Olga Gardiner

It is Granny’s birthday today. She would have been ninety-eight.

Born in Nulkaba in the aftermath of World War One, Olga grew up on a farm in Pokolbin, the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The middle child of three girls, she enjoyed learning and growing on the land. When she was eight her life took a tragic turn however, when her mother passed away from influenza.

The Great Depression followed, and although they were lucky enough to live on a farm where food was abundant, money for shoes and clothes and school was scarce.

So after graduating primary school she began university, the university of life. She began work as her father’s farm hand, collecting eggs from over one thousand hens. But Olga had big dreams, and she always knew that she wouldn’t be stuck as a farm girl forever.

The first chance she got she moved to the big smoke of Newcastle, where she became a live-in housekeeper for the Gardiner family. Looking after one thousand hens to managing a household was quite a different lifestyle. But Olga was never one to shy away from opportunity and soon made her mark in that home.

When World War Two was declared, her circumstances changed again. The Gardiner children went away to board with cousins, and Olga was offered a job at The Great Northern Hotel. She had fond memories of working there, being a drink waitress in the dining room and lounge. At that time there was a mix of customers from government, judges, military, air force, naval personnel, church leaders and even theatre groups. Soldiers from America, England and the Netherlands were coming and going, even a Hollywood star would pop in on occasion, most notable was Ronald Coleman.

One Sunday evening after work, she opened her window that looked out over the harbour, and laying in bed she saw a huge star shell light up the sky bright as day. The Japanese were attacking Newcastle. The war was no longer “over there”.

Growing up between two wars and a depression did not stop Olga from pursuing her dreams. She went on to become a nurse and a published writer, a wonderful mother and an incredible grandmother.

My most joyous of memories with Granny, were on Saturdays when we used to go to a pottery class together. Granny would drive out to this massive warehouse on the outskirts of Newcastle where we would go inside to spin clay on wheels and both nuture our creative souls. Afterwards, on our way home, we would stop at the local bakery to buy a pie for lunch. We would sit at her dining table, our plates resting on her handmade quilted cloth, talk about our worldly plans and allow our imaginations to run wild. The pie was always tastier after a morning of creativity.

When I moved to Melbourne, Granny and I began writing to each other, me with paper and pen, her writing back using her trusty typewriter. Receiving her letters in the mail, collecting that small little envelope with colourful stamp and perfectly typed address on the front, it brought me so much joy. In my first year in Melbourne I felt so alone, missing my family and my close friends. Reading Granny’s letters it felt like a little piece of her was with me.

Happy Birthday Granny. You told me how proud you were of me every chance you could. I hope I told you just as much that you have been my greatest inspiration.

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