This is a photo of my Grandmother, Ellen (Nellie) Dubber (née Dempsey), on the occasion of her 95th birthday, 1st January 2011. Behind her, left to right, are my father Chick, his sister Ann and brother Fred. She was born in Glasgow where she lived until she moved with her family to Auckland in the early 1950s.

Last week, Nellie died, quietly and in her sleep. The funeral was yesterday in Auckland. I was there for her birthday (something I’m really pleased about), but I was 12,000 miles away at my home in Birmingham yesterday, so couldn’t be there for the funeral.

I was chatting on Skype with my two sisters back in New Zealand a couple of nights ago. We talked about the things we remembered about Nana – and without wanting to duplicate anything anybody else might say, we came up with a few anecdotes to share, and a bit of perspective on how we saw her.


The family in Glasgow, 1952 – just before moving to New Zealand. That’s my grandfather Charles in the middle.

Remembering Nellie
Lee, Kerryn and I agreed the stories together, I went away and wrote the speech, sent it back to my sisters for amendments, and then, on the day, Lee presented it.

This is what we said:

My sister Kerryn, my brother Andrew and I were talking last night about Nana, and the things we remember about her. We thought it’d be nice to say a few words and just share a little about what she means to us.

The first thing of course, is her uniqueness. Among the first of a line of Dubbers in New Zealand. And one of the great things about being a Dubber here in New Zealand is that if you ever happen to meet someone who has met another Dubber, you know you’re going to be related. Most often, that person had met Nana. They’d know Nana and Granddad from golf, or wherever.

And always, without exception, they had something nice to say. For us, as her grandchildren, that’s so lovely. You always like to hear nice things about your grandparents. And we always got to hear nice things about our grandparents.

But in a way, that did always strike me as odd…

I mean, Nana was an amazing woman with a lot of friends and with many beautiful qualities. Caring, kind, loving, family-orientated, strong, a wonderful role-model, determined, and ahead of her time are just some of those qualities.

“Tactful”, you’ll notice however, doesn’t quite make the list.

She would often just say what she thought, and there was never any uncertainty about what her opinion might be. We were talking about this last night, and we all had anecdotes in which Nana had said something that wasn’t quite the right thing to say, at that particular time, within earshot of that particular person.

But we agreed not to share any of those anecdotes today. You can probably think of your own. We decided instead to include “never afraid to speak her mind” as one of her many wonderful qualities.

One of the reasons that Nana was the particular Dubber that the people you’d meet knew, was the fact that she had such an active social life. In fact, I think she had more of an active social life than any of us.

I used to go into Newmarket to do a bit of shopping and pop around to see Nana on the way home. More often than not, she was out when I visited.

Andrew said much the same thing. He’d pop around and knock on the door and there’d be no answer.

When Kerryn was first moving overseas, we had a family gathering as a sort of going away party. Nana was the only one who couldn’t make it due to “prior commitments”.

Oh… wait. I think I see a pattern emerging here… You don’t think she was hiding, do you?

I’d often see her out and about too. I’d be sitting having lunch with friends somewhere, and Nana would stroll past. Well into her 80s, she would jump on a bus into Newmarket, do a bit of shopping, go and have a cup of coffee at Robert Harris. You’d be sitting there having a sandwich, then out the corner of your eye, you’d catch a glimpse of green – and sure enough, there she was.

But you don’t get to 95 by accident. Nana was always active and healthy. In fact, she and Granddad were doing the low-fat diet thing long before it was trendy. I remember back in the 70s (when I was very, VERY young of course) she would steam fish rather than fry it, and she’d always have bran muffins freshly baked. I was very young, mind you.

When I think of Nana and food though, I always think of her particular speciality, which was always served when we visited, and I assume, whenever she had guests. And as a healthy alternative to cake I think it’s quite ingenious – but I’ve never seen it anywhere else and I don’t think it ever caught on: Huntly and Palmer’s cream crackers with banana on it.

Growing up, we’d sometimes stay with Nana, which was always a treat. Particularly in winter. Nana was the only person we knew with flannelette sheets… which made climbing into bed all fluffy and warm.

And when Mum and Dad went away to Rarotonga when we were in our teens, Nana looked after us. I asked Andrew if he remembered anything particular about our grandmother staying with us:

“Where are my keys? Where are my glasses?”

Not her – us. It just about drove her insane. She could not get over how disorganised we were. How often we would misplace things. How long it took for us to do anything or leave the house.

If there was anything Nana was particularly good at, it was organising things. Every Boxing Day, Nana and Granddad would host the family Christmas event, which was, I think, her way of making sure the family got together every year. Had they picked Christmas day, she might have ended up with every other year at best. But every year without fail – the ladies were organised to bring a plate, the men were organised to do the dishes afterwards.

Family was, I think the most important thing to Nana. They were never a wealthy couple, but there was always a richness of family and friends surrounding her. She was a grandmother in her mid forties. And as Andrew pointed out last night, not many families get to sit four generations around the table on a reasonably regular basis.

We’re really grateful to have had Nana in our lives throughout our lives, and that our children got to know – and will remember – their great grandmother. That’s a rare gift.

Four generations. That’s amazing. Or as Nana would say: “Can you imagine what like it must be?”

A Scottish family in Auckland
I hear over 150 people attended the funeral, which is quite something for a woman in her 90s. She was incredibly well respected. I’m really grateful to Lee for representing us there, and I’m really proud of my father, who read one of his short stories, ‘Visiting Mother’ at the service.

She was the last of her generation, and if there’s one thing you can say about Nellie, her legacy’s pretty special. It’s a great family of really fantastic people right across the board, and I’m really lucky to be part of that.

It’s a close-knit bunch. There aren’t many of us who have moved away. In fact, these days – it’s pretty much just me and my family living out of Auckland. My sisters, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews are all pretty much within half an hour’s drive of each other.

In 1994, Dad interviewed his parents for a book he put together to be passed down through the family. I gave it to Jake to have a read this week, and he found my grandfather’s personal stories of World War II particuarly fascinating.

Here’s something Nellie said about moving to New Zealand:

“After the war, when we had moved back to Glasgow I was very unsettled. I just felt like I didn’t want to live the rest of my life there. […] After years of talking about it with my brother Charlie and his wife Annie, we finally started the wheels in motion. The red tape we had to get through to get here was unbelievable. I’m sure getting into heaven will be easier.”