Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My father's mother, Liz

Nana Elizabeth Heininger, nee Sandon, gave every impression of always being frail. She was tall, and had always been slim, and complained obliquely of this or that ailment, and about how she simply didn’t enjoy the best of overall health. Yet I remember clearly a day when Dad and I tried catching up with her as we all walked east down the main shopping area of Crown Street Wollongong. When we finally caught up with her, Nana complained she couldn’t take another step, and – after thanking God that we’d turned up in the nick of time – asked matter-of-factly if we could hail her a cab. Dad muttered something about being as fit as a fiddle, the old coot.

I always found it strange that Nana and Grandfather had separate rooms, both with large, austere iron double beds. Her room had a large metal trunk set under the bay window, and I always assumed it was filled with Nana treasures. Grandfather’s room was as Spartan as an aesthete’s – a bed and single wardrobe.

All floors in the house, including the main drawing room that was set up with a formal table setting we never used, were covered in ancient, dark and shining linoleum which all added to the aging aroma. The centerpiece of this long dining table was a green-grey ceramic bower birds' nest with several small ceramic eggs securely positioned deep inside. It became one of my rituals to always peer inside, and run my small fingers over these small, smooth, cold eggs, while the small pair of frozen ceramic birds watched down eternally from the top of their nest.

In my father’s old room, off this formal room, I found more treasures from another era. Several
Boys’ Own annuals from the 1920s and very early 1930s, and an oval tin filled with Dad’s childhood marbles. I’d pour over the crude line drawings of these musty books, while marveling at the beauty of some of the marbles, already well past being found in Japanese marbles sold by the bag-full by our local newsagent.

Nana also had a distinctive smell, of finely scented women's toilet soap, and I would always love washing my hands with it in the bathroom attached to the back of the house. It was always Grandfather who stood behind me, guiding my dirty hands through this pre-lunch washing ceremony, using a not-so-soft cotton face cloth. Nana was as gently stern as Grandfather was gently pleased to be with us children. I’m not sure she was ever pleased to see us kids.

Nana’s history is even sketchier than Grandfather’s. I remember a story that as a very young child herself, she’d gotten into serious parental trouble for playing with the Aboriginal kids living beside Tom Thumb Lagoon and the southern edge of Wollongong. This playground of marshy swamp flats now forms part of Port Kembla’s inner harbour. Lizzie hadn’t been roused on for playing with the Aboriginals – but for failing to tell her parents where she’d disappeared to for the better part of a lazy Summer's afternoon, long before electric light arrived in Wollongong.

When it came time for Nana to die, she passed quickly, in a low-sluing nursing home at the foot of Mt Ousley Road, North Wollongong. Dad burried her at Lakeside Memorial Lawn Cemetry, near Dapto on September 1, 1973. I was 18, and remember the day because I entered it in my diary


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