I met Mrs. Milson one summer night when she joined us for a BBQ dinner at the property. A short, thin figure in her late eighties appeared in the kitchen, wearing a nice button-up shirt and trousers. No matter if it was just a quick walk to town for a cuppa or a special dinner, Mrs. Milson always made sure she was dressed for the occasion.
My hands were busy with the last of preparations.
She inspected the roast and veggies, made an effort to help, but was quickly waved away with a nip of her favourite scotch served in a crystal glass by one of her two daughters: “Come with me Granny, everyone is waiting for you outside.” “Oh, are they? Well, aren’t I lucky,” Granny answered as they walked slowly through the hall. “She is looking better today,” whispered the other daughter.
We would often pick her up from town for dinner, take her to a game of touch football or surprise her with a nice warm meal at her place. From what I gathered, she had often provided meals and hospitality for family and friends and strangers from all walks of life during her life in the bush and, in later years, in town.
Granny lived in a big white wooden house on Duck Street, one of Longreach’s many wide and dusty streets named after birds. A note for the twice-weekly Meals on Wheels delivery service was scribbled on a piece of paper and taped on the front door. A black cat with white socks on both hind legs jumped down from the roof and meowed.
Before I walked in, I stopped and looked at the garden.
Two tall grapefruit trees were growing next to each other carrying a nice load of green fruits. Granny was very fond of these trees. I could tell she cared for them very much by the way she was inspecting their progress carefully so many times when we arrived unannounced, gently touching and turning the fruits in her hand.
They would look beautiful in a photograph, I thought.
But I knew I needed to wait for them to ripen and turn yellow to stand out nicely against the green of the leaves.
I inspected the large verandah with a beautiful rocking chair and a little table next with a visitors’ book that kept track of all the people who visited and cared for her these days.
The inside of the house was fascinating to me. It was living and breathing with the Australian history. Every time I visited I felt like any book, magazine, painting or photo that hung on its walls could teach me a bit more about it, if I only asked Granny. And she seemed to enjoy my genuine interest, and told me stories of old friends, of tough life on remote cattle stations and Aboriginal camps down by the creek, while she was gazing distantly over my shoulder reliving the memories.
A library next to the dining table held a large collection of books about Australia – from bush tales, photos of Aboriginals and love stories from the red land of The Never Never.
One time I borrowed a whole stack of them in preparation for cyclone Debbie. Debbie was expected to bring heavy rains and floods to the area that would cut off our property from town for weeks. Yes. I was actually praying for the floods to come. For one thing, it would bring an end to the terrible drought. But it would also mean that I would be stuck in my little room, reading these books and doing my research on this magical land, waiting for the water on the dirt roads to slowly sink back into the ground.
Before handing them to me, Granny signed each and every one of the books, as if I was about to run away with them – they were so precious to her.
I remember that one time she caught me staring at a small framed black and white photograph on her wall.
I said it was beautiful.
She told me about the white man in the photo who was well respected in the Aboriginal camp. The man was looking at a scene of two half-naked Aborigines facing each other holding spears in their hands. “Although these Aborigines posed for this photo, this practice was no game, you know; it was a real fight. These two men would fight to death and only one of them would walk away alive, leaving the other speared. It’s one of my favourite things I have here in the house.” I agreed.
I said to myself that I needed to come back one day and spend more time with Granny, listening to her stories and recording them for my book.
I also wanted to take a photo of her in front of the grapefruit trees ever since I first saw them. But it wasn’t until the last week of my stay that they finally turned bright yellow. They certainly took their time.
Almost four months! I nearly missed it!
Granny didn’t like the idea of me taking a photo of her from the very beginning. Anytime I politely asked for her permission, she would say no. One time we went to the horse races together and I suggested it again, but she just shook her head and said she is too old to be photographed and that I should find some younger and prettier subjects.
That’s why I felt guilty that I coerced her into posing for the portrait. I knew how uncomfortable she would feel being the centre of the camera’s attention for those five minutes as she stood in front of her favourite trees. And I hated every extra second that was necessary to set the camera’s settings right.
I am a slow photographer, but I took no longer than a few minutes this time. The truth was I just wanted it to be over as well, thinking that this won’t work at all. I took five photos with my old camera and to Granny’s visible relief, let her be.
When I first saw the scan of her portrait I was stunned.
Was this the same photo that was so painful to take and everything but enjoyable to both the person before and behind the lens? Somehow it turned out to be one of the best portraits I took and that is undoubtedly because of the extraordinary person in it.
Earlier this week I learnt that Granny died, following her husband after nine months of living apart from the love of her life.