Ethel May Robertson 31/01/1919 Queensland – 30/01/2014 Tasmania

The Purple House family lost its oldest member and I am struggling to adapt to the sudden passing of Gran. I am standing in my pantry when suddenly I burst into tears. At least it is safe to cry… I am all by myself at home so I just let the tears come and after a while I feel better. I even have to grin when I take in my pantry: it’s clearly a mess. Actually it isn’t a pantry at all; it’s more like a storeroom. A large freezer and fridge take up half the space and the rest is shelving full of junk.

Years ago I had visions of filling the shelves with homemade preserves, but life has never slowed down enough for us to spend hours harvesting, cooking and preserving. The only physical remains of that dream are the shelves which are now cluttered to the ceiling. It is squeezing room only in here.

No wonder I am acutely reminded of Gran: most of the time you couldn’t even open her pantry door. If you were lucky you could just open it enough to reach to the 40 square centimetres which contained her daily rations and the rest of her walk-in pantry remained just how it was for years and years: off limits.

I sit down on the couch and pick up one of her little note books. This one is from 1980 and it looks as if the sides had been nibbled off by Moffie, the little dog she used to have. Gran used to write in her diary every day and over the years the messages got more and more random. I love it!

“If you treat a person as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (from Grans diary)

Oh how I miss that dear eccentric lady who was my mother in law! I first met her 33 years ago when she arrived in Holland just before my wedding. Holland was in the grip of a freezing cold winter and she hopped off the plane in a thin summer dress. She radiated an inner glow and always claimed she didn’t feel the cold. Here was my mum in law to be: a short, rotund brown faced woman with a mop of frizzy white hair and twinkly eyes. Very un-Dutch looking! To me she seemed ancient already. I had just turned 19 and Gran must have been the ripe old age of 62.

I immediately felt a connection. Not that I ever told her that. Gran was deep and meaningful but she was never comfortable with expressing those kinds of feelings. Besides, I was daughter in law number six and at that point in time I almost had the feeling that she couldn’t be super bothered with an extra potentially nuisance daughter in law. I didn’t mind because I loved her anyway.

We moved to Tassie not long after and spent the first few months of our married life living with Peters parents. They were very loving and in their own Aussie way tried to make me feel at home. I in turn tried to hide my homesickness from them as much as I could. They were quite oblivious of the culture shock I was experiencing, moving from a busy and exciting place like living near Amsterdam to one of the most remote places on earth. (This was the time that a phone call home cost $3 per minute, you had to send a telegram for urgent news and faxes didn’t even exist yet) Not long after we had our first child and my mother in law became Gran and that is how I loved her best.

When I was 26 Peter’s father died from a brain tumour and Gran lost her best friend. Gran and her 6 sons and one daughter had fought hard to keep Tom alive. After a failed operation they nursed him at home with round the clock coffee enemas, carrot juices, fresh organic liver juice and ozone injections. It was a labour intensive program and to us it was evident that Tom was going to die but Gran soldiered on without allowing any doubts in her head. She was one hundred percent devoted to his recovery. When he suddenly took his last breath it came as a huge shock to Gran. True to form she didn’t shed a tear and when we left her behind all alone for the first time she was going to take her sorrow out onto her garden. When we drove off all I could see of her was a tiny little 69 year old granny with a massive garden hoe standing in front of her large house that was being swallowed up by a huge jungle garden that she now had to manage on her own.

We ourselves had just moved on to our next adventure: a 120 acre farm at Ringarooma at the edge of nowhere, at the end of a dead end road. Peter was nursing full time in Scottsdale and not long after we moved Eve, our number 4 was due. Gran came and set up camp in the caravan in front of our little house and she looked after the kids while I was in hospital. Not long after Eve was born the weather turned atrocious and we only just made it home before we were cut off from the rest of the world by floods, and even the phone stopped working. All I remember from that time is coming home in the middle of July and finding wet washing drying all over the house in true Gran’s style and the windows all fogged up. I couldn’t help myself and before I took my raincoat off I wiped the windows dry, cut the kids fingernails and put the washing away before I set down to feed Eve.

Gran and I had many things in common but when it came to house work we were poles apart. Gran was a hoarder and I was a minimalist. I need things to be clean and orderly before I feel calm and Gran needed clutter and mess to feel normal. She used to tell me off that I would wash my hands away with all that scrubbing and cleaning. Despite our differences those days in Ringarooma spent with Gran were the highlights of our lives. We had lots of laughs and good time and had a lot in common as well. We both loved gardening, looking for natural solutions, healthy eating and we both loved children. Sometimes Gran would even open up about difficult times from the past. Mostly these subjects were off limits because her way of dealing with the past was to never talk about it.

We used call her ‘Supergran’ when it came to driving. Along with Mavis, her girlfriend, Gran could have been classified the worst driver in the world. She only learnt to drive when she was forty and when Grandpa told her to brake before you hit a corner, and never when you go round the corner she took it literal. How she safely got from Gawler to Ringarooma across the Sideling remains a mystery. The Sideling is a steep and windy mountain pass that you have to cross to get from Launceston to Scottsdale. A trip with Gran would be hair-raising because she just went faster and faster as there was never time to break. On top of that her reflexes were very poor. One day she nearly crashed into the school bus when the sun was shining in her eyes as she was coming down a steep hill at full speed. The bus had to slam on the brakes and all the children hit their heads on the steel bars in front of them. As the bus driver was yelling if anybody knew who this idiot was our kids shamefully kept their heads down and pretended not to be there. Another time Gran heard a funny noise and stopped on top of another hill. When she got out to inspect her tyres she accidently locked herself out and Moffie in, while the car was going. Luckily the school bus came along just at the right moment and the driver also happened to be the local mechanic who saved Gran. That is probably when he worked out who the ‘idiot’ on the road had been.

Gran couldn’t help us out when Tom, our number six was born because she was urgently needed by Jessica and her young children who had just lost their husband/father Bernard in a car accident. Bernard was Grans’ 40 year old son. Later she told us the story of how she had cried after she got the news about Bernard’s death. She was walking around the house in shock when she heard a strange wailing sound. After a while she realized it came out of her own body and that she was crying. Poor Gran, she hadn’t been able to cry over the death of her still born babies, her father, mother or her own husband but now with the shocking death of her beloved Bernard all the pent up tears were finally wrangled from her body.

There was another time many years later when we heard that strange wailing sound in our garden. It sent shivers down our spine and when we raced outside to see what it was we found Gran rooted behind a tree 10 meters from the house crying out for Pete. Her sister in law Gladys had died and Gran had started to walk to our house to tell us when suddenly she couldn’t take one more step, she was paralysed by grief.

This was our Gran, stoic till it broke her. She never pestered anybody and always stayed cheerful under the most difficult circumstances. Her motto was that you only get enough strength for today, so don’t waste precious energy fretting about tomorrow.

I am sure she had learnt this lesson the hard way because early on in her life she spent 9 months in a psychiatric institute. She never talked about it and we only found out bits and pieces of her early past. Apparently her boyfriend went missing ‘lost in action’ during the war. In the meantime Gran was teaching very large classes (I heard her say 70 children) during the day and doing voluntary work at night. We don’t know what happened next only that she suffered a nervous breakdown and was locked away for almost a year. The treatment included shock treatment. It would have been unspeakably horrendous and scary for her.

At some stage Tom came into her life and declared his love for her. She was worried that she wasn’t going to be fit to be a wife and a mum so she told him to wait for 12 months and if he still loved her she would marry him. This is exactly what happened and they were very happily married for over forty years and she turned out to be a kind and steady mum and Gran.


Our children were especially fortunate because when we moved to Forth Gran came to live in her own little cottage on our property. By now she was 82. She drove her car around till late 80’s when her licence was taken off her. She was most indignant after failing her exam on all points and after conferring with Mavis she decided to contest the decision. Peter had great difficulty convincing her that it was for the best for all concerned.

From then on she relied on ‘shanks pony’ as she called it. I think shanks pony was a trendy saying in the 1930’s and meant using your own legs to get you from A to B. She was an avid correspondent, but eventually all her old friends stopped writing because they had either died or were incapable. You could always tell when Gran had received a letter in the mail because she would race home at top speed, sit down and reply and return to the mailbox the same day.

Each day Gran collected every bit of rubbish from both sides of the road between our home and the shop which is a stretch of about 500 metres.  Most days she deposited a plastic bag full in our rubbish bin. (Gran didn’t own a bin because she never had any rubbish!). Sometimes it would annoy me because her pockets would overflow with cigarette butts and she would drop them in our yard, but mostly I was proud of her insistence to make the world a better place.

Gran remained fiercely independent in spirit but after a few falls she couldn’t walk very well and shanks pony started to fail her as well. She had to rely on a walking frame and continued her daily pilgrimage to the Forth shop, rain hail or shine as if her life depended on it. This is how most of the people in the district got to know her: the littlest oldest granny inching her way to the shop, dressed in plastic bags to stop the rain and oblivious to the traffic jams she used to cause while she spent 5 minutes crossing the road. Even then she used to bend over in the middle of the road to pick up a lone cigarette butt, oblivious to the danger she caused to passing traffic. Her eyesight and hearing were very poor but she could see a dirty cigarette butt from miles away. That goes to show that when you feel passionate enough your failing senses suddenly get a new lease of life! Picking up rubbish caused her to fall over a few too many times and the more assertive Peter was in telling her to stop it the more determined she became.

In the end we almost had a complete role reversal: we became the parents and Gran became the naughty teenager. Once we visited her in hospital where she was recovering from a fall. Peter had just pleaded with her to start behaving herself and as we left her behind we looked back to wave goodbye only to see Gran bending over at the end of the long hospital corridor and slowly standing back up waving a piece of rubbish triumphantly in the air. I will never forget that look: she was on a mission and nobody was going to stop her, not even her youngest son!

Back at home things started to go missing. They were mostly silly things like garden forks or tools and plastic buckets. Gran loved collecting things and now that her rational brain was losing its grip on reality her hoarding instincts went out of control. We soon realized that if we needed something to look under Gran’s cottage. So she got smarter. One day we needed our water bucket for the chooks and after a long search we found it stashed in the middle of a whole pile of buckets near Gran’s house. She insisted it was hers. She developed another funny habit of blaming me for everything that went wrong. Who put the dents in her car? Oh that was Grada. Grada had also pinched her three pronged favourite garden fork and chucked away her favourite teacup.

I wore those accusations as a badge of honour. She obviously started to rebel against me like my teenage daughters had been doing for a decade and I didn’t mind being like a mother figure to her at that time of her life. It was easy to put up with Grans antics because we knew that underneath it all she was still the kindest most loyal and loving soul.

Money lost, little lost

Honour lost, much lost

Courage lost, all is lost

Even though Gran was a hoarder she didn’t need any money and kept life simple. She gave all her money away to her kids before she moved onto our property and she continued to give money away to those in need. Her own needs were minimal and in the end her shopping consisted of Tim Tams, Sausages and bread. By then her ideas of eating healthy had been exchanged for eating what she could chew (she only had a few teeth left), what was easy (she had always hated cooking) and what was tasty. Despite her bad diet in the last ten years she continued to remain strong and healthy. I used to make sure she had at least one very healthy meal every Sunday lunch and quite often tea as well. Perhaps that’s all she needed to stay healthy.

In the middle of 2012 I was in hospital with a bowel obstruction and Peter was at work when Gran had another fall and this time she couldn’t get up anymore. Peter raced home, checked her out and put her to bed. They were the last few hours she spent in her precious cottage. The next day he called the ambulance and she was transported to hospital. Once I recovered I visited Gran who was in the next ward and gave her some reflexology. Grans feet were very smooth and dainty. They looked better than mine and I am 43 years younger. To me they reflected her positive attitude and spirit she always kept even under the most difficult circumstances. During the foot massage she got all chatty and talked to me about her dreams of giving the walking frame a miss. Once she got up and running she would be able to walk better than ever before she reckoned. She would continue her daily walks to the shop and we would all be one big happy family again. It broke my heart listening to her because I knew the next stop would be a nursing home.

That is exactly what happened. Gran went to Mount St Vincents, and she was never able to walk again. She spent the last year moving from her bed to the chair, with weekly visits to her children. It was a difficult adjustment even though she was loved and cared for by the nursing staff and she had many visitors. The last time she spent with our family was on Boxing Day, when we took her for a drive to Devonport. She loved the twins (our grandsons) and Lisanne, the twins mum had made a special lunch for her. It was cold and miserable outside but inside we had nice food, it was warm and she enjoyed the antics of her great grandchildren like in the old days.
When I get ready to die, I do not want anyone poking food or vitamin pills down me or making me into a plumbing fixture via stomach tubes or intra venous feeding. I suspect many people feel the same.From page 370 Written in her little diary from the 80’s.

A few weeks later Gran got ill. Pete and I sat near her bedside for a few hours while she was asleep and her breathing was very fast and laboured. We waited for the Dr who confirmed our suspicion that she had pneumonia. The three of us hoped that Gran would just slip away that night as we knew that would be how she wanted it. But true to form Gran made a comeback and was bright and bubbly for the next few days. A week later her breathing became very difficult and we knew that she didn’t have much time left.
Those last moments were sad but beautiful. Gran had lived a quiet, intelligent and fulfilling life and I felt proud on her behalf when I looked at all her very grown up children: Even though they are small of stature they are giants in gentleness and exude that same quiet intelligence that made Gran so attractive. This spirit is also noticeable in her 29 grandchildren.

Goodbye Gran… you shared in all our ups and downs, you knew all our family secrets, the good, bad and ugly and you never ever criticised anybody. I am glad you came into my life so long ago, and I am grateful for the intimate moments we shared as mums when the generation gap melted away. Thank you for loving my babies almost as much as I did.

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. Whatever we were to each other, we are still. I am I and you are you. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you used to. Put no difference in your tone and wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed, play, smile, think of me, pray for me, and let my name be ever spoken without effort, without trace of shadow. What is death but a new beginning? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you for a little while, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.”

She penned these words in her diary twenty years ago. There is no time to get sentimental because Gran followed those moving words with a recipe for Haggis.
Yes Gran, I get the message, we can’t get too precious about life and deathbut it’s going to take my nervous system a long time to get used to life without you by my side! Grada