A Beginning and An End


It’s too easy to conclude that lifelines are of concrete: fluid and flexible to begin but at a later time hardened.  People get set in their ways as they age, it is said, and opinions, it follows, eventually date rather than develop.  It’s not so straightforward.  It can as easily be that a beginning comes within a nonagenarian end.

Azaleas were for the springtime, the air sweet with the pungency of gardenias.  Impatiens kept the colour through the year.  In Grandma’s garden, phlox and hollyhocks, snapdragons and dracaena coaxed from cuttings kept the days filled.  It was annual and perennial.  It was growth.

The side gate was wooden and immaculately grey, and upon stepping into the garden she’d greet me with a ‘G’day mate.’ The greeting stood out as an older Australian tradition, historical at the least in Sydney’s suburbia. 

She’d likely spent hours in sun-hatted toil, trowel turning, digging, weed removing and thinking; for her efforts there was talk, not only of the plants but of the blue wrens for which the bird bath had been bought.  It was the result of hours on a mat on her knees. 

We’d wander inside and the reddish linoleum-topped table was set with deliberation, the tablecloth positioned diagonally and the homemade biscuits and sour tasting sandwiches of pickled onions, mustard or relish at home on the particular decorative dish she’d chosen. There’d be a plump, patterned glass on its coaster for soft drink.  Tables aren’t set so precisely anymore, not for morning tea.

Always neatly dressed, Grandma kept her hair short, curled into a perm with hot rollers; and after the food she’d bring in the teapot to rest upon the wooden teapot board.  The pot would be dressed in a hand knitted cosy to keep the tea warm.  Such detail! Perhaps I only wish to show that there was much about her to seem old-fashioned.

And there was contrast, for hers were not the only morning teas in those busy years that bookmarked the millennium.  In the government department where I worked there was, scheduled once a week, a morning tea for team-building.  There was a cake roster but we’d each arrange our own cup of coffee.  Naturally, those morning teas were hastier and marked by slightly forced chat that overshadowed the stress of deadlines.  The bosses rarely attended.  They were busy. 

Meanwhile, Grandma used to have a doctor, a hairdresser, several others visiting her home.  She’d mark up their scheduled comings in her diary.  That’s how many westerners like to imagine their old age, staying independently.  I know she enjoyed those visits because they brought company in the daytime hours.  But on the day I arrived while the doctor was visiting, I was surprised to see Grandma embarrassed. 

Once the doctor left she said, ‘she’s a good doctor but she always talks badly about the Greeks and Italians.  But they do alright here, don’t they?’  The doctor thought they used too much concrete and tiling in their Mediterranean gardens, Grandma explained, but she didn’t mind their style.

I never heard her speak badly of any nationality, but we never spoke of such things.  She seemed somehow distinct from society.  Nonetheless, on that day I thought perhaps she was at the start of something.

What was more surprising happened at the time she was admitted to hospital for a minor procedure, just for a few days.  She found herself in a ward in a suburb of Sydney that is predominantly Turkish.  The ward she shared with a talkative, middle aged Greek-Australian woman, and in the bed opposite, a woman of Somali origin. 

Grandma thought to make mention of how the Greek lady kept her company.  She’d sampled homemade Greek food and liked it.  And she lent towards me to whisper, ‘but that other lady, she is so dark that sometimes when I see her face after waking up I forget where I am and I get scared.  She tried to talk to me.  I don’t understand a word.’ She was being totally honest.

‘But I suppose she’s alright,’ Grandma said, ‘We are who we are, aren’t we?’

It’d never occurred to me how much Australian society had changed since she was born.  In the span of her ninety plus years, change wasn’t only a matter of electricity, cars, vacuum cleaners and microwaves.  There’d been the migration waves too: amongst them the Italians and Greeks from the 1950s and Africans since the 1990s.  When Grandma was born, assuming it was in a hospital, it’s probable that all of her baby-contemporaries shared her fair complexion.  It was a largely British-Australian society into which she was born.

As I said goodbye in the hospital, I leant in to kiss her and at the same time shook her hand; and after that, instinctively and accidentally, put my hand to my heart.  I was embarrassed by the small gesture she hadn’t noticed, because it’s not an Australian custom but a welcome habit from the Bangladeshi village. 

Meanwhile at the office there was contrast.  It was strange the day one of the bosses not only found time to attend morning tea but embarked upon a small speech about how it was that Muslims would never fit into Australian society.  ‘They think differently,’ she said to her team.  It was her main point.  As it was known I had friends in Bangladesh, the little speech may have been for my benefit.  Or it was simply a personal view that needed airing.  Either way, I think differently too.

I’d not bother to mention it but it wasn’t the only time I heard senior public sector managers talk like that.  Such displays in Australia are, in practice, in reality, accepted.  A bit of racism might even be considered a good way to get ahead.  It’s mistaken for national loyalty by some. 

In a broader sense there would appear to remain some confusion between racism and leadership in Australia.  Sadly, ironically, the department I write of has responsibility for anti-discrimination legislation.  It was disturbing that even there Muslims could be on the outer.

Grandma meanwhile had a spontaneous side.  The woman who would never forget a birthday, having presents wrapped and tied with ribbon sometimes months in advance, was also the one who thought to crawl under her dining table to hide from her great grandson.  He had to find her.  Her mind stayed sharp and her bone joints were not unwilling to bend.

The last year of my father’s mother was 2001.  Her grandchildren had grown and Sydney had become a post-modern, multicultural society.  It was the year of the terrorist attacks on New York’s twin towers, her last.

Some people adapt.  Others don’t.  And it’s interesting because just as Grandma’s tolerance of others seemed to be on its rise, so it quickly faded, as if there was no place left for it.  And there was loss.

But at a time when tolerance in Australian society was in steep and rapid decline maybe there really wasn’t any place for it.

At age 93.
One could say it’s still the nation’s foremost security risk, the type of ‘us and them’ exclusion that prevents any society from flourishing and creates all the other security consequences.  It remains well-protected, the ‘us and them,’ because down under the ‘us and them’ retains many important advocates.  Some degree of extremism is not a problem as long as it’s of the white kind.

Some people adapt.  Others don’t.  I wonder if Australian public processes will ever catch up to Grandma. 

It can be that she waited, several months later when she again went into hospital.  Her hair was long, straight and tumbled down over her shoulders when I saw her last.  I never knew she had hair like that.  If it had been of a colour other than white she might’ve looked as a teenager. 






Of course it's all about learning to think, appreciating different ways of thinking and, well, adding a little heart. 


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: A Beginning and An End
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