On being funny-looking

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought I was funny-looking.

I’m not the only one. The second she clapped eyes on me, Tutti, thought I was pretty funny-looking too. And once she realised that any criticism of her new baby sent The Goat into paroxysms of rage, my chicken-legs and I had no chance at all.

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Tutti vs The Goat

Here is a picture of Tutti, 36 years ago, on the day she met her mother-in-law for the very first time.
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First impressions were good. The Goat was sweet and kind and polite and well-presented and very attractive.

Never in a million years would Tutti have imagined that only a few years later, post-marriage to The Guru, after the Goat had spilled one too many cups of tea on the couch (as she regularly waited to be waited on after Tutti’s 10-hour-days working in retail) and made one too many judgmental sharp intakes of breath every time Tutti swore (which was often, since The Guru taught her to say the f-word. “Say ‘F'”, he would encourage, laughing. “Say, ‘Uck'”) that she would be screaming every expletive she could think of in The Goat’s face, with her fairly limited expletive-vocabulary.

“Oh shit,” said Tutti, as she spilt some tea on the already tea-stained green foam couch.

 “Tsk,” tsked The Goat, judgmentally, passive-aggressively. “Disgusting language.”

Tutti had reached her limit.

“AAAAARGH!” Shrieked Tutti, doing her best impression of a Pterodactyl.  “In MY house, I will say what I want. Shit! Bum! Wee! Fuck!”

It was a slippery slope, for Tutti and The Goat.

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Grandma

When my great-grandmother (Grandma) was 101, she decided she’d lived long enough.

“Take out my diamond earrings,” she commanded her daughter, my grandmother (The Goat). “I’m ready to go.”

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Grandma and Grandpa. Extremely keen fishermen.

My grandmother did everything she could do to get her mother to change her mind. She begged. She pleaded. She called the doctor (who received a deft, defiant, great-grandma kick to the shin). But it was all in vain. Grandma had made up her mind. She took out her diamond earrings. She patted her dog, Benny, a vicious wire-haired terrier with a rabid temperament. She brushed her teeth. She put on her nightdress. She went to sleep.

In the morning, as promised, Grandma had gone. Shuffled off her mortal coil. Fallen off the porch and well and truly popped her clogs. Her diamond earrings lay on the bedside table.

Grandma was a warm, funny, tough old boot. As wide as she was tall, and as deaf as a brick. What she lacked in hearing, she made up for in sight, with bright, piercing eyes for which she never needed glasses.

She was a wonderful foil for The Goat’s steely resolve to be proper at all costs. “Pull my finger,” Grandma would say with a wicked glint. You had to pull, or she would remain frozen, index finger outstretched, expectant. The result was always predictable and uproarious. Her gigantic backside would thunderously explode; we would clutch our sides laughing; The Goat would shake her head, and tsk with dismay.

Grandma lived with humour and she died with humour. Now, funerals are rarely, if ever, comedic affairs, and Grandma’s started out as sombre as any. We stood around. Our eyes glistened. Grandma’s coffin appeared, carried by pallbearers, one on each corner. We held our breath, as her box was lowered into the ground.

It didn’t get very far. There was a wrong manoeuvre. A fumble. A terrible ker-plunk as Grandma was not so much lowered, as dropped, vertically, into the hole, the size of which had been disastrously underestimated by the spatially-challenged grave digger.

There was a collective gasp. The shocked ripple of a titter through the crowd. The realisation that Grandma was very nearly buried standing up. Then laughter. Which, at a funeral, is truly a gift. (If not a highly inappropriate gift).

It was hard not to imagine Grandma laughing with us, from her big fluffy cloud in the sky. Extending her finger, and imploring us to pull.

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The Day Tutti Went Bald

I will never forget the day Tutti called me at work to let me know she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Bald is beautiful

“It’s just a little one,” she said. “Nothing at all to worry about. In any case, if it’s the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ll be lucky.” (As it turned out, it wasn’t just a little one – it was a grade-3 cancer that required two lumpectomies and aggressive treatment – but Tutti’s attitude remained the same. Upbeat. Unwavering).

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Post-haircut celebration dance

And so began the year that Tutti decided to be even more vibrant, positive, colourful, courageous, crazy, outrageous, funny and fabulous than ever.

In other words, she fully intended to kick cancer’s boring (and expensive) butt. (Which i’m thrilled to say, she’s recently done).

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Baldy and Cloudy, living it up.

In the meantime? There was the little matter of her amazing white hair (“It’s not white,” The Goat once said, meanly, “It’s STEEL GREY.) and the day she realised, about six weeks into chemo, she was shedding like a husky in summer.

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You know, just your average, suburban conservative couple.

At first, it was a few strands on the pillow. Occasionally, the Guru would jokingly ruffle her hair and a puff of silver would swirl up and away, providing beautiful, soft furnishings for a Magpie’s nest.

After a while, her dead straight, gravity-defying, ghost-hued ‘do had truly begun its departure, and it was time for Tutti to see it off for good. (She was having to vaccuum every day. It was like living with a Labrador.)

Q. What’s cooler than a 62-year-old woman with a mohawk?

A. A 62-year-old woman who’s bald. And TOTALLY OWNS IT.

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Yep, they’re perfect together, despite being spiritually mismatched.

I’m very proud to say that I was in charge of the clippers. Once I’d completely shaved Tutti’s head, I applied her makeup (and also put a bit of foundation on her scalp, which having been hidden for decades by her thick head of hair, was a pale shade of baby mouse pink), then helped her pick out an outfit to wear for her first day as a baldy. Finally, the transformation was complete.

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Very pleased with my clipper skills. Tutti and me.

It was amazing how many compliments Tutti received for having such a beautifully shaped, symmetrical head. She loved being so aerodynamic.

And, in a rather nice twist, Matty was no longer the lone family chrome dome.

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Tutti and Matty (and The Guru). Two bald peas in a pod.

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And then, of course, she danced in the street. As you do. If you’re a lunatic.

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Funny looks from neighbours? Too cool to care.

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Dance like no one’s watching. Except everyone’s watching. You’re a bald 62-year old woman, dancing in the street.

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Yep, it’s a lesson in loving life.

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The Goat

The story goes that the day I was born, my paternal grandmother called the labour ward to ask how my dad was feeling.

You see, The Guru, unable to manage his weak constitution, fainted onto the floor into a limp, sodden heap, just as I was emerging into the world.

My mother, the one who had so heroically endured the 14 hour labour, was left to fend for herself as nurses tended to the Guru and his pallid unconsciousness.

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The Guru and The Goat

When I was old enough to talk, The Goat insisted I call her Nanny, since ‘Grandma’ made her feel old. As Tutti became less and less enamoured of The Goat over time, largely in part to being constantly judged by her fierce beady eyes, antagonistic asides and passive aggressive tsks and sighs, ‘Nanny’ became ‘Nanny Goat’. Before long, we were referring to her rather less endearingly, as simply, ‘The Goat’. We still do, though never to her face. The Goat recently celebrated her 95th birthday.

I can thank The Goat for a few things:

1. She inspired in me my love of nature. I am fascinated by it. I love animals, and plants and unusual insects. (Not cockroaches though. They can all go to hell.)

2. She inspired in me my hysterical fear of nature. Bats that swoop and bite with venomous consequences. Rats that nibble your foot off in your sleep. Magpies that peck your eyeballs out. Sharks that try to rip you to shreds the second you dip your toe in the water. Kangaroos that punch you in the face and kick off your head. Trees that kill. At least, that is what I was led to believe, thanks to a book she gave me for my tenth birthday; a book called Australia’s Dangerous Creatures, featuring every Australian Creature you can imagine (ALL of them Dangerous) and the various, violent and gruesome ways they had dismembered, disembowled, beheaded, and devoured innocent people. I’m not sure the nightmares have ever stopped.

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She looks like such a sweet old lady! Little do those pigeons know!

3. She inspired my love of playing piano, and told me wonderful stories about my grandfather, her husband (who tragically died a few months before my parents married) who was a brilliant, self-taught Jazz Pianist. I always try to channel him when I’m indulging my musical side. The Goat once said to me, with a disappointed sigh, “It’s such a shame none of my grandchildren inherited any musical talent.”

5. She taught me the facts of life. Some background: Every year until I was about 16, Tutti, The Guru, Fluffy and I would get up at 3am and drive from Sydney to Brisbane over about 16 hours (listening to an audiotape of J. R. R Tolkein’s The Hobbit all the way). The Goat lived in Brisbane, with my Great Grandmother, in a sprawling, ramshackle tinned-roof house, where we were lulled to sleep at night by the soothing lullaby of a possum being brutally murdered by the carpet snake that lived in the roof.

One particularly hot Queensland day, we all went down to the public pool for a refreshing swim. I was about 11 years old, so I didn’t pay any attention to the man at the pool wearing ‘budgie smugglers’. Except, by The Goat’s reaction, he wasn’t carrying a budgie, it was more like he was packing a Sulfur-crested Cockatoo. The Goat turned to me and, in all seriousness, said, “Just remember darling… Big ones hurt.” I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but ‘big ones hurt’ has since become a Bennett family catchphrase. It can be applied to absolutely anything.

She is an unusual woman, The Goat.

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The laughing Goat. Photography by The Guru

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