What I Learned and What I Knew about my Nana

This is the eulogy I delivered at the funeral of Molly O’Brien, my Nana, on October 10, 2019.

I’m standing in front of you on behalf of Nana’s daughter Meg, my mum, and her son Stephen, my uncle, and my sister Rebecca.

The whole family is here to remember Nana’s passing, and it’s wonderful to see so many of you all here to remember her with them. But that’s no surprise: Nana had so many friends and was so close to her family. I’ve been living overseas for the past 30 years, but I still recognize so many people that were part of her life, including Auntie Helen who will be speaking after me.

I was chatting with Helen the other day and she said that one of the things about funerals is that it’s the time when you really learn about someone. And it’s true. Over the past few days I’ve been talking with people who knew Nana and sharing stories about her. I got details on some some things I already knew about her, and I learned some new things as well. And today, I wanted to spend a few minutes sharing them with you.

I learned a lot about Nana’s early life. I’d always thought she was born in Melbourne but in fact she was born here in Adelaide, in Hackney, and only moved to Melbourne at the age of 21 after her discharge from the Royal Australian Air Force after the war. That’s where she met her lifelong friend Coral, and two young fellas Stan and Ted. From what I could gather she had a fine old time in Melbourne doing things like going to parties with the likes of Squizzy Taylor. In 1959 she moved back to Adelaide, with husband Ted, and my 8-year-old Mum and 1-year-old Stephen tow. She moved back to take care of her own mother, who she looked after for more than a decade.

This was all before I was born — for most of my life, Nana was synonymous with Price, the fishing town on the Yorke Peninsula, where she moved to in 1973 after the death of Nana Cosgrove. She remained there through the passing of her husband, my grandfather Ted in 1979, until she moved back to Adelaide to stay with Mum in 2002.

In learning all of this, I also discovered just how humble she was. She was never shy, but she was always reluctant to talk herself up. I never knew until this week, for example, that she received medals for her time in the RAF. “They’re just participation trophies”, Stephen told me she said about them. She achieved so much in her life, and helped so many people, but was always reticent to give herself credit.

Because Nana was always there for you, and Nana never judged. It didn’t matter what your problem was, or what you’d done, she was always there to listen, and support, and even provide refuge if that’s what you needed. I’ve heard so many stories in the last few days from people that Nana had helped in times of need — myself included. I remember when I came home from England one time, and showed her a photo of my first boyfriend. This was news to her, but she was completely unflappable. The first thing she said was, “He looks nice. And I hope he’s nice to you”.

I always knew Nana was welcoming, but I don’t think I really knew how many people thought of her house in Price as a second home, the way I did. If you wanted to come over, and bring a friend, or two, or a dozen, she’d make up a bed for you and make you dinner or cook the fish or crab or rabbits or the quail that Stephen had caught. (Her rabbit stew in white sauce and parsley was my favourite.) Sometimes there’s be so many campers and tents set up in the back yard of her place in Price that you could barely see the lawn.

Even after she left Price and moved back in with Mum, she kept up her ways. She was always happy to make dinner, or do the ironing, until the very last years of her life. Rebecca told me she still wears her rugby shorts with pleats, because that’s the way Nana did it.

Nana loved being with people, and she loved to have fun. And as I was going through a box of photos of Nana with Mum the other day I also learned something new: she loved dressing up. The photos of Nana as a pastor, or as a circus clown, or as a hippy, or as Barry Humphries or in one particularly notorious episode, as a lady of the night were one thing. But all the stories that went with the photos, well, those were legendary … but if you weren’t there, you’ll have to ask for the details.

Nana loved adventure, too, even in her later life. There’s the time she went four-wheel driving in the Corner Country. She went parasailing in Bali. She went fishing on the Daly River and caught the biggest barramundi two years running. One of Mum’s favourite memories is Nana piloting this catamaran across the Great Barrier Reef. A few years ago a simple cruise turned into her sweet-talking the captain into letting her drive with this enormous grin on her face — and that’s my favourite photo of her.

I always knew that Nana was whip-smart. She could do the nine-letter word every time, could bang out the Sunday crossword in under an hour, and was always the champion at Scrabble and Trivial pursuit. Stephen told me Nana was a master of the racing form, sitting around the kitchen table with a transistor radio and offering 20-cent bets on the horses. I did however learn that the reason she always beat me at crib was because she was expert at moving both pegs at once. And she kept that sharpness right up until the end.

But I think the most important think I learned over the last few days, is that I learned many of these things from her (and if not Nana then from my Mum … who also learned them from Nana). I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and I’m where I am today because of what I learned about courage, about humility, about cunning, about living life to the fullest, and most of all, about compassion. And I’m sure many of you learned those same things from her as well.

Thank you all so much for coming here today: it means so much to me, and to the family. And I’m sure if Nana were still here with us today, she’d be eager to have a chat, have a drink, have a laugh, and enjoy this moment with you all. That’s how I’ll remember her. Rest In Peace, Nana.

Maureen (Molly) O’Brien. Wife to Ted; Mother to Margaret and Stephen. April 20, 1925 – September 29, 2019.

“Pictures and Poems” returns by popular demand

David and I took the boys and our camera to the SAM Olympic Sculpture Park. We loved it.
The Richard Serra installation is so gorgeous we could have stayed all day. So much art hard against the rocky shore, open to the warm air in spring’s cathedral… it was unforgettable, and we will be back often.

The whole experience reminded me of this Kenneth Slessor poem:

Fixed Ideas

Ranks of electroplated cubes, dwindling to glitters,
Like the other pasture, the trigonometry of marble,
Death’s candy-bed. Stone caked on stone,
Dry pyramids and racks of iron balls.
Life is observed, a precipitate of pellets,
Or grammarians freeze it into spar,
Their rhomboids, as for instance, the finest crystal
Fixing a snowfall under glass. Gods are laid out
In alabaster, with horny cartilage
And zinc ribs; or systems of ecstasy
Baked into bricks. There is a gallery of sculpture,
Bleached bones of heroes, Gorgon masks of bushrangers;
But the quarries are of more use than this,
Filled with the rolling of huge granite dice,
Ideas and judgments: vivisection, the Baptist Church,
Good men and bad men, polygamy, birth-control . . .

Frail tinkling rush
Water-hair streaming
Prickles and glitters
Cloudy with bristles
River of thought
Swimming the pebbles—
Undo, loosen your bubbles!

The rest of the photos are here.

Pictures and Poems

So I have this new camera that I’m kind of in love with. And I’ve decided to start posting a lot more pictures, because a lot more of my pictures turn out to be pretty good now.

But I thought to myself, is posting arty shots pretentious enough? No, I said to myself, you need to post pictures and poetry. That’s pretentious. That’s what I’m going for. To wit:
Blue Poppy, Butchart Gardens, May 2006

Now a bit of poetry, by Jorie Graham:

The Way Things Work

is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
without us; the objects of faith.