It’s been a year since Nanna died, and I’m surprised by the depth of sadness I’ve felt at her passing. Not because she wasn’t a wonderful human being; she was. She was quietly inquisitive. She had beautiful hands, with skilled fingers and long glamorous nails—hands that could make the most melty sweet pastry, and tie perfect bows. She loved gossip; she lived for a scandal. Her googly doe eyes would light up at the thought that you might possess a morsel of information she didn't yet know about someone in the Adelaide Hills. Likewise, if there was any possibility the tidbits she could offer to you were brand-new pieces of information, then her work as the mischievous village gossip was done. And dimples. Dimples as deep as hers were key indicators of utmost cheekiness. Of this, I am sure.
When she passed away last year, I made it to her bedside with 90 minutes to spare. I’d driven from Melbourne to the Adelaide Hills in illegal time. I held her hand. I hummed a couple of songs, as I’m known to do. Seeing her lying there, my choice of tune was Baby Mine. It's a lullaby from Dumbo that always seems to pop into my head at the most innocent and fragile of times, of which this felt like one. It turns out it was.
We've experienced a reasonable amount of death in our family, from indecently sudden to lingering deterioration. Why I've mourned this particular death so greatly has been a spot of curiosity for me. Nanna, my third grandma, represented a fervent and unique care that arrived in my childhood in an uninhibited way. I rarely hear the stories of step-families gone well. My Nanna was my step-dad's mum. As a child who lost her dad at almost-eight, and found a step-dad at 11, I was fortunate enough to experience a new layer of love I didn't yet know existed. It's not uncommon to love someone as family even though there are no official blood-lines—it happens as we partner up, and marry up, and find ourselves enveloped into a whole new knit of humans. But as a child, the dynamic is different. I can only imagine what it must feel like for children fostered and adopted into loving families, for my experience was transforming, and yet only a sliver of what they surely feel.
At 11, I didn't yet have a matured concept of what a family unit could look like beyond my own. And my step-family was different. Is still different. Gloriously so. Fascinatingly so. Not least because my step-grandparents let me watch the only two VHS tapes they had—Dirty Dancing and Grease—not entirely appropriate for a child, though perhaps the sole reason I'm such a Rizzo. I stayed with them while my mum and step-dad were on their honeymoon. Each morning for that week post-wedding I'd sneak into their bed and sit between them to listen to Mix 102.3 and eat crumpets with butter, apricot jam, and cheese (calm down; it's delicious). Nanna had arranged for me to skip school the day after the wedding so I could stay home with her and watch The Nanny. This all sounds perfectly normal, so why that fascination? Because we’re different breeds—different bloodlines observed different personality quirks and traits and characteristics. I'd grown familiar with the rascally big chesty laugh and occasional snitchy intensity of my paternal line, and the bubbly chitter-chatter and occasional passive-aggressiveness of my maternal line. The step-family gave way to new things: a centred, earnest, and stoic energy that calmed, soothed and simplified. It was (and still is) refreshing, comforting, and grounding.
Although I was with Nanna when she died, it was the viewing that upset me more. This woman, the matriarch from whom all things flowed—stories, pastries, and otherwise—was lying there, peaceful, yes, but the lifeless version of someone I'd known to have so much life in her eyes. All those years ago, with sneaky, cheeky dimples and flickering eyes, she made a choice: to never think of us (Mum, brother, me) as anything other than her own. There's something about a familial love coming from a source that doesn't share your own genetic foibles that is particularly expansive: "you're different and I love you". It's curious and special, and if you're lucky, rich with gossip.