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ParentsJuly 18, 2018

Travelling with the dead: One final journey with my grandmother


In a beautiful personal essay, Neesha Bremner writes of her grandmother’s past and her journey to the place she was happiest.

In my carry on luggage is a little grey plastic box. On that little grey plastic box is a name. That name is my grandmother’s.

The little grey box is filled with her ashes.

I am returning my Nan to where she was happiest in Bath, England via a trip to Paris.

Nan and I always talked about travelling Europe together. But life happened as it does and we never walked the streets we talked of.

My Nan was a rule breaker. She made unimaginably hard decisions to inhabit her own life on her terms.

This included leaving a child behind when the option of leaving with her child was not made available to her.

She was brave even though in that bravery she hurt people.

I can’t even imagine how it felt for that child, or even as an adult, knowing a parent had chosen their own life over one daily shared.

The sense of betrayal and hurt must have been immense.

It is so common for children to have a father walk away – they do all the time – and the world doesn’t even blink an eyelid. It is almost par for the course.

Women are the expected burden carriers, the caregivers, the doormats, the soft skin to bust a fist into, bust a load into – with or without permission. They’re the packhorse to pay less and systematically undervalue – in business, in holding the soft womb of family together, in childcare, in emotions, in love.

Not all the time, but mostly.

But for a woman to up and leave her child in 1950s New Zealand and to start again elsewhere?

I can’t imagine the inner strength it took knowing she would forever be painted as a terrible mother, a horrible woman. Knowing she would be hurting her only child and creating a distance between them that could never be bridged.

I have nothing but empathy for the child left behind. I have nothing but compassion for a woman brave enough to leave and forge her life anew in what must have been horrific circumstances.

I recall so many conversations we had over the years where she expressed her frustration at being unable to bridge the gap, or understand the adult her child had become, in part because of decisions she had made. 

The desperate broken love for her child was so palpable. 

It filled the room until at 5pm on the dot when she would declare it was time for gin, tonic and, when I was younger, a cigarette.

To carry it on further would have drowned the day in bitterness and sorrow. Sometimes I really felt her regret, her wonder at how things might have been different if she could have kept her child or if she had decided to stay. That decision was a heavy burden. I’m not sure these are things she should have shared with me, but she did. 

So here I am sitting on a plane bound for Paris. I’ve spent the $100 for my dead grandmother’s travel documentation so we can travel safely together. Her little grey box is hermetically sealed. And with the papers attached she will not be confiscated or confused for contraband as we travel through numerous airport security.

I’m not just carrying my Nan in the little grey box to the home of her heart. I am carrying the legacy of her life, of which I am a part. I’m carrying her joy, her love, her regret, the hurt and damage she created in her life and in her family. It is just me and my Nan as it was in life. The two of us together alone in a shared sadness.

Hold on tight Nan, the plane is taking off.

Neesha Bremner is a freelance producer, journalist & project specialist. For more information please visit

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