Sunday, February 28, 2010


So the day has come and gone.

My mother Anique created an entire day for my Grandmama akin to an old Aussie television show called This Is Your Life. In that show, someone heading into their twilight years would be honoured by having many of their old friends and colleagues brought out for a reunion. Although that show had its poignant moments, it would pale in comparison to what occurred yesterday in a house in Sydney's west.

Anique had set up a power point presentation, tracing Aimee's life from the time of her childhood in Egypt, from her boat ride to Australia to escape the anti-semitic sentiment that swept over that country, ousting the Jews, through to the early days in Australia when a young woman was forced to learn a new language, take care of three small children and a depressed husband in a tiny house that was more like a glorified shed, and then also find work in a new land, work that would have been unthinkable to her family in their former life in North Africa, when servants and money abounded. My Grandmother scrubbed floors, scrubbed her children and cooked food that was almost certainly more rudimentary than the delicious fare I became used to as a child making the trek to what became their larger house next door to the aforementioned shed that then became known to us as "the little place".

So yesterday, on the woman I now know as Aimee's 90th birthday, we all congregated to celebrate that long life, which continues today. My Grandmother has dementia, and I was riveted to her face almost the entire length of the presentation, as Mum commented on each photo for the people present who were less familiar with the events.

I didn't look at the photos that much. My grandmama's face told me the story of a life lived. There was no doubt that for her at this point, many of the young faces in the photos were strangers, maybe even those of herself. But it was the moments of recognition, of longing and sadness, joy and surprise, and even simply the childlike innocence of one who has forgotten that touched me so deeply. My Grandmother sat with her former best friend and elder sister Sara, clutching hands is if to retain a lifelong connection that at some point will be inevitably severed by the receding tide that is her memory. They shared excited shrieks, spontaneous hushed gasps and hollowed sighs.

You may have noticed I said 'former' when speaking of Sara as a best friend to Aimee. That is because the gigantic oak tree that my Grandmother now rests against is my mother. To see the way my Grandmother looks to her daughter 'Annie' for guidance, support and loving reassurance is to see a child reach her hands high for her mother's arms, breathing a sigh of relief as she is scooped up in the warmest embrace. Many times Aimee has said to me in that gentle French lilt, "where would I be without her?". Where indeed. If only every person could be assured of the kind of loving home (what Aimee calls her "little paradise") that will nourish my Grandmama until the end, which at this point may be some time away, judging by her health and good spirits. And why not? The woman has an HD television in her room for pete's sake! Usually set to the Spice channel. Hey, she's earned it.

So speeches were made, songs were sung and everyone paid their respects.

Half an hour after everyone had left I asked my Grandmother if she enjoyed all those old photos projected onto the screen.

Her eyes, in response, told me she'd forgotten already.

But that's okay. One of the gifts she will have from here until her final days is that she gets to live completely in the moment. The joy she gained from her 90th birthday will rest in her heart and in the recesses of her soul, to be reawakened by chance, miraculously, by a photo or a card from that day. It is in those moments of recognition that we see a rich inner life, free of its former cares, worries and resentments. When my Grandmother looks at me and my beautiful partner Victoria, I see recognition. I see a loving warmth. And I understand that it is immaterial whether or not those embers will still be burning tomorrow. Her heart, like mine, like yours, burns for today.

A story was read at the end of the ceremony:

"A 92 year-old petite, legally blind, well-poised and proud lady was fully dressed this morning by eight o'clock. Her hair was fashionably coiffed and her makeup perfectly applied. She was moving to a nursing home today. Her husband of 70 years recently passed away, making the move necessary. After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home, she smiled sweetly when told her room was ready.
As she manoeuvred her walker to the elevator, she was provided with a visual description of her tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been draped on her window.
"I love it", she stated, with the enthusiasm of an 8-year old who had just been presented with a new puppy.
"Mrs Ellison, you haven't seen the room yet, just wait!"
"That doesn't have anything to do with it", she replied. "Happiness is something you decide ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged. ... it's how I arrange my mind. I had already decided to love it. It's a decision I make every morning when I wake up."

My Grandmother continues to make a lot of us happy, and I suspect that goes both ways.

Happy Birthday, Aimee.

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