My grandmother died today, after a long life and a short illness. I am so sad that she is lost to us, but I’m also relieved that her suffering has ended.
I have nothing but happy memories of Nanna. When we were children we would often spend a few weeks of our summer holidays with her and Grandad at their Te Horo beach house, swimming in the sea, going for endless long walks on country roads, visiting their friends and generally fitting into their day-to-day lives. They were very tolerant of having three little granddaughters to stay, and I don’t even remember them getting cross when, inevitably, one of us would bring sea shells into the beach house and end up causing horrible smells in our bedroom as the shellfish rotted.
Nanna would swim in the sea and had a fantastic swimming cap, with rubber flowers stuck all over it. She also had fantastic, chunky polished stone jewellery and the most beautiful emerald engagement ring – square-cut, with diamonds around it. Until recently, she was the only person I knew with an emerald engagement ring. She dressed well and, as a child, she seemed to me very glamorous.
Like our family, Nanna and Grandad were Catholics and I have vivid memories of going to mass with them at the church in Otaki, and also at their normal church in Wellington, at the top of Willis St (which was demolished to make way for soulless town houses, in rich irony). Nanna was strict about bedtime prayers and I can still half-feel the sand on the cork tiles of the beach house living room floor, as I recited:
God bless Mummy and Daddy and Philippa and Victoria, and Nanna and Grandad and Grandma, and Auntie Jen and Uncle Jim, and Uncle Keith and Auntie Suni and all my little cousins. And God bless Jacquelyn and make her a good girl!
Visiting Nanna and Grandad was a different experience in Wellington: they had a busy social circle and granddaughters were often pressed into service, passing around nuts and chippies for the guests. It always felt quite ‘grown-up’, visiting in Wellington. I can remember going to an adults-only birthday dinner held for one of their best friends. I can also remember going to a yoga class with Nanna when I was eight or nine – she must have been in her late 60s, but she was very bendy!
Our Christmas ritual was to spend Christmas Day itself at home, catching up with friends, and then to have a visit from Nanna and Grandad (and usually Auntie Jen and Uncle Jim) on Boxing Day. I can remember waiting at the end of our long driveway for what seemed like hours, watching out for Nanna and Grandad’s car to arrive.
Nanna was an amazing woman. Long before it became commonplace for women to work, she was a secretary and personal assistant to several senior businessmen. She liked nice things and she worked to bridge the gap between Grandad’s income and her aspirations. When she retired, she was busier than ever: volunteering (she was a ‘pink lady’ at Wellington Hospital for many years, running errands and generally cheering up patients), taking part in walking groups, playing bridge, visiting friends, going to the cinema… When I moved to London in 1997 I remember having to book in my farewell lunch with her a couple of weeks in advance, as her social diary was a great deal more packed than mine.
When Tristan and I lived in Wellington for the first few months of 2004 she and Tristan struck up a mutual admiration. Tristan wasn’t working and she would call him to ask for help with little tasks: changing a light bulb, or hanging a painting. He’d arrive at her house to find that she had a large number of additional tasks lined up, and had also baked something to keep him sweet. Nanna never learned how to drive, so one task was often to take her to the supermarket or a liquor store, to stock up. Nanna liked her drinks strong – she made me a vodka and blackcurrant once that was 99% vodka. I choked on the first sip, but she’d downed hers in a couple of mouthfuls and was already asking if I was ready for another. It’s not often that a woman in her early 30s is out-drunk by a woman in her 80s. Nanna was famed for having no interest in the modern trend for drinking water: ‘water’s for washing in’, she would comment if she was ever offered a glass. Similarly, she often struggled to acknowledge that drinks existed as anything other than a mixer – when she tasted Coke for the first time, her immediate question was ‘what would you mix this with?’
After my Grandad died life became a little more lonely for Nanna. Time passed and she outlived most of her friends. For somebody who had always been so sociable, it was hard to see that side of her life wither. She would often comment that she felt at her most lonely from 5pm to 7pm each evening, as that’s the time of day that Grandad would make her a cocktail – theirs was the generation that would actually have people around for a couple of drinks before dinner. Nanna always took pride in her appearance and had no interest in going grey; when her natural red hair turned white she had it tinted – sometimes a slightly alarming shade of apricot. She wore makeup and nail polish and she dressed well. She never just succumbed to being a little old lady.
As Nanna became older, it was hard to see her independence seep away. She couldn’t keep a dog anymore. She couldn’t keep her house clean. My aunt, Jen, moved back from the USA to live with her, but it became apparent that Nanna needed full-time care if she was to avoid burning down the house, so three or four years ago she moved into a rest home. I tried to stay in touch with her by sending her presents and flowers on her birthday and by writing to her a few times a year – I know that she loved getting news from Tristan and me. I treasure the letters she wrote to me, all of which pre-date her rest home move. It seemed to me as though she became properly old when she entered the rest home, and that all of the time since then has just been spent in a waiting room.
Last October my mother called to say that Nanna’s doctor thought she had bowel cancer and that it would be sensible to avoid delaying a visit home, if I wanted to see her again. I flew back for a six-day visit and saw her three times. I’m so glad that I did. When I visited her again this time round, she was too old and too tired to enjoy it, or converse.
Certain things will always remind me of Nanna (and Grandad): the sound of Radio New Zealand (talk radio) coming from another room; the smell of toast burning; the taste of over-cooked vegetables; the taste of cucumber slices in vinegar; ginger kisses; the Te Horo turn-off from State Highway 1; the sight of a perfume atomiser. I could go on and on about the relics that I remember from Nanna’s life – the ornaments on her coffee table, the fabric on her sofa, the pattern on the carpet in the Wellington house.
Nanna had traits that I prize in others and attempt, always, to cultivate in myself: she was energetic; she was sociable; she maintained strong friendships; she valued her family; she worked very hard; she contributed to her community; she was kind; she knew how to have fun; she had style. I loved her and she will be misssed.
Kathleen Marie Nidd: 22 April 1915 – 2 May 2011. R.I.P.