about six months now. I’m an editor, so I spend WAY too much time in front of a computer and not nearly enough doing yoga. I get massages from a bodywork therapist who has an uncanny ability not only to find any lurking knots but also to tap into whatever emotional shit you might have stored up in your body. I’ve cried in front of her more than once, but she seems to cope okay.

Anyway, things amped up in the last week or two, starting with a visit to an osteopath. “Oh,” said the therapist, “I think he’s a bit more than an osteo, actually.” I don’t know; it’s all Greek to me. He pointed out that my ribs are very tight, along with my back, shoulders, neck, everything. He cracked a few joints, told me to get some weights and build up my muscles, and sent me on my way. When I told my dear, dear friend about his rib comment, she said, “Well, of course. They’re protecting your heart. Think of how much you’ve loved and lost in your 30s.” She’s like that, and I also hold her responsible for the mist that descended about the hilltops as we walked and talked.

The next day I went back to the therapist, fully expecting to turn into a small sad mess at some stage during the massage. But everything went pretty smoothly, we got some stubborn knots out and my shoulders felt pain free for the first time in, well, decades. I was congratulating myself on my ability to simultaneously LET GO and HOLD IT TOGETHER when she did some Reiki-type move over my head and all of a sudden my mum, my grandmother and my great-aunt were right there in the room, watching over me and telling me I was safe with them. So, that was the end of that, except that I then had ten minutes to get back to the valley and pick up my kids. I tell you, the 5.30pm red wine came not a moment too soon last night.

P1080488And then — I swear I am not making this up although I am probably reading way too much into natural phenomena — I walked into the kitchen to make breakfast this morning, noticed the sunrise flooding the sky and then saw, due west, the most goddamn perfect rainbow I’ve ever seen. I went outside and stood looking at it and thinking, “You have got to be kidding me, Mum.” At which point it started to rain, very gently. Regular readers may have noticed that I am highly suggestible in the rain.


Marmalade days

The llama made marmalade, marmalade jam.

Marmaduke Duck and the Marmalade Jam, Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis (Illustrator)

P1070335Well, I did it. I made marmalade. It’s like I joined the matrilineal mafia in one long evening of chopping, stirring, sugaring, boiling, testing and bottling. When I say “I”, I’m lying. I did the chopping, slicing grapefruits, a couple of oranges and some lemon into fine golden slivers, and I added the sugar and water and turned it all on. I washed the jars and put them in a low oven, and I poured the final product into the jars, screwed on the lids and wiped down the benchtops, but Ian led the charge on the stirring and testing regime, which I nearly fucked up by removing a pile of cold plates from the fridge at the tail end of the process when we were both hot, tired, frustrated and TOTALLY OVER IT ALL. And then, BOOM, we had a beautiful collection of jars filled with glowing, softly jellied, sweet, sour goodness. Jam —and all its kin — is magic.

When Mum died, I thought we’d finish the last jars of marmalade, then never eat it again. I couldn’t imagine making my own, and store-bought seemed like a sacrilege. My childhood was filled with marmalade, with the hunt for pulp in the freezer section of every supermarket, with weekend afternoons in the kitchen, the sweet, steamy smell of sugared citrus all around me, with a pantry full of agee jars, with toast and marmalade at the sticky heart of every breakfast.

P1070339Then a little while ago, I inherited my grandmother‘s marmalade jar, one of the few remnants of her rich, full life to pass to our side of the family. It sits in my cupboard, pushed back out of the way of clumsy hands, and comes out each morning, bringing a little grace and history to our bright, battered kitchen table. I’ve been buying marmalade, trusting in a facsimile to carry the past for me, which it does, a bit, through the alchemy of an old jar, sunlight, butter.

P1070337But now I’ve made the real thing, and how much more powerful that alchemy is when you add effort, love, a mess created and cleared, the lessons I should have learnt while I still had the teachers. I’ve been making oatcakes too, a sort of light, crisp, aniseedy alternative to the stock-in-trade porridge and toast I grew up on. Put butter on one of those babies, add a spoonful of marmalade, pour fresh coffee, sit in the sun, and you’ve got a fine breakfast on your hands, my friends. A fine breakfast, some gentle ghosts, a lick of the past.



Will you read with me?

My great-aunt told lovely stories about her parents, her mother Mary and her father Percy. Percy was quiet, a bit of a socialist, a reader. Mary was a cheesemaker, a manager, a maker-doer. She would invite everyone for Christmas dinner and he would go out and dig his turnips. In the evenings, Percy would read by the fire, and I imagine Mary would knit or sew or make elaborate plans and organisational lists, not that I’m projecting or anything. After a while, she’d crack it and say, “Do talk to us, Percy.” And he’d slowly put down his book or paper, take off his glasses and look around like a mole emerging into sunlight from the dark and fragrant earth. He might talk then, a little bit, but after a while he’d retreat back into his book and silence would fall again. Not that I’m projecting or anything.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there’s precedent, and it’s taken me a long time to realise that not everyone holds with reading in company. Some people find it disconcerting and kind of rude, and they want you to come out and talk to them or at least keep an ear open for what they’re saying.

But we readers go a long way under when we’re reading, and spoken words take a long time to reach us down there. Surfacing takes effort, and we don’t function so well bobbing about with the chat and the questions and all. Haul me out of the water and talk to me on dry land or let me sink back down. Better yet, join me underwater.  My sister knows how this works. Every now and then we’ll go out for coffee, and somewhere between the stories that must be told and the ordering of drinks one of us will ask if it’s okay to read. Then we’ll sit there, coffee at our elbows, books in our hands, and read together. Together and apart.

Taking a moment, part II

I did this for my great-aunt a few months ago, and yesterday it was for my grandmother. Just paying tribute, I guess. The first eulogy is mine; the second my sister’s.



We’ve come to say goodbye, Granny. The words don’t come easily; all our lives, you’ve been there. But you shaped us and made us whole, and though we feel weak and imperfect today, we know you gave us the strength to honour you and let you go.

I want to spin words for you today — dark, rough, warm words — spin them out of storm-grey wool, keep the wheel turning awhile, draw yarn from fleece. I would like to knit you a story — plain and pearl — wrap you in bright, true colour. Or if I had the skill, I would make you a garden of love — plant gentleness and welcome and care — sit you under a tree and magic up a world of light and good, growing things. I’d let the children run and bring you a cup of tea, sit down beside you, touch my head to yours. But that magic is not for us, not in the way I want it, so I will have to conjure what I can out of memory and story, make do with the worlds in our heads and our hearts.

When we were children, we often stayed with you on the farm. You had a beautiful house and a beautiful garden, with a berry cage and a glasshouse and a tyre swing in a big tree. The garden had stone walls and wooden gates, with secret hiding places and a lawn we played croquet on at Christmastime. Papa died when I was little, and you kept all this up on your own, although I know you missed him very much. But we were too young for that for a long time, so we picked berries and collected pine cones and swept leaves and snuck into sheds and stole grapes happily.

You woke early, and you always got to the kitchen first. You’d check the traps for mice, light the Rayburn, make a pot of tea. The mice ended up, unceremoniously, in the compost bucket — I shiver at it still. You’d make the rounds of our beds with the tea tray, give us each a cup, and a slice of bread with butter and sugar on it. It was a lovely way to start the day, lovely too when I managed to get up in time to help with the ritual. You would be dressed, always neat and trim, but Mum would be soft and warm in her dressing gown, and I loved you both, loved the order of my grandmother and the sleepy arms of my mother.

You and Mum had quite different ways of being women, mothers. But your qualities played off against each other, and in that play you gave me and Fiona room to grow in our own ways, to find our own paths. And you had common ground that gave us a good foundation: hospitality, generosity, craft and gardening, a sneaky love of shopping, a disdain of excessive grooming and frippery, a deep enjoyment of friendships, and an enthusiastic commitment to nourishing and delicious food.

The bond between you was strong, too. You wrote to each other every week, probably for close on 50 years. You took pleasure in each other’s lives, looked for opportunities for celebration, support, or care. I think losing Mum was a blow too heavy for you to bear; it was something you could never fully get your head and heart around. Although we didn’t talk much about our grief, it helped a little to know that you felt it too, that the hole in our lives was also a hole in yours.

Christmas was a big deal at your house. All the aunts and uncles and cousins came, and the cooking started early and the dishes stretched forever. We were allowed our stockings before breakfast, and my sister and I opened our presents to each other. But everything else had to wait until after church. Then the other families arrived, and the feasting began. The uncles put all the leaves in the table, and we used the best crockery and cutlery. We got most of the fruit and vegetables from the garden — teams, hordes really, of children sent out to forage, pod, pick, scrub — and I guess the lamb came from one of the farms. The luckiest adults got the ruby-red glasses that Papa brought back from Florence, and I’d watch them carefully, wondering when it would be my turn.

I was never allowed to read as much as I wanted to at the farm — children needed fresh air and activity — but on a cold day, you would light the fire and then I could curl up beside your chair, its leather worn, cracked, and you’d stroke my hair, your fingers curved, the bones tender against the nape of my neck. You understood balance, the weighting of exercise with rest, work with play, talk with silence. And maybe that is why it was hard to see you these last few years, to see you quiet and still, without the counterweight of activity and independence and work. You drew life from hospitality and conversation and making a home; without that, you were frail, unmoored.

And in that unmooring, I lost part of myself too, as I suspect many of us did. So many of our lines to the past are traced through women — our mothers, grandmothers, aunts. Your talk gives us our history, and it is your arms we return to for support or care. So now that you are gone, we feel unsteadied, unsure on the shaky ground of our middle years. I wish I could bring back that world — even for a day — just to step into it, look around, be small and safe and cared for again. I wish I could take my children there, my friends too, but instead you have given me, given all of us, the harder task: to create our own worlds, build our own homes, and open them to others.

And perhaps the best we can do is to remember you in the small moments — when we light a fire or brew a pot of tea, when we stir porridge or let marmalade fall from spoon to toast, when we pick flowers from our gardens or welcome family and friends to our tables. Perhaps all we can do is carry you with us in the quiet fabric of how we live and be in the world; perhaps all we can do is recognise you, greet you, in a sister, a child, a friend.



Obviously, I have known Granny all my life. However, I’ve realised recently that what I know of someone is in most cases only a small fraction of their whole lives, so this eulogy is fairly limited to my own experiences, for which I apologise. But when I think of Granny, I think of my childhood.

Growing up, my family went regularly to visit Granny at her old house in Lady Barkly. This was a magical place to us, like stepping into a storybook: full of long sun-drenched afternoons, tea and biscuits on the lawn, frogs hiding under rocks and sheep in the fields. Stiles and gooseberry bushes, tennis and bike rides, and cosy evenings by the fire, watching Coronation Street. But my favourite memories of the Barkly are of staying in Granny’s wee sunroom, nestled between her room and my parents’ at the top of the house. Lying awake surrounded by my grown-ups, hearing the trees rustle and the occasional lonely sheep, I have never felt more safe.

It was that safety and sense of peace, I think, that made staying at Granny’s such fun. In such a stable and loving place, we were free to explore, find boundaries and pretend to transgress – knowing all the while that a pot of tea and cheese biscuits were just around the corner. Granny built this environment, it came directly from her. She offered us a space of boundless discovery, and set us free to find our own places in it.

Mind you, us kids didn’t just run wild at Granny’s house – or in my case, lie idle. My idea of an ideal winter’s day is: fire, chair, book. But Granny knew that these things are even better if you split them up with a bracing walk around the driveway to collect pinecones. She taught us the value of a balanced life, one that includes both rest and work, conversation and reflection, simplicity and small indulgences.

I think this was also apparent in her craft. Granny knitted, sewed and made embroidery all her life, and was a skilled craftsperson. There are few memories more comforting to me than the sound of her spinning wheel on an evening by the fire, and us grandchildren cherish her beautiful hand-embroidered Christmas stockings. And to me, her craft was about balance: the economy of clothing your family in hand-spun handknits, and the creative joy of making beautiful things. The pleasure of wrapping your loved ones in warmth, and the pleasure of spending your time in satisfying industry. My mother made her own way into craft and textile art, and I think was influenced by this dichotomy of function and economy, and a love of creative expression, colour and form. I’ve now found my own place in craftwork, and while I regret that I can’t directly share this experience with these women who came before me, I am deeply glad to continue the conversation.

Lady Barkly also a highly social world, for all its geographic isolation. Uncle Hugh or Cousin Mike would often pop over during breakfast, to snag a cup of tea and drop off the mail and the milk. And in the afternoons we would go to see Uncle John and family, or to Margie Divers or another friend. This taught me the value of maintaining family and social connections, but also showed me one of Granny’s qualities that I truly admired: her sense of place in the world. Granny, I think, never felt any great need to define or question her life, to proclaim it to the world or rail against it. She had a life of social networks and strong relationships, of routine and well-established belief. An awareness of what was important to her, and how she was important to other people. This gave her her generosity, her ability to share wisdom and guidance, and an shakeable sense of the right way to do things: how to bake bread, prune roses, or look after guests. I found this deeply reassuring, and loved sharing her world of peace and calm.

But we didn’t always get along, Granny and I. My teenage years saw a prolonged series of arguments, mostly around clothes and appearance. But I like to think we each understood the others’ side of the debate. I knew she just wanted me to have self-confidence and care in the way I presented myself, and she knew I was a bolshy upstart who would grow out of it. Granny cared about presentation: she was never more herself than in a fine knit jersey, hair done, with her pearls and a matching skirt. But it wasn’t just about shallow appearances. Granny believed in the self-confidence and poise that such care brings, and found strength in presenting a strong face to the world.

But the best thing that she taught me was the value of family, and most especially of sisterhood. She and her sister Nan were both widowed young, and lived for years their own lives, separate but always close by. Quite different in their temperaments, beliefs and outlooks, they were able to live side by side, accepting their differences, and finding a true companionship. They were never far apart, and it is hard to remember one without the other. Being lucky enough to have my own sister, I have always been touched by their unquestioning trust and love for each other, and I’m quite looking forward to Mary and I being similarly formidable old ladies one day. We’re practicing. Thank you.

The last run

You slipped away tonight, Granny, waited till we weren’t watching, then took your last breath. I wanted to be with you, have held you in my heart through these past weeks, but I knew you wanted to make your own way, a small cat curled in the dark.

I found you a poem though. My friend Maria wrote it. You’d like her; she makes a good cup of tea. So, rest easy now. I will miss you always.


The last run

Up the hill behind our house.
He’d hardly been talking,
too polite and quiet,
like he had to conserve energy,
take short shallow breaths —
like he was old.

Then he woke me one morning
threw my running shoes on to the bed,
stood shining
in the doorway,
dressed already
brother again.

He was faster.
In the wind ahead of me
his white T-shirt billowed
round like a lantern.
The street lights flicked off
as we passed them.
The sound of our shoes
like a song.

I could almost smell jasmine.
I could almost smell snow.

He reached the top, where you
could see clear over the other side,
and turned to me smiling,
Meggie, run faster, I was heaving,
heavy as a horse. Quick, he said
as if it were a gift he was giving me —
quick, before the city disappears.

Maria McMillan, The Rope Walk.

reading with grannyFor Margaret Lindsay Simmers, née Dalrymple.
12 May 1916 – 8 June 2014.

P1010916.JPG P1020882.JPG


Little girls, on the edge

I don’t know you, readers. I don’t know whether you want these stories, these ramblings, these slivers of an editor’s life. So this is for the maybe-not-even-real ones who do. This is for the one, or none, or some of you who think about those ladies in Southland, my grandmother and my great-aunt, and wonder how they are, how the story is spinning.

Well, it’s hard. The story is spinning slower and slower, and one day soon it will stop. Granny got a chest infection, and we thought she would die. I stayed with her for six days, sitting with her sister, Nan, holding hands, helping Granny to drink, washing her face. Nan and I talked and talked, just quietly, no rush, letting the old family stories play. It was a good time — sad and scary and lonely, but comforting too.

And we had some funny moments. Nan was talking about moving into the resthome, how she’s finding it, what she’d like to work on. She said, “I don’t know about being in here. I just feel like it’s moving me into an age bracket that I’m not quite ready to join.” She’s 99. And it’s true.

Then after three or four days of barely talking, of tiny responses, of looking on the very edge of life, Granny started to look more alert. A nurse was asking her about dinner, suggesting eggs, soup, vegetables. All Granny’s food is soft; her teeth aren’t up to chewing. “What would you like?” the nurse said, leaning over her, talking loud. Granny opened her eyes, looked straight at the nurse, and said (tartly), “Steak.” Point to you, Granny.

So that was a few weeks ago, and we know that Granny will slowly get more frail, and then maybe there’ll be another infection, and then she might not rally.

But now Nan is sick. A chest infection too. My sister and I went down yesterday, sat with them both, tried to pretend it would all be okay. But I’m scared this time, listening for the phone call, planning to go down again at the weekend. I asked the head nurse what she thought, how the story might go. She didn’t really know, of course, none of us do, apart from the inevitability of two ladies in their late 90s, with bodies that must be tough as steel, but that can’t withstand everything, for ever.

“They’re like two little girls,” she said, “standing on the edge of a pool, holding hands, wondering which of them will jump first.”  How I wish they didn’t have to make that jump.

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