An updated, edited and polished excerpt from Volume 1 of my autobiography, Sex with a Sunburnt Penis.
My grandmother had a very strong influence on me as a child, largely because she was so utterly different from everyone else. To begin with she was by far the oldest person I knew, and on top of that she was French. Indeed, my grandmother was so French that she almost seemed a parody; like Edith’s bed-ridden grandmother in ‘Allo ‘Allo. Nana, as we called her, however, was far from bedridden. She was a dynamic elderly lady who busied herself in the house and garden and whose wizened frame held remarkable strength.
Of course, as a very small child, without any sense of context, I simply took Nana at face value. She was always kind and loving, though she could certainly be tetchy. My brother and I stretched her patience as all children will, and whilst she wasn’t quite overprotective, we at times found her rulings a little ridiculous. Like most children, I always wanted to run down the street when I got excited, but, knowing how uncoordinated I was, like most five year-olds, Nana would order me to stop.
“Oh, Benjamin, you will fall over!”
“No I won’t!” I would protest, before promptly tripping over my sandals and grazing my knee. Too ashamed and embarrassed to cry, I was also too stubborn to admit that her judgement was sound on this front. Restraint is, after all, never appealing in the eyes of a child. She did, however, let me pick my nose; watching with her cunning, smiling eyes and saying “are you hungry?” whenever my finger went searching.
The only thing I really remember holding against her was her gravy. She could cook the hell out of a peach pie and made a knockout custard, but her gravy was something else altogether. One hot evening when she was minding my brother and me, she marched into the dining room and placed a clear glass jug on the table. We could see the contents in cross-section, and on top of the gravy was an inch-deep slick of molten, light-grey fat. As a child, I loathed fat in all forms. While Nana returned to the kitchen to collect the peas, I turned to my brother, Matthew, to share my astonishment. He too seemed to feel a wave of indignant protest welling up inside, but so afraid were we of the gravy that neither of us could articulate our anguish beyond the words; “No way, it’s just not fair. That’s not gravy. It’s not fair.”
My lip trembled as the tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I wanted to cry out that I wouldn’t eat that pooing, snot-breath, bum-hole gravy even if you gave me five bucks, a Tonka truck and told me what condom meant. But such was the power of the gravy that my spirit was utterly crushed. I don’t even remember whether or not I ate it, and think that therefore I must have done so, and the trauma was such that the memory has been repressed all my life.
If at times I was blind to the good sense behind her admonishments, I generally paid a great deal of attention to what Nana told me. She had a certain prophetic quality about her, like an Oracle, full of superstitions, sayings and adages that rang with the undeniable truth of ancient wisdom in my young ears.
Nana told me that things would always go my way – something my mother often reminded me of. If I had a stroke of luck, my mother would say: “Nana always said you’d land on your feet. She said you were the lucky one.” I believed what Nana said with such conviction that it developed into a sense of entitlement. Things were supposed to work out for me naturally, and though opportunity doesn’t generally knock, she was firmly of the impression that I wouldn’t have to make my own luck. I always kept that thought at the back of my mind and somehow it helped me to screw a lot of things up later on in life.
Being old-school colonial French – having come from Noumea in 1922 aged 17 – Nana was a good, superstitious Catholic. She had a little shrine to Jesus and a ceramic bell with the Pope’s portrait on it. She drank once a year, never wore make up, never swore, venerated Joan of Arc and Saint Anthony and always cheered when the Pope came on television.
They must have really done a good job on educating them into the spirit of Empire over in New Caledonia. Nos ancestres les Galles and all they stood for were being threatened by the Bosch when Nana was in school, and they ensured that the spirit of Nationalism was planted deep. She worshipped Napoleon and swore blind he never really abandoned his men. She hated Italian art because as far as she was concerned it couldn’t possibly be as good as French art. She didn’t drink wine, but knew deep down that that Italian rubbish wasn’t a patch on the French product. She hated the Nazis with a passion and still resented Germans as though the war had happened yesterday, and to her personally.
Nana also had very old-school Catholic attitudes to various social phenomena. One day, as I sat playing euchre with her in my old bedroom that had since become hers, she turned to me after something flashed across the television screen and said: “What is a lesbian?” The thought of explaining that to an eighty-nine year-old woman who changed the channel when people started kissing was just too much to come to grips with.
“What is zis, Lesbian? Er… two women,” she said with a terrific sneer. “They should shoot zem!”
When I was a kid, it was easy to converse with Nana, but as I got older her conversation grew a little more unsettling. She liked to put the knife into whichever of my parents had misbehaved in some petty way or another. In this respect she was venal and vindictive, though I knew her to be loving and generous at heart. It was loneliness and a life of disappointment that had done it to her. It must be difficult to avoid being jealous of youth and the opportunity it still affords. She never got over losing her husband and her son, and ultimately she resented being a tenant of her daughter. I could hardly hold those things against her, when all she’d ever wanted was to own her own home and feel the security and permanence that comes with it. It was remarkable that she showed such pluck all the way through. She did so by narrowing her desires down to small, everyday pleasures, none of which could be considered luxuries.
Nana was almost eternally optimistic about something and had quite incredible stamina, despite having shrunk to about four foot ten. Being so small she’d get drunk on half a glass of sauterne or Tia Maria with lemonade, which she insisted on drinking at Christmas, and her little face would bubble up bright red with life and hardy vigour let briefly off the hook as she pulled on a christmas cracker.
Nana collected toy frogs, which was the only piss-take on the French she would condone. Her favourite past-time was to play card games and for years she had been going to the local French Club for poker nights. She and I would, at times, play hours and hours of patience, euchre, poker and rummy, and she never seemed to tire of it. We’d natter away during hands of cards, and whenever the conversation got a bit curly, I’d try to shift it over to a safe topic like sport or France, or, more particularly, French sport, which was safe so long as one heaped undiluted praise on even the most minor of French achievements.
Nana was a real fount of knowledge on French sport and will likely remain the only ninety year-old woman I’ll ever know to sit up until three in the morning and watch an entire grand prix race because there was a Frenchman in it. She watched the entire Tour de France. She watched tennis, soccer, yachting, skiing, anything, so long as there was a Frenchman. She supported the Eastern Suburbs Roosters in the rugby league because their colours were red, white and blue, and they had the same mascot as the French team. She even called them “les tricoleurs.” Heaven forbid, but Nana even watched golf if there was a Frenchman playing. I think she sincerely thought the French ran the entire world and if there was any evidence which might bring French superiority into question, either on or off the playing field, such as getting a thrashing in the rugby by Australia, she would always have a nimble excuse.
“Oh, zose Australians are terrible. Zey won’t let ze Frenchman run with ze ball. Every time ze Frenchman gets ze ball, zey stop him! Zey are brutes!”
There was no point in explaining the legitimacy of tackling the opposition in a rugby match, just as I couldn’t explain why Guy Forget and Yannick Noah weren’t both equal number in the world tennis rankings. After a while I simply got used to complying with her wishes and telling her that I found it equally baffling, and no doubt a network of saboteurs and agents provocateurs were at work undermining French hegemony over the entire universe. Either way, it beat the shit out of explaining what a lesbian was.
Nana was also a great fan of French industry. Whenever I visited her, I was duly informed of the arrival on the market of any form of manufactured good which had been produced in France.
“Did you know zat ze French have built ze largest sailboat in ze world?”
It seemed quite incredible to be told what a wonderful thing it was that Club Med was opening up a new resort somewhere previously unspoilt. If the French did it, it was almost certainly beyond reproach. And yet, Nana wasn’t entirely uncritical of the French. When they were blowing the Christ out of Mururoa Atoll with their nuclear tests, she became very deeply upset and looked rather sheepish for weeks. She, like most reasonable people, really didn’t see the point behind the further development of the world’s most destructive weapons – and testing them in the beautiful Pacific Ocean was patently insane. It hurt her to hear all the protests against French testing, particularly because so many protesters lashed out unnecessarily at French culture and French people without sensible discrimination of who was actually responsible. One night when I sat in her room and the news came on with the leading announcement that the French had exploded a nuclear device on Mururoa, a look of terrible shame came over her face. I felt immensely sorry for her to have to feel any loss of faith in France this late in her life. I was angry with France myself, but it was mostly for disappointing an increasingly frail ninety-year old woman, whose heart was unswervingly patriotic.
From her shame, however, she could lash back with some wonderful exclamations.
“Oh, zose terrible sings zay say about ze French. Those Australians, they steal all zair ideas from ze French! Zay always copy ze French.”
Sometimes she just loved to put the boot in.
Nana used to do all her own housework, and then sit in the sun and read the newspapers cover to cover. She was an avid reader and manic word-puzzle fanatic. Nothing gave her greater joy than the latest edition of Le Courier. She’d take it out into the sun, sit at the little table beneath the boughs of the mulberry tree with some quartered, de-crusted ham sandwiches and a weak, very milky cup of tea, and read it about sixteen times. Occasionally she’d offer me articles to read, and I’d struggle through, embarrassed by how much my French had gone down the toilet. Oh look, something about a bridge. Yes, somebody built something. Oh, hang on, they shot something. No, they ate it. Maybe it wasn’t a bridge after all…One way or another, Nana would make it seem about seventy-three times more important than it actually was. I mean, honestly, what was news like that doing on page 13 of Le Courier?
The terribly sad truth, however was that Nana couldn’t live forever, though it seemed for a while there that she might just pull it off. She only visited a doctor for the first time when she reached eighty-eight years of age, and wouldn’t have had to go at all if she hadn’t tripped over the bull-terrier and hurt her arm. Sadly it was Pug’s fault that she went to hospital again a couple of years later, as he came tearing out into the back yard to bark at passing small children and ploughed straight into my unsuspecting Nana.
The resulting broken hip landed her in hospital, where she came through the operation with flying colours. Yet, sadly, as she lay there in the hospital bed recovering, she seemed to lose interest in everything. She stopped eating and became withdrawn and subdued. I have no idea what came over her in that hospital bed, but despite being well set to recover, she seemed to give up trying. Initially she had been so proud of herself; so proud of her health and vitality – up walking a day after the operation, and at the age of ninety. Perhaps she at last realised that there was nothing left for her to live for, though she’d always seemed so happy with simple pleasures. It mystified me a great deal, and of course upset us all immeasurably.
I sat holding her hand for as many hours as possible either side of work. My mother never left her side, and my father, who was also a great admirer of Nana, was there night and day as well. Slowly, but surely, she shrank away into herself. Her features slowly sank, as though the muscles that supported her robust expressions had slackened for good, then vanished. As I stared at her face for hours on end, I noticed for the first time in my life all the physical similarities between her and my mother and brother; the shape of her nose, the set of her mouth, expressions I had seen on her blood relatives. Then, late one Saturday night, with me at home, in the middle of a relationship crisis of my own making, she passed away.
Nana’s funeral was perhaps the most moving experience of my life. As we took up her coffin, draped in red, white and blue flowers, and proceeded down the aisle of the church, the organist struck up La Marseillaise. Strangely, I had not expected it – too grief stricken to have any thought for the logistics and organisation of the funeral, about which I had asked no questions. The first few notes struck me like a thunderbolt.
“Alons enfants de la patrie! La Jour de gloroire et arrive!”
I felt a heavy mix of pride and awe; a momentous weight became a glorious burden. Fatality, which can seem so mundane and nondescript in an inglorious church, became a heavenly power; grief, which can be so black and all-encompassing in its restrictive singularity, became the channel for a unique beauty and rare soaring of emotion. For the two days before I had been so upset that I felt like lead – but when I heard La Marseillaise, I knew that in the end Nana had been victorious; she had left the battlefield on her own terms and she had ascended in a way that I didn’t even believe in; such was her greatness, she could defy even the tenets of my atheism. Nana had risen and taken her place in heaven – a reward she deserved more richly than anyone else I’ve ever known.
The saddest irony about Nana was that she was never not French at any point in her life – after seventy-odd years in Australia her accent had hardly diminished – and yet when she died we discovered that her citizenship had lapsed after fifty years. It struck me that the French government needed to be notified about Nana. Her patriotism was so undying and overwhelming that she deserved to be awarded the Legion of Honour, or at least some ribbon commemorating her devotion to France. Even when at last she lay dying, she managed with her weak voice to sing the entirety of her true national anthem, and cried out “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” I don’t think there is a single person in France who was as French as my grandmother. Though of course, her Frenchness was an anomaly; an anachronism from the golden age of European imperialism, and now, sadly, she has passed from this world, taking with her rare memories of a bygone era.