Somebody sent me a photo of the vacant block where Nan and Pa’s house had stood, even longer than the seventy-five years they occupied it. Well, at least Pa had been in it that long, Nan having pre-deceased him by more than a decade. Although demographically the average longevity of women being greater than that of men, this might seem incongruous, it was not the case. Nan was twelve years Pa’s senior. They would call her a cougar in this modern era, based simply on the age difference, but they would be wrong. She was a church-going woman of strong Christian values, and predation had no foothold in her psyche.
My memories of Nan are wrapped up with that house, as vivid as if they were yesterday and not nearly fifty years past. I can see the cracks in the lino that had been laid on the kitchen floor before I was born. I can feel the dip in the centre of the wooden back step worn away by the thousands of footfalls before mine. I remember the mornings when slivers of light peeked through window blinds rolled thin by years of ups and downs. Even as a child I noticed the cracks in the hand-painted kookaburras on floor-to-ceiling black curtains that divided the passage from the front to the back of the house.
If I close my eyes, Nan is there still, on a low stool by the stove, the firebox open to warm the room or at least her small part of it. Her apron, stretched across her lap, is awash with peas freshly picked from the garden. One by one she splits the pods, and with a single sweep of her thumb the peas cascade into an enamel bowl held between her knees. My brother and I liked to help – the fresh peas popped juicy in our mouths – and so joined Nan until she hunted us away, lest there not be enough left for dinner.
Nan, like most in her day, was a tea drinker. There was always a kettle ready to come to the boil and often a teapot, recently filled, sitting in easy reach on a black brick shelf beside the stove top. Loose tea leaves were kept in a tin caddy, intricately patterned in blue and white, and worn in places back to shiny bare metal by the touch of her hand. I hear still the hollow thunk of cold tea and sodden leaves thrown atop a mound, in a flower garden where snowdrops and grape hyacinth bloomed beneath a walnut tree come springtime.
So too I hear her late afternoon call of ‘Here, chook, chook, chook.’ Her voice melodic in its clarity, heralded for all who lived near, her presence in the yard. She strolled across grass and dirt, and through dropped pine needles, calling. She trod on the bones cast up the back, of the hens of dinners past, as she rounded up, the hens of dinners to come. They ran to her, followed in her wake, anticipating their own dinner before being confined to the pens for the night. Wheat she threw in a wide arc, fell across the chook yard, dropping with the pattering sound of dust filled rain drops and disappeared beneath the rat-a-tat-tat of pecking beaks.
In an age when nothing was wasted, beside the red and yellow glow of an open fire, Nan sat in an arm chair and knitted woollen socks. Round and round and round she went, knitting on double tipped needles. The tubes of socks grew, her hands blurred with the speed of a routine repeated in all the winters past. When the socks wore out, she stretched them across a wooden mushroom, darned them and made them whole again. When they could no longer be made whole, Nan unravelled them. I can see the tight balls of wool recycled, perhaps not for the first time, and dropped in a basket waiting to be reincarnated.
These are the memories that sit closest to the surface of my mind, the everyday things that served and nurtured children and then grandchildren. These are the memories I treasure and jealously guard against the devil that is forgetfulness. I cast aside the photo of the vacant block where Nan and Pa’s house had stood even longer than the seventy-five years they occupied it. It warrants no acknowledgement. If I close my eyes, that house and Nan are there still.
~Gayle Marien, 63. Wonthaggi, Victoria