My mother grew up in a small town called Nuriootpa. It’s about 5000 people strong, and it’s one of the villages that cluster to make the Barossa Valley. We spent many holidays there as kids and many more as boozy adults, enjoying the wine and food that the area has to offer. I can think of nowhere else in Australia that I love more, for its familiarity, deliciousness and beauty.
We took the girl there to say happy birthday and farewell to my other grandmother. Late winter is one of my favourite times of year to be in the Barossa. The vines are bare, black and twisted, criss-crossing over the lush green hills. The almond trees are starting to bloom, their white flowers delicate yet stark against the grey winter skies. The cream pebbled roads have the same smell they’ve always had, an indescribable earthy scent that I’ve only ever smelled in the Barossa, sucked greedily through chilled nostrils. And, as always, the food and wine is indulgent, an unashamed feature of the area. We ate our fill of mettwurst, fritz (!), black pudding, horseshoes; all the German delights I’ve been eating since I was a child which astoundingly taste the same, year after year.
I have so many memories linked to this place from my earliest years. Many are hazy: more shadows, senses, than tangible recollections. Amongst those that stand out is of Papa, my great grandfather. He was a man who always wore a three piece suit, and looked well in it. He lived across the road from a bakery in Tanunda; I was visiting one afternoon. Granny, his wife, gave (in hindsight faux) strict instructions not to visit said bakery and definitely not to buy any jam filled doughnuts. Papa took me there directly, and we walked together around the block multiple times until I had finished eating the afore mentioned forbidden treat. It was my first feeling of being a co-conspirator. I like to think that Granny enjoyed the view from inside.
There are later and more concrete memories too, of course. Holidays with my sister, drinking butchers at the local. A fortnight spent with Hotel fixing up my grandparent’s house – hard labour during the day and delicious wine to soothe the pains at night. But more than anything, the Barossa is synonymous with my grandparents*.
My grandfather, Merv, was a joiner. Skilled with his hands, he turned wood for a hobby long after he retired. Our house is peppered with his craft – the nut cracker he gave me for my 21st birthday, a small lidded vessel that holds my wedding ring, countless small bowls with the inscription of the type of timber on the bottoms in his familiar hand. Each is turned lovingly, the grain of the wood showcased. He saw beauty in fallen trees he’d find on the side of the road – he collected these for years, filling two whole sheds with future projects. He passed away a few years ago. I loved him dearly and I wish he had a chance to meet my girl.
Elinor, his wife and my grandmother, could well be a contender for the sweetest woman that ever did live. She is the perfect embodiment of a grandmother – soft, grey, kind, endlessly interested, and always with a lolly within close reach. My mother says her dream was to be a school teacher. Instead, she was a wife and mother in an era when it was quite normal for this to be one’s career. We worried when my grandfather died – this was a woman who’d never managed the family budget, who’d been supported all her life. Of course we underestimated her completely. She volunteers in the library, catches up with old friends and remains as sweet as ever. She calls Adelaide ‘that dear little girl’ and my heart sings every time I hear her say it.
It’s not possible to do the Grandparent Farewell Tour without being acutely aware that it could be, will likely be, a final farewell. When I left to travel overseas in my youth, mortality (of both myself and my grandparents) was insignificant, not on my radar. (I was far more interested in the mortality of my liver.) The passage of time and the advent of my girl have completely changed my perspective. Logically I know that my grandparents will die, and likely soon, but conceptually I can’t make heads or tails of it.
The funny thing is, although he passed away several years ago now, I don’t feel that my grandfather is gone. Perhaps because although a constant part of my life, he was also distant – he lived far away and I only saw him irregularly. Perhaps because grandma is still here, and I can’t think of her without thinking of him. Perhaps because I’ve not encountered much in the way of death and haven’t really processed it. Perhaps I am a complete hippy and can’t think of death being the end, while memories remain so strong, particularly when I return to the town where he lived and raised his family. I don’t feel he’s missing, for want of a better word, and I can’t imagine feeling differently about my grandmother either.
However it turns out, I feel incredibly lucky. To have memories, connections and history with these people, this place. To have stories to tell my girl of the family who came before her. And maybe even to walk with her around the block while she shoves illicit baked goods down her gob.
* And, um, shiraz.