16 April 2017

Nan Was a Creative and Unique Lady But She Never Knew It

My nan was really creative, although it wasn’t a trait she was known for. When she passed away, everyone said they would miss her warm hugs and kind-hearted nature. She was known for giving lots, while having very little. She would deny having any creative ability and deflect compliments from friends and family. Having never worked, obtained a driver’s licence, or travelled far from home, I think she thought her opinions counted for less. She was so proud of her children’s and grandchild’s achievements, but spoke as if they weren’t tied to her in any way. Nan’s eyes would turn wet every time I’d share my wins with her, no matter how trivial. She’d shift her weight on the wooden dining chair and smile until her lips revealed her little teeth. She’d laugh softly while keeping her mouth closed, causing air to become trapped behind her teeth, creating a soft wheezing sound. She knew how to share in someone else’s happiness like no other; perhaps because she had difficulty recognising her own. I prefer to think it was because she loved us so deeply, our happiness was all she ever needed.

I loved getting dropped at Nan and Pop’s, especially when one of the other cousins was there. We would play Nintendo in the back room while Pop snored his head off in “his” room just down the hall. When Nan would finish cleaning or preparing lunch, she’d come and play Mario Cart with us. She’d sit on the floor and move her whole body with the controller, as if her on-screen steering would improve if she really leaned into the corners. Pop owned a rude joke book which I’d sneak from the bookshelf when I was left alone. If he or Nan walked in unexpectedly, I’d shove the book under the couch and pretend to watch old episodes of Mr. Bean.

Nan would call out when it was time to eat and we’d all sit around her big wooden table. My cousins would usually get Coke and I’d ask for a big glass of cold strawberry milk. I was fascinated to learn how Nan made her cigarettes using a little plastic machine. One day she taught me how to insert the loose tobacco and inject it into a paper filter. As I thrusted the slider across, I imagined I was loading a gun. As we’d sit and chat, I’d restock her empty packets with half-filled cigarettes. It just occurred to me now that she probably had to redo them as soon as I left.

When it was just Nan and I, we would walk to the local park. It was next to a milk bar owned by a Chinese family, who’d stock random items like big silk undies right next to a stand of chips. I’d buy a paper packet of sherbet with a lolly dip stick that looked like chalk. Then we’d walk around the back of the shop, careful not to step on shards of broken glass, to reach the park. I’d convince Nan to sit on one side of a modern see-saw that resembled a maroon coloured spider. It’s black rubbery legs would hang down and widen to form a seat only suitable for very small bottoms; I imagine Nan would have been rather uncomfortable. I’d be dangling in the air while waiting for Nan to push off from the ground. As she floated upward, my feet would barely skim the tanbark before gravity would pull her back down. I cherished alone time with Nan, but when we played on the see-saw I wished my cousin Jai was there to take her place.

Nan invented a treasure hunt game in the park that went on for years. Despite its simplicity and grunginess, somehow she managed to make it far more exciting than any Nintendo game or joke book. It involved collecting up all the used icy pole sticks littered around the playground. Once we had a huge bundle, we’d bury them deep into the ground under various pieces of play equipment. There was never a set amount or system to keep track of which ones were part of the game, but it was the job of the next cousin to find as many as possible. It was usually the first thing I’d do upon arriving at the park. Nan would join in at first, then plant herself on a piece of equipment and watch on with a smile. It was her job to judge whether the sticks were from the game, based on how old and soiled they looked. Even when they looked fresh, she’d pretend she didn’t notice so we could add them to our total. Her relaxed attitude helped to dilute my intense competitiveness.

Nan had a unique ability to make everyone and everything seem special. I love how she made new boyfriends instantly feel like part of the family, despite knowing they probably wouldn’t be around come next Christmas. She asked questions with such genuine interest and gave the kind of kisses everyone actually loved to receive. She had an open-door policy all year round, even on special days like Easter and Christmas. I used to find it annoying when random people would turn up to take part in our family events. I think the reason why we had so many extras around Christmas time was because there was never any expectation to come or play a particular role. When I got my car licence I enjoyed popping around to Nan and Pop’s on the way home from work. Nine out of ten times I’d walk in to find them sitting at Nan’s wooden table; often a neighbour would be visiting and the women would be in dressing-gowns. If they weren’t home, they were either out buying groceries or playing the pokies just around the corner.

One day I dropped in for a cuppa just after Nan and Pop had returned from shopping. Nan was unpacking the groceries while I was chatting away. She pulled a box of Home Brand ice-cream cones out of her shopping bag and noticed the cardboard box was damaged. She opened the box and held up the plastic tray filled with crumbled wafer. She questioned whether 20 crushed cones out of 100 warranted a refund (of about $2). She decided to keep them because she hated confrontation, despite feeling ripped off. It wasn’t until Nan passed away that I found out how much she sacrificed to make us happy. Apparently she would buy a small pack of lamb ribs each week and freeze them until she had enough to invite my cousin and I around for dinner. We’d always eat more than our fair share of the delicious BBQ ribs and fight to take home any left overs. Even now, Dad and his siblings recall Nan inventing dishes using left overs and cheap cuts of meat to feed the whole family.

When I was about eight years old, Nan bought each of her daughters and seven grandchildren a “lucky duck” for Christmas. She got them from the local Chinese two-dollar shop, which has since doubled in size. The ducks were made of cheap porcelain and coloured to represent each of our birth stones. They came in a small velvet pouch and had a round sticker on the bottom which read “Aussie Lucky Duck.” Mine was cream with multi-coloured flecks of glitter fixed to its back; it was meant to represent a diamond. At the time I was envious of my cousins, who had colourful birth stones like sapphire and aqua marine. Nan made me believe the duck was truly lucky, encouraging me to clutch onto it whenever she bought me a two-dollar scratchy ticket. I often won between $3-12, which helped validate her belief. Over the years, some cousins misplaced their duck or forgot about it altogether; but I kept mine close by, even when I started to explore overseas. Each time something good happened to me, I considered myself lucky and thanked the duck for working its magic. Throughout my adulthood the duck has been clutched in moments of distress, or tucked away in a bag while I’m out having the time of my life.

Before Nan died, I attributed many of my greatest experiences to having good luck. I think that’s partly because the term luck is often thrown around by friends and family when discussing my achievements. “You’re so lucky,” friends would say with equal parts excitement and envy. While I agree I’m extremely fortunate, I have grown to learn the luck they speak of is mostly self-created or sought out. I think Nan taught me luck is generated through genuineness and creativity. She had the ability to turn a bunch of rotten icy pole sticks and a $2 duck made in China into something worth seeking and holding onto.

Nan’s Lucky Duck still tags along with me when I go on trips, even though I now know I create my own luck. It reminds me of all the beautiful memories I made with Nan and symbolises her best traits. Despite what she’d say, I believe she nurtured the creativity within me and majority of Dad’s family. Without even knowing it, I think she demonstrated the importance of family and shared joy. Every now and then when a friend shares a happy or sad story, I feel my eyes turn wet just like hers did. I like to think I developed this somewhat humiliating trait from my beautiful humble nan, Shirley Grace Hawkins.

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