17 November 2017, St John's, Toorak, Melbourne, Australia
There have been a number of sad moments this week. Opening a Word document, something I do regularly as a writer, and naming it ‘Nen’s Eulogy’ was a shock.
Constantly overriding the autocorrect on my phone -- which still changes the name ‘Ben’ to ‘Nen’, was a shock.
Making the plum pudding for the very first time without Nen – even if it was just having her issue directions from the couch as she did last year -- was a shock.
Seeing Nen’s little dog, Timmy, lying down outside her bedroom.
Throwing out Nen’s favourite shoes, the ‘comfy’ones’ that I had been urging her to replace because, as I kept trying to tell her, no deserving poor would want those…
And writing four simple words, four impossible words, Nen died on Tuesday.
I don’t know when these things will get easier. I don’t know that I want them to. But a little over a week ago, my grandmother sat down to watch the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops the Nation. And this year, it not only stopped the Nation, it also stopped Nen.
Before this week, I don’t think I understood death – that there can be good deaths – and my grandmother lived a fine life, but she had the great luck of a fine death, and for that I will always be exceptionally grateful. Nen did not want to die alone. And she didn’t. She died surrounded by family and flowers.
Over the last week, all of us sat with Nen and we told her how much she had meant to us. We got time to say goodbye and time to say thank you. Nen was able to listen to her interstate grandchildren and to her brother on the phone. She got time to say goodbye to her son and grandson. Mum, T and I took turns to sit by her bed, while the other two lay on a mattress in the bathroom, Harry Potter style. This caused a nurse to look horrified as she peered into the shower cubicle in the dark ‘Just how many relative are in there?’
And even in death, Nen was still fun and funny.
She was able to flirt with her favourite nurse Kai/Kye, even after she failed to recognize her own daughter – charm was in that girl’s DNA.
She hated to be underestimated and she had sass in spades, sass enough to roll her eyes when asked by the neurologist whether she could manage a blink.
When the minister administered last rites in the hospital, Nen sat up and barked ‘I’m fine’.
But this eulogy is not just about Nen’s death, it’s about Nen’s life, it is about a woman who lived as she wished, independently until 91 and a half, fit, elegant, charismatic and full of vim.
Nen was always the grandmother in the tailored pants and a jaunty little hat. She was always chic. She was a grandmother of whom I was immensely proud because people always commented how young and gorgeous she looked. But of course she was young. Nen was a grandmother in her 40s. She was younger than me and parenting a married woman who lived a hemisphere away and a teenage son on a surfboard. No wonder she had time to brush her hair.
Nen was a hoarder. Born of war time and ration cards, Nen was of a generation that was environmental because they had done without and never quite trusted it wouldn’t happen again. Consequently, she never threw anything out. Nothing. Need one of those tags that does up a bread bag? Second drawer. There’s a sack of them. 50 years worth of multigrain.
Nen loved a bargain, Nen chased bargains like they were a blood sport. She would buy a pallet of loo paper to get it at 23c a roll. Her house was often full of strange foods she picked up because it was just too hard to go past 24 pink iced donuts with a best before day of 4 November at $2.99. It gave her great pleasure just to watch them going off at that price. Besides, Nen only ever saw best before dates as a guideline rather than a deadline. If it was burnt, scrape it down. If it was mouldy, slice it off, if it was black, toss it in the freezer.
Nen was strong. The thing I learnt through observing Nen, is that you don’t just cruise into 90. You work at it. You still haul your shopping trolley up hill to the shops every day. You still walk the dog at 91 and a half. You are still mattocking your 2000m2 garden at 89. It was therefore fitting that Nen’s granddaughters helped carry her coffin out of the church this morning.
Nen was a health nut before health nuts starred on Instagram. Nen loved a bit of crudité. Bran on cereal. Porridge. All that celery. That celery is genetic. But having monitored treats for her children and then her grandchildren, Nen’s standards really slipped when it came to her great grandchildren and she used to proudly tell me that Tommy calls her ‘Bickie Nenny’. There were no rules at Nen’s. And if there were rules imposed by the parents, Nen overruled them. I would go out of the room and return to find Nen feeding the boys chocolate biscuits, Pringles and cordial half an hour before dinner. As a friend reminded my sister and me yesterday, when Nen took her out to buy a treat as a child in the 80s, they came back with a flannel. That’s the sort of treat the grandmother of my childhood was famous for.
Nen never drove in Melbourne. She had too many ks to clock up on her fitbit. But for those Sydneysiders who have seen Nen drive, there was nothing more nerve-wracking. Or to be more accurate, not seeing Nen drive. Nen was so tiny you actually couldn’t see her behind the wheel. Even propped up on her driving cushion.
Golly gosh. The car’s driving itself! It’s like driving Miss Daisy without Daisy. Look closely and you’d just sees her hands clutching the wheel [action].
Us girls inherited much from Nen: Her wit, her charm, her bunions. One of her greatest lessons, however, was that a job not done properly is not worth doing at all. I still say that as I force my way through unpacking the dishwasher, my tax or the unbearable crusade that is my son’s violin practice. Nen set very high standards for herself and was exacting about others. At no point was this proven more strongly, than one afternoon when I was 16 and constructing my fake ID at the kitchen table. Watching me hash this operation, Nen snapped. ‘Oh I’ll do it’, snatched the pencil from me and expertly executed a federal felony motivated not by the desire to break the law as much as a desire to do the job properly. I was busting to get caught just so I could explain to a magistrate that my grandmother had made it for me. Of course the job was done so properly that ID was inscrutable.
While Nen was an expert at fake ID, and certainly embraced a number of modern ideas, she never quite got on top of technology. On hearing her mobile in her handbag, Nen stopped and said. ‘Oh Mr Whippy’s changed its tune’.
Nen added contacts to her mobile by sticking names on post-it notes to the back of her phone. But she did embrace modern conveniences in fashion and became a terrific fan of both the puffer jacket and pol-ar fleece which got her through her Melbourne winters.
Nen had a terrific sense of the ridiculous. She was still willing to hop in the booster seat to travel in my car at 90. She wore bunny ears with the children at Easter, antlers at Christmas time and she delighted in games like Headbanz in which she had a card stuck to her head and tried to guess whether she was a tomato or a can of condensed milk.
Nen loved children. Any walk with Nen was slow but not because she couldn’t hip flick with the best of the speed walkers for most of her life, but because she would stop to chat to every baby. But Nen loved no babies more than those in her own family and it has been a great privilege to have had her here in Melbourne watching her great grandchildren grow up.
Nen’s commitment to family was decidedly unWASP; she carved her own family culture. She was caring to the very end. Dazed and confused in emergency, she was still caring with every last ounce of strength, comforting my sister as she cried.
Nen’s desire to nurture, came, I suspect, from the trauma of boarding school – she was sent away at 10 and returned home only twice a year. She often spoke of her mother waiting for her four children to arrive on the drive, waiting with her arms outstretched for her brood. I look at our children now and wonder how on earth she did it. This meant that Nen made her home a home in which everybody was cared for. Lean cuisine was not in Nen’s freezer or her vernacular and she never took family for granted. Until very recently, nothing was too much.Nen flew down from Sydney to help mind our children so that I could attend the Sydney Writers Festival. When we were children, she flew down from Sydney to see our school concerts. She sewed navy flannel petticoats for us to wear under our itchy school skirts. She laboured to create beautiful cakes for our birthdays and smocked our party dresses.
Almost two years ago our family toasted Nen for her 90th birthday. We were so lucky to have a grandparent so present in our lives and in the lives of our children and we knew it.
Nen died as she lived. Adored. She leaves a deep hole for such a tiny woman, one I cannot even begin to reconcile.
Darling Nen, our grand matriarch. Vale, farewell. We love you.
Australian author Kim Kane's award winning time slip novel, 'When the Lyrebird Calls' is dedated to Nen. (Allen & Unwin, 2015)