Cal Wilson: 'My grandmother had a stare that could pin you to the spot like a nail gun', Show and Tell for Grown Ups - 2016

11 July 2016, Toff in Town, Melbourne, Australia

Hello. This is my grandmother's cookie jar. It is not terribly attractive, and it's not something that I would choose to buy new, but it is very precious to me. When I look at, it fixes me in a time and a place. That is on the counter of her tiny kitchen in her tiny flat in Christchurch in the late 70s, early 80s. I was fascinated by this cookie jar. Firstly, because it had "cookies" written on it. We didn't have cookies in New Zealand, so it seemed impossibly exotic. Secondly, because in the 45 years that I have known of this jar's existence, it has never held cookies or biscuits. It has never held a comestible at all. I didn't know what it had inside it at my grandmother's house because her biscuits were homemade, and they always came swathed in baking paper, and enshrined in Tupperware.

She was an amazing baker, my grandmother. She would come to visit us, and it was called, "Gran's coming to fill the tins." She would come over with her shortbread, and her caramel slice, and her tan square, and her pink square, and her forcer biscuits and her ladybird biscuits, and these are all terms that I don't know if any other family had. But she was an incredible baker, and I always wanted to know what was inside the cookie jar, but I was too scared to ask, because my grandmother was a formidable woman. Right up until just about the day that she died, I was terrified of her.

She was pretty amazing, she was pretty funny, she was very articulate, she was a great storyteller, and my family all used to joke that we didn't have conversations, we had tag-team monologue. We used to say that we'd learn to do it tag-team, so that one person would talk and talk and talk and talk and talk until they'd run out of breath, and then the next person would jump in and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk until they'd run out of breath, and I said that my grandmother had developed a technique of circular breathing, so no else would get a word in.

But she was an amazing woman, she was a widow for 30 years, she was an incredible sewer, she was a great knitter. She lived on her own, she supplemented her pension by working in a market garden and she worked at the Gryphons Biscuit Factory. We were never allowed to buy my favourite animal biscuits because she'd seen what they did in the factory. Animal biscuits are not made from real animals. They're just in the shape of animals or amorphous blobs. But as children, we loved them. But we were forbidden because she'd seen them fall on the floor and be swept up and put in packets. She was an incredible woman. I lived in fear of incurring her wrath, which is why I never asked what was in the jar, because I didn't want to get pinned with a stare. My grandmother had a stare that could pin you to the spot like a nail gun. When you got in trouble, it was never a raised voice or anything like that, it was just this withering glare that was like you could cut a new door in the wall with the hate from her glare.

I was absolutely terrified of her. She was the sort of grandmother... I had two grandmothers, clearly, because I have two parents. Weirdly to me as a child, they both had the same first name and I thought it was such an incredible coincidence that two women called "Gran" had ended up in the same family. My mother's mother, Gran Fraser was all about greeting you at the door first, and kind of shoving your parents aside and giving you a cuddle and presents and things like that. Whereas Gran Wilson, my dad's mum, was "children should be seen and not heard," and that was quite convenient because I was always under the bed when she came over, 'cause I was just scared I was gonna get in trouble. She had very high standards in all things, especially hygiene. She grew up on a farm and she hated animals, and she had a thing where if a cat had the temerity to sit on her fence she would hose it off. The conversations would usually be like "I've just gotta go and hose a cat off the fence." She was quite dedicated to the removal of cats from fences, and she was very insistent on hygiene.

When she died, we remember discussing as a family what we should put on her headstone, and I suggested "Now go and wash your hands." Because that was one of her things. I was so afraid of I remember being made to have a sleepover at her house, doesn't that sound terrible? You should be like "Yay, we're going to Gran's!" But I was terrified, because I knew we would have meatloaf, and it was very good meatloaf apparently but I do not like meatloaf. But I had to eat it. But I was having my lunch in the garden, and I accidentally flipped the plate into the lawn and I freaked out because she would know that I had been mucking around with my lunch and so I remember eating the grass-covered food quickly so that she wouldn't discover what I had done but mostly I was terrified because I'd got potato in her lawn. It was a very good lawn.

She had very high standards in all things. She had such high standards that until I was a teenager I was quite convinced that she was somehow part of the royal family. That side of the family, they spoke a bit posh, they sounded English even though we had not been to England, well, we come originally, but not for a long time. Whenever you told her that you'd achieved something she'd say... If I said "I've got an A!" She'd go "Well, no grandchild of mine would get a B." You're like "Alright! Okay! Woo! Glad I got an A, won't tell you about the B." Or she would tell me that one of my other cousins had achieved that earlier, and I had two other cousins who were the same age as me and I found out years later as an adult she would sort of play us off against each other.

None of us realised, but she would tell me that I was too loud, I was too messy, I was too clumsy, I was told off for being too short, which I'm not entirely sure what I could have done about that, I think I wasn't eating enough, probably because It was covered in grass. But I was terrified of her. The thing that we found so hard was that to adults she was this hilarious, witty, sharp, fiery woman who could hold court and was just a... Friends would come and meet her, and "What a character your grandmother is!" And when she eventually moved into a retirement village, she was the cover girl on the brochure for the retirement village. It was Doris giving a bit of [pose]. And she was beautiful, she was a beautiful elderly woman. She had this beautiful pure white hair and it was always beautifully set.

But I seemed to be the only person aware of how mean she was to me as a kid, and I'd tell my parents, they'd be like "Aw, that's just Gran. That's just Gran!" I was like "Yeah, and I'm just me, and it's not working out very well!" As I grew older, I became less terrified of her, but I also didn't want to spend time with her, because whenever I would spend time with her, I knew that there would be something that I would be pulled up on. Even to the point where I was 26 and I was living in Auckland and I came home to visit her, and I'd dyed my hair platinum blonde, and I thought I looked fantastic. I looked a bit like the girl version of Tin-Tin. Platinum blonde hair, and I get out of the car, and I go inside to greet her, and the first thing that she said to me was "Ah! They told me your hair was the same colour as mine! But it's not, it's dirty white."

The other thing that I recall her saying to me very clearly was after my career had started to take off and I was doing a bit of stand-up comedy and I was getting work on TV. She said to me on the phone one day, "I think it's so wonderful, the way your parents can still be proud of you." We can laugh about it now. Eventually as an adult my family started to realise that she was quite hard on me, and they started to become more protective of me. Then when I was 30, she was very old, and she was reaching the end of her life. She'd been very ill, and I went to visit her in hospital. It was a moment of Hollywood closure. It was really strange, it was like if I was gonna write it in a book you'd kind of go "Well, that's a bit trite." So I'd been to see her, and she burst into tears and he held my hand and she said "I'm so sorry that I never told you I was proud of you." She said, "I haven't been a good grandmother," and I started crying, of course.

I said "Of course, you've been a wonderful grandmother. I love you so much." I went home and I was like "Fuck!", like "Fucking hell!" It was crazy. I said to my mother, "Gran said that she was sorry that she never said she was proud of me," and I was expecting my mum to be really moved by it. She said "Well, she could have said that years ago." I was like "It's a good point, Barbara, it's a good point." But it was still an amazing moment for me, and I'm so glad that we got to have that conversation while she was still alive. We're not gonna have that conversation after she's dead, I'm not into that psychic shit. It's not gonna happen. So I'm glad that we had that moment.

 At her funeral, it was very sad. I was quite sort of spaced out at her funeral, because obviously I had very mixed feelings about things. Then a friend of my father's got up and spoke. And he talked about how when he'd gone to university, my grandmother had taken him under her wing and she'd given him wonderful advice, and been a beautiful friend to him, and had stayed his friend for the rest of his life. I just remember weeping and feeling so grateful that she had that relationship with someone, even though it wasn't me. But I was like "She could be that to someone else, and someone else has loved her wholeheartedly in a way that I couldn't quite manage."

I found out eventually what was in the cookie jar, and it was just receipts and rubber bands and bread tags and stuff. All the detritus that you can't find a home for. When my dad asked me what I wanted from Gran's things, it was like "All I want is the cookie jar," because that's just... When I see it, I picture that it's Gran's flat, and amongst the kind of mixed feelings about her, that was the heart of her house for me was the kitchen where she cooked for us and she made us food. Now it sits on our sideboard and I keep business cards and coins and keys and other detritus in it. I'm so aware as I'm standing here it feels like I'm holding an urn. A pretty shit urn, but I love having it, and I love having it in my everyday life. It's been very lovely for me to think about this cookie jar and to realise and remember that I really did love my grandmother, and that she loved me.

And that is my show and tell.

Related speeches, Damian Callinan at same event, loquat jam.


Damian Callinan: 'In my family, we rarely went down the spreads aisle in the supermarket', Show & Tell for Grown-Ups - 2016

 July 2016, Toff In Town, Melbourne, Australia

'Show and Tell for Grown Ups' is a live storytelling initative presented by Tony Wilson at The Wheeler Centre. Guests bring along a signifricant show and tell, and tell a story about it. Damian Callinan is an acclaimed Australian comedian. 

This is going to podcast, so I'll need to talk this through...

There's a bit of a reveal about to happen... I'm holding a rather lurid tartany type bag, and inside is some more kind of tartany stuff ...t he suspense...

Inside that, is... another scarf, ...and

A jar of loquat jam in the middle. Wow... what a, what a build up. An ultimately pedestrian item. We're all familiar with loquats, are we? Aereo Bodrio Japonica, I think is the botanical term for the loquat.

It's a flowering fruit tree, originated from Japan, popular in south China as well. It's grown commercially as a fruit tree and also an ornamental tree.

I never trust fruit trees that have to say they are ornamental as well, usually means the fruit’s a bit shit, if you've got to describe yourself as both things, then you need to have a good hard look at your fruit. Loquats.

Ah, has anyone here tasted a loquat?

Yeah. For those of you haven't, they taste like the fruit of an ornamental tree ...essentially.

This is visual, but they, they're one of those fruits, you go ehm ahm ehmm mmm nice, thank you...

Even birds, have you ever seen a bird eating a loquat? It pulls exactly the same face. It's just nyomn-yaaaeh ehr, They just haven't got the intellect to not go to the next one, just, eh nyehnyeh that’s a bit tart, it's probably better for jam augh-orh, but they just keep going.

Humans usually have one and go, ‘thank you... ‘, and somewhat like their cousin, the cumquat, if you put enough sugar in and cook the shit out if it, it's probably ok jam. That's about it.

I'm from a home-made-jam family ― who are home-made-jam people? Who grew up with home made jam in the house?

Make some noise home-made-jam people!

Make some noise mainly-bought-jam people!

About fifty, fifty.

In fact in my family, we rarely went down the spreads isle, in the supermarket. But if we did it was just to kind of like have a quick raid on the Vegemite, or to scoff at the people with bought jam in their trolley ―’Oh Mum, the McAdam's have got bought-jam *laughs *, oh it's low joule, oh God! Poor things.’

But, we were a home-made jam family, and there were rules of consumption in our house. Mum was very strict on it. Rule number one, spread thin, ok, so it lasted, so the home made jam lasted for most of the year, spread it thin and even, of course.

And number two, Mum's rule was, you could have jam, or jam and cream. But, no butter and jam. Has anyone else had that rule? Mum just went, 'No, it just goes round and round in your mouth and just comes straight back out again, it's rubbish.' That was her rule.

Although the rules of engagement used to get thrown out when Uncle Lawrie came round on a Sunday afternoon, for scones. And Mum would have to secret herself from the room as Uncle Lawrie put on a fairly generous layer of butter, followed by a very generous layer of jam, sometimes two different varieties... and then he put cream on top of that!

Butter, two jams and cream!

Fuck off Uncle Lawrie!

We love you, but Mum would just be pale and wan after that.

Our family had a tradition; it was called Operation Apricot Jam Day, every January. For those of you who had a stone fruit tree in your family, you'll be aware of it, this was – no one was allowed out – that was it, everyone was on board for Operation Apricot Jam Day.

And I was the youngest, smallest, lightest and most agile of the family, so where the ladders and my other siblings couldn't get, I would be forced up higher and higher.

Now ordinarily on a normal day, my mum would – if she'd seen me in a tree, she would order me down, but no, not on Operation Apricot Jam Day.

On OAJD, Mum would send me up, through the canopy, higher and higher into rarefied air. And Dad wasn't a great pruner, so there would be branches growing on weird angles, sticking me in the back,

I'd be covered in sap, it's like I’d come out of some sort of birth-sac. Just writhing, trying to get further. Once I came across the body, the skeleton of a World War II parachutist ― higher and higher into the top of the tree.

And every now and again I'd just catch a glimpse of Mum through the mottled leaves, and she'd be down there, looking up with her apricot bulging apron, just looking at me, ‘Further!'

I'd be holding onto a bough that was just – she'd go ' No, you can't get down, no. There's more over there, near the electric fence... I don't care if there's a bird of prey eating it, get them!'

Now, the skill then, was to make the apricot jam last for the rest of the year, and unfortunately, my brother Paul, who's actually here tonight, he had a voracious teenage appetite, we used to drop short, around September or October, by which time, we'd move on to the plum jam, from Auntie Dot's plum tree, from Reservoir.

That'd get us to about mid November, and then, the shame on Mum's face, we're in Safeway, Greensborough, and I’d just see the trolley turn down the spreads isle. The gingham topped jars had dwindled, and Mum had to *whispers * buy bought jam. You could see people looking at her, whispering, 'Kathleen's got bought jam in her trolley!'

But, it was never as good. It was never as good as Mum's jam, 'cause my Mum could cook. Mum could cook.

In fact, our families were really kept together by Mum's cooking. Like, at Christmas we used to play a cricket game against my cousins the Andersons, in the driveway. And they usually turned into open revolt and the only thing that kept them coming back every year – 'cause we destroyed them - was Mum's pavlova at the end of it.

Now Mum was an old fashioned cook. Anyone remember the Simplicity Cookbook? The Women's Weekly? We used to call it ‘The Simple City Cookbook’. It had a gingham pattern on the front. It was classic old CWA style cooking, but Mum started to become a real exotic as she got older, she started to, you know, move from mixed grills to Kai Si Ming.

She started moving from Shepherd's Pie to Apricot Chicken! Hooooah!

Until one fateful day, Mum over-reached her ambition. That was the day my mum made ‘The Brazilian Casserole’.

The Brazilian Casserole, I'm not exactly sure what it was, but we were all reasonably sure it meant it was devoid of hair. Those who were there that fateful night can only remember two of the ingredients. The two main ingredients were beef and instant coffee. I'll say those again, so's they can sink in. Beef, cubed, and instant coffee. We tried everything, salt, pepper, ice cream ―that shit just wouldn't stay down!

It was the only time I ever saw my father actively wish we had a dog so he could give it to it.

So Mum's tastes had become quite exotic as she got older. Now Mum was also, and this is a thing, a bit of a tradition in our family. We're gift givers, particularly on holidays. We love to come back with souvenirs.

Now often when you get souvenirs on holidays, they're a bit shit. And you just go, oh thank you, and then just don't know what to do with them.

Mum was pretty good, she'd always find something that you could either consume or it had good sentimental value, and she – well, her strike rate wasn't perfect, the monkey arm back-scratcher, from her first cruise, not one of her finer moments.

Nor was the Cornish fisherman's mug. She’d managed to find one in jade, yeah, a jade Cornish fisherman's mug. It's not a colour you'd associate with a scrumpy drinking smugglers in the southwest of England, but Mum found it.

And we began to reciprocate this. When I became an adult, once I started going on tours, I'd always find things for her, and Mum used to absolutely crave, and relish the stories associated with each. Oh look, it's an iron-ore necklace from Broken Hill, or some Belgian lace from Bruges, or the monkey arm back scratcher that she'd forgotten she'd given me and I gave back to her.

And so one day I was on holidays in Bateman's Bay and I found loquat jam. Now, my only previous experience with loquats, apart from my first anghh nyehnyeh moment was – Terri Psiakis is a comedian friend of ours, and writer ― she was having a party in her share house in Fitzroy. And they had a loquat tree and we all tasted them together.

It was like a share house with only one organically grown fruit and they were all starving artists, but that's the reputation the loquat has, they hadn't tried them.

So we all tried them together, and loquats became kind of a symbol of my friendship with Terri. So when I saw these I bought two jars, one for Mum and one for Terri Psiakis.

So I went home, and ah, well I hadn't worked out when I was going to see Mum next, and I'd been asked to perform at the Yarra Valley Grape Grazing Festival at my cousin's winery. I was doing one of my solo shows, a show called ‘Sportsman's Night’. Some of you may remember the sequel was a show called ‘The Merger’, more recently. It's about a country town Footy club.

Anyway, I was performing ‘Sportsman's Night’. It was a dinner and show affair, so cabaret seating, and all my family decided to come. It was kind of last minute, not all of them, but a lot of them, my cousins, and Mum and Dad were there and just before I left, I found out they were coming, so I put the loquat jam in the console of the car, and turned up ―

And while I was doing the show was one of the times I really realised how unconditionally loving my mother is, 'cause they were very supportive, they'd come to see all of my shows, but ― and not that my stuff is particularly offensive, but I never used to edit it because Mum and Dad were there. I'd just tell the show as it was, and there was a bit, it was a very lit room, unlike this, and I moved across, I was doing a routine. Troy Carrington, the Coach of the Bodgie Creek Football Club -  and I'll just do a bit of the routine, so you can get the context, he was telling a footy trip story ― his footy trips were to things like the Mozart trail from Prague to Vienna, just to give you a bit of an idea.

So Troy's telling his story:

[as Troy] “Yeah, ah, we were on the footy trip in twenty-oh-two, we done the Mary McKillop Pilgrimage, and all the boys were dressed up in the brown habits of the Josephite order, with the white wimple and the ABC symbol on the front, the blue thing for the Catholics in the room, who have got a eye for detail. Anyway, what we done, right, we went to each of the um, the famous sites, like we stopped, the bus stopped off first at the hospital, then her first school ... where she had her last root before she took her vows,”

And as I said that last line, 'where she took her last root before she took her vows', without meaning to, my eyeline completely moves and, I'm sorry to stare at you madam, who is looking at me – not like my mother, she’s smiling at least, but Mum was looking at me, there was no judgement, there was no appalled, maybe she didn't get it, I'm not sure? But she was staring, holding my father’s hand, looking at me like I'd just told her I'd been canonised myself.

Damien Callinen, patron saint of blaspheming about other saints.

Anyway, it was just a beautiful moment on stage, I had this moment I just looked at her and went, ‘my God, I love you.’ She had just completely not judged me and I realised that I could say anything and it'd be fine.

Anyway, the next day, I went for a run, I came home and the phone rang, it was my brother Paul, and he told me the news.

And the news was that Dad had run Mum over. In the driveway of their retirement village, and Mum was still alive, she'd been rushed to hospital – I can remember where I was, you know those moments, in your life you can remember exactly where you were, I can remember I was standing, and I was just staring out the window of my faux-warehouse dwelling in Maribyrnong, probably wondering why I was living in a faux-warehouse dwelling in Maribyrnong, to be honest.

And I went to the hospital and the first thing I saw when I got there was Mum going past on a gurney. And I'd seen this about two years before, maybe eighteen months before ― Christmas Eve, Mum had had a cocktail of drugs and I kind of arrived at exactly the same moment, seen her go across, and we all thought she wasn't going to make it that time, and she pulled through. So I had this moment of seeing exactly the same thing and went, oh Mum's going to be right, it's gonna be fine. 

Anyway, about two days later, we kind of heard the news that we expected ― that it was non survivable, and we had to turn off life support. Now, when we turned off life support, the whole family were around, like a tableaux, kind of holding hands, and scarves. There was a Collingwood scarf around Mum's neck – only thing ruining the picture, to be honest –

And they tell you, when life support gets turned off, it can happen immediately or it can take a while. So there was that moment when the machine got turned off and then... Mum snored, pretty much, there was a really guttural kind of *makes sound *, and we were trying not to laugh, and then time kicked on and it got to about half an hour, to three quarters of an hour... people started like, moving positions, and eventually one of my brother-in-laws, just went, 'I might go to the pub'. Which was fine, it wasn't exactly the right thing, it was for me at the moment, so gradually the tableaux broke up. I managed to stay with her most of the time and went home for a couple of hours, and I was there when she passed away.

We went back to Mum and Dad's house later in the day, and because I was the one, me and my partner Jo at the time, we were the only ones there when it happened, so I was having a kind of a different process, I think for some of my siblings and family she was already gone, but for me it was the moment when she actually passed away. So we went back to the house, and I kind of didn't want to be with other people, so I went into Mum's walk-in robe.

And I was just like touching her stuff ― and it's stuff, the stuff here, ‘oh that's mum's scarf’. Being near her stuff actually helped me connect to her a bit.

And then, about five minute later I came out wearing Mum's kimono. 'Too soon?'

So anyway I got asked to do the eulogy, which Tony talked about, and the end, it was a great honour to be asked to do it, but obviously a difficult task. And I wanted to make it celebratory, 'cause I think the thing with a situation like a death as tragic as that, where my father had been so, a man that had been with his wife for sixty one years, and for it to end in such a awful way, I didn't want their story to be hijacked by that event.

At the same time, that meant lots of people came to the funeral who didn't know, who came to support me and my family. So I wanted to make it funny, I wanted to make it celebratory and tell that stuff ― like about her cooking, and apricot jam, and all that sort of stuff.

Anyway as I got to the church, I realised this was still sitting in the console of the car, I hadn't got to give it to her, so just so I could pull the heartstrings of the audience a little bit more as I finished the speech, I put that on her coffin as I walked off.

I took it back afterwards; she wasn't gonna fucken use it.

So, I found this recently, I was moving house recently, and I found it, still in my pantry, and I was de-cluttering, 'cause I was moving into a much smaller place. And I was really being quite ruthless, and getting rid of things, and I almost threw it out then I thought, no, I don't want to ever run out of Mum's jam.

So all the stuff here, is other stuff, this was the scarf Mum made me when I started Uni. My first overseas trip, Mum made me an undie bag... I've still got it, and I take it everywhere I go.

So I think, just to finish off with, I think it might be good for us all just to get through this moment together. Let’s all pretend to taste a loquat. Count of three, one two three...

Nye nyenyeh

Thanks very much.


Kathleen, wearing the kimono featured in this story, with Adrian.

Kathleen, wearing the kimono featured in this story, with Adrian.


Damian's beuatiful eulogy for his mother Kathleen was the first speech ever posted to Speakola.

Rob Carlton's beautiful show and tell about a stick is also a Speakola favourite.

Adrian and Kathleen

Adrian and Kathleen