Olga Elizabeth Whelan

Olga & Mervyn, 1938

Today marks 100 years since my grandmother Olga Elizabeth Whelan (née Patten) was born. Although she died in 2006, a few months shy of her 90th birthday, my memories of her remain fond and vivid. I knew her as Nana, a loving grandmother, a handsome and engaging woman with an eclectic range of interests and a great sense of fun. To celebrate the anniversary of her birth, I though I would share a few personal memories.

Olga was born in Narrandera, NSW, on 4 February 1917. By the time she married at the age of 19, her family had moved to Barellan, Griffith and back to Barellan. I remember her telling me she travelled to school by horse and cart, and at some point I discovered she was dux of her primary school. Olga’s father was a butcher, which may account for her lifelong appreciation of a good steak. In her later years, her favourite place to satisfy her red meat craving was Sydney’s Grotta Capri restaurant (ironically, the restaurant was also the favourite of organised crime boss Robert “Aussie Bob” Trimbole; and Olga, the wife of a policeman!). She lunched there regularly, chose it as the venue to celebrate her 85th birthday, and flirted with the waiters who knew her by name. Though I’ve never stopped missing her since she died, I was glad she didn’t live to see the Grotta Capri close in 2010.

Celebrating Nana’s 85th birthday at the Grotta Capri, Sydney, 2002

That said, I am sorry she missed the exhumation from under a car park of the remains of Richard III. She would’ve loved that final chapter in a story that had long intrigued her.

The mystery surrounding Richard III was one of her passions. Others included the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII and his wives (she’d have loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy); Native American history; singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson; playing Five Hundred; and water and sanitation, particularly as it impacted on women’s lives. When she gained control of her finances after the death of my grandfather, clean water supply was one of the causes she supported. She was an avid reader and her favourite tipple was Brown Brothers Moscato.

She married said grandfather, Mervyn Joseph Whelan, early one morning in November 1936 in Barellan. They honeymooned in Sydney and then moved to Narrandera, where the first of their ten children, my late aunt Margaret, was born in December 1937. Her brother Greg followed in 1939. My mother Olgamary (named after her mother and my grandfather’s sister) was their third born 1941 in Albury. In more or less two year intervals came Ruth, Monica, Marie, Paul, Dominica, Carmel (who died soon after birth) and Michael.

My grandmother moved frequently during her lifetime, based on where my grandfather was posted. I once sat her down and got her to dictate a list of the places she’d lived after they married. She remembered them all:

oe-60th-wedding-anniversary

Nana with her children, on her 60th wedding anniversary in 1996 (my grandfather’s arm is just visible on the right).

Narranderah, NSW
Albury, NSW
Sydney – Bondi Junction
Barellan, NSW
Narrandera
Sydney – Earlwood
Narrandera
Corowa, NSW
Albury
Sydney – Green Valley
Broken Hill, NSW
Goulburn, NSW
Sydney – Moorebank
Sydney – Turramurra
[four-month cruise]
Sydney – Killara
Sydney – Narrabeen
Sydney – Rose Bay
Sydney – Vaucluse
Sydney – Eleanora Heights
Sydney – Kensington
Toowong, QLD
Sydney – Dee Why
Sydney – Randwick

In the 60 years she spent with my grandfather, Nana lived in 22 different houses. Her last domicile, and the place where she died, was Mount St Joseph’s Home, an aged care facility in Randwick.

Nana loved poetry. One of her favourites was When I Am Old, which opens with the line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”. Purple was Nana’s colour, and purple flowers — lilac, violets, mauve roses, purple irises — still make me think of her.

She was a devout Catholic, with a literal sense of faith: when my grandfather died in 1997, she wrote in her diary of their daughter who’d died at birth more than 40 years earlier: “At last Carmel will get to see her father’s face.”

One of my favourite photos of Olga: in dress ups at a family reunion, Jindabyne c. 1982

I loved my grandmother for her big heart and open mind. While my grandfather had a knack for shutting down conversations, my grandmother encouraged us to talk. She’d often say, ‘I like to know what the young people are thinking’ — a curiosity I try to emulate, now that I’m middle aged myself. And while some family members kept things from her, I always found Nana willing to listen to ideas, even if she didn’t agree with them.

She had many sayings, some of them pretty dodgy: ‘Beauty is only skin deep, but ugliness cuts to the bone’ is one I remember. She wasn’t materialistic, but she liked nice things. For birthdays, she would ask her family only to give gifts she could eat, drink or spray on. She had a great sense of occasion and enjoyed an outing, especially to the Grotta Capri.

When my parents took their first overseas trip together in 1976, Nana came to stay and look after me and my brothers. Her visit involved a lot of red meat: she allowed me and my brothers, Julian and Luke to take turns to choose the nightly meal, which apparently meant beef stroganoff, shepherd’s pie and chops respectively. What I remember most fondly is sitting up late watching old movies with her.

Nana lamented that she only ever met her own cousins at funerals. In addition to her 10 children, she had 19 grandchildren and for many years, the extended family would gather together for regular reunions in different parts of NSW. Nana wanted us cousins to grow up knowing each other. This year, we are reviving the reunion and planning to meet up annually into the future. The cherished relationships I have with my cousins are an important part of Nana’s legacy, and a reunion seems a fitting tribute in this 100th year after her birth.

Nana with her great-granddaughter in March 2006, the last time we were together

The last time I saw my Nana was when I took my then three-month-old daughter to Sydney to meet her. My daughter’s birth came after three miscarriages: Nana had prayed for St Catherine of Siena to intervene, St Catherine being one of 13 children and the patron saint of miscarriages (who says Catholics don’t have a sense of humour!). She was so happy for me and complimented me on my ‘beautiful baby’.

Six months later, I returned to Sydney with my beautiful baby for Nana’s funeral. The solemn funeral mass, hosted by the religious order who managed the nursing home where she died, struck me as a dissonant note on which to end. So I was delighted when my nine-month-old daughter piped up with ‘Blah, blah, blah’ to enliven the bishop’s dull sermon.

Laughter and the chatter of babies were a much more felicitous send-off for such a woman.

Do you have memories of Olga Elizabeth or your own grandmother you’d like to share? Use the comments section below.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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28 Responses to Olga Elizabeth Whelan

  1. What a lovely, post, Angela. And what an interesting person your grandmother was! I love it that she was curious, observant, and a reader. Sounds familiar…. So does the fact that she travelled a lot. How lucky you were to have had the chance to really get to know her; and I’m glad she got to meet her granddaughter. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jo says:

    Lovely post. My grandmother passed 4 years ago – not long after her 93rd birthday. She loved yellow and silver lame, and high strappy sandals that she continued to dance in until a few months before she died. For too many years Nan’s breakfast consisted of a cigarette & an aspirin powder. At her 90th birthday her doctor marvelled that she was as healthy as she was. She began her volunteering career at the Sydney Olympics at the age of 80 – the oldest volunteer on staff. To get there each day she’d catch the train from Minto to Strathfield, change for Olympic Park, walk to the venue, volunteer all day, & party on afterwards. Whenever I hear John Farnham’s You’re The Voice I think of Mavis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jo, what terrific memories you have of Mavis. She sounds like a wonderful character. Talk about a breakfast of champions!

      As far as songs go, anything by Paul Robeson reminds me of Nana; likewise, ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E King, which we sang at her wake.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rochelle Whelan says:

    Dear Angela
    These are beautiful memories of our grandmother and I’m delighted to you took the time to get all the info together. I’d forgotten some of these quirks, but I could never forget The Grotto!
    She was a strong woman and emulated many qualities that I admire. She would be thrilled that the legacy of the family reunions lives on in us. She was absolutely right – these family bonds should be treasured and nurtured, and not just at funerals!
    Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. I’m sure many people can see flashes of their own beloved grandmother in the writing.
    Love Rochelle

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks my beautiful cousin. And thanks for the heads up on the grammar mistakes in the original post. You are a girlie swot after my own heart. Looking forward to our next catch up.

      Like

  4. Olgamary Savage says:

    Thank you Darling Girl. Wonderful memories flooding in. Great start to next week. Mutti

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ruth Bernsdette Lloyd says:

    Thanks so much Angela , a warm thoughtful summary of Mum’s Life for us all to share.
    No doubt we will all have very different memories ,but , it’s great to know she lived her life
    knowing she was surrounded with Love.
    With Love and Thanks from child No 4 x x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ruthie. I aimed with this post not to summarise ‘a life’, but to describe the woman I loved and remember. I have no doubt all of us have different, equally precious versions of her in our hearts and minds.

      Like

  6. FictionFan says:

    Lovely post, Angela! One of the regrets of my life is that all four of my grandparents died before I was born, so I never had that relationship. You’re fortunate that your grandmother’s long life gave you the chance to build up so many cherished memories. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • FF, I’m sorry you missed out on knowing your grandparents. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have know all four of mine; both grandmothers were alive when I turned 40 (I wrote about my paternal grandmother, who died 3 weeks short of her 100th birthday, here). I’m sorry my daughter will not have the same amount of time with her remaining grandparents (now 76 & 81 respectively); but every year they have together provides memories in the making.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Olgamary says:

    Some of you may not know that Tony’s daughter Rebecca has just had another boy and called him Luke. I was reminded that Mum named our Luke. She would be thrilled that we now have three. Talking of Mum’s “obsession” with Richard 111 Marie and I deliberately went to York in her honour – to my amusement she challenged our findings ! Not sure she would have approved of Kate Mulvany”s version (see SMH’s Spectrum today)
    OM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jodie Lavallee says:

      Oh how I loved this post about your beautiful grandmother. I believe that these women live on in us. I only heard stories of our Lottie, my mothers Mom. She lived on in our mother who was real, curious, and a loving woman who I miss everyday.
      Your American(Paris) friend,
      Jodie

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh Jodie, how wonderful to hear from you, my American-in-Paris friend. I hope life is treating you well.
        I think curiosity is one of the best gifts those strong and loving women have given us. It certainly served our friendship well.
        Love to you xxx

        Like

  8. SD says:

    Hi, Angela,

    My own grandmother, Olive, was also a passionate fan of Richard III. We grandchildren sat through many a lecture about how Shakespeare unfairly blackened poor Richard’s name and there was no evidence he murdered the princes, etc etc!

    That said, she was also a passionate fan of the Bard (especially the Sonnets), Robert Browning, the Romantic Poets and the tales of Arthur and Merlin, especially the Mary Stewart books. I read The Crystal Cave again last year, thinking of her.

    She had the hard scrabble Catholic life, gave her children a Catholic education and towards the end of her life became a regular church goer again. But she was far too pragmatic a person to bother with their rules in the running of her own life. 😊

    Regards

    SD

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like our grandmothers might have got along very well, SD. on the surface, my Nana was less of a rule breaker. But I always thought it was only a question of opportunity.
      Thanks for sharing your memories of Olive.

      Like

  9. “”When Im old I shall wear purple” I love this prose & remember clearly meeting the cheeky woman who wrote it at the “Woman & labour Conference 1995”.She was about the only speaker there who was down to earth, said it like it is & we chatted afterwards.
    Wonderful to hear Nanna liked this verse too.Thanks Cousin Angela for this & the other moving memories.You evoke colourful images like she was still with us.I must confess I still have a coat or two of her hand me downs,that people often comment on.She was a pretty stylish dresser.

    I can see her in the different shades of purple that she wore but besides purple I’ll never forgot her in her theatrical element wearing a white & pink pin stripped bed sheet wrapped as a candy stick from head to toe.I see her laughing at the fancy dress party in this attire, at the 1982 ?
    ( my memory for dates aren’t like Angela) family reunion in Jindabyne.Think she even one a prize.

    I remember when I first started argueing with “my love of the era”” Paul and I talked to nanna about it(as we had become closer with intimate chats & visits once poppa died) & I ALWAYS remember her advising me “Would you rather be right,or would you rather be happy”,as it helped her have a loving relationship with poppa.I could hear the cynical voices of my aunties,but I knew Nanna sincerely mean’t it & it was a gem I kept & tried to lived by when possible.

    Thanks so much Angela for the trip down memory lane with the extensive historical list of Nanna’s moves.So it is a family trait doing “geographicals”.
    By the way didn’t know Nanna was such a “Carnivore” until I read your post.

    Olga loved & was loved by all, but sadly as is often the case in families,particularly large,passionate,driven ones, it seemed she had easier relationships with her grandchildren rather than many of her own children.
    But hopefully they learn’t some things from her & have some colourful memories too.
    Because parts of her are parts of you.

    Excuse the brevity,succinctness isn’t my talent & am not a user of social media.
    Steph

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steph, thanks for your wonderful comments. I love that since I posted and you replied — without seeing you comment — I’ve added the photo of Nana in the pink and white striped beadsheet (and thanks for the reminder that it was Jindabyne). This is one of my favourite ways of remembering her, too. Thank you for sharing your stories of her.

      Like

      • Steph says:

        Your welcome Angela.
        Yes was strange + funny how you added the ” Nanna dressed as a candy cane photo” are I said it was one of my memories of her hat stood out + that was the exact photo I had in my mid’s eye.But I assumed my computer
        ( which has been playing up) didn’t, show the photos till now.Lovely photos Angela.Thanks for your efforts, the history + memories.Steph

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Julian Savage says:

    There were many epic battles around the card table playing 500, euchre, cribbage and rummy. Perhaps her love of the historical echoed in the regal kings, queens and knaves. For 500 afficionados there were some irrefutable laws according to Nana: second player plays low, always lead the first trick with a trump and misere was akin to some sort of social depravity. As an aside I never questioned her dealing the final kitty card BEFORE the last of the players cards. Slight of hand, an individual quirk? Me thinks of a steadfast woman asserting herself in quiet, unassuming ways. Forever indebted Nana.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mrs P. says:

    What a wonderful post, Angela. I love your celebration of your Nanna’s life. I didn’t get to know either of my grandmothers – both died when I was little – but was fortunate to have a maternal great-aunt who stepped into the breach. She was everything you’d want a granny to be: she spoiled me rotten, told fabulously salacious stories about the family, smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and laughed like a drain. I didn’t quite realise the richness of all she’d given me until after she’d gone, but hope to pass some of the same on to my grandchildren in future 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. kathy d says:

    What a wonderful picture of a wonderful grandmother. I wish I had played cards with her, sounds like so much fun.
    My grandmother, Sophie, had such a different background. She, along with my grandfather, fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia-occupied Poland in 1907, and came to New York. She was as tough as nails which was great to the outside world and a bit hard on the family.
    But she worked in garment sweatshops and was the person whom the young women came to with their grievances as they knew she would not be intimidated by any boss. She wasn’t.
    She was ill on March 25, 1911, and didn’t go to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That was fortuitous. On that day, 146 young women, girls and men died in the fire. My grandmother lost many friends.
    But she was strong and was an activist for workers’ and women’s rights and also for Yiddish cultural institutions. She was a loving grandmother to me, even though she was demanding of my mother and aunt. She lived to be 98.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, what an amazing woman your grandmother Sophie was, Kathy. I can guess where you get your feisty nature from 😉

      I experienced both my grandmothers as loving, though – as in your case – they were tougher on (or for) their children. I put this down to a combination of social and emotional factors: perhaps because the financial burden of providing for grandchildren tends not to fall on grandparents, they are better placed to relax and enjoy their grandchildren in ways they could not with their own children.

      Like

  13. kathy d says:

    I don’t want to skip a generation here. My mother was smart and feisty, too. Both my parents taught me to have opinions and not be afraid to state them. (I’m not, obviously.) I argued against the mandatory air raid drills in schools when I was 7.
    My other grandmother, Dorothy, I never knew. She died in 1930 from breast cancer. I did know of her mother, Sabina Agnes Ryan, who migrated to the U.S. from County Sligo in Ireland. I think she was a tough as nails, too. I wish I had met her.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. John Marlton says:

    Good morning Angela,

    Just to say thank you for your story of Olga Elizabeth.

    I thought it was such a lovely story to tell.

    Over the years Olgamary had reminisced about her mother’s life and her own 9 siblings – what a family?

    I caught up with Olgamary recently at the Narooma theatre. We were both there, she to see a film and I to see a film of a Harold Pinter play filmed in London.

    As always she was in good form and looking well.

    Do hope you are keeping well, as I am.

    Best wishes to Andrew and Natashia.

    John Marlton.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear John,
      Belated thanks for your kind message. I like to think of Olga Elizabeth, aka Nana, being widely remembered by those who knew her. She certainly remains alive in my memories.
      We are looking forward to visiting Olgamary in your part of the world soon.
      Warmest wishes,
      Angela

      Like

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