Susan Anderson (now Gribben)

Susan's Memories

by Susan Gribben (née Anderson)

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I loved both my grandparents very much, but especially Jo, because I spent so much time with her from the time I was a baby until she died. As the eldest grandchild, I had a special place. Jo made no secret of the fact that she had favourites, and it was difficult if you were one of those about whom she said ‘I just can’t take to that child’. But you could also be a favourite one minute and not the next! She loved and collected beautiful things and was sentimental about various family heirlooms. All her precious belongings had some relative’s name pasted underneath them and each was regularly informed that they would be getting that particular item when she died, but the names kept changing! (Mum/Paddy says it was the same when she was a girl.)

Pop was quiet and gentle. When he came home at the end of the day he would often spend time in the lounge room playing the piano or patience, or reading. He had the card table permanently set up, with slips of paper showing his calculations of how much he owed the Chinaman (imaginary) – when I was a child he used to pay the Chinaman sixpence a card, but by the time I got to my teens it had become one pound a card – and he owed millions, because he only went through the cards once singly, and had to pay for every card under nine out – the odds were therefore stacked against him. You may draw your own conclusions as to what this tells you about Pop. I loved listening to him play the piano – it was such a gentle and beautiful touch. Mum tells of him accompanying her singing at a school concert and them bringing the house down. He would often play German Whist with me but I could seldom beat him, although he taught me all his tricks. He loved swimming particularly early in the morning and did so most days right up until near the end of his life.

We all had our eyes regularly examined by Pop, who was an eye surgeon. We would go with Mum into his rooms in Collins Street for this and it was very exciting.

Jo was a lot of fun, a lot of the time. She loved family and there were lots of family gatherings around the round table in the dining room, or outside picnics if there were more of us. We would all often be screaming with laughter at someone’s expense – everyone was early trained to see the ridiculous side of their behaviour. Uncle Steve’s laugh was the loudest shriek and would often set the rest of us off without even knowing what it was about. The whole extended family always got together just before Christmas (at Cotham Road) and at Easter for a picnic at Olinda in the Dandenongs.

Above her refrigerator in the kitchen Jo had a little framed cartoon in which a dumpy girl is pictured in various scenes as she recites

My parents taught me not to smoke - I don’t.
Nor listen to a naughty joke – I don’t.
They told me it was wrong to wink
At handsome men, or even think
of taking any kind of drink – I don’t.
I’ve kissed no men, not even one.
In fact I don’t know how it’s done.
You think I do not have much fun ? – I DON’T

Jo was tall – about five foot eight inches (172 cms) and very pleased to be so. She always wore high heels (usually 2 inches) but even her slippers had a 3 cm heel! She prided herself on her superb posture (mine was a terrible disappointment to her) and maintained it with a full whalebone corset, which she only loosened after dinner each night. She suffered from a hiatus hernia (which she passed on to me!) and it must have been agony for her to have something so tight around her all the time. There was a family tradition of learning a biblical text for every letter of the alphabet and all the girls had to learn them – rewarded by a special bracelet passed down the generations – V was: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 12:8). She often quoted it against herself. She loved good clothes and had lots of matching leather shoes and handbags.

Jo also loved entertaining and going out. She and her friends had regular afternoon card parties and afternoon teas – it was her daughters’ and grand-daughters’ job to help her cook and set up for these, and then clear up and do the dishes afterwards! (although Auntie Sue often would retire to the toilet at the end of the verandah at such times and could not be found). We had to come in and shake hands or be kissed by various ‘Aunties’ which could include Jo’s first cousins Nell and Ivy (Lucy Vercoe’s children), or Jessie Sutherland, and then we were banished while they played cards. We all loathed this, but our reward was to eat some of the leftovers. Nell and Ivy were older than Jo, but really as close as sisters to her. Auntie Ivy was my godmother and a quite terrifying tease. One story was that she had decided she did not ever want children and, in the absence of effective contraception we all assumed she and Uncle Claude never consummated the marriage.

Jo was a tireless worker for a number of charities, including the Eye and Ear Hospital Auxiliary. She was one of the most generous blood donors during the Second World War and was also made a Life Governor of the Children’s Hospital. But it has to be said that she was a bit of a snob and could be pretty intimidating without even trying.

Jo was always saving up for something (out of the housekeeping money Pop gave her) and we were on bread and dripping and other cheap food so she could afford it! She also had her own shares and we had to listen to the Share Market Report twice a day on the radio. She loved to have breakfast in bed and trained Catherine and me from an early age to make it for her – half a grapefruit (usually from her tree), a poached egg, toast, marmalade (her own, made from her own Seville oranges) and real coffee (Quist’s). She would read the Sun newspaper, including the births, deaths and marriages, and then go and have her shower and dress.

Saturday afternoon was devoted to the horse races. Pop always went to the races and was a member at Flemington, Moonee Valley and Caulfield. Jo usually stayed at home and listened to the race called on the radio, having placed her bets with the SP bookie at the barber’s at the Glenferrie Road corner. But for the Spring Carnival they both went, and when I got older they took me. One felt wonderfully special driving into Flemington in Pop’s Bentley. We always went very early and went down and looked at the horses and Pop showed me a good place bet for each race, gave me a pound note and then left Jo and me to our own devices.

Jo loved the radio and we would gather round it to listen to ‘Blue Hills’ (a radio soapie which had 15 minute episodes every weekday for over 30 years). She also loved the comedy programs ‘Take it From Here’ and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ on Sunday nights, and we all would often laugh till we cried listening to them. She loved reading and was a member of the Athenaeum Library (which is still there in Collins Street and operating in exactly the same fashion) – her favourites were good detective stories, love stories and biographies - and she would send me in to change/choose her books when she was not well. I would read them after her. Jo had three shelves of books and most of them I still have. I read them all many times. They included: an abridged Pepys Diary (which she often read before going to bed); a mostly complete 1867 edition of Charles Dickens; all of the Forsyte Saga series; all the Edgar Wallace ‘Sanders of the River’ books; a Cassell’s History of England in 8 volumes; The Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick; Jane Eyre. Her favourite was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. She admired Scarlet O’Hara very much and frequently quoted her famous line, whenever something terrible happened to her – ‘I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow’. I was allowed to read all her books except Rasputin the Rascal Monk which she said would frighten me, so I never did. I found plenty to frighten me in the rest!

Pop’s books, which I also read many times, were very different and mostly true or fictional war or adventure books. My favourites were ‘Man Eating Tigers of Kumaon’ and ‘Memoirs of a Sword Swallower’. He had a number of books in French, which he read and spoke fluently. Pop used to buy books, cover them in brown paper, read them and then give them away as Christmas presents to his family and friends with loving messages written on the brown paper!

Jo was always quoting poetry and could recite large slabs from poems like ‘The Lady of Shallot’ or ‘The Boy stood on the Burning Deck’. She had many sayings - if something went wrong she might say ‘Ah me, that I in Kedar’s tents must dwell’ (Psalm 120:5) or ‘Thank God the Presbyterians are worse’. If something was lost it was ‘gone where they don’t play billiards’ and we had to pray to St Anthony to help us find it. Usually it was one or both of her two pairs of glasses which she had mislaid - she did the praying and I did the looking! She was also very superstitious and we always had to toss salt over our shoulder if we spilt it and it was terrible bad luck to walk under a ladder. She was a fun companion – she would make a game out of anything – we always had to add up the numbers on our tram tickets and if it came to 21 it was very lucky. She loved playing wordgames and one of her favourite radio programs was “My word”. She was also a great knitter, never using a pattern and usually had some rather horrible garment in progress at any time, which you hoped was not for you. She taught us to knit by starting us off on bedsocks according to an ancient pattern which I still have in her handwriting. Her tapestry work was of a much higher standard.

Jo was not fun all the time. She had monthly bilious attacks (migraines) which would lay her low for anything up to three days depending on how hectic the pace of her life had been in the preceding weeks. When she was sick, or when Pop went away on his monthly consulting trip to Gippsland, she needed to be nursed or have company, and it was often me who came to stay. Another ritual was her nightly eating of a hideous golf ball size concoction made of dried figs and senna powder, to prevent her from becoming constipated – the story being that she had torn badly during the birth of Bill and/or Steve. The worst thing Catherine or I could be asked to do was help her make her concoction! During her migraines we had to cook her lemon sago which was the only thing she could keep down. She was also very likely under stress to break out in a very nasty raw dermatitis rash on her arms and legs which she then bandaged. She had been very spoilt as a child and when life got difficult she often became sick or threw a tantrum. But when she got over her illness or her stress, it was as though it had never happened – the sun shone again and all was forgotten.

She was a genius at getting her own way and manipulating her loved ones into doing things for her. Her children and grandchildren developed highly individual ways of trying to deal with her. Jo loved the telephone and rang her children frequently. I often heard one or the other end of these conversations and so was in a prime position to observe her modus operandi – she often used her health to get them to toe her line. Both she and Auntie Ivy actively anticipated their deaths for many years ahead of their time! It was much harder for her children to deal with her than her grandchildren.

We all loved 139 Cotham Road Kew, which was Pop and Jo’s home for over 40 years and my second home - a magic and spacious place, where my imagination could run riot, especially as I was often there alone after school waiting for Jo to come home. The unmade room upstairs was spooky; the wooden panelling in the main downstairs rooms was regularly tapped to see if it hid a secret cupboard; there were lots of hiding places inside and out; the tennis court lawn was great for playing all kinds of games; the garden had wonderful trees for climbing and lovely flowers and much more. Jo bred Welsh Corgi dogs, like the Queen, and we loved Sally, Psyche and all their pups and did not mind taking them for their daily walk.

Although it is nearly 40 years since they both died and since I was in their house, there would hardly be a week go by when I do not remember them in some way. There is so much more could be said and others no doubt will. Between them Pop and Jo taught me to love reading, language, poetry, history, card playing, gardening, and cooking; to appreciate art and music; to see the funny side eventually of most situations; to be interested in people and the world in general; and above all, to value family through thick and thin, and good and bad times.

I thank God for them both.

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