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Thursday, March 29, 2012

My grandmother said

If I began this with the quote I want to, I'm scared I might lose you from the start. So I won't. I'll hide it somewhere, and you won't feel the need to read it if you don't want to. No pressure.

I'll sneak it up on you, that's what I'll do. That's my cunning plan, anyway.

My story starts with Granny and me. We were going to the cemetery to tend Grandfather Wright's grave. If "Grandfather" looks very formal, there's a good reason for it.(1) It took place when was I was well under four, but this particular episode is very vivid. As a trek to the graveside, it wasn't that far from our house(2), and we could walk it easily. The hardest part was getting through the barbed wire fences without getting scratched or hooking up our clothes.

The barbed wire fence was a place paper wasps used to love making a nest. Perhaps instinctively, they knew people and animals avoided barbed wire if possible. In any case, just as Granny lifted the wire for me to get through, and I got one leg across the bottom wire so that I had barbed wire as close to my precious-s-s-s jewels as it could be, I noticed a scary thing. There was a grey paper wasp nest attached to the fence about a metre along from my cute little nose, and Granny's lifting the wire had got them well stirred up. As far as they were concerned, the shaking of the wire meant that they were under attack.

Paper wasp nest. Mt Larcom in background.
Naturally, they went on the offensive, as paper wasps are wont to do. They're quick-tempered little sods. They didn't even bother to get into V formation; they dive-bombed sans merci – at least fifty-five three of them.

My angelic little face and sturdy arm sustained several bursts of fire. "Fire" is a good word for it when you're three and a half and the subject of what I felt was an unprovoked attack by wasps, because that's what a paper-wasp sting feels like. A hot needle,(3) the omnishambles made worse by my frantic attempt to leap away, with barbed wire all around. There were portions of my anatomy I could well have lost on that day, thanks to
(a) the normal practice for little boys in the Queensland tropics to travel commando while 
(b) straddling barbed wire while under acute wasp attack
and my life might have changed forever. Not to mention my daughters' lives, if indeed they had ever been born.

Let's not dwell on it but just say that the cold water from the cemetery tank did alleviate the burning stings eventually, and although I was pretty certain I was about to expire,(4) the attack was not lethal. The barbed wire scratches looked worse than what they were and I had lost nothing of permanent consequence, but I milked the experience for all it was worth.

My mother used to say that Granny, who I thought rather stern, regarded me as an angel who could do no wrong. This, as other stories corroborate, was totally unwarranted, and would sometimes drive Mum near-crazy, because Granny would refuse to let Mum discipline me when she considered that whatever had happened was Mum's fault and not mine. It was pretty near always Mum's fault.

I confess I always tended to Granny's point of view on such matters, but I had no shame. Granny was fairly tyrannical in our household.

She passed away when I was a bit over three and a half, on St Valentine's Day 1951. I missed her, especially when I needed support in a case of alleged mischief on my part.

The cemetery incident did leave me with a particular dislike of the place though, with its glass-domed fake flowers bleached white daily on the old graves by the tropical sun. But it did engender a huge respect for paper wasps.

My mother tells the story that for years after this incident, whenever I saw a hornet or wasp within twenty metres of me, I'd say:

"Mum?" **Eyes as big as saucers**


"Just... don't go near the cemetery, Mum."

Oh. This is where my story actually starts. Sorry....

You'll notice I have footnotes. This is an invitation to read something relevant to the particular sentence but a distraction from the main story. Thus I have reverted to form as an historian. If you click on one of the footnotes above, it will take you to a footnotes page. You may need to hit the BACK arrow on your browser to return to the main story.

Alternatively, we may never see each other again, which I would feel sad about....


How big each wasp looked to me. Don't laugh. You weren't there.

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)


  1. Another tale that paints images so clear to the reader we could possibly be the wasps even ( not that we would ever wish to harm you but so far the characters are you, gran, & the wasps). And once again Denis there is much to smile about - ok laugh out loud about! I quite like this episode idea actually. See you in Ep 2
    Warmly Debbie Green

    1. Thanks, Debbie. It's amazing what gets clawed back into memory by association. Everyone has these stories. I'm sure you could relate your own as well. Better start a blog.... :)

  2. Your words bring both tears and laughter sometimes and this is one of those times. During some of the years my family were in New Guinea I lived with my maternal Grandmother in North Williamstown, Melbourne. She and your Granny could have been twins. Memories and thanking the amorphous godly beings for not being a male child! :-))

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think my sisters, who shared all these memories, like reading about these incidents and tell me details that I'd forgotten or never knew.

      There are a few tales by people like Clive James who talk about Sydney in the 50s. Seems to me you have a contribution to make for Melbourne, and one about Brisbane whose name won't come to me.

      As an historian for almost my adult life, I wish people would get their story on the web because it becomes part of an important national archive.

      Much of it is lost. I suppose it's not really possible to record it all though. That would create its own problem.


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