When she was thirteen, Joan Mary stopped going to school. Her father, an Australian lighthorse solider in WWI, had died of toxaemia when she was a child; Joan had to help her mother earn money to look after her brothers and sisters. She got a job sorting rotten potatoes and was paid in pennies.
At seventeen, Joan Mary married Hilary Winston, a local pineapple farmer. By the time she was 29, Joan had given birth to six children, lost three babies in miscarriages, ran the family home, and worked the pineapple farm with Hilary.
In idle moments between the challenges and hardships of a working class life with a big family, Joan scrambled to find time to read, learn, or daydream. Inevitably it never came. Something more urgent would need her attention and Joan would tuck her dreams of an education away with her desire to become a writer.
By the time I knew Joan her stories were the magic we, all twelve of her grandchildren, were transfixed by. We thought Granny grew stories in her garden with her flowers: down the back steps she’d go with her clippers and back she’d come with a handful of fresh cuts and a new tale. Granny mapped our own stories in etchings on the trunk of a palm tree in her front garden; twelve grandchildren growing taller, year-by-year. She showed us where we were headed and the heights we could reach.
“Tell me a story, Granny,” was all I’d ever have to say when I was with her, and away we’d go to a different country where my great-grandmother grew up by the sea until she met an Australian solider and boarded a ship of brides. Away we’d go to the centre of Australia (and Granny’s daydreams) where the earth was the colour of your heart, she told me. Granny never went back to school. She has never travelled outside of the state she grew up in.
There was only ever one time when Granny could not be called upon for a story. When she had a cup of tea and a freshly sharpened pencil poised over the crossword and her small leather dictionary at her side, you knew to tiptoe on by. Her talent with words was sacred and no one dared interrupt.
In 2009 I moved from Australia to England to pursue writing. I drove north to visit Granny before I left. I will never grow out of my need for her storytelling.
“Come and sit with me, Holly-darlin,” she said. My skin prickled in anticipation. I clung to her stories, about love, adversity, compassion, and the challenges my great-grandmother overcame, and those of her mother and her mother’s mother. I am still as mesmerised by Granny’s stories as if I am a child again hearing the ocean in a shell for the first time.
“You are doing everything with your life I wish I could have done with mine,” Granny said, as she has been saying since I was 22 when I first left home to travel. She placed a small, worn leather book in my hands. I recognised her dictionary immediately. It is one of my most treasured possessions.
The stories Granny raised me on set the trajectory of my future. For four years in my twenties I lived in the central desert of Australia where the land is the colour of my heart. In 2010 I was the first person in my family to travel to the seaside town in England where Granny’s parents met. I threw two poppies into the Celtic Sea that day and reflected on what I was doing in the UK, pursuing a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember: to write.
When I walk into my study in Manchester and I light a candle to burn Australian Eucalyptus oil at my desk while I work, the thought often occurs to me that it’s not the shoulders of giants I stand on. My giants surround me. The women who came before me were denied educational, economic and social equality, yet worked just as hard as any man. Their sacrifice was expected and unrecognised. These women are the giants I stand side by side with. They encircle me at my desk and stand at my shoulders while I’m working. In my blood Granny’s stories whisper as I write my way into living this life the best I can. This writing life Joan Mary could only ever dream of.