May - by Catherine Mair
I could stretch her height by saying she was five foot three. I'd be exaggerating. In a photograph of her when she was young her deep brown eyes look contemplative. Her luxuriant hair is piled on top of her head. There must have been a spark of flamboyance in Granny's nature because she was known for her hats. Some were considered bizarre but I love the idea of this dignified, diminutive woman sporting those ostrich-feathered eye-catchers.
My grandfather was invalided home from the First World War and Granny helped support their three children by teaching in country schools. She was a great fan of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's novels, no doubt identifying closely with those tales of teaching in back-blocks schools.
When the polio epidemic struck, a pupil from our two room country school died. The school was closed for six weeks. Granny became our 'holiday tutor’. She would watch our pigeon toes tripping down the short path from the road and say, "Girls, turn your toes out!" When we reached the front porch she'd say, “Look at the pansies. Look at their lovely little faces." Her gentle admonitions never belittled our efforts and when school resumed she encouraged our achievements with a coin. We didn't realize at the time what a sacrifice this must have been.
In later years they lived in a very modest cottage, where Granny cared single-handed for Grandfather. He was as tall as Granny was small, topping six feet, with a head of white hair and a fine moustache. He used to say that kissing a man without a moustache was like eating an egg without salt and pepper. He was a stickler for polished table manners and would rap our fingers when we were at the dinner table if we didn't hold our cutlery correctly. Grandfather's stories (yarns, as our mother would have it) were vividly imaginative and he convinced us that we were descended from Vikings. Granny never cast doubt on any of grandfather's romantic tales. They enjoyed games of Canasta with a neighbour and Granny was a wizard at losing so that Grandfather could win.
She wasn't a wonderful cook but I do remember a delicious pudding she made with bread and jam and meringue. This made up for her other specialty - rock cakes!
In a photograph album, an early shot of The Strand in Tauranga reveals a board displaying my grandfather's dentist's sign. When I returned to the Katikati farm in the early nineteen seventies with my husband and four young children I was stopped occasionally by some ancient codger who wanted to tell me how old Bill had pulled some of his teeth. What a champion he was and what a cracker-jack rifle shot he was, too.
I remember his asparagus beds. He used to go down to the beach with his wheelbarrow to gather seaweed for this precious crop. How proud he was when the spears broke the surface of the rich earth.
Granny and Grandfather swore by home cures for various ailments. The most dreaded of these was dock-root tea. It was meant to cure any condition from acne to colds. It was vile. The dock-roots were boiled and the terrible tea-coloured liquid swallowed. I think it was effective because the very mention of dock-root tea brought about a miraculous recovery but special occasions were celebrated with a glass of Grandfather's feijoa wine.
Christmas time must have tested Granny's resourcefulness. Some of the gifts she managed to assemble were very interesting. The black spats my sister received one Christmas have never been forgotten. My engagement present was one such.
The Old Cast-iron Frying Pan
When I pick it up it feels
meaningful, experienced. It's not
just its weight that gives it substance.
It speaks of venison steaks.
I can still feel the warmth of
kind hands on its handle
& sense the wise, smiling eyes
when she presented it to me
as if gifting me the crown jewels.
Thank you, Granny.
Forgive my doubt.
I was very young.