It’s 25 years since my last grandparent passed away. My Grammy. Our Marj. I was eight years old.
It doesn’t sound like such a tragedy. People get old and they die. Death of a grandparent is, if you’re lucky, the first death of someone who meant something in your life. She was 65. That sounded old when I was young. I always felt her absence but now it doesn’t seem very old at all.
Marj was so beloved, did so much, knew so many people, left so many behind. Nine children, seven still living, an absolute crowd of grandchildren and if she and George, Father, were still around, more than a few great grandies now.
Here’s a very short and incomplete list that shows a little of who she was. Went to high school when most girls didn’t. Selected while still a teenager for intelligence work in World War II. Only woman on the board of Campbell Hospital. Worked with (and had great respect for) Aboriginal communities before there were social workers. Organised programs and funding for young unemployed people to work before there were green corps and work for the dole schemes. Ran meals on wheels and countless other community initiatives. She had an incredible, ahead of the times understanding of the environment, she was an environmentalist long before the word existed. (How many in my family share that passion, too many to count.) Wrote beautiful poetry and scattered, profound diaries. She got so much done and I now know she wasn’t well for the last ten years of her life while she was still getting so much done.
I work in communities she once worked with in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and people still remember her and immediately soften towards me. Who you know, who you’re related to: it’s never got me anywhere in the business world, as I come from a long line of (steady) tradespeople and (committed) public servants. But when you work in the community, people care about who you are and where you grew up and who you’re related to in all the small communities of the far north coast. Just as much, if not more.
One of my favourite stories about Marj is her, in hospital, after a stroke, typing letters one-fingered to the editor of the local paper. Still going through sheer bloody-mindedness.
Another is a quote I read of an interview in the Northern Star. They were interviewing her about her employment program for young people, Hendo’s Army. She said that she did it because she ‘thought it was better than having them sitting in cafes, drinking coffee and listening to dirty stories’. Gives you a bit of an understanding of her motivation. She was a very strong Presbyterian and she took the work ethic seriously. There’s a lot of work to be done in life, a lot of people to be helped, better get started.
Women in my family particularly revere and miss her. We all want to be as amazing as her, we all share photos online, we look and relook and say how stunning she was (we are biased, but she was), we compliment each other and say how you have her hair or her eyes or her cheekbones. We know she loved comfy, practical clothes and but she was so stylish too. I don’t think it’s an accident that two of my cousins and I (I have a lot) are really into vintage clothing (big skirts!!) and hair. Or that all of us seem to be absolutely strident with our feminist views.
We all miss her. Grief. 25 years’ worth. Grief is pain but grief is also love.
Grief is love.
What this first grief in my life has taught me is that bad days remind you to be kind and to remember the lessons. Good days show you that real, true love lasts; your loved ones are always there, somewhere.