I grew up a country lad. Nothing was more exciting than school holiday time when I was put on a train and sent to stay with my Nanna in the city for a couple of weeks. I’d have my View Master, a new ‘Hardy Boys′ book and a box of Ripe Raspberries to keep me occupied during the three hour journey and the train hosties would have been given $20 by my Mum to keep an eye on me.
Once a rib-crushing hug had been received as Nanna collected me from East Perth train station, we’d catch a taxi back to her house for a big glass of dry ginger ale and without fail there was always a new meticulously wrapped Star Wars figure on the coffee table.
My Grandmother had the magical ability that all Grandparents have – in that she always knew which toys I already owned – so there were never any double ups, just the pure excitement of unwrapping a Stormtrooper or Greedo or Lando Calrissian and the joy of having a whole fortnight in the city ahead of me.
Nanna’s house was on a property close to the city centre and was directly opposite the Perth Catholic Cathedral. Next to her house was the Catholic priest’s living quarters, where she worked full time managing the housekeeping and kitchen. When I got to visit there, all the staff were excited to see me and would spoil me rotten.
My favourite priest was Father O’Donnell, an Irishman as his name would suggest. He’d pop in to say hello whenever he heard I was about. He would walk in and pretend to go to shake my hand, then stop dead in his tracks and exclaim he could see so much dirt behind my ears I was about to sprout potatoes.
He and Nanna would then grab my arms and legs and pretend to to be about to throw me in the huge stainless steel sink with the dishes, yelling to one of the kitchen staff to grab the special ‘grubby kid’ detergent. They did this every visit until I was too big for them to pick me up. Or perhaps I just got better at behind-the-ear-hygiene. I doubt this was the case though.
Father O’Donnell also measured my height every year by making a mark against the door frame between the kitchen and the main dining room. This was one of my favourite things, having my name and height written in such an important building in the city made me feel very proud.
While Nanna worked I spent most of the day glued to the TV. Being that we only had one channel in the country town I lived in, the sudden chance to watch Wacky Races, Captain Caveman and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters was so exciting. I’m pretty sure I came close to developing an actual case of the often-threatened ‘square eyes’, an affliction made up by parents to deter their offspring from spending too much time in front of the idiot box.
There would be Cartoons on every morning from 6am and I remember sneaking out of bed to sit in front of the TV in my pyjamas at 5.30 am, eyes glued to the test pattern, willing time to hurry up and present me with some Scooby-Doo or Pink Panther.
After a couple of hours I’d have a bowl of cornflakes that I was allowed to eat in the lounge room. Then the TV would be switched off and I’d have a break to play with my Star Wars toys, or even better dress up and create my own adventures as Han Solo or with some surprising support from my Grandmother, Princess Leia.
One day Nanna watched me change out of the gumboots, pants and white turtleneck with black waistcoat that formed the Han Solo outfit that Mum had made at home.
Being a creative young man I then proceeded to pull one of the white linen sheets off my bed and fashioned it into a somewhat clumsy replica of Princess Leia’s white dress from the original Star Wars and ran outside to tell a metal rubbish bin to take my message to Obi-Wan. Then flat out refuse to tell a large potted ficus tree where the Rebel base was.
A couple of days later she presented me with a home-sewn Leia costume complete with a black fabric belt with a little holder for my gun (a wooden spoon that we coloured black with a marker). We then used pantyhose to make her famous ‘star puffs’ hairdo by making a spiral pattern with the legs and holding them in place with tape.
Nanna for the win.
Frequently during my stays there would be a ‘special occasion’ lunch at the priest’s quarters in the elegant formal dining room when the Perth Archbishop or an overseas guest would visit.
It still makes me laugh to think with all those Church officials sitting there, that during the soup course a seven year old boy in a white dress with a pair of pantyhose on his head would run past the windows holding a wooden spoon, dragging a metal bin and screaming “Run, Chewie!!”.
Then Father O’Donnell would say “Oh that’s just Kath’s grandson. Lovely lad. More butter, your Grace?”.