The Entrance, a grandmother's weakness and a secret tragedy

​THE mango: a short and sweet history, ending in tragedy.

I first ate mango when I was in my early 30s. Clearly a mango late bloomer.

There’s good reason for this, found in my childhood.

In the 1960s when I was a kid we would spend many Sundays driving to The Entrance where my mother’s mother lived.

Grandma was actually Mum’s aunt, who adopted her in one of those family scandals after a pregnancy, a birth and a great silence.

Grandma always seemed much older than she actually was. I can still hear the tone of her voice even though she’s been dead for nearly three decades. A bit scratchy. High pitched. A touch martyr-ish.

She had a house not far from the water at The Entrance where she lived on her own after my grandfather died. It’s fair to say Grandma was not very good with children which was a problem, given that by the late 1960s I was the eldest of seven children, with four still to come.

Grandma’s house was a pleasant-enough timber place with a covered veranda at the rear. It always seemed dark. But it was out in the veranda that she would hold court when we visited. The inside of her house was out of bounds.

I don’t remember her laughing. I don’t remember anything much of what she said, but I do remember how much work my Dad did on her house and how my Mum tried to please her.

Despite all of the above I used to enjoy visiting Grandma’s, and so did my sisters and brother, but only once we escaped.

We would sit for a few minutes in Grandma’s dark verandah area listening to boring adult talk. Then one sibling would poke another, or accidentally fall off their seat and flatten a sibling sitting on the floor, or deliberately lean sideways, or make clicking noises to drive a sibling or two crazy. The usual grab bag of stuff kids do when they’re bored and want to get adults’ attention.

We’d poke and punch and whinge enough that at some point a parent or Grandma would tell us to stop being so annoying and go outside and play. Then we’d run away from Grandma’s house, down to The Entrance waterfront, and spend quality time being street urchins with our parents’ blessing.

So my memories of Grandma are mixed, which is where mangoes come in.

Every so often, for a special treat, Mum would buy Grandma a mango. They might be available by the tray these days, and used as an ingredient in everything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent, but back in the white-bread, meat-and-three-veg 1960s, mangoes were on the exotic end of the fruit spectrum.

Grandma, being Grandma, liked her mangoes a certain way. Mum would give her one during a Sunday visit and it would be placed on a window ledge or somewhere prominent, to ripen. A week later it would still be there looking sadder and bruised. A week after that it would still be there, skin black and bleeding thickened juice. And of course it would have that sickly sweet/slightly rotten smell that mangoes get when they reach that point.

That’s when Grandma would eat them.

There was never much money to spare when I grew up. Dad was a bricklayer with a large family. I have no idea what mangoes cost back in the 1960s but I’m guessing it was too much for a family with 11 children. For that reason my whole experience of mangoes was of a slightly crabby grandmother prizing them at the point where the smell made you want to gag.

It put me off them for life, or at least my early 30s when I first tasted a slice of succulent mango in a wonderful dish at a restaurant. It was a revelation.

My whole experience of mangoes was of a slightly crabby grandmother prizing them at the point where the smell made you want to gag.

Where had mangoes been all my life?

I bought and ate one some time later and felt a weird tingling sensation in my mouth. I was almost a mango virgin so I didn’t think anything much of it at the time. Mangoes were wild and wonderful and made your mouth tingle, I thought. 

The next time I ate mangoes I had a few. By the time I reached the third, in a single sitting, the tingling in my mouth became a terrible itch on my face, my eyes puffed up and started to close and an arm that copped the brunt of the mango juice blew up to double its size.

At the hospital where I ended up I was given the terrible news – you’re almost certainly allergic to mangoes, and here’s the name of a specialist if you want to make sure.

Of all the foods in all the shops in all the world I had to be allergic to, it had to be the fruit that I’d just reconnected with after two decades of unfairly condemning them.

Why not chokos? I don’t like chokos. If I’m going to be allergic to something edible, why not Nutella, or radishes, or cucumber, or deep fried Mars bars, or tripe or lambs’ brains? I could live the rest of my life without eating many things and not give it a thought. But mangoes?

Those fleeting and sweetly passionate experiences were like meeting up with an old flame from my youth, finally consummating the relationship, and then being told he’s on his way to the Arctic to study krill for the rest of his life. Except I’m confronted this time each year by my sweet seducer – the trays of mangoes positioned prominently at the front of every fruit store and supermarket, which others can scoop up and buy, but which I can’t even touch without my skin crawling.

I was so keen to eat mangoes one season that I convinced myself the allergy was all in my head, based on associating mangoes with Grandma and a bit of amateur psychology about confronting childhood annoyances. I ate a few tiny bits of a mango and my face and hand puffed up. A doctor just shook his head when I explained my theory, as he treated the outcome with strong medications.

There’s a large and beautiful mango tree in my backyard, which is currently covered in the flower-like things that lead to fruit.

I just look at it and sigh.     

This story Grandma’s mangoes first appeared on Newcastle Herald.