Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Mum's mother, Georgina

Mum’s mother, Grandma Georgina Bunt, was a working woman. I never knew Mum’s father – he died when I was only a baby – and Grandma brought up my Mother, Dulcie Irene (the eldest) and her brothers, Jimmy and Kevin. From all reports – and from evidence of dismembered cars and other boys’ detritus at the rear of Grandma’s weatherboard house in Banks Street, South Wollongong – Jimmy and Kevin could sometimes be a tear-away handful. Mum also played a part in trying to rear them, as Grandma earned hard livings as a chef in various service clubs around the city.

Grandma Bunt's life had always been hard. After travelling the country with her husband during the Great Depression - settling briefly among the night-time razor gangs in gritty, down-trodden Balmain with my mother as a very young child before moving onto Wollongong - she had to cope with his death. Grandpa died slowly, painfully, having fallen into a deep, unlit manhole on the nightshift at the Steelworks.

I distinctly remember Grandma’s smart work uniforms and her sensible, black lace-up work shoes – the ones with the chunky War-Time heels and matronly rounded toes. I also remember walking through her various commercial kitchens, in tow behind Mum, with my brother, John, and sister, Mary, when we’d visit her at work.

The heat was always intense, and you could almost cut the thick, humid, oily air with a cleaver. The red ceramic tiled floors were always slippery, no doubt the result of endless renderings of one type of meat or another, or the always steaming bins of hearty soups or vegetables. Grandma always smelt of strong commercial cleaning agents and a kaleidoscope of pungent dishes. But she was always pleased to see us kids, smiling through her gleaming perspiration

Her workmates, also hardworking, hearty types, were always happy to see different faces in their kitchens, using these interludes as perfect excuses to duck out the back screen doors for a smoke . . .

Grandma had a good friend called Elva, who (along with her daughter) took me to Sydney one fine Saturday to ride the downtown trams and to go shopping. It must have been 1959, as all I can remember is hopping on and off unfamiliar Toast-Rack trams with two women loaded down with mysterious packages.

After she retired, Grandma sold her Evans Street weatherboard, and moved into a tiny Housing Commission studio flat in Warrawong, just over the hill from the Port Kembla steelworks. The things I most remember were the unit’s small size, and the fact that Grandma insisted on keeping tomato sauce in the fridge.

Grandma was always happy. I never saw her angry. However, when it came time for her to die, she did so quickly and relatively quietly. By then I was in my mid 20s. I was shocked to look into her squirming, fear-filled eyes as she lay those last few days in Bulli Hospital. Grandma knew she was dying, easing into oblivion, but could not put none of that knowing into words. She just squeezed my hand when I visited, knowing full well who I was.

Grandma’s funeral service was held in the frugal Warrawong Catholic Church, high on the hill overlooking the steelworks. We then laid her to rest deep in the headstone forest of Wollongong cemetery, not more than 500m from where she’d reared her kids. Mum sobbed gently as Grandma’s tired body was lowered into the ground. Doubtless Mum was all too aware of her own mortality.

Grandma died not owning much. We kids – and those of our uncles, Jimmy and Kevin – were each given envelopes containing a few dollars. Giving thanks as best I could, I gave mine to the Salvation Army collector working my local pub that night . . .


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