My paternal grandmother was born Alice Maud Singleton, at rural Sassafras in northern Tasmania ( June 20 1884). She was a Victorian through and through. Just add pride, vanity and her strict Methodist faith and there we have dear old Grandma. My other three grandparents had died before I was born, so Grandma loomed large in my life.
Alice by name, Red Queen by imperious nature,
Snapping ‘Off with their heads!’ to all who dared oppose her.
Her gimlet eye and her hat pins held everything together,
She wore a black straw crown,
Set off with an ostrich feather.
The earliest photo I have of Alice was taken when she was about five years old.
She was the perfect child, or so she told us. The only thing she ever did wrong was to steal a pear from her father’s orchard. Amazing! In the photo below with her parents and siblings she is standing second from left in the back row. I think she would have been about 18 at the time. By now the family had moved to a farm at South Road, Ulverstone.
Alice was widowed in 1922, with five sons to raise on a small farm at North Motton, not far from Ulverstone. To her credit she also provided a home for her two motherless nieces. How they all fitted into the little farmhouse is beyond me. Some years ago I met one of her North Motton neighbours, who said; ‘ When I was a little girl we always thought your grandmother was a bit above us. She would drive past in her jinker all dressed up.’ I was amazed that Grandma had managed to create this impression when she probably had less money than anyone in the district.
Another huge loss for Grandma came in 1925. Her favourite son Maurice drowned while out inspecting palings with his older brother, Don. His horse shied while being watered at the local Leven river . It plunged in, with 19 year old Maurice still in the saddle. In the fast flowing water there was no hope. His brother shouted for him stay astride, but Maurice panicked and leapt into the river. He was a non-swimmer, as was Don, who had to ride home with the terrible news. Ironically, the horse managed to scramble out unharmed. Don’s young cousin Edna was at home when he appeared, leading the riderless horse. As an elderly woman nearing 100 she told me that she instinctively knew what had happened. She said she ran and hid, because she couldn’t bear to see her Aunt Allie’s shock and grief.
There was wide coverage in the local paper.
Maurice had been a trainee Methodist minister. Subsequently the little farm was sold and Grandma moved into town (Ulverstone) . One of her aunts lived in Sydney and a few years later she went to live there, with her youngest boy, Laurie. She became housekeeper to a doctor. Grandma simply adored Sydney. You would think she was the only Tasmanian to have set eyes on the place, and I suppose she was one of few back then. Anthony Horderns giant store was her earthly paradise. The only thorn in her side was the doctor’s cook, who failed to treat her in the manner she felt was her due. One day Cook snapped, ‘Pass the bread’ , to which Grandma responded; ‘Excuse me, are you speaking to the dog?’ I must have heard this story a thousand times. The expression, ‘Are you speaking to the dog?‘ was a catch-phrase in our family for decades.
When the second World War broke out my uncle Laurie joined up and Grandma returned home . Sadly, Laurie died after being taken prisoner by the Japanese. Several years later my brother would be named Laurence in his memory.
My father was serving in New Guinea, and back in Tasmania Grandma moved in with my Mother and her first baby. It was a disaster. Food was strictly rationed, but Grandma invited a stream of friends and relatives around, instructing Mum to buy expensive ham and other delicacies. In desperation Mum said she had to get a job. She fled to her home town of Deloraine and worked harvesting flax, used to make military parachutes. Grandma found her own flat, at 44 Victoria Street. It was part of a large house owned by the Taylor family, who lived next door.
There were two men on the ‘top rung’ of my grandmother’s life; God (definitely male in her eyes) and long term, conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies (virtually a God). On the next level down stood her doctor of choice, i.e. the one most willing to indulge her. Next came the Methodist minister. Oh yes, and her surviving sons. Unfortunately her daughters- in- law were all seriously flawed , especially in religious matters. One was Catholic (OMG!!) and one Anglican. Then there was my mother’s rather racketty family; also Anglicans, but only token ones. I’m not sure whether that was considered better or worse in the eyes of Alice.
One day Mum and the church going Anglican aunt took me and my two older siblings to be Christened in a job lot, which must have annoyed Grandma no end. She was able to mitigate the damage a few years later by registering the three of us at the Methodist Sunday School. The only problem was that Grandma said our names were Laurie, Paulie and Robbie, so Robyn and I briefly joined the boys class.
The only special gesture Grandma ever made regarding me was to have my portrait enlarged and framed. How this came about I have no idea. My older sister was a curly blonde angel, but there on the wall of our lounge for years hung funny little me. Even as a child I felt a bit awkward about this. I’m currently stored in our uncompleted new house.
Grandma insisted that she read a chapter of the bible every night, but I’m sure that wasn’t true. If she did, it would not have been with any true understanding. It sounds harsh I know, but she wasn’t really very christian like in her heart. However, she was sure she had earned top points with God , ‘I have my place booked in heaven,’ she would tell us. When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were on the way to the moon, Grandma was outraged; ‘They have no business going there. Anyway, God won’t let them….. and it will serve them right.’ To be fair, she changed her tune when they landed safely.
All her life, my grandmother continued to exude that air of gentility her neighbor at North Motton spoke of. And yet she lived in quite primitive conditions. Her flat consisted of a sitting room, a bedroom across a common hallway, a bathroom shared with three other flats and a dank, communal kitchen down the back. But she raised the flat to another level with her treasures. There was her luxurious fur bedspread….lapin’ she said, never realizing that meant rabbit. My cousin John inherited this. We were discussing it recently when he visited me in the Blue Mountains. He said he had no idea what happened to it, but after he returned to Tasmania he located it in his garage and sent me the following photo. I think he must be airing it out!
Grandma was very proud of her bow fronted cabinet, displaying a collection of bone china and crystal (I still have her gorgeous crystal salad bowl). She always had vases of fresh flowers, and often wore a spray of boronia or lily-of-the-valley in her lapel. In winter a cheerful fire welcomed the many old friends and family members who came to call. My father kept her supplied with firewood.
She wore a watch of chunky gold links, and a beautiful gold bar brooch with a miniature bell.
Her favourite handbag was a square, leopard print model from which she would produce her miniature bottle of Evening in Paris perfume, and a giant Crown mint for us if we were lucky. I’m sure she bought those mints for what she perceived as their royal connection. As I was writing this story my niece posted a photo of the handbag. My great-niece had just taken it to school for history day!
‘ I do like GOOD things,’ She would tell my long suffering mother. ‘As if I don’t! Mum, would mutter, though with unfailing good humour.
Give the loss of her son Maurice, it was understandable that Grandma worried constantly about the water hazards on our farm. My parents were remarkably sanguine about us swimming in the dams, but Grandma was sure we would drown….or fall down our sixty foot well. When a poor pig actually did end up in the well we were constantly warned, ‘Don’t tell Grandma!’ Despite her fears for our safety she was not demonstrative in the slightest. I don’t remember her ever nursing or hugging us…..or baby sitting. We received a peck on the cheek at Christmas when she presented us with a bucket and spade and a packet of unshelled, mixed nuts. I hasten to add that we accepted these gifts with delight, being unspoiled little country bumpkins.
She had an endearing habit of dropping her aitches; ‘I’ve got a very bad ‘eart’ , but adding them where they did not belong; ‘Such an intelligent man, he works in a hoffice.’
Clothes were one of her passions. Of course, only the manager of the store was important enough to serve Mrs Allen. She would inspect all the seams (inside and out), make sure the cut was right, and check the weight of the fabric. There would also be a new hat for every major occasion, especially funerals…..which she thoroughly enjoyed. Mind you, she would immediately deconstruct the trimmings, replacing them with her own artificial flowers or feathers. They were infinitely more tasteful with the Alice touch, she thought.
Her joy in shopping diminished with the advent of decimal currency in 1967. ‘How much is that in real money?’ She would ask in frustration. She often just handed her purse to the assistant and let them take out the (hopefully) correct amount. I remember feeling really sad about this. For the first time I saw my strong, proud grandmother as vulnerable.
Grandma was always busy. She made and decorated wedding cakes, entered her fruit cakes in the agricultural shows, gardened, and made floral posies for the Country Women’s Association, the Red Cross and the Methodist Ladies Guild The only way we earned her approval was by saving the foil from our Easter eggs to wrap the stems of the posies. On a tiny portable stove in her flat she produced all manner of jams, jellies and chutneys.
I was always mortified when she sent me off to buy bananas (part of her staple diet). ‘Tell them you want the best, because they’re for Mrs Allen’. Oh good grief! I never did of course, then I freaked out in case they didn’t pass muster. I did rather admire the ‘pipe’ loaves she bought from Rays Bakery, a few doors down her street.
During the mid sixties, when even Ulverstone began to ‘swing’ gently, Grandma appointed herself the moral guardian of the young girls who had moved into the front flat. She kept a stern eye on them, especially when they dared have male visitors. At 10pm she would walk along the passage , rap on their door and call out, ‘It’s time you young ladies were in bed.’ Thankfully the idea that they may already be in bed with their boyfriends was simple too shocking to enter her mind. My sister and I had gone to school with the girls and in our eyes they were rather glamorous. They wore false eyelashes and streaked their hair with something called Magic Silver White. We lived in fear that they might associate us with their nemesis, Mrs Allen.
Within a year or two my sister and I were wearing miniskirts, stiletto heels and black eyeliner. My blonde sister even took to using that Magic Silver White. Grandma was disgusted. She said Dad was too soft on us, and that we looked like ‘little huzzies.’ In retrospect, she was right.
I only remember her going to the beach with us once, She was so mortified at Dad walking up Beach Road bare chested that she preferred to go with her sister and her middle aged, unmarried niece. I think they just parked by the picnic tables and ate their lunch in the car.
Grandma claimed to have a weak heart, and from the age of sixty she often declared she was on the point of dying . She would be brought up to our farm to be cosseted my mother, who was already flat out with child rearing and all the duties of a farmer’s wife. Oh good grief, what a demanding patient she was. Breakfast was served to her in bed on a beautifully prepared tray. The milk for her tea (in a bone china cup) had to be pre-heated, lest she call out, ‘It’s not ‘ot enough, Myra.’ There would generally be a medical crisis during her stay; ‘Call the boys Myra…I think I’m going !’ When she felt strong enough to get up, she would make an inspection tour of the garden; ‘That fuchsia is crying out for water, Myra.’ ‘ You ought to dead head that daisy.’ ‘That peony is lovely. I think I gave you that.’
In reality, Alice Maud was as healthy as a horse. She lived to be 88, and simply wore out. Admitted to hospital for a rest (well really to give my mother a rest) , she woke one morning, had a cup of tea, and quietly passed away. No drama at all. I’m sure she was very annoyed. I was living overseas at the time, which lessened the impact on me However, things didn’t seem quite the same when I returned home. Grandma had been such a huge presence in our lives; even my mother admitted that she missed her when she died.
Alice Maude died on April 14 1973.
Co-incidently, my darling mother died on the very same day ten years later. In my fancy I imagine it to be a symbol of their long relationship. My mother was born on All Saints Day. I suspect this why she was able to put up with her difficult mother-in-law….that and a wonderful sense of humour.
If only Mum and my aunts could have known what was eventually discovered about their mother-in-law’s family. They were convicts! Grandma would simply have refused to believe it was true, but yes….an infamous lot, those SHADBOLTS, like characters from the novel Lorna Doone!
FOOTNOTE – It was Grandma who inspired my love of travel. The huge sea chest she took to Sydney sat in our laundry during my childhood; a thing of wonder. And behind our bathroom door hung a sponge bag she left behind after one of her many visits. It was printed with luggage labels from all over the world. I would lie in the bath dreaming of those exotic places; Rome, Madrid, Paris, New York…… RIP Alice, you were such a character.
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR GRANDMOTHER? MAYBE YOU HAD TWO!