How we said goodbye to my grandmother

Inspired by this, by Nell Frizzell.

My grandmother died in January of 2015 and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. At 101 years old, I’d said goodbye to her a hundred times. Every time I left the country, every time I left her bedside.

In the weeks and months after she died, half a world away from me in a soft bed in a hospice, surrounded by nurses who’d cared for her year after year, I thought a lot about how much I didn’t know about her. It could fill buckets, books, graves. The things she’d done, and the things she thought.

She was 84 when she emigrated to New Zealand to be with her family; already too old, to my teenage mind, to be much good. Peppermints and $2 coins and mushrooms cooked in butter; thick paperbacks borrowed from her bookshelves, and never returned. Friday nights playing with my sisters in the sunlight in her small, rectangular lawn. Those are the only things I took away with me.

The things that get lost when someone dies are myriad, and greater still when they’re the last of their generation to pass. And they’re gone for good. I’ve become a documenter, these days, fretting about my 1000’s of photographs, wondering where to keep them. Brunches and selfies and blurred snaps of nights out. I want to keep all of it. I want to remember everything. I don’t want to risk the forgetting that comes with a lack of proof; of nothing to point to. I am so selfishly convinced of the importance of every single day that I live.

Of her there remains maybe 100 pictures, generously. A whole life in a handful of images. And it’s easy to say that memory matters more, but when my mother dies, and her brother dies, what then?

She wouldn’t have thought much of this train of thought. She saw a lot of death, but she wasn’t morbid. And that’s why pained my mother, a little, to have her mother sat in a box on the mantlepiece, a mass of ash just to the right of a picture of her, and just to the left of the television.

My mother: “She would have thought this was ridiculous”.

You can have your own definitions of ridiculous. My boyfriend and I flew to New Zealand on Christmas Eve at 8am, and that evening we, together with my sisters and his sister, and my mother and father, went down to the local park, where my mother had had a bench installed – a bench with her name, and her dates, and her loved one. It’s green. It seats three. It looks out over a cricket pitch.

I don’t think she thought much of cricket, but she would have approved of the practicality of a headstone you can sit on.

My dad, ever a maverick, had come here earlier in the week and dug a small hole to the left of the bench, filling it in with fallen leaves. You can’t just bury people in any old place, you know, even if you’re not filling shallow graves with grinning skulls. We might be walking about on the leftovers of thousands, but there are sensible ways to do these things: a memorial service, a churchyard, even at sea, in a pinch.

We each did one shovelful; enough to empty her from one year-long resting place into somewhere more final. Can anyone do that without thinking about what they’re shovelling: an elbow, a thigh, an eye? And what happened to her artificial hip, when she was all to dust?

My boyfriend never met her, and nor had his sister, but there we all were: in the warm rain, on Christmas Eve, stern-faced as we emptied her from styrofoam into dirt, and smoothed it over.

The cricketers that come, and their mothers watching from a conveniently-located bench, they won’t know who they’re in the presence of, as they spread their newspapers and their fish and chips on her headstone. She would have liked that. She certainly liked fish and chips, anyway.

You can’t eat fish and chips in the rain. It’s not right. And so we had curry, with beer and poppadoms and butter chicken and it wasn’t a wake, but it had all those elements: a family, together, sharing food. And I know she would have liked that part too, and so it turns out that maybe I did know enough about her, after all.

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