Grandma and the goat

‘Have a beer’, said a friend recently. ‘No thanks, juice will be fine’, I replied. Remembering me as a keen beer drinker, he looked bemused. ‘I’ve become a bit of a wowser, these days. Grandma would be proud of me.’

On another recent occasion, I was offered a glass of wine by one of my quiz night teammates. All the other members were imbibing. ‘No thanks. lemon, lime and bitters, will be fine. I don’t touch the stuff these days. Grandma would be proud of me.’

‘What you mean – your grandma would be proud of you?’ one asked. And so began my tale.

My grandma was born in 1889 in Johnsonville. Her large family were all devout Methodists.

As a young woman she took the pledge ‘never to let the demon drink touch her lips.’

Her commitment was fervent, to say the least. The pledge was the first thing you saw when you opened the giant family bible.

Grandma was active in the Christian Women’s Temperance Union for many years. Along with her mother and sisters, she worked hard to get out the vote for prohibition in the liquor referendums accompanying the general elections. How close  Grandma and her fellow prohibitionists came to achieving their goal – 49.7% of votes in the December 1919 election.

In the 50s, her Johnsonville home was demolished to make way for the new Wellington motorway. However, the land proved to be surplus to requirements, and it reverted to private use. The new owner promptly erected a liquor store.

As a young child I used to watch my parents hiding the alcohol whenever grandma was coming to visit. On one occasion, I got a clip behind the ears, when in a fit of enthusiasm, I inadvertently exposed the hidden bar in our new family home.

When I came down from Palmerston North to be a law student at Victoria University, I was always very careful to ensure that my breath did not smell of alcohol, whenever I visited her at Paekakariki. That meant avoiding any visit when the after-effect of a wild student party might be evident.

It was during my student days that grandma’s unfortunate encounter with a billy goat occurred. One day, when she was walking to the shops near the railway station, she got knocked over by a goat. Being a kindly soul, perhaps grandma had attempted to pat the goat. Perhaps the goat had broken loose from its tether?

Those facts are unclear. What’s not so, is that grandma was badly shaken. She had ‘the shakes’ for some days. Her homemade remedies weren’t working. What to do?

Off to the doctor she went. He was a charming young man. ‘Mrs McBride, I could fill you up with pills, but really, a small nip of brandy each night would probably be more effective’.

The doctor was not to know of her fervent commitment to abstinence. However, countering that on this occasion was another of her deeply-held beliefs – that when it comes to health, doctors know best. ‘Following doctor’s orders’, it was called.

With the greatest of reluctance, grandma decided to follow the doctor’s advice. Perhaps the fact the brandy was to be used for medicinal purposes persuaded her.

I was dispatched to the local liquor store to buy a small bottle.

That night, grandma decided to try and drink a tiny amount, served in a knitting thimble. As the thimble neared her lips, she started to shake violently.

Was it indeed the curse of the devil at work? As the brandy left the thimble, grandma made a sound rather like a muffled scream, followed by a massive spit. The contents of the thimble were scattered all over the floor.

Whether any of the brandy ever touched her lips, one can only speculate. Given her commitment to the pledge, I doubt it.

Eventually her shakes disappeared. Retelling the brandy story was forbidden.

Grandma lived a long and active life. I always saw her as the personification of a practical Christian – not into dogma or ritual , but rather committed to the addressing the spiritual and physical needs of the less fortunate in the community.

The ‘Evening Post’ published a lovely photo of her, in her late 70s, sitting behind a small desk on Lambton Quay – on a chilly Wellington day – raising money for the then Society for the Protection of Home & Family. Her smile exudes warmth and compassion.

Grandma’s buried in the family plot in the tiny Johnsonville heritage cemetery, behind some light industrial buildings on the Main Street. Beside her is the grave of her daughter, Ria – a courageous battler for women’s rights, who was one of the first two women to be appointed Human Rights Commissioners in 1978.

She too was a dedicated teetotaller.

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Tim McBride

Human rights author and commentator