I lived with my Nanna from the age of two until the age of eight. My mother married young and the marriage didn’t last long so we ended up living at my Nanna’s house – my mum, my sister, and me.
Nanna’s house was a small weatherboard cottage in suburban Brunswick, Melbourne. It was painted in cream and grey colors that peeled every year into curling pieces patterned like a desert lake drying to tiled mud when the rains don’t come.
One of my first memories was of standing on the concrete path beside the painted boards, beneath a sashed bedroom window and its tin awning, and observing the way the paint pieces threw shadows in the sunlight and curled up.
I loved to push those curls down and watch them drop away to the path, just like kids (and adults) like popping the bubbles out of bubble wrap, today.
As I stood on that concrete path, there was a small square patch of lawn behind me, surrounded by low, perfectly clipped box hedges. The hedges sheltered Nanna’s array of cottage garden flowers, which she assiduously updated each year.
Nanna would buy manure from the local stables to dig into her garden beds, including the large veggie patch she’d installed in the area beside the house. She had been reared as a farm girl in the Mallee region of Victoria and grew up in Ararat, so she knew how to make use of every available space. She even had her own chook yard near the veggie patch to supply fresh eggs daily. The chooks (chickens) were also the big dinner we had during celebration periods like Christmas. Sometimes, she would buy new chooks from a vendor who came to the rear gate in his truck and sold her a brace of live chooks from cages, strung from their odd little legs and still flapping their wings in fright.
The chooks had reason to be frightened. Soon after arriving, Nanna would get out her axe and take them to the chopping block in the back yard, where she’d promptly remove their heads. It was never a dull sight watching headless chooks running around the back yard with their wings still flapping. Whoever thought your body could still do that without a head?
After chopping off their heads, Nanna would set to work with a huge tin laundry tub full of warm water, sitting over it as she plucked every feather from the chooks’ bodies. The stench of wet feathers was amazing. Yet she never wasted anything. Those chook feathers would later be cleaned and dried, and added to pillows and doonas to top up a lack of pile.
Nanna was old school. Her laundry was also a massive larder. She had a big boiler that she often washed her clothes in, long after she had given in to the purchase of an electric washing machine with a wringer on it. She used a big stick to stir the clothes as they boiled. I suppose that was a throwback to an era when people got sick and there was no other effective way to clean the germs from clothes and bedding than to boil them.
She used the boiler to make her jams, too. Basically, it was a big cooking pot, heated by a gas ring underneath. Nanna made a lot of jam. My favorite was her apricot jam. Everyone loved her apricot jam. She’d spend hours smashing open the stones of the apricots to extract the kernels, then chop them up and add them to the jam. They looked like almond slivers and tasted yummy. They gave the jam a particularly tangy taste that I have never been able to match elsewhere. The whole family would eat that jam quick smart, by the spoon full if there wasn’t a piece of toast to slather it on.
Years later, the darker secrets of Nanna’s jam became evident when I was looking for answers to why my autoimmune system struggled so hard to maintain good levels of health. All my family have autoimmune disorders of one kind or another, and many of my extended relatives died from a range of different types of cancers. When I found out that apricot kernels are full of cyanide that can be carcinogenic, it did leave me wondering. The tradition of that apricot jam had been passed down through generations to my Nanna. Did Nanna unwittingly poison us all as I was growing up?
Even knowing that, I still hanker for that tangy apricot flavor. I love tang. That’s why I used to eat her begonias. Well, the little red flower heads, anyway. She had a border of them on either side of the little path leading from the front porch to the ornate wire gate at the street. On either side of that path, there were two small patches of lawn surrounded by her flower beds, and that’s where I, my sister, and our cousins often played when we were at Nanna’s house, long after my mother remarried and we no longer lived there all the time.
Apart from another small square of lawn in the back yard, these were the only areas we felt safe to play on, really, because Nanna had succumbed to her Meditteranean neighbor’s penchant for concreting in every other bit of land space. That meant that running around on concrete carried the risk of bloody knees and hands when we fell down, so instead we chose to use the little front lawns. (My aunty, who also lived with my Nanna, used the rear patch to sunbake on).
The patches of lawn were too small to run around on but we did a pretty good job at being active, anyway, playing such games as ‘statue’ and ‘salt and pepper.’ Surely you know those old games that kids used to play? Statue means you are not allowed to move no matter how much you are teased, while someone pulls the most absurd faces right in front of you. Salt and pepper is a ‘move slow, move fast’ scenario, a bit like ‘Simon says’ (which we also played) because the trick is to not get caught doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
We also played ballerinas, swinging our legs around doing pirouettes. Amazing what you can do in small spaces when you are also little, but I did keep growing and on one of those occasions Nanna’s prickly pear cactus, that she grew at one corner of her porch (an interesting greeter for visitor’s, I know), swiped a long spike right through my big toe.
I’d tell you that was awful but a lot of my childhood was already filled with visits to the doctor to get tetanus shots, as I had a habit of walking around in bare feet and I loved to play balance on old wooden boards with rusty nails still in them, that had been left exposed in nearby construction yards. Nails loved to embed themselves in my feet but I never learnt to wear shoes much (not till later, anyway). That may have come from being told by the doctor that I ought not to wear shoes a lot of the time, after being diagnosed with ‘flat feet’ at a very young age.
When Nanna’s back yard was still long grass and sour sop, we loved to eat the sour sop flowers, too. I know why kids still love those sweet and tangy lollies today, because I ate sour sop flowers and sucked their stems all through summer. After she had the back yard concreted, though, the sour sop disappeared. So it was wonderful when we discovered that the begonia flowers had just the same taste! (similar, anyway).
When I began studying health subjects as an adult, I finally realized that the reason those plants taste sour is because they are full of uric acid that crystallizes in a human body and can cause arthritis and similar health disorders.
Would I want to go back and redo those situations so that I may perhaps not have the arthritis I have today? Well, no. For me the sacrifice was worth making those wonderful memories. Just the thought of sucking on begonias and sour sop still leaves a sensation of pleasure…
There are lots of things in life that are not particularly good for us. There are lots of ways we could be living better and healthier lives. There is, however, a trade off in mollycoddling ourselves to the degree where we stop experiencing the dangerous or the risky and don’t experience the highs and lows that bring the contrast of shadows to our light. If we never know anything but clean and bright, what have we to compare that to, to know what it truly is? How can we know it is good when we never know the bad?
Kids today often say they are bored. They are surrounded by much and more of the stuff I dreamed of having as a child and yet it’s not enough for them. They often live protected lives eating healthy food and are not allowed to play outside in case they get bitten by a spider or some stranger comes to steal them from their yards. (That may be extreme but I’m trying to make a point…)
How can kids have a true measure of the world unless they are able to make mistakes? How can they have a true measure of themselves if they are not allowed to experiment? How can they learn to take care of themselves if they are never taught how to survive the outside world? How can our children today learn to see the beauty in a simple sour sop plant and experience those same summer pleasures I did so long ago if they are not allowed to engage in the world on those levels?
I am so glad for the experiences of my childhood, even as I discover how dangerous they were or might have been, today. My Nanna, too, had all sorts of health problems, some of which we only fully became aware she was dealing with after her body had finally gone. Beautiful on the outside but with a sour taste to the inner juice, the bright red begonia flower and its fluffy golden center remind me of my Nanna. She was given the title of ‘battleaxe’ despite being very much a lady in her manners, just because she was a single mother in an age when being a single mother was not the done thing, and just because she tackled all tasks with the strength and energy of a man.
It is surprising, then, to realize that she did all that while assailed by so many detrimental health problems. Because she rarely complained and lived as a gentle and nurturing woman amid her family, she thrived despite that sour thread through her life. She survived very well until the great age of 82, when it took a particularly rare cancer of the nervous system to finally kill her off. By golly, she is probably making jams in Walhalla right now!
I truly believe that so long as you put on a brave face, keep smiling and engaging in life to the fullness of your ability, you can manage almost any disease or illness, or any difficult situation. That’s what my Nanna taught me – not by talking but by doing, and being. Like the begonia flower she was bright and juicy and a vigorous survivor, despite the sour streams running in her veins. I adored her, of course.