80 Years of Magic / by Helen O'Connor

Memories, Madeira Cake and Mid-Afternoon Naps


Two weeks ago, I travelled to Hawke’s Bay for Gran’s 80th birthday party. And what a party it was. Never in all my years have I seen such a generous selection of cheeses, cakes and cardigans in one room.

Everyone was there – Gran’s nine children (my aunties and uncles) with their partners, their kids and their kids, two of Gran’s brothers, all of her book-club gals, two of her chums from dental nursing college, one of her bridesmaids, her writing buddies, most of her neighbours, and the lady from the ANZ in the village.

The celebrations pushed on long into the early-to-mid afternoon, and included a couple of speeches, a toast or two and a dramatic reading from yours truly.

The reading came about as, two months earlier, I was commissioned by Mum and her eight siblings to create a book to celebrate Gran turning 80. They wanted me to take Gran on the Journey of a Lifetime through her past.

For me, this project was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. I felt honoured to be trusted with such an important job, but terrified at the prospect of not doing it justice. With so many word-smiths in the family (we have many a lawyer, English teacher, journalist, editor and writer lurking in our depths), I felt lucky to have so much support on offer, but also a bit overwhelmed by the number of potential conflicting opinions hovering in the wings.

Of all the writers in our family, Gran is without doubt the most well-known and adored. She wrote the Grandpa’s Slippers series – children’s books that were at home on nearly every bookshelf in the country when we were growing up. Books that, by association, have brought me, my sisters and my cousins much un-deserved street-cred over the years. I felt immense pressure to create something spectacular. Something worthy of Gran’s life and talents. 

After many, many hours of deliberation, and moods that swung from delirious joy to sweaty frustration, I settled on the structure of a treasure hunt across the country. A whimsical walk through Gran’s world. Gran used to create treasure hunts for Mum and her siblings on their birthdays – always using clever rhymes and witty puns - so, to me it seemed fitting to take a leaf out of Gran’s book, for her book.

With the help of my mainly-patient mother (I am not always pleasant to be around in this initial stage), I chose ten significant places from Gran’s life and constructed a rhyming riddle clue to take her to each destination. At each new location, she met the next child in line, who took the time to tell her all the things they treasured about her, before handing her the next clue.

Structuring Gran’s journey chronologically was important. As was introducing each of her children in age-order. Sadly, Gran suffers from Alzheimer’s. She gets muddled easily and struggles to recall what she did the day before, or that morning, or five minutes earlier. She has begun to forget her past. Her story. Because of this the journey had to be easy to follow.

I didn’t want her to get lost.

Not all Books Bestowed books come with a personal dramatic reading but on this occasion, it seemed fitting. Gran’s reaction to the story was gorgeous.

Her face lit up as she was reminded of her past. She smiled, laughed and gasped at parts of her own history – milestones and moments that she may have otherwise forgotten. All her pals – her book club gals, her dental darlings, her neighbours and even the mildly baffled lady from the bank laughed and cried along with Gran, as she walked back through her life and listened to the beautiful things her children had to say.

Our stories make us who we are. Our memories, our achievements, our sadness and our success. Our embarrassments and faux pas, our humour, our talents, our joy. What’s so special about this project, is that now many of these Gran-isms won’t disappear with her memory – rather, they’ve been preserved in the form of a book. Something for all of us to look back on. Something to refer back to when we miss her. Something to show the next generation.

The day after the party, my Aunty Jude went over to Gran’s house. She found Gran sitting in her armchair, with the door wide open to let in the Hawke’s Bay breeze, reading the book. Gran was astounded – a story all about her. She told Jude that she’d found it on the table and had no idea where it had come from. Jude explained that it was new – that it was a gift for her 80th. She told Gran all about the party and how much fun everyone had had. Gran nodded and told Jude that the book was just about making her cry. Jude laughed, and said she understood – it had done the same to everyone.

While Gran’s memory loss is heartbreakingly sad, this scenario was somewhat uplifting. It’s comforting to think of her sitting in her favourite chair, breeze trickling through the half-shut curtains, book in hand, travelling back through her life. Reliving her past and taking comfort in her present. Over and over again.