Travelling With My Dead Grandmother
I’ve never been very good at following traditions. I don’t have any annual family meetups, Saturdays are almost never for the boys and I can’t even dedicate myself solely to one coffee shop. So when I travel and I see all these people buying a pin in every country they go to, or religiously tracking the stamps in their passports or even just knowing the exact number of countries they’ve stepped foot in, I find it really hard to relate.
There is, however, one thing I do every time I visit a new country, but it has nothing to do with tokenising my travels and everything to do with my dead grandmother.
See, I’m not religious. I was raised a Catholic, but pretty much as soon as said grandmother died, the whole family stopped pretending like it was something that mattered to us. We don’t even do the religious holidays anymore, which I’m not that sad about, because Easter is no fun when you’re lactose intolerant and Christmas is just downright hell when you work in retail. But every time I travel, some part of me (the Holy Spirit perhaps?) drives me into a church for the one tradition I have yet to forgo.
My grandmother died when I was four, and even though I remember very little about her, she and I were apparently very close. She was a tough lady who loved her family, her cockatoo and her scotch with cheese and bikkies while Wheel of Fortune was on. She was a scripture teacher and a devout Catholic. As I’ve grown up, members of the family have told me various things about her, including that she would definitely not be down with me being gay (but she loved me then, so she would love me now, in my opinion), that I inherited my aptitude for cake decorating from her and that she would’ve loved to have travelled.
Now, the ‘70s and ‘80s were a different time: leisurely travel was nowhere near as common and even if it was, they did their best with the money they had. Gran would’ve been content with a trip to Queensland, but sadly travel just wasn’t an option for her as it is for us now, and I always remind myself how lucky I am to be able to travel and to see the world when so many still can’t.
So maybe it is this, or perhaps my ever-present guilt that I don’t remember her, or maybe just the tiny piece of Catholic left in me that drives me into a church in every new country I visit to light a candle for Gran. In my mind, every time I do so, she is there with me and it’s another country ticked off her bucket list, as it is mine.
When I started travelling with friends, I had not prepared for having to explain why I, an atheist, wanted to visit a church for five-to-10 minutes, preferably alone. “I light candles in churches all over the world so that I feel like my dead grandmother was in more than the little slice of suburbia she inhabited her entire life,” I offered. I sounded crazy, but they were supportive nonetheless, even when they weren’t quick and easy experiences.
In Germany, I paid something like $16AUD because I couldn’t read or speak German and was petrified of offending someone, but I wanted to light a candle. In Barcelona, I probably visited about 10 churches trying to find one that had real candles, eventually settling to paying two euro for an electronic candle to be lit until the end of the day. In the Vatican City, I waited in line for two-and-a-half hours, only to find out that you could not light candles in St Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican made me think a lot about Gran. I pondered how much visiting would have meant to her, especially seeing as the city has such a significance to Catholicism, and don’t get me wrong – the buildings are beautiful. But if Gran had truly been with me, she would’ve arrived somewhere that she held so close to her heart (even without ever being there), only to find people selling fake tickets to unsuspecting tourists, selfie sticks in every colour imaginable, a large number of pickpockets, litterers and people who had absolutely no respect for the significance of the land they were standing on.
I watched a young couple ask a nun to take a photo of them in front of the fountain and I suddenly felt sick with myself for even being there. I bought some rosary out of guilt and prayed for the first time in probably 10 years to I don’t even know who.
I went back the next day and found a smaller church within Vatican City that I could light a candle in and reminded myself that Gran would’ve still been grateful, something she was best at. She could’ve looked past the mess tourism has made of the Vatican and seen it for what she loved, for her faith.
Lighting a candle is something that helps me feel close to her. I was able to light one in Ireland, where her family came from that she was never able to visit. I was able to light a candle in Llanelwy, the small Welsh town that I felt a tremendous connection with. I lit a candle in Toronto, on a trip with the boy I would’ve loved to introduce to her.
I might not collect pins or count stamps, but my tradition when I get to a new country is something that means a hell of a lot to me.
Cover by Karl Fredrickson