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For the best retrospectives on professional tennis tournaments, I would usually turn to my grandmother.
Summing up the Hopman Cup in Perth in January 2010, she told me to keep my eyes on a “fantastic” 15-year-old English “lass” named Laura Robson, and noted that she had had higher hopes for Andy Murray, despite his loss to Spain’s Tommy Robredo. “But I also think Tommy Robredo is lovely!” she added in her e-mail. (I concurred).
Six months later, with Wimbledon about to kick off, she cast the spotlight on Australia’s Samantha Stosur. “She was a finalist in the French Open and we think nerves got the better of her,” she said in another e-mail.
Fast forward just a couple of years and – had she lived a little longer – Nana would have seen her predictions begin to bear fruit. Sam Stosur got control of her nerves and won the US Open final in 2011, while at Wimbledon 2013 18-year-old Laura Robson got farther than any other British woman in 15 years and Andy Murray ploughed his way through to full victory.
Such tennis talk became a sort of shortcut for keeping in touch with Nana. It was a simple, uncomplicated topic on which we could be as detailed as we wanted – an alternative to describing the weather (“cold and dark” or “warm and sunny”), work (“going fine”) or my weekends (“lovely and relaxing”). Each year, the tennis grand slams gave me ample material with which to compose an overdue e-mail, writing it from a laptop, an internet café, a work PC or an iPhone, from New York, India, Brussels or, most recently, London. She would type back key-by-key from a little study in Pinjarra, Western Australia.
“Off to Wimbledon, we are so pleased for you!” she wrote in response to my e-mail sharing every detail of the plan – arriving at 7am, queuing for £20 grounds passes, touring the small courts, and settling on Henman Hill with strawberries and cream (I left out the Pimms). By then, her years of buying season passes to the Hopman Cup had come to an end, and she would watch from her overstuffed chocolate leather armchair, slippered feet propped on a matching footstool, puffer within reach.
It gave us a reliable transcontinental link over her last five years, sustaining the conversations in the years-long gaps between visits.
Nana was, after all, the one who first introduced me to tennis. It was in the Australian winter of 2006; I had just finished graduate school and returned to Pinjarra for the first time in six years. By the second of my six weeks there, I was pretty damn bored – speeding through 500-page novels, going on walks along the river and sitting around the kitchen table for breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, followed by dinner in front of the evening news and Spooks.
At first, when my grandparents switched the channel to Wimbledon, I would reach for a book. But slowly I began to peek over the pages to check out who Nana was chattering about. “That Spanish boy, he’s going to give Roger a good run,” she said of the 20-year-old Rafa Nadal as we watched Andre Agassi take the last bow of his career after losing to him in straight sets. By the time Federer and Nadal started warming up for the underdog’s first Wimbledon final, I was hooked.
Nana was the epitome of the sweet old woman in town. She bought birthday presents for the neighbours’ children and assigned names to the parrots that flittered around her garden. She referred to the chickens next door as the “Spice Girls”. By about August every year, she would send my family a classic English Christmas pudding in the mail – be it to Rome, Moscow, Washington, DC, or Brussels. Reluctantly, she stopped mixing old English coins into the batter after 9/11 – worried it would set off alarms in the US Postal Service X-ray machines and be mistaken for a bomb.
But, as my father (her son-in-law) put it in her eulogy, this portrait does her little justice. In the same way, basing my own relationship with Nana on a shared love for tennis is tantamount to watching a 3D movie without the glasses. It’s just that the character she put forward – with a cushy bear hug, a big throaty laugh and an ingenuous fascination with the Australian wildlife around her – provided cover for the experiences she almost entirely refused to talk about.
Her 84-year-life started in British colonial India, paused in England and settled in Pinjarra. She trained as a nurse, married, had children, buried her first husband, married again and had more children – the last of whom she also buried. As in most families, tensions and hostilities bubbled under relationships between different members. In this family, though, the boil was kept firmly in check and rarely – if ever in my lifetime – overflowed. No, Nana – perhaps grasping her English military upbringing – refused to acknowledge any anger, sadness or general unpleasantness.
That said, in the same way Wimbledon retrospectives gave us words to write, my own backpacking travels through India 63 years after she left inadvertently unlocked a library of remarkably well-preserved, rarely revisited memories. “I’ve never heard that,” mum responded when I recounted a story of Nana as a child getting thrown from a car during an accident on a windy Himalayan dirt road.
But, having never lived in the same town, region or even continent as my grandmother, these common threads were scarce. As a shy, introverted child, it always took me a few days to adjust to a short stay in Pinjarra every few years. I would walk off the airplane in Perth and, at the site of my beaming grandparents, two aunts and an uncle, consciously slow my steps and drop behind my mother, keeping the familiar firmly between me and the unfamiliar.
At best, Nana’s image of my life – my friends, my home, my city, my school, my job – was made up of anecdotes drawn in primary colours. After all, when talking to a woman who suppresses her stickiest, most complicated experiences, you respond with like for like. You condense the stories and focus on the innocent – the poor weather, the lovely weekend. Stories that solicit an “oh that’s too bad” or “oh that’s great” kind of response. You don’t mention the stressful house search, the credit card debt, the heartbreak, or even the promising first date.
You can, however, share hoots and hollers over tennis victories and defeats.