Have you been ruminating on your one word for 2024 yet? Perhaps you’ve already decided on it? If so, I’d love to know what it is and why you chose it.
My one word is quite unusual. It’s both a name and a noun.
Elsie was my paternal Grandma.
Her tragic story has remained hazy and hidden in our family until now.
My strongest memories of Grandma hark back to the 1970s. Each year she’d take The Bluebird passenger train from Adelaide to Mount Gambier for a holiday with our family.
Mum or Dad would pick her up from the train station in the Holden, taking a detour on the way home via the local deli so she could buy lollies for us all.
Grandma was a tall, stout woman, stylish in dress, hair neatly combed and sprayed, always made up with powder and lippie.
There are only a few things I recall about her visits—the lollies, the ever-present smell of mothballs and the $2 notes she’d give us to buy ourselves a treat.
At night, in the family room, as we watched TV, she’d sit in her flannelette nightie by the wood stove. With one leg crossed over the other, she’d begin the anxious bounce of her ankle. Up. Down. Around. Over and over.
She’d light up one cigarette after another. ‘Wipe your lips,’ Grandma would whisper before allowing us a sneaky puff when Mum and Dad were out of the room. Then she’d shoo us away to return to the fire, losing herself in the flames.
Decades later, I now see that while Elsie was physically present, she was never quite mentally present. There was an air of vacancy about her. Sort of there, but not there.
While I loved her, I never felt a connection with her. There was never a special adventure together. Never an intimate conversation—about school, boys or the meaning of life. All things my son Billy shares with his grandmother.
What I did not know then was that my Grandma had spent 12 years from 1949 in confinement at what was then called the Parkside Lunatic Asylum. She’d had no contact with her husband, four children, siblings, or parents all those years.
Elsie must have endured a lonely existence undergoing repetitive electric shock therapy accompanied by heavy medication.
We’ve always known Elsie was institutionalised, but we’ve never known the facts — about much of her life, her time in hospital and what might have led to her demise.
My Grandmother endured two World Wars, The Great Depression, drought, bankruptcy, loss of agency over her own life and alienation from her family. Uncovering her story within the context of the patriarchal, societal and political conditions of the time has become a bit of an obsession with me.
Elsie’s story is not unique. Many women I speak with have a woman just like Elsie in their family. A woman whose story has remained hazy, hidden, or even obliterated from their ancestral storybook. What about you?
My one word, ‘Elsie’ will fuel my goal in 2024 to write a novel based on her life.
Perhaps your one word relates to a writing project, too? It doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. It might just be to dig up the stories of the women in your family who never had a voice and start sharing them. Or maybe it’s even your own story?
This holiday season, I’m sending love to every woman with a story to tell. Because your story matters. If not you, who? If not now, when?
Happy holidays and see you in 2024!
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As an experienced author, writer and educator, the Brave Women Writers’ Circle will be led and facilitated by Carolyn Tate. With only 12 places available, the 12-week program is designed to guide you in bringing your writing project to life while connecting you to a courageous community of other women writers.