“Your birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks, Nanna. Do you know how old you are going to be?” I ask her that question every year, and her answers have been increasingly variable- 72, 84, and more recently 39! Dementia!
When I asked Nanna that question a couple of weeks ago on Mothers Day, she groaned and said “Do I really need to know? I think I might have passed the 100 mark!” And regrettably (and with a laugh) I had to tell her she was going to be 102. “Oh dear! I’m pretty old!” she replied and we laughed together for a moment. Despite everything, my Nanna still smiles and laughs whenever I am around.
My Nanna was born in Geelong on 23 May 1912- Jessie Kathleen Alsop. Eldest daughter in a rather large family. They didn’t have much money and times were tough due to the war. She married my grandfather Larry Power and they moved to Melbourne in the early 1930s so that Grandpa could earn a living. He had a milko run with horses and cart and sold eggs from his backyard in Essendon. Mum was born when Nanna was just 21 years old. Mum has just turned 81. She is an only child.
As a child growing up, my Nanna seemed like the loveliest person I knew. She was short- like me- only 5 foot tall. Fortunately I had a late growth spurt and overtook her with ease. She had the most amazing sense of style and colour. I remember kaftans and bright patterns and bold greens. She painted her kitchen apple green! Right on trend! I loved it. She had a bun, then a wispy, pixie like hair cut that took years off her age. So trendy!
I spent many happy school holidays at their house in Strathmore- she always had something special planned- a trip to feed the ducks at the local park, a visit to the shopping centre, shell craft, making cards, playing “make up” with her left over lipsticks and eyeshadows. Cooking date scones was one of my favourite things as was potting up little cuttings of plants she had been nurturing for us to take home with us after our stay.
In later years, Grandpa worked at Ansett, so they received a 90% discount on domestic airfares and 50% discount on international. They became my jetsetting grandparents. At a time when airline travel was only for a few, they were flying to Japan, Thailand, Fiji, Malaysia, New Zealand and the list goes on. Many places such as Japan, they visited more than once. When they weren’t travelling, my Grandpa was planning his next trip. Retirement allowed for some great adventures. We received gifts of tiny watches from Japan, grass skirts and dolls from Fiji and paua shell jewellery from New Zealand. Then there were the tiny salt and pepper sachets and mini toothbrushes from the aeroplane, along with fluffy socks and eye shields if they had been upgraded to fly first class. Then there were the slide shows- quite a performance, and surrounded by certain rituals, like Grandpa accidentally tipping all the slides onto the floor!
Every Winter they towed their caravan to Peregian Beach for 6 weeks on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Same caravan park, same site, same weeks of the year.
My Nanna was always plagued by horrible skin cancers. Radiation treatment, surgery, freeze burning, all left horrible scars on her face and hands. I still thought she was lovely. She was always so gently and happy and full of love for my brother, sister and I. She was also plagued by mystery illnesses in her 70s and 80s- collapsing and fainting and unexplained malaise. Never diagnosed. I always thought she would be my first grandparent to die.
Now she is almost 102. She has outlived her husband, my Grandpa, by 11 years. She went into a nursing home at the age of 99, after breaking her arm. She had been largely caring for herself at home, with some support. She is almost completely blind now, having refused cataract surgery 20 years ago. She is almost deaf too- her right ear being her “shouty” ear.
Whenever we visit, her face lights up, she reaches out her hand and she is happy to have us near. On Mothers Day this year, my sister and I visited her and she got a bit teary- she held both of our hands and said “It’s all here- all my love is here”. She was talking about us.
She has lost track of time and place, which is a blessing. She doesn’t know that the last time her only child, my mother, visited her, was on her 101st birthday, 12 months ago. She doesn’t know her daughter is in a nursing home, just a few suburbs away, dying of cancer. She doesn’t know that her house has been sold.
She tells us that she has had a good life, that she has been loved and happy, and wishes we lived closer (she has said that for as long as I can remember).
She always says “Bye Love” when we leave. I never know when it will be the last time.
I feel so fortunate to have been loved by such a marvellous woman, and so glad she has been on this earth for 102 years.
Happy Birthday Nanna!