Grandma has lost her purse. She’s hurrying from one room to another and back again, opening cupboards and lifting cushions. Wispy white hair works loose from the floppy bun at the back of her neck, her hands twist together, her faded blue-grey eyes dart.
“I know I had it yesterday, where can it be, oh dear, oh dear, I know I had it yesterday.” Her litany of distress is on repeat and winding up.
“Where is it, oh where is it!” She’s almost whimpering now.
Grandad is out in the garden, hoeing weeds away from the tomatoes he’s planning to eat on Christmas Day. I consider calling him to help me search, but I know he’ll sigh and carry on hoeing.
Thank goodness, the carer has arrived.
“What’s up Bea?” She’s cheerful and calm. “You’ve lost your purse dear? Well, I know where it is, here you are.” She pulls a scuffed navy blue handbag out of the airing cupboard.
Grandma opens it and lifts out the small bundle of notes.
“Thank you dear”, she says, “Thank you…” There’s a pause. “Who are you?”
“I’m Stella, my love, I was here yesterday and we had such a nice time together. Now what about some lunch? Here’s your lovely granddaughter to lay the table. And I see she’s made a delicious salad. Will you do the bread and butter for us?”
Grandma sits at the table. Stella hands her the bread board, a saucer of butter, a white cottage loaf and the bone-handled bread knife. The butter is thinly applied right to the edges, the slices evenly cut with a skill honed over many years.
In the small, shabby kitchen Stella turns to me. “Sorry, I should have told you about the extra purse. Bea gets worked up when she can’t find her pension money so I always have a decoy ready to stop the wandering or she’ll wear herself out.”
And so the summer before I started university began. My elderly grandparents had offered to board me while I worked as a nurse aid at Levin Farm and Training School, the sprawling pyschopaedic hospital just south of the township. I slept in the sunporch, its thin, faded curtains pulled together on a wire, an old treadle sewing machine as a dressing table and a bentwood chair beside my lumpy bed. I worked four days on and two days off, washing and waxing floors, making beds, escorting unruly children across wide lawns to the Hospital school. When not working I was to help my grandfather in the house and he needed help because Grandma was descending slowly but surely into a fog of dementia.
Aged 82, it often seemed that all she had left of her personality were her worries, the constant anxiety around cash and the supply of food. Bea and my grandfather, Elmslie, had been infrequent visitors to the French Pass farm my father had purchased from them in 1953, and we had travelled north to Levin just as infrequently.
At 82, in appearance she was just as I remembered her: a dumpling of a woman with pale freckled skin. Her long white hair, once a gingery blond, dressed in a bun held together by a gossamer thin hairnet. She was dressed in layers: a dull coloured cardigan worn over a muted print frock under which glimpses of thick, greyish petticoat could be seen, her lumpy legs encased in thick lisle stocking, low-heeled black lace up shoes on her feet. On high days and holidays, winter or summer, she added to this ensemble a heavy woollen coat, tailored in where her waist had been, and a squashed and shapeless blue felt hat.
Now, 46 years later, writing a memoir (centred around my father’s war and growing up with the consequences of his experiences), I am shocked at how little I know about Grandma Bea. The facts I can assemble are few: born in 1891, Bea came from a large Blenheim family, the Moores, and amongst her siblings had a brother, Fred, a keen camera buff, and a sister we knew as Aunty Ding who possessed, to our great fascination as children, a clock embellished with a brightly coloured tin cut-out of Mickey Mouse whose hands told the time; she came to French Pass as the school teacher in 1916; there she met my grandfather, marrying him in 1920. He was 28, she was 29. She bore five children, four sons and a daughter. She had a recipe book with 365 puddings, one for every day of the year. She died in 1975.
My father, her eldest child, told a few stories that may or may not be true: she taught on Molesworth Station before coming to French Pass; Bea and Elmslie’s courtship and marriage was vigorously promoted by Elmslie’s mother who was keen for him to settle down and stay on the farm; she had a nervous breakdown and Bea had to go away for a rest when my father was a toddler – he was very lively and demanding and wore her down, he told me; she worried about everything all the time; Elmslie was the boss in the family.
And that’s all I know.
I assume she did not like being photographed. When my parents died I inherited the family photos and amongst hundreds, including many starring my grandfather, I can find only three featuring Bea. This is surprising when I think how vivid the portraits of my other grandparents, and at least some of my great-grandparents, are. Their personalities still have a lively presence in their families years after their deaths.
And yet Bea left one potent legacy: her sometimes crippling anxiety, as we’d now term the constant worrying that blighted her life. During memoir research I have discovered that anxiety inherited from his mother (and yes, the science supports the passing on of a genetic predisposition) had a devastating effect on my father during the Second World War.
And that unfortunate legacy has rippled down through the family all the way to her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. Dear Grandma: how fortunate you’re not here to add that knowledge to your copious store of worries.