7 Things I learned from my grandmother

Phyllis Ward – affectionately known in my family as ‘Mother’ – died on 22nd July 2012 aged 93. She was my much loved grandmother and the last of my grandparents to pass away.

Ninety three is old – especially when you consider what she’d seen in her lifetime. Aside from the obvious things there was toilet paper, paracetamol, vinyl, plastic bags, supermarkets, seasonal fashion, and long range weather forecasts. My grandmother lived in an era when people started work at 13 years of age, when houses were built without running water, bathrooms or toilets, when baked bread was considered a convenience food and young people died of pneumonia. She lived through nearly a century of rapid and profound social, economic and technological change, and given her long life experience, I want to share with you some of the wisdom I gleaned from her while she was alive.

Things I learned from my grandmother.

1. Sit up straight, put your shoulders back.

While this sounds like a piece of advice from Ms Havershams School of Deportment for Elegant Ladies, it means so much more than simply holding oneself erect. My grandmother believed in dignity, which was why watching her dissolve into dementia was so painful. She was always well turned out and taught me to take pride in myself and to always walk with my head held high.

2. Slippers are not for wearing outside.

I learned this golden gem when I was only 4 or 5 years old. She’d bought me a new pair of slippers with Mickey Mouse embroidered on the toes. I was mighty proud of those slippers and she growled at me when she found me playing in them outside in the empty chook shed.

It took me a long time to understand the value of this advice. Everything has its purpose (including indoor footwear) and to ruin things by using them inappropriately is not only wasteful, it’s disrespectful of the object itself. If you want something to last take care of it, use it properly and appropriately. Needless to say I still can’t wear my slippers outside.

3. Be careful to whom you address the following question: How are you?

My grandmother was so very right about this one. The world is full of tyre kickers and time wasters who are just waiting for an opportunity to fill your ears with their pointless whining. What you should do is smile politely (because manners are important too), say hello and keep pushing that walker away from them as quickly as possible. If the very same question is directed at you, you are not obliged to answer. Just tell them to mind their own business – which my grandmother did – often.

4. You can’t expect to always get along with your life partner.

While this seems like a no brainer, it’s the one truth most people forget when they’re making their starry eyed marriage vows. There is a no nonsense honesty about this advice I have always valued. It reminds me, especially at those times when I have to restrain myself from poking someone I love in the eye, that I’m not perfect and I’m probably lucky to still have my own eyesight.

Personally I think her list is a bit short. She should have included daughters and sons, dogs, other random family members, work colleagues, friends and cats.

5. History is important.

My grandmother and grandfather spent a lot of time and money researching their respective family histories. Thanks to my grandmother I can claim to be partly descended from the Huguenots, French blue blood no less, which would have to balance out all that wild Scottish/Irish  temper – surely?

But it’s not just about genealogy and all those confusing circles and squares in a family tree. It’s about tribe. My grandmother taught me that I belong, that I am part of something larger than myself – it’s called family.

6. Laughter is a form of forgiveness – and saying sorry.

Whenever my grandmother was angry with me, she’d soothe my hurt or irritated feelings with a joke, mostly at her own expense. Try it. If you’re annoyed with someone, if you’re arguing over something petty, if there’s tension in the air, take a look at yourself and how ridiculous you’re being and laugh. It’s a great tension breaker – especially with kids.

7. You don’t need to wear underwear to bed because it’s good to give your bottom a rest at night.

For some reason this bizarre and meaningless piece of advice, offered to me when I was very young, fresh out of the bath and ready to climb into my bloomers and pyjamas, has stayed with me. So much so I offered it to my own daughter a few years ago and she recently repeated it to a friend during a sleepover. This is where superstitions begin. I’m powerless to stop it now. No doubt my descendents 50 years from now will be refusing to wear underwear to bed because Mother said so. I’m not sure how happy she’d be that this will be her lasting legacy, but I reckon she’d get a bloody good laugh out of it. And given the enormous value of her other pieces of advice, I think she’s allowed one real dud.

I am relieved that my grandmother is free of the vast indignities and discomforts of old age. Her spirit, and her strange advice, will live on through her children, grandchildren and great grand children.

Farewell, Mother, grandmother of mine.

I love you, I miss you, rest well, in peace.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: In the beginning….. | Singing over the bones & rising from the ashes
  2. Celie
    Jul 30, 2012 @ 11:15:40

    You make her so real Kate, and it is a privelege to share a journey such as hers. My mother in law also lived to 94 (born 1901) and also saw so much change, and I would sometimes marvel at her courage in embracing it and gently steering her family throught the ups and downs of life along the way. She still is the only person I know who waltzes 1,2,3,4!! It was good to be with you last week and we all send our love – Celie xxxx


  3. Colleen Power
    Jul 30, 2012 @ 11:05:56

    Lovely Kate xx


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