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.