Late last year I wrote a piece about Christmas that was published in various places around the world. I haven’t written much about my real life and I was surprised when I was asked to do so, but I loved the experience. It was a pleasure to conjure a long-ago evening back to life and to sit again for a while with my Nana Connelly. I think a lot about time (as you might have guessed from my books) and writing this article was a form of time travel for me. It was also a way of pausing and reflecting and being grateful for the many small instances that make up our lives and that often pass by unnoticed at the time. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Christmas on the Mountain
I have always loved Christmas. In our family, when I was growing up, it was the pinnacle of the year: the fragile wooden decorations were taken with care from their storage box each December, along with the dried-macaroni masterpieces my sisters and I had made in the past, and strung upon the tree – sometimes a live potted pine that would later be planted in our garden, at other times a particularly beautiful branch that had fallen from a nearby gum and been sprayed with gold or silver paint. I adored it all: the seasonal reverence for beloved and beautiful objects, the unusual and particular cooking smells coming from the kitchen, the fairy lights and candles and music.
At school, we sat in stifling hot-box classrooms, ceiling fans stirring the thick air as we sang songs about robin redbreasts and snow-covered fields, and a little baby in a manger in a faraway place with a magical name. At home, we crowded around the big oak table that had once belonged to my father’s grandmother, Nana Martinson, and pushed cloves into oranges, making pomanders to give to our teachers on break-up day.
Home was an old wooden house called ‘Yooroona’, which sat in the middle of a large garden, in a mountaintop village in the rainforest of south-east Queensland. The garden was overgrown when we moved in, with corpses of abandoned cars hidden in a jungle of towering grasses and giant-leafed creepers, and a big tin shed hunkering in the bottom corner. The previous owner had built a boat inside that shed and set sail across the Pacific after selling the house to us. Dad slashed the grass and Mum had the shed clad in chamfer boards and reborn as an antique shop.
Every year, when the Christmas holidays began, we would make the steep drive down the mountain, across ‘smelly-brake-bridge’ and along the Pacific Highway towards Brisbane. There, we would visit our grandparents – Nan and Pop Morton at Everton Hills, and Nana Connelly on the slopes of nearby Stafford – before venturing into The City to stare in wonder at the window displays of David Jones: elaborate mechanical scenes depicting Santa’s workshop, elves and reindeer amidst giant red balls and baubles. ‘But how did they know it was my birthday?’ my little December-born sister asked one year, as she gazed, wide-eyed, at the decorations.
For as long as I can remember, we had our special dinner at night time on Christmas Eve, because it was cooler then, and because the festive candles made more sense in the darkness than they did when the sun was blazing. Mum cooked, and we all helped to decorate, laying Nana Martinson’s table and lining it with flowers and foliage from the garden. Our extended family always made the snaking drive up the narrow mountain road, a tradition that continued as the years passed, until eventually my husband and I were amongst those travelling up the mountain from Brisbane, too.
The year that I am thinking of now, 2002, was particularly hot, and we had Christmas Eve dinner with the doors and windows wide open in the hopes that we might catch a breeze. A storm was expected and the air was dense and sultry. Ivy tendrils were tangled together down the spine of the table, oranges and candles interspersed amongst the glistening leaves, and gardenias floated creamily in shallow cut-glass bowls. The room was heady with the scent of night-blooming jasmine, a fragrance marked so indelibly in my Christmas memories that I experience a strange, disjointed nostalgia if I ever smell it mid-year in the northern hemisphere.
Perhaps it was the heat that night, or the flickering candlelight, or the Duke Ellington Christmas album on the stereo, but Nana Connelly, who was 86 at the time, said yes to a second glass of champagne. And, as conversation shifted, darting and eddying the way it does when large families get together at festive times, her gentle voice joined the flow. ‘Those are pretty shoes, Katy,’ she said to me. ‘I had some just like them when I was about your age. My father had forbidden me from buying high-heeled shoes, but I bought the highest pair in the shop anyway and wore them dancing.’
Nana Connelly was a small, pretty woman, who wore neat sensible dresses and had her hair set into curls that sat short but soft around her face. Her blue eyes were as light and clear as a child’s and her skin, which never saw the harsh Queensland sun, was pale. My sisters and I used to stay with her sometimes in the school holidays when we were younger, and it was she who introduced us to the delights of Sarsaparilla and Creaming Soda, and riding on the city council bus, and the collection of Girls’ Own annuals that had belonged to my mum and her sisters when they were our age. But in all that time she never spoke about herself. She limited conversation instead to questions about us: what were we doing, did we enjoy school, who were our friends?
That Christmas Eve, though, as the table fell silent around Nana’s interjection, rather than stop, she continued: ‘One night, during the war, before I was married, my girlfriend and I went out to the cinema, and on the walk back home to Spring Hill we came across a footpath party. The American soldiers had just arrived in Brisbane and they were dashing.’ Her eyes dappled with memories as she spoke: ‘Their uniforms were brighter than ours, their teeth were whiter, and the things they said! Those accents made everything sound more daring.’ As she continued to speak, her words conjured a vision in that Christmas-scented room, of young people from long-ago, enjoying an evening of merriment on a warm Brisbane night, while the world beyond them was at war.
Conversation moved on eventually, and Nana returned to her usual role of listener. Night frayed towards midnight, my husband played piano and we all talked at once, and laughed, and the candles burned low so that red wax pooled on the table and set around the little totems of cherry stones, the debris of a happy family dinner; but I glanced sometimes at Nana. Her demure smile was back in place, but behind it now I saw that young woman with new shoes on her feet and a dashing soldier on her arm, caught up in a swirl of music and chatter and heat, her unknown future – including all of us – stretching ahead of her.
Nana died five days later, back in Brisbane, sitting on the sofa beside one of her beloved grandchildren. She slipped away quietly; self-contained to the very end; and with her went her trove of thoughts and memories. I am grateful for that Christmas Eve and the urge that came upon her to share one of them with us. I am glad, too, that I went to sit beside her that night and whispered my own secret, a few weeks sooner than I’d planned. She’d taken my hand and squeezed it, and in her smile of pleasure I’d glimpsed satisfaction; acceptance, I think, that the threads of time were continuing to unfurl into a future that would outlast her own.
My baby was born the following July, and he spent his first Christmas on the floor of the house on Tamborine Mountain, surrounded by his family. On the sideboard above him was a recent photo of Nana, smiling at my wedding, a corsage of sweetpeas pinned to her jewel blue dress. Beside it, stood an older photo in black and white, Nana and the handsome husband she would lose too soon, taken in front of their house in Stafford when it was new. Propped nearby was an 80s snapshot of my sisters and me, and in front of it a recent photo of my baby son.
This year that baby is 15, with two younger brothers, and visions of a future that extends beyond our family home. I hope that he will always come back to us at Christmas; that he will relish his independence, but embrace the value of continuity and the importance of family. Christmas, by its nature, is an occasion of nostalgia and memory, of tradition and repetition, when the layers of time can be glimpsed more easily. And, while the decorations and the food and the music are wonderful, it is the coming together of loved ones, bringing with them the ghosts of Christmases past and the dreams of those yet to come, that really matters.
Kate Morton, London, 2018
* The illustration at the top of this article is by the very talented Tom Jellett and was drawn to accompany the article when it was published by The Australian newspaper on 22-23 December, 2018. What a privilege to have one of my memories brought to life in such a vivid way! This story was also published in The Telegraph, UK, on 21 December, 2018.