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Daisy and Ron

May 11, 2010

The last decade of the nineteenth century produced some interesting events and people.  In my case it was four grandparents, though I was only ever to know three of them.  Most children are lucky to have spent time with four grandparents, others, I have learnt, only knew two or less.  And now with families blended like a slurpy from a hi energy juice bar, families are extended beyond what existed for most of  my generation in the 40’s and 50’s.   “I have two mums, two dads, and a zillion brothers and sisters’  the funky girl told me.  The nuclear story is waning, well in the area of families, but sadly not in the area of war.

My maternal grandfather, John Henry Curran, was the only one of the four grandparents I was never to know.  He was a native of Maitland, New South Wales, married to Alma Veronica , nee Ellis.  They had four girls and two boys.  His life ended tragically at 40, heart attack.  My mother always said, ‘He died from heart break, not a heart attack”  Maitland is a well known flood area 20 kilometers west of Newcastle on the Hunter River.  As flood waters were subsiding after another of Maitlands infamous deluges, his two sons, my mother’s brothers, Harry and Ellis, were playing floating boats in the waters around the town.   One of the boys, who were around 4 and 7 years old, perhaps younger, got into trouble trying to retrieve a toy boat, the other went to help him and they both drowned.  It was my grandfather who had to come to the identify the bodies of his two dead sons and this is what my mother said killed him.  Not hard to understand that level of grief.   His wife, Alma, was to live the life of a widow for the next 40 years.  They were Catholic, and my grandmother was a great influence in my early years.  It took me some time to understand why she was called Ron.  Her actual name was Alma Veronica, but to the family, she was known as Ron.  I used to think why has nana a mans name.  Funny about that as the years went by.  She was gentle, loving, humble and a gypsy.  She never owned a house but spent all the years of her widowhood living with each of her four daughters and their families.  She never had money and lived off the kindness of her family.

My paternal grandparents were Melbourne people.  My mother and father met in 1945 in Greta, outside of Maitland, where my father was stationed with the Australian Army.  They were a handsome couple.  He the officer and gentlemen, she the beautiful country girl with a fiery Irish temper.  He Protestant  and she Catholic.  It was to become a ‘mixed marriage’ as the phrase was used to describe such couplings.  He was the eldest of three children of Harold Vincent Blakeley, and she, Margaret Elizabeth, nee Phillips.  There was to be no widowhood for my maternal grandmother.  They were to spend their final years in the same nursing home and both died at around 80 years of age.  She was never known as Margaret.  She was Daisy.  So there I was with two grandmothers, Daisy and Ron.  Both gentle and loving women in my life.   Each in their own different way were to have a deep impact on my early years growing up in Melbourne.

Daisy was the eccentric.  A term even used today to cover a wide breadth of unusual behaviour.  Some of it I recall vividly.  She and Harold lived at 35 Scott Grove, Glen Iris, and the sleepout in the back yard was my home before my parents moved to a brick house in Murrumbeena.  It was 1946.  There were the three of us, a comfortable home, an ice box, for food, and a copper for washing, but the most beautiful memories are that of an open fire place both in the living room and in the dining room, no open plan nonsense then.  Double glass doors separated the two rooms.  The dining room was only used on special occaisons and had mahogonay furniture, a side board, a table and 6 chairs.  The lounge, a couch and two matching chairs, comfy lounge chairs.  The kitchen was a little more spartan, a Kookaburra gas stove, a wooden table with a linoleum surface, and basic four chairs.  It was some years later that the fridge arrived along with some more modern cupboards.  My mother was the homemaker in every sense of the word.  No extravagences, she did not work, but the word ‘house proud’ comes to mind.  It was a two bedroom house, a small front lawn and a medium sized back yard, but never a Hills Hoist, it was a washing line which was kept above the ground with what were quaintly called ‘props’, long slender wooden poles.  There was a garage and this was the refuge for my father.  She did the interior, he the exterior.

Weekends were when grandparents visited or we visited them.  Early on there was no car so we caught a bus.  The Holden came much later.  Harold and Daisy had a car so they visited us more often.  I was their only grandchild for 10 years so much fuss was made of me.  Spoilt comes to mind.  Nana and Pa, as they were affectionately known.  He an inveterate smoker, and Daisy, on special occaisons.  This brings to mind some of her eccentricities.  She would always carry a large handbag, didnt all Nanas.  However she seemed to just allow things to fall into it haphazardly, so often she would offer a single cigarette, which was doused in talcum powder, smelling of some cheap scent, and not think anything of it.  How refreshing and unpretensious when I look back.  She would allow the ash to cascade down the front of her black crepe dress, then with a flurry, dust it away leaving what looked like some religious rite from Ash Wednesday.  Pa was a man of few words.  A deep thinker.  He had been an instructor at The Working Mans College, later known as Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in Metallurgy.  He went on to own a Bronzite factory in Clark Street, South Melbourne.  Daisy never worked.  She did charity work for the Players and Playgoers Association which was affiliated with the now defunct Prince Henrys Hospital in St Kilda Road.  Often I would visit and find her house filled with card tables, all set up in the house, waiting for The Ladies to come and play cards for the afternoon.

Ron, or Alma, had no such a life.  She travelled by train and later by bus, along the eastern seaboard from Maitland to Adelaide, dropping in on her four daughters along the way.  She spent her days helping with child rearing and house work.  Never a complaint, never a moan, a saint.  This she did up until her early 70’s, down on her knees, cloth in hand, and apron bound.  When I came home from school she was there.  She also acted as a baby sitter.  This allowed my parents, who were still keen to be out and about and going to balls and parties, the freedom while Nanna stayed home to look after me.  The bond was strong.  She had a deep faith and was a regular church goer.  We often went to Sunday Mass together, my mother choosing to stay home and have extra hours in bed.  This scandalised me.  How dare she not attend Sunday Mass, it was a mortal sin.  Nanna said little and remained diplomatic throughout her 80 years.  She and I would say the rosary together, me praying for the salvation of my wicked mothers soul.  After 10 years my younger brother was born, the second grandchild for Harold and Daisy, but not for Ron, there were others for her from her three other daughters.  I noticed how she never seemed to spend money.  She must have had some kind of pension.  I know she had a purse.  But cannot recall her ever actually having money in her hands.

Daisy and Harold seemed rich to me.  They had a large car, a Ford Mercury for you car buffs, the fact that I could remember such auto nomenclature stuns me.  My father drove a Vauxhaul, terribly British I recall.  Nanna and Pa had a house which seemed vast.  There were carpeted hallways, wooden panelling, a grandfather clock at the end of the main hall.  There were other hallways to bedrooms.  There was a sun room off the kitchen.  In the backyard stood the bungalow, our home.   Daisy did not possess one iota of anal retention.  The kitchen table was an art installation in itself.  At any one time you might find an iron, a packet of washing powder, food.  She was laid back in her own special way.  Harold seemed oblivious to it all.  He would be found in the lounge room before dinner reading the newspaper.  Nothing unusual about that but what happened to the paper was slightly disconcerting to me.  As each page was read it seemed to be dropped/slid/fall on to the floor so as Pa went progressively reading all the parts of the newspaper the carpet in the lounge room was strewn with the broadsheet pages of the newspaper he was reading.  The lounge room floor festooned with pages from the ‘The Herald” which at that time was an evening only newspaper.  It was what Nana did with the papers that sometimes terrified me.  On cold Melbourne winters nights, they had an open fire place, but they were not content with only burning wood.  All the vegetable scraps, all the newspapers, and the piece de resistance, a cup of sugar thrown on by Nana, and then a match was set to it all.  It was almost like the conflagration of Rome while Nero fiddled.  For a small boy it used to terrify me.  To my grandparents it was always just a healthy fireside.

Ron was what was described as ‘pious’.  There were the rosary beads she took to bed each evening, I knew as we shared my bedroom when she stayed with us.  And she knelt at her bedside to recite evening prayers.  I am sure it was her influence, to a degree, that led me to join a seminary.  She never pushed the idea.  And she kept her religious devotions private.  I cant recall Daisy ever mentioning religion.  However Pa did.  His words when my father took me to their home in Glen Iris to tell them I was going to leave home and enter the minor seminary, “You are giving your eldest son to the Church?”  He was distressed.  They were a protestant family and my mothers side were Catholic.  I know from conversations with my mother that when she came to live with them they were not happy at all about her Catholocism.  I think there were some difficult times for this young, rural woman, but she was head strong and ignored any of  their criticisms, ensuring I was sent to Catholic primary and secondary schools.  But even she doubted that I would remain in the seminary for long.   After 5 years of being away from home, steeped in pre Vatican 2 religiosity of an Italian-founded religious order, I rang her and said, ‘You remember you told me the door would always be open for me”  She replied in the phone call from Ballarat to Melbourne, ‘Yes’  I said, ‘Mum I am coming home next Tuesday”.  This was after I had decided to leave the major seminary and return to my home.  Her answer was brief, ‘Yes, will see you then”.  Clipped and cold.  She said later to me, ‘I was always waiting for the call, you loved life too much”.  How right she was.

I returned home, with few regrets, quite a few emotional scars, an ill-fitting suit, a pair of shoes, a tie, a shirt, a packet of cigarettes and 50 dollars.  Such was the way in 1966.

But I have many fond memories of both Daisy and Ron.  They both lived till they were 80.  I attended the funeral of Daisy but not that of Ron.  It was held in my birth place, Maitland.  It was too far away and I was now teaching full time.

I dedicate these few recollections to these two wimmen, my grandmothers.  They played a role in the nurturing of me from infancy.  I was much loved by both of them.  One cannot ask for anything more from life other than a measure of love, and now, at almost 65, I am still receiving lots of it, not from grandmothers but from others.  To you people I also give thanks.

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