Thursday, January 21, 2010

The death of my last grandmother

My Grandmother died last week.

The funeral was a sad event for me. I went back to the church that my brother calculated he'd spent 30 days of his life in (just over 20 days for me, 520 hours). It is a lot smaller than I remember and looks cheap and tacky now. The statues of Jesus and Mary are comical. The tabernacle is deliberately aged to give the church-goer the feeling of awe. None of us remembered what to do (sit, stand, sing, kneel, etc). I didn't even remember the prayers that well.

Nevertheless, at the end I knew my grandmother was dead and that's a strange idea. The modern world of work, culture and entertainment doesn't have any recognition of death. It can't because the gestalt entity of culture and society lives forever. The Catholic religion has nothing to say neither, it just pretends that death doesn't really happen - "Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ." I find that not only completely unhelpful in dealing with death but also insulting.

The church is in the town that I spent the first 10 years of my life. I like that place. I kept looking up at the forest that I feel like I grew up in. Building secret cubby-houses, searching for the ruins of a burnt-down house (it still had the steel-frames of the beds), building an underground network of tunnels (we only got about a foot down, after a days work - the ground was harder than in our imagination), experiencing the forest burn in a bush-fire, and finding a huge fallen tree and walking on it's moss-covered trunk.

We often went collecting animals; frogs, lizards and fish were our favourites. We had a prized gecko for a while, but the blue tongue lizard was a later and much more precious creature.

We rode far and wide in our adventures. My grandmother's house was across town, by a creek. We went to play games and have family events (lunch, most often). It was a pretty cool place, but had a fake brick finish that I've never understood.

I remember parts of those 10 years well and some parts that I remember probably didn't even happen, but it doesn't matter.

I didn't get on very well with my Grandmother by the time I was a teenager. She was a fanatical Catholic and I was on my way to becoming a hardened atheist. That pretty much defined our relationship later on.

Below is the eulogy, co-written by members of my family.

Thank you for joining us in this celebration of the life of Bridget Richards - Nana, Grandma, Chris, Ciss ... mum was known by many names.

Bridget asked that a Requiem Mass be held here at St Patricks – in the town where she had made so many close friends and where Linda & Jeff and Ray & Chris lived and where their children grew up.

Thank you also to all who have contributed to this collection of memories of her life.

Bridget's mischievous nature was renowned through each generation of her family.

On one occasion her father came home with some exotic fruit to add variety to their usual diet of raw eggs, cabbage, potatoes and carrots. In an interview with her granddaughter, Emma, Bridget recounted: "My father brought oranges home once, and my brothers and I - we'd never had oranges before - we dumped them all and oooh he really got mad with us."

Soon after migrating to Australia she even ripped to pieces a signed real estate contract in front of the agent and stormed out of the office with her shocked children in tow.

In her later years, when she should have been ageing gracefully, she would join her grand-children as they played seesaw with the trailer, running from one end to the other with them as the trailer smashed down onto the gravel with a loud crash.

Bridget was a devout Catholic and an avid church goer, attending mass at every opportunity. As she grew older the church was the centre of her religious and social life - mass on Sundays and during the week, bible study groups, visiting the sick in hospital, teaching the catechism in state schools, making many friendships and welcoming priests, nuns and parishioners into her home.

One grandchild remembers that on some visits to her home, the entire sequence of the rosary was on the agenda - this took a long, long time, especially when measured in eight-year-old’s minutes.

She was an honest woman (mostly). One of her favourite sayings was "Tell the truth and shame the devil". She gave this advice to her eldest Ray when the police called for him at Elizabeth (South Australia). It was good advice and unlike the other passenger Ray did not lie to protect the driver who by the way was lighting his pipe when he ran into and damaged the shop window. Ray’s friend then drove away and did not report the accident - and yes he was an Irishman.

Bridget was an active woman and loved to travel. She never turned down a Sunday drive or an opportunity to go somewhere new. A dedicated walker, a stroll around the neighbourhood was a part of her daily routine. She would walk everywhere she needed to go, or else she used her charms to get a lift with a family member, friend or stranger to her destination.

She didn't get a driver's license until she was in her sixties when she managed to convince her son-in-law to take on the job of driving instructor. She hadn't heard that 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks'.

She loved sunshine, the water and beaches though she couldn't swim a single metre. Luckily, she had the good sense to only wade below the knees. On one occasion in her later years, after surprisingly accepting an invitation to go ‘swimming’, she tried to put this into practice – however, waves being waves, some managed to reach above the knees. This resulted in the light-hearted accusation, ‘are you trying to drown me?’

Bridget took up bowling in her latter years, even winning a bowling competition, much to the surprise of her husband, Nick.

Like many of the Irish, Bridget was a great lover of music and poetry. She had a large repertoire of poems memorised during her school days which she recited at whim. The poems often spoke of Ireland and of sadness. She was a keen dancer and singer, never missing an occasion for frivolity. She would dance whenever she could - even coaxing the staff of Glenara Lakes to dance along with her.

Coming from a remote part of Ireland where personal relations were the main source of entertainment, she never adapted to television, preferring to chat all the way through a show rather than just sit and listen - much to the annoyance of her grandchildren.

Bridget was a great befriender of people of any age. She once approached a woman who'd just missed her bus. They chatted. In minutes Bridget had organised a lift to drive her new friend to her destination and from this, a long friendship started that would last until the end of her life. This is just one of many examples of her willingness to go out of her way to meet new people. As a migrant and knowing what it is like to move to a new place, she extended this friendliness to all around her, regardless of their circumstances.

In very recent times, she constantly expressed the wish to return to Ireland. When reminded that there was only her niece Mary left, she surprised everyone with a quick reply – “that’s not true there are lots of nice Irish people there”.

We will never forget her smile, the zest she had for life and the love she had for us all. We will miss you Mum/Nana/Bridget, the twinkle in your eye - and the days of the Kerry dancing.

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