My step-grandmother died last Thursday. It was a relief, really, as she'd been in a nursing home for the past three or so years and prior to that, had struggled for a number of years with increasing signs of Alzheimer's. This made her depressed and increasingly unable to cope with daily living and paranoid. She had five car accidents, mostly minor and none that involved other cars, in as many years. She alienated at least one family member by her paranoid suspicions.
During one episode when she'd come to Melbourne she accused the hotel where she was staying of getting all her dates wrong. She rang me up to complain about it, and behind the anger and suspicion, I heard real confusion and panic. The day before she had the stroke which left her completely unable to cope without constant care, she rang me and my mother in two separate phone calls to tell us she loved us.
She was an unhappy woman, although I do think she was mostly happy during her marriage to my grandfather. I remember meeting her for the first time when Granddad brought her home to Carlton. We were all living with him as my grandmother had died. He brought Ann home for dinner - I must have been about four. She wore a hairnet with sparkles and beautiful, narrow shoes. She was the most glamorous woman my four-year old self had ever seen and I was fascinated.
After my father died, I spent two summers with Granddad and Ann - she was responsible for me learning to swim, how to make a bed properly and how to clean silver. When my grandfather died, she used some of her inheritance to take me to the US and to Central America. I was fifteen at the time. Now, having parented teenagers, I am amazed at her bravery!
Actually, we had a wonderful time - the only argument I can remember was when I succumbed to some kind of infection in Rio de Janeiro and wanted to stay in bed and she made me walk along the Copacabana on the grounds that I was just suffering from jet lag. Not bad when you think that we traveled together for about six weeks - one week of which she was so ill with food gastro I navigated Mexico City to find a pharmacy to get medicine for her. Gastro also meant that I was set free in San Francisco where I met a jeweller on Fisherman's Wharf who took me to dinner in the old Mission section and showed me some wonderful street art. Ann knew nothing of this, of course, thinking that I'd met up with some very nice people we'd met on a bus, who were completely respectable.
Before her struggle with Alzheimer's began she was a generous woman who, with considerable grace and negotiation skills, made her husband's family her own. It cannot have been easy marrying for the first time a man who was considerably older and who had adored his first wife. His death left her lonelier than she had ever been. In those later years I think she probably lived for the little dog I gave her, her daily visits to Ada, a friend resilient enough to weather Ann's increasingly erratic behaviour and the trips my mother made to Sydney.
But that's not the Ann I want to remember - I want to remember the woman who concealed a heart attack from her travel agent companions on her first trip to Central America and went on, after the attack, to climb up to Machu Picchu. The Ann who booked us into the most beautiful old hotel in Lima so I, too, could experience that kind of old world grace. The Ann who was approached in Papeete by a man who offered to share with her the whiskey he was drinking at breakfast - and sternly, but politely, rebuffed him and his unwelcome advances. Even the Ann who wept after my grandfather died because she felt she should have sweetened his life with more puddings. Or the Ann who once grabbed me by my shoulders, after I'd laughingly said, 'Don't you dare say anything against Anne of Green Gables,' and shook me, saying furiously, 'Don't you dare say don't you dare to me!'. That Ann was a feisty, generous, courteous, warm and difficult woman, as contradictory and complex as we all are.
Rest in Peace.