Culture Life People

Time with Agnes

Written by Paul Bateman

In memory of Agnes Bateman (1914 – 2012)

My paternal grandmother passed away on 17 November 2012. Agnes was 98. This piece was published four years before she died. Rest in peace, old mate.     

Ivisit my grandmother twice a month. Agnes lives in an aged care facility in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, near a public swimming pool. So I visit her and then I swim.

Her accommodation is better than people fear when they imagine their dying days in a home for the elderly. Her place might be a little dull but it is, by any standards, modern, bright and clean.

Agnes is pretty much confined to her room. She visits the dining hall three times a day and shuffles around the perimeter of the property for exercise and a change of scenery – but these activities leave her tired.

Agnes stays in her room because her body is stooped and her bones are dry and brittle. I call her “my old, old tree” and she giggles with approval.

Giggles, not laughs. Giggling is what children do. And Agnes, 94, is growing back to childhood – a process as strange and contradictory as it is real and constant.

I have recently returned from America. I travelled across the country from sea to shining sea. Agnes has only one question: “America, is it big?”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s very big.”

The answer delights her, and occupies her tiny frame as swiftly and as surely as ingesting lemonade. She bubbles with excitement and giggles like a three-year-old.

This is not to say that her mind has gone or that her powers of concentration are diminished beyond reason. Sometimes, she surprises me with the depth and subtlety of her insights and inquiries.

But equally, it is clear that her grasp of time and facts is deserting her. Our conversations are increasingly erratic and almost always repetitive. She will call me by my father’s name and ask, a dozen times over, if I have money for a taxi.

I try to keep things simple and to find, in each of my visits, a single moment of true connection.

We play a word game based around a gum tree that stands outside her bedroom window: who can best describe the eucalypt in a single adjective?

I say “solitary”. She says “dignified”. Agnes wins.

I say “stoic”. She says “steadfast”. Agnes wins again.

One day, after heavy rain, the sun poured through a fold of clouds and splashed its rays like thick, bright paint on the branches of the tree. Agnes called that “luminous”.

Her world grows ever smaller yet increasingly authentic. I cannot say if what she sees outside her bedroom window is simply a reflection of her own internal world or whether, in fact, confined to her room, the world outside her window has imprinted itself upon her soul.

I think Agnes is the eucalypt and the eucalypt is Agnes.

There was a time, some years ago, when I would leave my grandmother’s room with feelings approximating guilt: that I am young and blessed with strength, vitality and health.

Or I would take upon myself, in misplaced empathy, the pain and incapacity I imagined to be hers. But not anymore: my old, old tree is quite content, settled by her window.

I visit the pool and swim my laps. And then I swim a dozen more.

First published in Platform magazine, Victoria University, October 2008    

About the author

Paul Bateman

I'm a writer from Melbourne, Australia. I write about life as I find it. In doing so, I hope to offer something real. I write, too, about wine at


  • “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” – Franz Kafka

    A lovely tribute to a loving grandmother, Paul. You & your siblings could do no wrong in Nannie’s eyes …just how it should be! I like to think I’ve taken a leaf out of her book.

  • I am so glad to read of Agnes, how vividly you bring us to her in a few deft words. You will be winning the word games hands down when you are in a ripe old age. Meanwhile, thank you for winning my heart for your work yet again. You trace the trajectory of “growing back to childhood – a process as strange and contradictory as it is real and constant.” So true.

Leave a Comment