What Nan’s Wisdom Taught My Mum

May 12, 2017

Ahhh Mother’s Day – a day for makers of hand creams everywhere to rejoice! Also a day to appreciate all those amazing women in our lives who have loved us, taught us, nurtured us and given us such wonderful role models to emulate.

Sometimes I look at my Mum and her friends (most of who have known me since I was born) and think “Thank God I wasn’t born in their generation!” You probably think I’m joking but I’m not. It was a tough gig for women my Mum’s age but what they lacked in modern conveniences, they more than made up for in resilience.

As Ruth Bernard is fond of saying “Well, we could have complained I suppose, but, who’d listen? We just got on with it.”

So when I cast my mind back to my grandmother on Mum’s side, Rachel Annie Elizabeth O’Keefe, I think I’d probably last a month tops if I had to swap places with my Nan. These were the women who ran the Land Army and kept the country going during World War II.

When I asked my Mum about what her mother had taught her, not surprisingly I got a list of things that entailed Nan’s day-to- life, a lot of which my mother clearly learned from her.

I remember going to Nan’s small but immaculately clean house when I was little. It was spotless and outside was a very large veggie garden with everything in it including the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had. She always had a tea towel on her shoulder and would often sit at night listening to the ABC radio whilst she was sewing, mending and darning. (SIDEBAR: I can’t even sew on a button and failed Elementary textiles at St Mary’s)

There was also one of those plastic fringed things on the backdoor to keep the flies out. And huge blue-tongued lizards under the house that looked like dinosaurs to my little eyes.

My Nan raised five children in that house with husband who was often away for work. The four girls shared rooms and were taught from early age to tidy up after themselves. They didn’t have a washing machine – just a laundry tub and a mangle. (SIDEBAR: Surviving a month! More like a week.

I won’t even hand wash a shirt, let alone hand wash clothes for seven people AND bed linen AND towels. Freakin’ nightmare!) Manners were very important to Nan, as was looking your best. She encouraged the kids to sit up straight, tidy up the kitchen as you go when you’re preparing meals and later (when her daughter’s were married with children), never try to feed or argue with a tired child – no one wins. I have often heard my mother say this.

Nan was a generous correspondent and wrote to her children regularly when they left home and they in turn replied. My mother inherited this trait and wrote to me at Uni and still writes the odd letter to me now in addition to regular emails.

Nan had very little time to herself but when she did her indulgence was reading the Women’s Weekly to keep up with the latest fashions and social events of the day.

In the days before Dr Google and GP’s being readily accessible, women like my Nan were reliant on home remedies and she had a large red book known in the house as ‘the bible’ which was often consulted for all manner of advice for injuries and ailments. My mother, who became a nurse, says many of those old remedies are still in use today such as a massage with oils and herbs for tired muscles and Epsom salts baths. Pain relief also came in the form of Bex powder and a lie down and if all else failed; a cup of tea was considered the thing that would improve almost any situation or problem.

My mother and her siblings were a very sporty bunch and getting anywhere required walking and later, riding a bike, so there was a lot of incidental exercise growing up so staying fit and active was just a part of day-to- day life, not something considered a chore or a hobby.

My Nan passed away when I was little but my memories of her remain; she was generous, often doing things for others and (not surprisingly) like my own mother, very resilient and someone who taught by example.

The footnote really needs to go to my mother from her last email referring to my nephew, her grandson “I saw Nick’s room in the photos and his wardrobe was so neat and tidy!” Nan always said a tidy room lifts your spirits.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Alexandria Bernard

With a successful 20+ year career in media and communications, Alex’s media portfolio includes contracts as a radio and television presenter (612 ABC, 4BC, Channel 9 and Network Ten) and as a feature writer for bmag and Brisbane Times.


Alex’s voice and face may be familiar to you from her voiceover and television commercial work. She has been featured in national radio and TV advertising campaigns, corporate videos and has been a regular MC for major events.