I hold the letters in my hands. The envelopes are addressed in the cursive script taught in the early 1900s. I treasure these letters written to me over so many years. They are from the first person I felt truly loved by.
Her name was Margaret Roberts but to me she was always Minnie. She was my mother’s mother yet I never called her grandma or nanna. She was my Minnie. Growing up I would spend as much time with her as I could and I know her love allowed me to be more than I would have.
I was one of those children that felt unloved and unlovable. Looking back now that I’m in my forties, I don’t know if there was some truth to my feeling unloved, but regardless, it was the most defining thing about my childhood, and it later played itself out in relationships and choices I made as an adult.
My mother was a single parent of four children to three different fathers all born within a four year period. When she was in her early twenties in the 1970s this was a shocking thing to be and even the government had no experience supporting single parents so they gave her the Widows Pension.
We grew up poor, dressed in clean second hand clothes, and often requiring food vouchers from local charities. We moved around a lot and it wasn’t until my mid-teens that I lived in a house for more than a year. My mother had the most amazing knack for turning a cheap rental house into a clean and pristine environment. White washed walls and clean floors with minimal furniture.
My mother was very intelligent and had longed for an education. She had to fight her own father to even finish high school. She was awarded a university scholarship but was made to go to nursing school instead. While I was growing up, she would work as a nurse when she could and I would care for my brothers. I loved my three brother’s dearly and would, and often did, fight for them. I felt like the mother hen caring for her chicks.
When I was about four, my mother was put in an awful situation and to keep us safe, she surrendered my brother to his father. I don’t know how she did this, but she knew in her heart that she was doing what was best for everyone involved. It was the biggest sacrifice she would ever have to make and in hindsight I now know she did the right thing.
I remember that week when things went really bad. I can still vividly recall hiding in the bushes by the side of the road with my brother and his father as the police cars drove by. When we later returned home, I never knew that would be the last time I would see my brother for a long time. He was like a hero to me. I adored him and I didn’t know that I would miss him for the rest of our childhood.
I’m not sure how long it was before I next saw my brother, it could have been a year or more. He had changed. He was like a strange creature to me. He had a different haircut. He was dressed in military clothing. He lived in the middle of nowhere in a tent, living a life I couldn’t understand. I knew him but didn’t recognise him at first.
About once a year after that, I would see him. I was always so happy to be with him again and so sad to see him go. He was living a life without the rest of us. I don’t know how he felt about it all but he was very pragmatic, like an adult in a child’s body. He took care of his father and acted like a parent. I can still remember him making porridge when he was about six. He grew up without a mother. I grew up without a father. It was a strange situation.
I don’t remember having my brother ever stay with us at our house. In my memory, we are always at Minnie’s. He would come in the school holidays and I always made sure I was there when he visited. When I was old enough, I would travel by myself on the train for three hours to get to Minnie’s house.
I continued to meet my brother at Minnie’s about once a year in the school holidays. Minnie had been in her mid-forties when she had my mother and her older brother. So she was an older grandmother in those days. She was born in England and migrated to Australia with her family when she was about seven. Whenever we went out, she would wear her hat and gloves. We would catch the bus into town where she would spoil us, taking us out for lunch and buying us clothes and toys.
When I was seventeen, Minnie’s health deteriorated. We’d just celebrated her 85th birthday the year before. Around this time, I wrote to her, telling her how much I loved her and had offered to move in with her so I could take care of her. She wouldn’t hear of it, of course. But I am so glad I made that heartfelt offer.
When my brother wasn’t visiting Minnie, I would sleep in her king sized bed. We talked about her death. I wanted to be with her when she died. I had been bought up a Buddhist and I wasn’t afraid of death, or of talking about it, but I wanted to be with her when it happened. I had planned it like this: one day I would wake up and find her lying beside me and she would have passed away peacefully in her sleep. We would say our last good byes by ourselves.
One day at school I got called to the principal’s office. Minnie had suffered a heart attack and my mother had gone to be with her. I was so angry that my mother had not taken me with her. I was the one who was closest to Minnie and yet I wasn’t there for her when she needed me. Before I could travel on a train to get to her, I found out she had died.
I can remember standing in my bedroom totally lost, sobbing my heart out. I was glad that Minnie hadn’t suffered, but I felt like I’d let her down because I hadn’t been with her. The person I loved most in the whole world and the one person who truly knew me and loved me was I was gone forever. Even as I write this with fresh tears falling on my cheeks, the emotions are so real twenty-four years later, and when I think about her, there is still a physical ache in my heart.
My brother was in the middle of his final high school exams and could not make the funeral. I wonder sometimes how he feels about this, but he’s not one to talk much about his emotions. He too would have felt her loss as she was a constant in his unorthodox life.
After the funeral, my mother gave me Minnie’s engagement ring. I still wear it today. It is my most treasured possession. She wore it for more than forty years and I have worn it for more than half my life. I look at it on my finger, a beautiful small diamond in an antique setting, and I am reminded of her love for me.
I know that being seen and loved by just one person can make all the difference.
Minnie was that one person for me and after she died I made a lot of bad choices in my late teens and early twenties trying to recreate that love in relationships with the opposite sex.
I was so desperate to be loved that it makes me sad now to think about myself at that age. I feel a deep sense of compassion for that younger me and I cannot blame myself for I know how much I longed to be truly loved.
Only recently have I come to a place in my life where I have accepted myself fully, the light and the shadow, and now know that I am worthy of love. I have suffered greatly through my bad choices and misguided search for love, but it is only loving myself that changed everything.
My brother is still my hero and he grew up to be an amazing man despite his strange upbringing. We have had many adventures together as adults and I hope he thinks of our time together with Minnie fondly.
Memories are strange creatures that exist only in our own minds. They are not really based on reality but one's perception. I have a version of my childhood that I suspect no one else in my family would share. And yet, this is the only version I have.
Have you had a person like my Minnie in your life? Someone who loved you and saw you for who you truly are?