Steve and I spent the first two weeks of October at his grandparents’ house in Queenscliff. Staying there, in that house full of handwritten letters, flowery tins and shelves of old books, I couldn’t help but mentally revisit my own grandparents’ house. Something about the smell. Something about the era. Though my grandparents and Steve’s never met, their very different houses share certain qualities.
My grandparents, Mum’s parents, lived in Mt Gambier, on the border with South Australia, right on the main highway at the top of the hill as you drove into town from Victoria. You could hear the log trucks grinding up that hill from your bedroom. As a kid, we went there every Christmas, Mum, Dad, my two younger brothers and I piling into the Mitsubishi Nimbus and setting off west along the Princes Highway. We listened to children’s cassettes, stopped in Colac for a sausage roll, fought over who got to play Donkey Kong on the Gameboy. I remember Dad leaning back and pinching our legs from the front seat to get us to stop squabbling, Mum yelling ‘Stop it! You’ll get us all killed!’
No one used the front door at that house on the highway, except maybe the postman. We would drive straight into the carport, park behind Grandma’s white Mercedes with the leather seats (used mostly for ‘the Sunday drive’), and pile through the carport door in what Grandma once described as ‘an avalanche’. I can still hear the snap and twang of that door on its rusty springs, the sound of arrival.
Grandma would be in the kitchen, tea towel over her shoulder, ready to greet the weary travellers with baked goods. It might be jam cake, or cinnamon cake, or shortbread biscuits, and Cottee’s cordial, and, I suppose, tea for the adults. The journey would be discussed – did we stop in Terang or Warrnambool? Camperdown or Colac? – the adults sitting around the white crochet tablecloth while the kids went off to play. “It’s a bit dry,” Grandma would say, referring to whatever delicious thing she had made. “I mustn’t have rubbed the butter in properly.” Funny how self-criticism makes its way down the generations.
I opened a bathroom cupboard in Queenscliff and was suddenly back at that Mt Gambier house, looking into the cupboard where the games were kept. The same musty smell. Shelves lined with wrapping paper, piles of clean sheets and towels, and at the bottom, the stash of games. Nowhere else have I seen Park and Shop, surely the most 1950s game ever invented: you drove your car into town, parked it, visited the various shops to buy the items on your shopping list, got back to your car, and drove home. Sometimes, if we were lucky, our game would be interrupted by tall, funny Uncle John offering to take us into the pine forests to cut down a Christmas tree of our own. Pine trees, jam cake, musty cupboards: the smells of Mt Gambier.
The garden, which ran around three sides of the house, was a picture of order and loveliness, an immaculately clipped lawn surrounded by raised beds full of flowers. There were many things Grandma didn’t like – beards on men, snobbery, excessive spending – but she did love her garden. A path ran from the back step, turned right to Papa’s shed or left through the lawn, past the hills hoist, the lemon tree, and to a latched wooden gate leading to the front garden with direct access to the freeway. As small children, we would ride our ‘pedal cars’, made by Papa, up and down this path, but the area beyond the latched gate was forbidden. Someone was always watching: from the sitting room the adults could see us in the garden, and I remember hearing a sharp rap on the glass and turning to see Mum or Grandma standing at the Venetians, letting us know our shenanigans were not going unnoticed.
Meat and three veg were mostly on the menu in Mt Gambier, and perhaps tinned peaches and ice-cream for sweets. The kitchen had a wonderful ‘booth seat’, a small laminate table with seats built in, and storage beneath. Canned food was stored down there, and a famous family story is that of our cousin Michael going over for dinner one night. “Would you like some sweets, Michael?” Grandma asked. “Yes please,” said Michael. “Now let’s see what we’ve got,” said Grandma, lifting up the seat and rummaging around amongst the cans, the labels worn off, all cans identical. “Now let’s see, is it pears or peaches?” said Grandma, opening the tin. “Oh dear…baked beans.”
My Papa is mistier in my memory. I know he was a plumber, and ambidextrous, and could build anything. I know he was lively after a drink and I know he loved our Grandma dearly. But I mostly remember him sitting in the swivel arm chair with his oxygen machine running, a result of a lifetime of smoking, and feeling annoyed because I couldn’t hear the TV properly.
Grandma, however, looms large. I hear her in my voice, and my mother’s voice. I have her sharp tongue, her love of crosswords, and, I hope, her aptitude for financial figures, although she wouldn’t think so. Once, in my early twenties, I spent several months cross-stitching a picture for her, a black cat sitting on a wall looking out over a field of poppies. It was beautiful, and I proudly framed it and paid perhaps $40 to have it sent by registered post to that house on the hill. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail:
Thank you for the cross-stitch. It must have taken a great deal of work and time. When I saw the postman coming up the path with that huge box, I didn’t know what it could be. I nearly fell over when I saw how much it had cost to send. You should have waited until someone was driving this way. I’m afraid you will never be well-off, as you’ve not learnt to be thrifty.
Another famous story of Grandma’s frugality is when she heard of an acquaintance, a man in his 80s, buying a pair of new shoes. “Honestly,” said Grandma, genuinely shocked. “Fancy buying new shoes at his age!”
Grandma died in that house, age 93, as peacefully and easily as someone can die: no illness, no aged care, after a breakfast of Weetbix with sugar and warm milk, and a cup of tea. The house was photographed and put up for sale, but the agency pictures rob it of so much. I suppose strangers live there now. They don’t know about the the crystal lolly jar up on the shelf full of caramels in shiny wrappers, the flowery lounge suite, the white Merc, the lumpy single beds. They don’t know how good slightly dry jam cake tastes with a glass of cordial after a long drive. I wonder if they listen to the log trucks rattling past. I wonder if they stand at the fence waving a handkerchief as their family heads back east along the highway.