Tapestry series no. 113
Date contributed: 14.10.2016
Contributed by Sharon Johnson, granddaughter
Nan lived an unremarkable life and yet she was one of the most memorable women you would ever meet. Nan to us, her real name was Joyce. Joyce Reid was her married name. Growing up she went by the last name of Preston. Later in life she found out she was actually a Clarke. Other people said even that was wrong. It didn’t matter, bottom line was that Joyce and her big mob of brothers and sisters come from a mixed bag, but they all loved each other dearly, no matter who their Dad was or wasn’t.
Nan was born under the big Australian sky. Stunningly beautiful with a mane of dark hair and a lovely complexion, Nan was often thought to be Aboriginal. This was a label that she fought wildly against, for all of her life. So determined was she that she was white skinned, she refused to discuss the matter with anyone. She lost a friend or two over the years if they dared remark on her background. Nan looked Aboriginal, some of us grandkids have that same look. Nowadays though, it is a different world, it is okay to be proud to be Indigenous. Nan has long since passed. Knowing her she still would never have accepted that she was anything other than a white fella.
I remember her telling me when I was a little kid, the tale of displaying her marriage certificate on the kitchen wall in her and Pa’s little war service home. She did this to prove to the whispering neighbours that she was married, and that she wasn’t Aboriginal. Back then people didn’t like to think of a mixed blood Aboriginal woman married to a white bloke. My Nan used to tell me the story time and time again when the beers got her tongue loose! Funnily enough, when I spoke to Pa about the story and why it even mattered, he explained that when they wanted to get married he and Nan lived in the bush, a big outback place, right on the Queensland and New South Wales border. He said that the local police officer flat out refused to marry them. Determined to be wed, him and Nan simply crossed over the border! My Nan, being a proud and stubborn woman got a bee in her bonnet about their wedding from then on and held onto her anger at being judged, she took it to her grave, she was nothing if not loyal to a cause! Those poor unsuspecting neighbours were probably just curious and conversational about Nan’s background but Nan didn’t do anything by halves and she certainly took no prisoners. She took offence and nailed that marriage certificate to the wall for everyone to see! She loved telling that story almost as much as I loved watching her tell it. She enjoyed being a strong woman. We all enjoyed her strength until her full force settled upon you. At those times you wished desperately for a quieter, gentler Nan, but only ever for a moment. I wouldn’t have swapped her for the world.
Nan was an ordinary woman. Off to work, making ends meet, doing it tough, going without, surviving war, disappointment, heartache and keeping up with an ever changing world around her, all whilst raising a family and staying married. People back then didn’t get divorced, it wasn’t the done thing. And while Nan could be found yelling at Pa a lot over the years she would have been bored and lonely without him. They shared a special and unique relationship my Nan and Pa, one which endured until her death.
Like a lot of women from her era Nan didn’t get the opportunity to pursue her dreams. She dearly wanted to be a school teacher. I’m not sure Nan would have made a very good teacher? Nan was naturally gifted, talented at almost everything she turned her hand and mind to. This ability meant that she had little patience for those who didn’t share her capable ways. I still recall her frustration as she tried to show me again and again and again how to knit. She gave up and I still can’t make anything with two knitting needles and a piece of wool! Women used to rave about my Nan’s little knitted bell sets. They were delicate little matching pieces, always made to perfection with the prettiest coloured wool. Nan always used the best quality yarn that the department store had. She knew about good stock and produce, she was a ‘bushy’ to the bone, her time in the outback more than readied her for domestic life in the suburbs. Nobody in our family has her talent, well, not to her level. We each have bits and pieces of cleverness but she was outstanding at everything. The smarter of us lot snaffled away a knitted item or two when she died to remember her talents. The rest were donated to charity. A life’s work shipped off to end up in the home of strangers. Nan would probably have liked that, particularly if they landed in the homes of people who were down on their luck. She always favoured an underdog.
Like many women Nan was guilty at times of indulging those she loved. As a child I would wait eagerly for news that Nan was off to visit her dearest friend Alma. A woman who was large in stature but so tender and graceful in nature. She did not have the beauty of my Nan, not many women did. Everyone who ever met Alma looked forward to sharing in her company. She was a lady through and through. I would head off to school on days when I knew a visit was occurring and present myself not long after to the sick bay. I would hold my tubby little belly and complain of feeling like I might throw up. The ladies in the school sick bay had no tolerance for the bodily fluids of children, I was always guaranteed a phone call home to a parent if I didn’t feel better after half an hour had passed. With both parents working Nan was the parent on duty, she’d trek to the school and collect me. Initially she would be full of concern and worry, once or twice she’d threatened to take me directly home for a rest. I reacted, always a little too hastily, that I wasn’t that sick and I was definitely up for sitting on the lounge at Alma’s house while my Nan and Pa visited. After a while my Nan cottoned on to my ruse. She always pretended to believe me and she never did follow through on her threats to take me home. For this I was always thankful.
The absolute best visits to Alma’s house involved a visit to the bakery beforehand, a real treat back then. Once there we would spend what seemed like hours selecting the best cake to take with us on our visit. If I was very good, and I often was, Nan would let me choose my own little cake. This choice never took long; it was predictably a mushroom tart. The few times I wavered from this selection I immediately regretted it and vowed to never be tempted by the other cakes, slices or tarts again. Once purchased all of the boxed baked goods were placed in the back of the car, beside me on the seat mind you, it was my job to make sure they didn’t slide around, a task I always took quite seriously! I wasn’t ever allowed to carry the goods inside to Alma’s house, a combination of my clumsy nature and the treat being way too expensive to replace, Nan was always ‘the carrier of the cakes’. Alma would always appear with a cloud of floral scent embracing her soft skin. She always wore a string of pearls around her thick neck. Alma was more than a vision, she was an experience, rather like Nan actually! If I think back long enough to that time of my life I can still feel her and smell her. That bakery is long gone, as is Alma and Nan. Bakeries are a dime a dozen nowadays and baked treats are affordable, not just treats for special occasions. I haven’t had a good mushroom tart in years. Perhaps it was more the company that made them so delicious, rather than the ingredients or the baker’s touch? Nan shared her visits to her dear Alma with me, never seeming to be displeased or annoyed by my company. Nan had a very ordinary and clever way of making me feel important.
Nan shared a lot of her world. Maybe she was a teacher at heart? She taught me how to be passionate about whatever I was doing. I was also fortunate enough to inherit her quick and, at times savage tongue, as well as her most enduring romance, her love of books. She always encouraged me to cook, create and build, no matter if it was with my mind or with my hands she liked being productive. Nan liked to be accomplished and whilst she permitted me to be less than perfect in my tasks she never, ever lowered that measure for herself. I think of the times when Nan existed and I now marvel at all that she maintained within herself. She could be best described by using words that most people would not consider flattering. Fiery, mean, ferocious, greedy, critical, scrutinising and detailed. But she was also balanced, kind, generous, loving, humorous, open-minded and considerate. Nan never stepped away from who she was. She wore her temperament and her personality as proudly as she wore her gaudy box pleated skirts and her signature slash of bold red lipstick. Nan was the original contradiction in my world. The rest of us, myself included, are just cheap knock offs aiming to follow such an enigmatic style.