A tribute to the first woman I looked up to

Most people will say the first woman they look up to is their mother — and I do look up to my own — but the first woman who I consciously remember really influencing my life was my paternal grandmother.

My uncle, my grandmother and my father

My grandmother is a woman I’m proud to have looked up to. She was tiny, but she was a whirlwind. She loved travel, and learning. She valued science and education. She was constantly active, and she appreciated art and the finer things in life.

When my mother was pregnant, and after my brother arrived (when I was around 3 or 4), my grandmother would take me on a regular adventures.

We’d go to the pool, or the movies. Sometimes a museum or the park. Nearly always to McDonalds. To a little girl who is dealing with this new annoyance in her life (sorry Mike), this was the day I looked forward to.

She encouraged my imagination, and she bought me lots of books and games. Once she bought a slip-and-slide for Christmas that Dad wouldn’t let her give us because it would ruin his lawn.

She introduced me to Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl. One year she bought me an audiobook of a Roald Dahl story on cassette. I must have been about 9 or 10. It was NOT one of Dahl’s children’s stories… if you know what I mean. I know she wouldn’t have done it on purpose, but BOY was it eye-opening!!

I often spent the holidays with her. Sometimes we’d just stay in the family house in Palmerston North. Other times we’d drive down to her “Wellington Pad” (she had a scary bach in Raumati for years, followed by an apartment in Te Aro, and eventually a townhouse in Mt Victoria). We’d drive there. My grandmother, bless her, was a shockingly bad driver. It feels fair to include this fact as it is one thing I know everyone in my family will attest to. She loved to drive, but she was really not good at it.

Family Christmas

Our relationship took a different direction when I moved to Wellington when I was 17. I would visit her house at the top of Mt Victoria every few months for a meal, lots of gin, and Benson and Hedges cigarettes. Sometimes we played mah jong, sometimes we just talked. Sometimes she’d offer to take me on more grown up adventures.

Like when she took me to see Dame Maggie Smith on stage in Talking Heads. It was my first theatre experience and it was amazing. Nana had got us the best seats in the house, and I’ve worshiped Maggie Smith ever since.

She convinced me to go to university on one of those nights. It took me a few years to actually get there, but it was her voice that guided me to enroll eventually. And she was there when I graduated — though she couldn’t remember it a few hours later.

Dementia is a hard thing. I haven’t seen her in many years because the last time I did, is not a memory I wish to have. When she reached a certain point, I couldn’t do it any longer. I’m not saying I didn’t want to see my grandmother — I’m saying the woman I visited that day was not the woman I loved. More to the point — I knew it was a woman she didn’t want to be.

One of the last photos I have with her

I woke up this morning in a house on the street she lived on for many years, in the city we both love and I recieved a phonecall from my father.

And what I have been flooded with since I heard the news of her passing are the memories of the strong woman she was. I’m remembering all the good times. I’m remembering the version of her I know she would want me to remember. This isn’t a story about her sickness, it’s a story about her impact on me.

The truth is, I think she’s more with us today than she has been for a long time.

She’s finally free and whole again, and for that, we are blessed.