I was proud of my Grandma, for no other reason than her great achievement in years. Moreover, I was proud of myself for possessing a Great Grandmother as old as she. Standing in front of my second grade class one day, I announced the ages of all my nearest and dearest. When I reached my Great Grandmother, my chest puffed with pride as I revealed the age of the Queen of my family tree. None of my classmates could compete, except Jennifer Renwick, because she shared the same Grandma as me.
The day that saw the dawning of my childish pride was a Sunday like all my other Grandma visits.
Dressed in our matching blue frocks, shoes and socks, and ribbons tied to our hair, my two sisters and I follow Mum and Dad up the high back stairs. Although it is Sunday, we realize it is no ordinary visit to Grandma’s house. The kitchen and dining areas are bursting at the seams as familiar family faces, young and old fill the space, spilling out onto the front verandah. The house echoes with the vibration of people chatting and crockery clattering. There is a busy to-ing and fro-ing of elderly relatives carrying plates of food between the kitchen and the front room where tables and chairs are arranged for lunch. The central figures of this group of relatives are Grandma’s three daughters in law who incessantly fuss over the matriarch of the family.
“Grandma, you sit in front of the window,” Phoebe, (my Grandmother) guides her Mother in law with a protective arm into the front room.
Angie and Vivian are already in the room putting the final touches to the table settings. They are placing the last of the folded serviettes in glasses, filling small bowls with lollies and straightening the cutlery. Once satisfied, Vivian scuttles out of the room to find her husband and his brothers.
“Kevin!” she calls out above the deafening din.
“Out here,” a familiar voice yells from the back landing. Kevin, Jack and Bill are all leaning against the rails of the back stairs and landing…avoiding the congestion within.
Vivian pushes through to the back doorway and announces,
“Lunch is ready you three. Come and sit at the table with your Mother.”
“Where is Ron?” she turns and scans the dining room for her older brother-in-law.
“He’s gone to see a Doctor,” quips Jack. The others laugh.
“What? ” Vivian spins around, wondering what could be so funny.
“Yeah,” Kev elaborates, his face dead serious. “He’s got his nose stuck in a book!”
Vivian shakes her head. Kev’s face breaks into a grin. His brothers join in too. From when they were children, Ron’s love of books has been the subject of their jokes.
“Seriously, where is he?” Vivian asks before turning back into the house in search of her husband’s oldest brother….
Finally, the four brothers take up the chairs that flank their Mother. The tantalizing aroma of roast chicken and potatoes beckons the remainder of the hungry gathering to file into the room. Space is tight. The air is alight with a sense of festivity as all eyes rest upon the careful arrangement of cutlery; the placement of beer and soft drink bottles at each place setting ; the platters of meats and vegetables that laden the tables. There is no question on anyone’s mind that this is a momentous event. Harriet Jane, the matriarch of the Lyons family, has victoriously crossed the dateline into her ninetieth year.
Grandma’s ninetieth birthday was the last major gathering at 10 Redpath Street. I remember the house as a place of gatherings; of cousins and second cousins, Aunts and Great Aunts, Uncles and Great Uncles, Grandparents and Great Grandparents. There were gatherings of clattering teacups and plates of home baked cakes. That old house was a gathering place for family memories that had been built on and expanded since the family purchased the property in 1933. Even today, my memories beckon me to drive by; to stop and peer up at the old French doors and scan the breadth of the open verandah, hoping to catch a glimpse of times gone by. And, each time I feel compelled to take yet another photo, a snapshot of the past to add to my own gathering of memories.
I scan a snapshot taken at Grandma’s 90th Birthday lunch. Looking at the image, I search for clues, for something to revive my faded memories of the day. Of course, I cannot remember the exact events and conversations that played out on that day. My imagination runs off with what might have been. The smiling faces of cousins Norma White and Johnny O’Brien look back over their shoulders towards the back corner of the room. My Grandmother stands to the left of the photo with Mrs Church seated to her left, both are gazing blankly in the same direction. Meanwhile, my Grandfather, his Mother and brothers are suspended mid-thought, waiting, listening in silence. Jack’s eyes glint with a hint of devilment, whilst Kev wears a face of thoughtful intent. Ron looks down at the table considering the moment or perhaps he is secretly reading a book, whilst Bill, the youngest of the boys breaks into an impish grin. Who or what had grabbed their attention? It was so long ago, I remember so little. They are all oblivious to being captured on film, except, the guest of honour, who looks straight at the camera. She politely obliges, softening her pressed lips ever so slightly. It was more a sign of resignation than of joy.
No-one can know that the little 6 year old girl seated at the back of the room would, in fifty years, be holding that captured moment in her hand trying to decipher the scene. As all eyes in the photograph are focused on the back corner of the room, my attention is drawn to a dark shadow at the far right hand side of the frame. A tall dark cupboard with glass doors watches on in silence, unnoticed by the guests in the room. I see that there is an empty space at that table to my Grandfather’s right. The family group is incomplete. If only I could revisit the scene and tell that little girl to open those cupboard doors. And if she asks why, I would reply “the man who belongs in that empty space at the table, well… his spirit lives inside.”