Conversations with Grandad
Penned on 26.12.16
I sat with my grandfather. He had seemed in a rush to leave the day before, as if Christmas lunch were too much: too noisy, too many people, too chaotic. He’d watched us play Finska on the front lawn for a while between lunch and dessert. My sister had gone to join him at the top of the big sandhill our family house sat perched on, peering down on us through dad’s rose garden, which was overgrown with all manner of other kinds of flowers, beautiful in its wilfulness and chaos and utter refusal to be tamed.
Full of Aperol and Prosecco, of crayfish and fleshy white emperor straight off the barbecue, and egged on by the sun, one of us stood on duty to make sure the precious balls didn’t disappear into the big storm drains at the lip of the road. Big fat gum trees waved in the park behind us. My uncle’s youngest daughter wore a Santa costume as a joke. Not everyone got it.
Under the bluest sky you could imagine, in the freest place in the world, we took selfies and drank more and threw the balls less and less accurately, whooping and yelling and accusing each other of cheating, ignoring for the moment – but hopefully not for a lifetime - the sheer privilege and luck of the lottery of birth to be here, not somewhere else.
I wondered what Grandad thought looking down on us. It was the second Christmas without my grandmother. He couldn’t hear much of the conversation anyway. When the only other old person there left I noticed him jumping at the chance to give her a lift home and get out of there himself.
So the next day I took him some ham, some turkey, and all the gifts’ he’d left behind the day before. Most of us had given him dark chocolate and red wine. What do you give an 89-year-old man anyway?
Time. That’s what you give him. And what you get back fills you right up. That hour with him was the first time in three days that I forgotten where I was and was truly present.
He gave me the recording of a speech he’d made the week before, presenting a child at Armadale Primary School with a community endeavour award named after my grandmother. Later, while transcribing the recording it occurred to me that he would have written the speech out. And so my text message with a request for an email with the word document with the speech was met half an hour later with ‘speech herewith’ as the subject line in my inbox.
I repeat, he is 89 years old.
He stopped talking so I started waffling. This is how we worked. I went to visit, I talked, he processed afterwards and then I listened while he made his judgment and administered his advice.
‘You know what I’ve learned this year, probably the biggest lesson?’
‘That I really need to know how to totally rely on myself to be happy. I haven’t quite got it worked out yet.’
He looked me square in the eye. ‘It is 100 per cent about your attitude.’ I knew he was right. He knew about what it meant to come from nothing. And lately, he knew about resilience and loneliness too.
He told me that it wasn’t easy to grow up with an Italian name in 1920s Australia. ‘Sure we got called all sorts of names,’ he said. ‘But that wasn’t the worst. It was that mostly we were ignored, treated differently to everyone else.’
My thoughts return to the day before, to that easy privilege, to each refugee in this country who feels how my grandfather felt, and worse. While even in the 60s once waves of postwar European migrants were somewhat accepted, kids were still teased for having sundried tomatoes and olives in their lunchboxes. Olives. It’s almost comical.
These days none of us can get enough of being as ethnic as we can get away with claiming to be. As often as I was asked – especially while working as a waitress – ‘where are you from?’ if I answered ‘third generation Australian’, there was always an air of disappointment. It was easier to give people the answer they wanted, which was Croatian and Italian. (Side note: nobody ever asked me ‘where I’m from’ while I was working in journalism or politics: only hospitality).
I waffle some more to fill the silence. I tell Grandad of my plans to go to Lucca in five or so months, assure him that I know people there: the owner of the yoga retreat place; an amazing dietician who transports her family from Perth there each European summer; the list goes own. Part of this just to reassure myself out loud.
There are so many unknowns in the year ahead – but by the same token so many opportunities. Great risk, great reward. I’d wanted to live, or at least spend a lot of time, in Italy since I was 16, or maybe before. I don’t know where the affinity came from – maybe it’s partly in my blood, partly because it’s the first ‘second language’ I was exposed to, but the desire to be there has been present for as long as I can remember, and I’d never felt quite at ease anywhere else as I did in Tuscany. Florence, while a marvel in its own right, was too busy, too full of tourists. Although I loved wandering the streets, picnicking in the Boboli gardens, it was always a bit manic and just a relief to get back to my apartment and sit on the balcony.
Whenever I could in those months I’d get a bus – with or without my friend Clare – and go *somewhere else* and that’s where the magic was, up and out of Florence, where shopkeepers didn’t roll their eyes and reply in English to our dodgy Italian and where I didn’t have to pretend I didn’t understand English to avoid American tour groups. (‘But today we’re supposed to be in Florence. This is Firenze – what have we got wrong?’)
Once we were out of the city people looked kindly on us speaking the language. Old men in suits in bars bought us espresso and joked they were going to marry us. We walked and walked and got sunburnt and talked about life and drank wine and then as the sun looked like it might disappear we made sure we were on our way back to Firenze.
My Grandad’s cousin Romy had grown up in Perth but in her 30s decided to move ‘back home’ to a place she’d never known as her own home, just that of her parents, in Sondrio, right on the border with Switzerland.
All the puzzle pieces had been there in the past, and had I touched on them all. It was like I’d been circling, dancing around the edges for years. But until now, the timing hadn’t been right to create the picture. But enough now, it’s time to make the leap and see what happens.
Catching myself mid-monologue I stop talking and look at my grandfather.
‘It sounds to me like you might be going home,’ he said.
‘We’ll see,’ I said. ‘I gotta go. See you next time.’