It’s funny the things that remind you of someone. In the case of my paternal grandmother, whom I called Mumma, the sight of garden beds edged in concrete combined with a well manicured lawn bring the memories flooding back. These features of her garden were also symbolic of her personality: she was always neat as a pin and firmly believed in maintaining appearances.
Mumma was born Ruby Vine Wallace, known as Vine, and died a year ago today, three weeks shy of her one hundredth birthday. No one could say she didn’t have a good innings. But that doesn’t stop me missing her.
I’ll always be glad that when I was pregnant with my daughter in 2005, I took the time to interview Mumma about her life. My interviews with her formed the basis of the eulogy my brother Luke put together for her funeral — which we held on what would have been her 100th birthday — while I put together a slide show of 100 years in 100 photos.
My grandmother was born in Charters Towers on 15 January 1911, the second of three daughters born to Maud Mary Victoria and John James Wallace. Her father died when Vine was seven; her mother’s second husband died before she left school. Vine came of age in Cairns a household comprised of her mother, two sisters and two female lodgers.
Mumma told me the years 1928-30 were among her happiest. The house in Abbot Street Cairns was known as ‘No Man’s Land’, though it was filled with boys at the regular Sunday evening parties they hosted, and the girls frequently went on trips to places like Turtle Bay, Green Island and Double Island. My great-grandmother made the girls’ clothes and judging from the photos from that era, costume parties were all the rage.
I never understood why my grandmother gave up her ‘wonderful life’ where she was ‘very happy and very independent’ — her words — to marry my grandfather, Leslie Joseph Savage, a musician and postman on secondment from Melbourne, whom she met at the Abbot Street parties. Her excuse was ‘he was so bloody persistent’ but I suspect there was more to it. Vine was ‘four foot eight in her good shoes’ — to quote my brother — and Les was six-foot-plus, so it may have been genetics. Then again, I wouldn’t have put it past Les to have wooed Vine with a song: perhaps Ain’t She Sweet, a big hit from the era.
They married on Les’ 25th birthday, 15 Dec 1931, and left Cairns for Melbourne that same day. Vine moved from an environment that was young, female and innocent, into one that was an older, hard-drinking and patriarchal. Still, she was no pushover: she stood up to her mother-in-law Laura and years later resisted pressure to move in with Les’ father Walter after Laura died. Still, it’s poignant that she says her favourite photo of herself — and I asked her about this when she was 99 years old — was the portrait taken on her wedding day, just before she moved to Melbourne.
Vine was so homesick that when when in 1934 Les took leave from work to fulfil his dream of travelling to Tahiti, she opted to return to Cairns to spend time with her family. Only much later would she travel overseas: to Hong Kong, New Zealand, the UK, France and Tahiti, too.
Vine and Les were living in East St Kilda when their first son Haydn Joseph (my father) was born on 12 September 1935. The mid-1930s were lean years. The family didn’t have much money, lived in a shared household, and played cards with friends for entertainment. My grandmother developed practices during this period that stayed with her a lifetime, re-using and recycling long before they were fashionable.
She remembered hearing the declaration of war on the radio in 1939 when pregnant with her second child. Les was in the equivalent of the Army Reserves and was encamped within weeks, first at Caulfield and later at Portsea. However, he was able to be home when their second son Clive Anthony was born on 11 December 1939.
Vine spent most of the war years without Les, and her letters to him at this time show her loneliness and sadness, as well as her forbearance and her dedication to the upbringing of her sons. She wrote some 40 letters between 29 June and 14 Sept 1943 alone.
In late-1944, Vine took her sons by boat to Western Australia where Les had been stationed the previous year, but after six months Les was unexpectedly transferred to Mareeba in Queensland and Vine took the boys back to Melbourne. Les finally came home in December 1945. But the years apart took their toll on my grandparents’ marriage.
Vine was always very homesick. When her beloved mother died on 23 August 1949 of pneumonia, Vine was devastated. Just over a year later, her younger sister died, too, at the age of 36.
When I interviewed Mumma about her life, there is nothing after this until 1952, when the family moved to Mimosa Road, Carnegie. In the 1960s, both Haydn and Clive married, the first grandchild (me) arriving in August 1966, followed nine days later by my cousin Laura. In 1967, Les and Vine moved to Railway Road, Carnegie into a house they had built to order.
My brother Luke observed that our grandfather Les — whom we called Father Bear — had very little input into the design of the house. The kitchen and bathroom in particular were scaled to Mumma’s size.
It was at Railway Road that Vine and Les spent their last years together. Us grandchildren enjoyed plenty of parties in Carnegie, eating Mumma’s superlative sausage rolls and jelly cakes and, as Luke put it, ‘always being careful not to trample the hydrangeas, neck ourselves on the very low-hung clothesline and forever wondering why anyone would grow a cumquat tree.’
Father Bear died suddenly on 7 April 1984 while watching his beloved Fitzroy at the Junction oval. Mumma had cared for him through many years of ailing health, but his death came as a shock to us all. Mumma was set back by his death — I have a vivid memory of her chastising his corpse for leaving her alone — but soon regained her pep, especially once the great-grandchildren started arriving.
She lived alone at Railway Road until 2006 when, at the age of 95, she moved into a residential community in Murrumbeena. She spent several happy years there. I know this because when I prepared the slideshow for her memorial service, I was struck by how happy she looked in photos taken at this time. It was a lesson for me to know that there is joy to be found so late in life.
Mumma died on 23 Dec 2010, having recovered from a brief spell in hospital, and three days after being transferred to a high level care facility.
After she died, my brother Luke and I mulled over what we really knew about our grandmother and things that we knew were important to her. This is a slightly abridged version of what Luke said at her eulogy:
Vine loved her mother, never stopped missing her and was deeply affected by her loss.
She believed blood was thicker than water and her family was central to her life. That said, she practised tough love and didn’t let those closest to her get away with much at all. She could be difficult, obstinate and unreasonable even. She wasn’t the first parent to expect a lot from her children. Still, she stuck by them, through thick and thin.
She remained a proud Queenslander until the end. She never learned to love the Melbourne winter and whenever she could she would sit in the sunshine.
She didn’t like black racehorses or cats of any colour, and Sean Hart was her favourite footballer because he was no-nonsense and about 5ft’ 2’’.
She enjoyed growing flowers from cuttings, knitting, decorating coat hangers and doing ‘the messages’. She liked to laugh, would take a glass of champagne on occasion and would offer me a beer, always a tinny of Carlton Light, no matter what time of day it was. She was always dressed neat as a pin.
She taught me Chinese people love to gamble, the Americans saved us during the war and that you shouldn’t drink hot drinks with cold meals, or cold drinks with hot meals, I still can’t remember exactly how that one ran. She made a great roast, shop-quality pasties, nasty mayonnaise with condensed milk and the best jelly cakes south of Dandenong Road. As a girl her favourite breakfast was day-old scones fried in butter, served up with golden syrup. No wonder she only made it to 99.
Mumma remained engaged with, and interested in the world; she understood that the most complex problems in the world had a human face that was often ignored or forgotten; she showed great empathy to those who were suffering.
She never looked to the past with any great sense of nostalgia; having lived through two world wars and a depression, and lost loved ones to diseases now easily cured, she knew that many of the good old days weren’t actually that good. I think she would’ve liked Graham Kennedy back on the telly, hemlines slightly lower and the traffic to wait for little old ladies, but she well understood that change was unavoidable.
She was a remarkably tough person. She rarely complained. To the end her mind remained sharp.
The second last time I saw her, she was lying in a hospital bed in the Alfred, looking tiny and frail, and every day of her 99 years. She was distressed because the nurses had removed her dentures to prevent any chance of her choking. Although hard to understand, we knew Mumma was asking for her teeth and several times we tried to reassure her, saying the nurses wouldn’t let her have them until they were sure it was safe to do so. She persisted, completely ignored our ‘we were told you’re not supposed to have them’, and insisted that we gave her dentures. There she was, dying, insisting that she knew what was best for her, determined to retain her dignity, something she had fought hard to preserve for nearly 100 years. When you’re 4’8″ in your good shoes you learn to keep asking, to insist, and when you’re 99 sometimes even doctors should realise that you probably know what’s best for you.
I remember studying her hands, tiny and delicate, but also wiry and strong, and together with Angela we wondered on the century of life that had shaped them, the sausage rolls they had formed, the friends they waved goodbye to, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren they had nurtured, the cups of tea had they held, the winning hands and the losing tatts tickets. They were beautiful.
Miss you, dear little thing.