by Kim Kelly
This is Lillian Bridget Kelly, nee O’Reilly, my grandmother – the other grandmother and inspirer of all things Blue Mile I promised I’d write a post about. We called her Nin. Or more correctly, Nin the Pin, as she was a tiny person and a mad keen stitcher.
She made most of my clothes when I was a little girl. I have the best memories of catching the bus into town with her to go to DJs and Farmers to choose fabrics and patterns. She’d always buy me a treat of either a chocolate umbrella from the sweets counter or a pink-iced cake from the cafeteria afterwards. And back home again, she’d stitch me midriff tops and gypsy skirts and harem pants and party dress after party dress.
When my mother was a smart young thing about Sydney in the 1950s, Nin created all her evening gowns. They didn’t have much money, so couture had to be run up on the Singer in their little Coogee flat, and dresses ever reinvented with the addition of trims – laces, fringing, clouds of tulle and rainspot net. And it was all haute indeed: my mum was always fabulously decked out.
Nin was never wealthy, never owned a home or a car, despite working very hard in one way or another all her life. Legend has it that in the 1940s, just about when this photo was taken and when her daughters were small, Nin fibbed to her employer saying she was unmarried so that she could keep her job as stenographer – so that she and Granddad could send their daughters to the best school. There’s no price on good style, is there?
Back in the 1930s, during the Depression and before she met Granddad, Nin was a flapper, a cigarette-smoking, whisky-quaffing imp. If you look carefully, you can still see the glint of it in her eyes. She’d tell me stories when I was small, too many of which I have forgotten, about daring deeds – most memorably that she was among the first to climb right over the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge when it was opened. I can’t look at the Bridge without thinking of tiny Nin up there. The breeze in her flame-red curls. The quiet fearlessness she had about her.
The youngest of thirteen and the luckiest for it in love, she also told me stories of growing up very poor, very Catholic and rather Irish in inner Sydney during the First War and into the 1920s, stories about inequity and prejudice that have in turn whispered down the years and through me. Snippets of tragedies and triumphs and excellent lines that have made their way into my Blue Mile. I wonder if she knows somewhere, somehow, that I couldn’t have written a word of this novel without her. I hope so.