Topic: A Tale of Two Grandmothers by Leonie Couper

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Grandmothers of today have moved a lifetime away from the lifestyle of their own grannies, but their role remains as valuable as ever.  Today’s children have fit young grandmothers who work at careers, play golf, go to the gym and travel overseas.  They will probably not be found in the kitchen with wide aprons and flour up to their elbows, baking the treats of yesterday, but they still give their grandchildren the benefit of their wisdom and love.

Let me tell you of the two grandmothers I have known and of the immeasurable part they have played in my life.

My maternal grandmother, Sarah Jane Baghurst, born in Masterton in the Wairarapa District on the 11th September 1877 was, she proudly told us, a second generation New Zealander.  Her mother Sarah Jane Wyeth was born in New Zealand.  Her father Walter Harris, born in Essex, England, arrived as a two year-old with his parents, aboard the sailing ship ‘Bolton’ in 1840.

Nan, as we called her, was a widow when our family went to live with her for a short time at her home in Martinborough in 1948.  In 1951 we moved in permanently.  Nan was 74 by then.  Her skin was crinkled and etched with furrows.  Behind her steel rimmed glasses her blue eyes were as pale as the winter sky.  She wore her wispy white hair in a bun, fastened at the back of her head with numerous steel hairpins.  A hairnet fine as cobwebs kept it all in place.

Nan smoked until her late 80s.   Not heavily, mind, and only Greys tobacco, which she said was the mildest.  We children watched, absorbed, as she made her day’s supply on a metal contraption called a cigarette roller at the kitchen table each morning.  First she licked a ‘Pickwick’ paper which she laid on a hammock of fabric inside the roller.  She then spread the paper with a small wad of tobacco and snapped the roller shut.  Out popped a perfect cigarette.

I was ten when our family went to live permanently with Nan.   My elder sister was eleven and my younger brother, six.  Over the next decade five more children arrived.  Nan was by then an irascible old lady but she took us under her wing, like a hen settling on a brood of chickens.   Few children today are so blessed.      

Nan taught us how to knit and to make pom-poms, how to crochet and sew on buttons.  She showed us how to plait hair and tie bows.  She taught us to bake.  My younger brothers and sisters pulled chairs to the sink bench in her pantry and stood on them beside her while they covered themselves with flour and created flat scones, wiping their fingers around the bowl while she told stories of her youth, of her parents long dead, of horses and buggies and things of the past. 

We chanted our times tables to Nan and also our spelling.  She taught us to play cards; patience, poker, five hundred and euchre.  She played crib with us until she was ninety and gave up only when she could no longer see to win.  In my mind I see her still, playing with enthusiasm and adroitness.  ‘15 two, 15 four, and the rest don’t score.’

Nan maintained a beautiful garden until well into her eighties.  Her passion was infectious.  She taught us the names of flowers and trees, how to cut the diseased parts from gladioli corms and how to paste the cut with sulphur to heal the wound.  Nan always wore a black apron with two big pockets into which she put her cigarette papers, matches and cigarette roller along with spare hairpins, garden ties and secateurs.

Once a month, Nan went by bus to visit a chiropodist in Masterton, some 50 kilometres away.  On her return she always had small presents for us in her shopping bag; Minties, marbles, fancy handkerchiefs, lengths of satin ribbon.  She gave us all small amounts of pocket money for which we brushed her hair, rolled her smokes and made her cups of tea.  We could not imagine our lives without her.    

When Nan died in 1972 she left behind a great wealth.  She was 95 and had been with our family for over twenty years.  Like the Queen Mother we thought she would live forever.

My husband’s maternal grandmother, born at Auchenheath in Lanarkshire in Scotland on the 2nd December 1894 was christened Margaret More Brownlie.  She was known to all her grandchildren as Grandma.

Grandma was 27 when she and her husband Gavin Shearer and their one year-old daughter Margaret arrived in New Zealand aboard the ‘S.S. Pakeha’ in 1921.

By the time I met Grandma in 1966 she was a widow.   She was seventeen years younger than my Nan and entered my life shortly before Nan died.  Like Nan she was ageless. 

Grandma lived on her own in the suburb of Ponsonby in Auckland until she was well into her 80s.  She then lived with her son Ron and his wife Ngaire for a number of years before moving to my husband’s parents for the last few years of her life.  Several times a year she took herself off to stay with friends, and with us.

Grandma was a short, stooped dumpling with a mantle of grey hair wound in an orderly bun at the nape of her neck.  Each evening, dressed in her long white nightgown, she let her hair fall loose before brushing and plaiting it into a single braid down her back.

Like Nan, Grandma always wore an apron about the house.  It was a special apron with winged shoulder straps that joined with ties at the back.  She would wear no other style.

“Au dear, dear, tha’ nae will do,” Grandma would say when I tried to persuade her to accept another sort of apron at Rendells, her favourite shop in Auckland.  I gave up and made her new ones for Christmas, drafted from the original.

Though many decades had passed since Grandma left her homeland her accent and expressions remained true to her Lanarkshire roots.  ‘Och aye’ and ‘dinnae ken’ peppered her conversation along with Robbie Burns, ‘O wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us.’ The latter was said with a twinkle in her deep brown eyes.

Grandma was stoutly religious and went to her Church Convention at Pukekohe every year until she died at the age of 94.   She never missed once, though her joints ached and her gallstones played up.  She was steadfast and unwavering and I admired her spirit.

Grandma loved to shop and she loved hats.  A shopping trip into Auckland city always involved a visit to George Courts to try on the hats.  She would stand in front of the mirror and try on at least half a dozen, carefully tilting the brims to achieve the best effect before asking my opinion.  She never bought one.  That would have spoilt the fun.

Grandma baked for all the family, for friends, for the nurse at the doctor’s surgery and for the man who fixed the stove.  Baking was her usefulness and her passion.  Shortbread, ginger crunch, Louie cake, girdle scones, dumplings, pie melon jam.  The scents and tastes still evoke memories of Grandma sifting, beating, stirring, wiping her hand down the sides of her special apron as she bustled about our kitchen.

When Grandma wasn’t baking her fingers were busy knitting.  For each wee bairn’s arrival she knitted white 3-ply matinee jackets, booties and hug-me-tights using patterns from her own days of motherhood.  In addition she knitted tea cosies in multi-colours for every member of the family and for all her church friends.  Her trademark five knitted green leaves graced the top of each one.  Grandma upheld traditions and reminded us all of their place and their value.

Although Grandma liked the old ways she was never afraid to try something new. When my husband and I were first married we took her up in a four-seater aircraft for a joyride over Rotorua.   She was over seventy then and it was the first time she had flown.   At 93 she flew with a friend back to Scotland to visit those who remained of the family she left behind almost seventy years before.

In the final year of Grandma’s life we picked strawberries together for the jam she loved to make.   Her only concession to age was a small folding chair.   Her knees had grown too stiff to kneel.

Like Nan we were not prepared for Grandma’s passing.  I suspect she was not either.

“Canna ye bring my black handbag next tame ye coom tae visit?” she said the day before she died at Auckland hospital, where she had been admitted for observation.

Grandma passed on 23 years ago; Nan almost 40.  Their wisdom and love remain with me still.



About the writer:  Leonie Couper was raised in Martinborough in the Wairarapa District.  She and her husband Ian have two adult children and three grand-daughters all of whom have been coerced and cajoled into listening to, editing or proofreading a proliferation of written work, some of which occasionally gets published.

‘A Tale of Two Grandmothers’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


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