Friday, November 16, 2012

Tribute to my grandmother

Mum, me and Grandma at her place
My grandmother Mary and her twin sister Nell were born 92 years ago today. "The same day as Qantas", she often reminded me, a piece of knowledge that recently earned me a point in a trivia game. On their 56th birthday I came along to expand the happy band of scorpios, and we spent the next 17 years arguing over whose birthday we were really celebrating when the family got together.

There were a lot of children in my grandmother's life. She had 5 of her own, she fostered an aboriginal girl when my youngest aunt was still at home, and cared for me two days a week when I was a pre-schooler. I have fond memories of those times. The day would begin with a walk to the park, where we would inevitably run into some neighbour that she knew, pat a dog or two, and she would push me on the swing. Back at the house, together we would carefully spread peanut butter on our sandwiches, cut them into triangles and pack them in a bag. Then we would walk the 100 metres or so to my uncle's caravan that was parked in their backyard, open the door and unpack our lunch on the rickety caravan table and eat it as we stared out the window at the garden. It was the most exciting, picnicy, musty-smelling adventure a 3 year old girl could have. Later on in the day she would read me a story, punctuated by long pauses when Grandma would doze off for "40 winks" or so.

Grandma was generous and kind and everyone who met her loved her. Looking back, she was a very social person, but never a party animal. She was more in the background enabling the interactions to happen and ensuring that everyone was comfortable. Family gatherings were hosted by grandma. Her coleslaw with mandarin was a staple dish, and she would always try to feed our family chicken and hot dogs even though we repeatedly reminded her that we were vegetarian. She never missed the quarterly get-togethers with her cousins and was active in the local church to the extent that the brick-a-brack stall at the annual church flea market is still simply known as "Mary's stall" because she had been such a familiar and consistent sight behind the counter for so many years.

Mary and Nell were very close, as you'd imagine with twins, and they modeled for me how sisters could blend gossip, heated disagreement and business-like arrangements all into the one seamless conversation. I remember the two of them taking my friend Cybele and I for an outing one day. They walked together in front in animated discussion, and the two of us walked behind them having a great time quietly copying them. "No, I insist, Nell, let me pay" was followed by "no, don't be ridiculous, Mary, I insist. It's my shout" and behind we mimed with pronounced hand gestures. Then as the conversation shifted from which train to catch to stories of husbands and children, the banter seemed to turn into an endless cycle of "Oh, I know, I know", and "oh, yeees, I knoooow" and meanwhile in the rear were two girls with our heads bobbing all over the place in delighted and silent exaggeration.

When I was a teenager, I asked her about her relationship with Grandfather, who we all just thought of as an eccentric old man who worked a lot with clocks and trains but didn't interact much with people. She told me that "I still learn new things about your grandfather every day" which I found incredible after fifty odd years, although perhaps not that surprising given what could be hidden in that garage of his! Once she confided to me that she occasionally let Grandfather win a game of cards, just to keep it interesting. "Always keep a little bit of money for yourself" she would advise us girls. When I taped an interview with them about life during the war for a school assignment, she explained the simplicity of her wedding dress, and how friends and family had rallied around to add various special touches to it using their food stamps. Then with a sparkle in her eyes she added an anecdote about the honeymoon.  "We were given two single beds on a verandah on our wedding night. Your grandfather was livid!"

I would have loved to ask her advice about many of life's more tricky matters over the past almost twenty years, and relate to her as an adult, but she died just after I turned 17. I miss her all the time, but she might be happy to hear that many of her qualities live on in those she influenced. Her determination to learn to drive later in life, her courage to face terminal illness with grace, her patience with and kindness towards children, her intellect and quick wit, her love of people and her compassion for those less fortunate. It's a challenge I give myself every day to be a bit more like her. Happy Birthday Grandma.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Black dogs and bath mats

Some people are visited by the black dog. Others talk of feeling "low". The early Quaker George Fox wrote about an ocean of darkness. Whatever the euphemism, let's face it. We're talking about the good old elephant in the room - depression.

Most people have experienced some low points in life. For some, they are triggers for episodes of depression. Many sortof carry on as best they can, managing to maintain the illusion of normality, and eventually come out the other side. Others who can't are made to feel inadequate or even guilty because it's not possibly to snap out of it or even conceive of a life beyond the blackness.

A few years ago a friend who knew from experience lent me a book called "Taming the Black Dog". It's a comic book designed for people suffering from depression or anxiety and those close to them. It describes the negative thoughts that tend to take over, and how they become a cycle whereby more negative things tend to happen as a result of the negative thinking patterns.

I like the black dog analogy. My mum was telling me once about a black dog (an actual dog that happened to be black) that she was looking after. This black dog would follow her around wherever she went. There was an element of comfort to it being there, but sometimes its presence got annoying and restricted what she could do. A defining moment was when she stepped out of the shower, and there was the black dog, sitting on the bathmat, and there was no room left for her feet.

The metaphorical black dog can be a bit the same. There's a comfort in the familiarity of the negative thoughts following you around and the fact that they give you an excuse for inaction and cowardly decisions. But sometimes you have a moment where you open the shower door and realise that the black dog sitting on the bath mat leaving no room for your feet is no longer helpful. You can't just get rid of it, but you can tame that dog.

The book my friend lent me offers tools for "taming" the black dog and suggestions for showing support for somebody caught in the fog of depression. It doesn't attribute blame or suggest unrealistic goals. It just offers a few steps for thinking differently, acting differently and for celebrating even the smallest indicators of progress. While I can't bring back the people in my life who eventually succumbed to the illness, I can try to be a supportive presence for others, and hopefully live my own life as a confident dog tamer rather than a wet bathmat when times get tough.