When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother. My parents both worked full-time, and Grandma was a widow who lived in the next street over, so most of my primary school holidays were spent at Grandma’s house. I could write reams about Grandma, and one day I probably will. She was born in 1903, married at 16 and had five children. She went through wars and the depression and was a working class woman who lived in the same house her whole entire life. She outlived four of her children, losing one to cot death, one to drowning, one to a car accident, and one to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She also outlived her husband, who died of a heart attack on Boxing Day. That she kept going, lived her life, found joy in the small things into old age is a testament to the determination of the human spirit. She was no saint of course, having purposely miss-spelled my mother’s name on birthday and Christmas cards for 28 years. There really aren’t many ways you can spell Shirley.
I have so many memories of the years I spent hanging out with Grandma. One of them is washing day, which was always a Monday, when she would run her step-ins, stockings, petticoats and brassieres through the mangle. I cannot begin to describe the level of fascination I had for that mangle, which looked something like this, and would SQUASH YOUR HANDS FLAT LIKE A PANCAKE IF YOU GET ANYWHERE NEAR IT, DON’T TOUCH IT JULIE!! I remember standing, transfixed as Grandma fed her mysterious underthings through the rollers, desperately tempted to stick my hand in and see if it really would come out the other side cartoon-character flat.
Most days for lunch, Grandma would make me a grilled cheese sandwich in the Sunbeam electric fry pan. She’d fry a knob of butter in the pan until it was golden brown, then add the sandwich and fry it gently on each side, using a spatula to flatten it out and make sure the cheese melted. Other days, as a special treat we’d have corn meat fritters – also cooked in the Sunbeam – fried golden patties of battered deliciousness, served with a ridiculous amount of tomato sauce. Grandma never questioned how much tomato sauce I plopped out onto my plate.
Once each week, we would go into town, which involved walking to the corner and catching the bus, which was driven by Mr Teakle. We’d go into the locally-owned department store, where Grandma would go to the food hall to buy beef tongue for her sandwiches and ox tail to make soup, and maybe some kidneys for a pie. She’d buy an unsliced, high-top loaf of white bread, and put her paper-wrapped parcels into her string bag, and then we’d head off to the in-store restaurant for a toasted sandwich each and a milkshake for me and a pot of tea for Grandma, before catching the bus home again.
On Fridays, we’d again take the bus into town, for Friday was bingo day, the greatest day of the school holiday week. Bingo was held at a couple of different venues, and which one we went to depended on who had the biggest jackpot on offer. It mattered not to me where we went, all that mattered was my own card to play in each round, my specially chosen felt pen from Grandma’s pack, and Fantales that Grandma would pull, with a big smile, from her special bingo bag. I still vividly, as if it was yesterday, remember winning the $50 jackpot one day – yelling out bingo in an hysterically high voice, having my card checked, and then receiving two twenties and a ten. I would say they were crisp, but those were the days of paper money, so they were actually well-worn and limp. Grandma allowed me to put the money into my little snap-top purse with the beaded orange flower on the side, which was quite the leap of faith considering that in the late 1970s, $50 was a small fortune, but the $50 made it all the way home, where I breathlessly recounted the glorious win to my family. I honestly don’t remember what happened to the $50 – given how much money it was and how little my parents had, I suspect I was given a bit to spend and the rest went into the family budget. But the excitement wasn’t about the money, it was about being at bingo with Grandma and getting a full house and yelling bingo and winning! I won!
My beloved Grandma died in 1987, the day before my 18th birthday. She was 84 (but told everyone she was 82) and dropped dead from heart failure in her bedroom, after returning home from a morning spent at bingo. She must’ve had a win that day, because there was a little wad of cash in her purse, more than she would usually carry. She would have been delighted to die the way she did – quickly, at home, in her good going out frock, a winner.
As a tribute to Grandma, I took my boy to play bingo at the local hall last night. We went with our friend Duane, who has very similar bingo memories to me, and we were adopted by the lovely older couple next to us, who helped us work out which game we were meant to be on, and kept us supplied with Minties. They were desperate for Hugh to have a win, and everyone – especially Hugh – was sad when he didn’t, but it was dead-set one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time. There is something almost meditative about methodically marking numbers on a card with no time to look up or chat because the next number is already being called. The process of gradually watching your numbers get called builds a beautiful, simple excitement, the tension of which is only broken by the sigh of the crowd when some lucky bugger yells bingo.
Grandma, thanks for bingo. I’ve been told I look a lot like you, so I probably should also thank you for bitchy bingo face. The genes run strong, because apparently they’ve been passed on to Hugh as well. He didn’t really like not winning, but I told him that if we keep going, one day we will. You taught me that, in so many ways.