I’ve known Ruth Sweetman my whole life. She was my grandmother. We never fought, never argued, never was there a raised voice – there aren’t many people in this world that you’ll meet who offer nothing but kindness. There aren’t many people in this world that haven’t raised their voice at me anyway. There aren’t many people in this world who can tell you, with honesty, that they are happy – all of the time, happy with whatever they’ve been given, with whatever they’ve made – happy with their life.
Ruth – or Grandma, as I always knew her – was H.A.P.P.Y. Happy.
She told us, just a few years ago, that if she ever felt down, thought – for a second – that she was a bit depressed she would sing a little song. “I think I am/I know I am – I’m H-A-P-P-Y. To her, it really was that simple. She had found a cure – or a preventative – they really should be teaching at school. Or more importantly, later in life.
I took it for granted, when I was younger.
Grandma was often grinning, sometimes the joke had flown straight over her head – well, at her height…But she was happy, grinning quite possibly because we were there. Visiting. Her family.
If you complimented anything in the room – it was yours. “Take it”. “You go for your life”, “I won’t keep you”. And the car would be loaded up, another knickknack or two. You might have even actually wanted one of them…
I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. She never had a grudge long enough to hold one.
You take that for granted when you’re younger. You move away from home, meet a few more people, get in some adventures, you realise it’s pretty rare to know someone who has only ever shown kindness – who was always happy. A 10-minute visit could mean the world to her, she’d always let you know it too.
We stayed with her quite often when we were younger, me and my brother. Arthur, our grandfather, was still alive then – which meant if the TV was on it was because he wanted to watch something. Pop supplied the conversation – again, usually when there was something he wanted to say. We drew faces on the clothes pegs, we hid in the cupboard where they kept the vacuum cleaner, we fought over which of the beds we’d sleep in – and I lost. Every single time. We’d get taken to Rush Munro for ice-cream where Arthur would buy a big malted milk or chocolate ice-cream for himself and one for my brother. And two baby-sized vanilla ice-creams – one for me and one for Grandma.
This woman never complained. (Whereas, it was an outrage the day I changed my order to chocolate, a potential crisis, until Arthur did some swift talking, reminding me that vanilla really was my favourite and that I seemed to have forgotten). I think Grandma knew not to rock the boat. Baby-sized vanilla wasn’t just fine anyway – it was a treat. Something special. A luxury.
We’d go back to their small house – hyped up on ice-cream – and play cricket in the hallway with the plastic fruit Grandma kept in a bowl by the phone. The banana was actually straight to begin with – but a few apples despatched into the master bedroom for four or straight over the bowler’s head and into the bathroom for six – and by the end of the day it had a nice curve as it was dropped back into the bowl.
But grandma never complained. Her grandsons were happy.
When I was at university and had a friend staying we drove Grandma home to her house after a visit. My friend had to go inside so Grandma could show off the house. It was her castle. She lived there for over 60 years. Raised a family, buried a husband – she’d walk kilometres into town, she had never learned to drive. She’d pay the bills – on the day they were due – with money put aside in a glass jar; a different jar for each bill, put the cash aside as it came in. A brilliant system – grass-roots economics at its finest.
More recently she moved out of that home – and into another. She probably didn’t want to – but it had to happen.
When I last saw Grandma she didn’t know who I was. I was tall – but hey, at her height, who wasn’t, right? I was big. Again, obvious. And I was nice. She knew that much. Also, that I was possibly related to her. I drove her to the hospital out of Wellington for a surgery. My father had flown down with her and by this point he was about the only person she recognised; I can only assume that’s because his is a face you never forget, you need only wait a moment or two and you’ll see a mischievous grin. Her own sons had probably taken the kink out of the banana in the first place, drawn on more than just the clothes pegs…
Grandma didn’t know who I was on that trip. But she was absolutely certain – by day two, definitely – that I was quite clearly related. A distant relative, possibly, or maybe I was one of my father’s cousins? It was getting convoluted. We shared more silence in that hospital room than we had ever done before. She wasn’t known for her quietness, and, most of the time, nor am I.
But she asked me, at one point, to hold her hand. I did. Of course. And she burst out laughing – almost from nowhere. I went with it, joined in the laughter. We laughed for a while – I’m not sure what at.
“That’s nice”, she said. “You’re a nice man, I hope you’ll be very happy whatever you end up doing”.
I knew that, in a sense, I had said my goodbye to Grandma that day. And that even as she had lost almost all sense of who I was, only the faintest trace of an idea that I was connected to her somehow – she was still finding the good in me, as she did with anyone. With everyone. If you were her friend you were a friend for life.
There is no real sadness for me saying my final goodbye to Grandma. I choose to see it as a celebration. At 92, she lived a long life. One of contentment. She practiced good Christian morals – the kind that probably don’t get the good press they still deserve in this day and age. And she not only thought she was – she knew she was: H.A.P.P.Y.