A tongue-in-cheek look at ‘nature or nurture’


I can’t, for the life of me, remember what suggested topic at Mount Sinai’s “Narrative Group” produced what follows.

With tongue in cheek, I’ve called it Nature or Nurture – Footnote One. Rest assured I bear no ill will to my dearly departed grandmother, a.k.a. Gammy, and I was not affected for life as a result of this episode.

Nature or Nurture? Footnote One

“Today I’m going to get you to paint the oil tank,” Gammy announced, scurrying around the kitchen with breakfast.

“What oil tank?” I asked as I imagined the ten-storey high water tower with PERTH stencilled on the side – the tallest structure in town.

“It’s in the wood shed”, Gammy replied, “it’s connected to the oil stove in the music room.”

The ‘music room’ was what would have been the summer kitchen when my grandmother’s century-old brick home was built. It now served as somewhat of a “den”, to use the modern-day term. There was a lumpy, old pull-out couch, which almost hid from view boxes variously labeled “Christmas”, “rummage sale”, and “misc.” Beside the couch sat a small electric radio, in faded yellow plastic casing, from which every day at 12:30 Gammy would hear the names of local people who had died. Next to a south-facing window there was a wooden Singer sewing machine table, with a big cast-iron pedal below that would rock back and forth if I leaned on it, moving wheels on each side. Across the doorway, tucked in the corner behind the inside door when it was open, sat a big black piano with yellowed ivory keys and a matching black bench. Between the piano and the narrow, curving staircase that led to Gammy’s bedroom, sat a brown metal stove – a heater really – with a fat pipe that went up to a chimney.

What I hadn’t realised was that its fuel supply was in a large oil tank in the wood-shed behind. Oh I knew there was a tank in there, alright. I had been in the wood-shed the day before, looking through boxes of old books from Gammy’s days as a school teacher. The shed had one light, a light-bulb which dangled from the ceiling, pulled on by a small metal chain with a piece of string knotted on the end. The only wood to be found was in the floor boards, which smelled of mildew and of years without paint, baked in the mid-summer heat under tarred shingles.

“But Gammy,” I said, putting my breakfast dishes on the counter next to the sink, “I don’t have any old clothes to wear for painting!”

“Oh don’t worry,” Gammy assured me, “I’ve got something for you to put on.”

With that she stepped from the kitchen into the music room, picked up an old dress that lay across the end of the couch, and said, “Here. Put this on over your clothes.”

The dress was dark brown, with flecks of black, white and blue. It was light, as she passed it to me, the weight of a silk scarf. It smelled like, well, like Gammy with a faint odour of moth-balls too.

I was mortified.

“Gammy, a dress?” I protested. “I’m not putting that on!”

“Oh, now don’t be silly,” she said. “Who’s going to see you way back here in the wood shed? You don’t want your clothes all covered in paint do you?”

This was the first time I ever wore a dress.

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