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Why You Need to Learn To Dance and 9 Other Things My Grandmother Taught Me

Growing up, many of my friends did not understand what it meant to be a grandchild. Their grandparents had either passed away or were in nursing homes and so they saw them rarely.

They never had their grandmother plat their hair or pack their school lunch or have their grandfather wait for them at the school gate at 3pm every afternoon or talk to the ballet teacher after class about rehearsals for the annual Christmas concert. My grandparents practically raised my siblings and I as our parents were both running their own businesses.

My grandmother turned 85 today.

Still with a spring in her step but her back crooked by arthritis, she never complains, is always smiling and has a story to tell.

These are the ten most valuable life lessons that I learned from her and that no self help book, shrink session or university degree ever could have:

1. Never let people try to make you believe something you know is not true: My grandmother had to raise three young children on her own when my grandfather escaped from their village in what is today the Republic of Macedonia. He fled across the border to a refugee camp in northern Greece in the early 1950s. There was turmoil everywhere, the Greek Civil War had started. My family was dispossessed of much of its land. My great-uncle was sent to prison for criticising the Socialists who had come into power and collectivised the family’s property and farm. My grandfather made a strategic decision to disappear, so if the authorities came looking for him, his family would say they did not know. My grandmother didn’t hear from him for several years, people speculated he may be dead. But she knew in her heart what she believed to be true: that he would eventually leave the refugee camp to make it to Australia. Once there, he worked his butt off, so that he was able to pay for the boat tickets to bring her, my mother, aunt and uncle over. It was a six week long journey. During this whole time my grandmother nursed her home-made sheep’s cheese in it own container of brine that she had packed along with one brown leather suitcase full of her worldly goods and kept her three small kids under her arm. She had sea sickness and has hated boats ever since.

2. Don’t lie, it is never worth it in the end: Coming from a small village with a large family where everyone knew everyone’s business, this one has stayed with her. She told us that it is better to just say what happened and don’t cover things up. Because you will get caught out one day.

3. Remember to say your prayers every night: My grandmother is religious but not fanatical. Way before Deepak Chopra made meditation and inner contemplation a million dollar business, my baba taught us to give thanks and be happy for our daily blessings. To this day,she always prays and crosses herself before she gets into any form of public or private transport.

4. “What,are we going to sit around and wait at home for our husbands? “: This is her personal brand of feminism. As a working wife and mother in Sydney, she toiled in a factory, day in and day out until the day she retired. Coming home to cook,clean & take care of her kids, she did not have an army of babysitters, assistants or cleaners to make her job any easier. But she always was proud about making her own money so she could support her children and provide for the home.

5. Speak up: Having experienced humiliation at not being able to converse in English in her new country, and having only been to school in Macedonia until she was 15, she taught herself to read and write as much as she was able. She still tells us, “If you can speak the language,get rid of the marbles in your mouth. Speak up when you see something is not right”.

6. “Don’t wear tampons,they’re for certain types of girls”: No joke, I used to get lectures about how using these sausage – like sanitary products were a sign that you were symbolically no longer a virgin,at a time in my adolescence when it could not have been further from the truth.

7. Gossiping makes you ugly: This pearl of wisdom comes from her knowing too many women who, having nothing to do except cook and clean, started to natter away about the misfortunes of others with an undisguised Schadenfreud.Then as if by magic she told us,their faces would crinkle up and they lost their beauty.

8. “Chocolate causes pimples”: This is her proven theory on the universal cause of acne. Trying to tell her that science has shown otherwise was not a good use of my time.

9. You don’t have to be the best cook, you just have to be able to feed your family: My baba worked at a textile factory and from her “Anglo” co-workers, learnt true-blue Australian recipes.The proverbial Sunday lamb roast with veggies and gravy. Rhubarb crumble. Food did not have to be glamourous because it was meant to nourish and bring people together. Yet, her favourite will always be what her mother taught her all those years ago and that she taught me: grafce tavce (slow cooked bean stew),maznik and zelnik (home baked savoury pastries) and home made pogaca (bread).This is not food for every day, as it is so time consuming and painstaking there’s not even a cook book available for it. It’s reserved for Easter, Christmas, our own version of Macedonian sabbath on Fridays and for birthdays.

10. Learn to dance so that people won’t laugh at you: My grandfather is not too partial to Macedonian dancing. It is just not his thing. My grandmother still likes to joke about it. So to right this family wrong, she taught her grandchildren basic folk dancing when we were practically still in nappies. This was primarily to ensure that we would be able to dance with pride at the front of the oro (ring dance) at family weddings. She would turn on the cassette tapes and walk us through the moves in the lounge room until we got it right. Then she would proudly show us off, her little dancing troupe when visitors called for coffee and cake.

My grandmother aged 12 or 13, fifth to the right in the top row with her family, c. 1938

Do you have funny/intelligent/crazy things that you learned from either or both of your grandparents?



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