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.
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:
Sydney – Bondi Junction
Sydney – Earlwood
Sydney – Green Valley
Broken Hill, NSW
Sydney – Moorebank
Sydney – Turramurra
Sydney – Killara
Sydney – Narrabeen
Sydney – Rose Bay
Sydney – Vaucluse
Sydney – Eleanora Heights
Sydney – Kensington
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.”
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.
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.