Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Four Weddings and a Funeral

My grandmother was born the same year the Titanic ship sank - 1912. She was born in the only house she ever lived in. There she stayed through her childhood, marriage, widowhood. One icy night in early December 1998 she slipped walking across the yard of the house and lay there all night, frozen, until a neighbour saw her light on and rescued her. The night spent facing the elements gave her pneumonia, which eventually a week later, killed her. She'd already survived cancer that year, but it had returned with a vengeance. I like to think that her house and that fall somehow saved her from a much worse death. It had looked after her all her life... and kept her safe until her last breath.

She was eldest of 7 surviving children; 2 more had died: Nancy aged 4 had been killed by a car, the other a stillborn baby. When my Grandmother was 18 her own mother died, leaving her to mother 6 children - the youngest Edna was only 4. My Grandmother was so busy raising her siblings she never got around to marrying until she was in her early 30s - in that era she was practically seen as an old maid.

My Mother was her firstborn, then she had another daughter. By then her siblings had all left home, bar Edna - her closest sister, who came home, only to discover she had cancer. My Grandmother cared for her until she passed. By then, my Mother had divorced my father, so I lived there too. I have vague memories of bringing Edna icy drinks to help with the pain.

My Grandmother's hands were the oldest looking part of her: never having owned a washing machine she scrubbed everything by hand. We had no central heating; daily she built a roaring fire. At night, for supper she'd let me toast marshmallows and nothing on earth has ever tasted so gooey and sweet. Her talent for baking was extraordinary. One anorexic friend resisted all food, bar my Grandmother's famous shortbread. She came from a era of giving and supporting your neighbour, so she would mind a neighbour's child (refusing to accept any payment) until the single Mum returned home from work. She would help neighbours by paying the milkman, fishmonger and coal man if they were out. She would feed their pets when they went on holidays - open their curtains, water their plants. When new people moved onto our windy little lane she would appear with apple pies, biscuits and buns to welcome them. If a neighbour was ill she would make her healing chicken soup and carry it up the lane to them, a teatowel around the bowl to keep it warm.

Every day she would walk to the local shops - a journey that should take 5 minutes at most. But she chatted to everyone: the butcher, the newsagent, the pharmacist, the greengrocer, the neighbours etc and it took her the best part of two hours. She also visited an old lady who was immobile - brought her a daily paper and made her tea. She kept her company every day until she died. She never asked for anything, never cared for material possessions. She was all about giving to others, making time for people and treating a neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself. Looking back, she was a hero in every sense of the word. I wish I'd told her that; but she wouldn't have believed me.

A regular church goer, she would bake for Soldiers Sunday - the first sunday of every month. As I tried to sneak a jam tart, or pinch a warm german biscuit she would slap my hand away. Her Husband had died when my Mum was 21, my aunt 18. She broke the news to them as they lay in bed - refusing to cry. "Why would I be sad when I have two wonderful daughters," she said as her children wept.

She loved Tweed talc, refused perfumes and always had a great make-up line where her foundation finished at the edge of her neck. She had a set of pearls she kept for special occasions. She never wanted designer goods or fancy meals. She had simple tastes, and would have hated anyone 'wasting' their money on her.

I lived with her until I was 11, then my Mum moved in with her boyfriend. With my drama teacher I wept, worried my Grandmother would be lonely without us. I missed her beyond words. Her hairnets falling across her brow, her laugh, her soft worn hands, the smell of her baking, her brisk hugs, the way she cried 'yo' when we drove over bumps on the road on the way to relatives in the tiny seaside town of Donaghadee.

She died on Christmas Eve's eve 1998. It was the year she had fought cancer and won. She'd watched my Mother re-marry - one of four weddings I attended that year. We arrived at the hospital - a nurse had been calling us for an hour, but pre-mobiles, hadn't got through on the landline. The stone cold corridors were eerily silent, the lights dimmed. We arrived to be told that she had gone. I saw her - but it wasn't her - turned on my heel and fled.

Her funeral was on Boxing Day. The storms gathered and the rain fell. I stood shivering in the church, wondering if I would ever feel any warmth in bones again. She was 86. Last night as I drove home a song came on the radio that I had played over and over the Xmas of '98: GooGoo Dolls - Iris. It always makes me think of her. The tears fell down my face as I missed her so acutely - wishing with all my heart she had met my beautiful children, that I could reach out and hold her hand, that she would laugh me with one last time.

They don't make them like my Granny anymore. Her era has gone: where the old guard women of the street welcomed in the newly weds and skilled them in baking, in starching white linen, in needlework. There wasn't a stain on earth that she couldn't get rid of, or a baking recipe that defied her.

My Grandmother was a truly selfless person - she had more qualities in her little finger than I have ever possessed. I will never stop missing you Annie. You and your shortbread.



A said...

This was a beautiful and heartfelt read. What an amazing woman she was and what a wonderful and inspirational role model and granny you had.

Anonymous said...

This is my most favorite post. Ever. I'm treasuring my own memories of my Neenee right now.

Anonymous said...

You are so lucky to have had her as a constant presence through your childhood. My own grannies (both of them, in different ways) were just wonderful and had similar sorts of qualities to your granny... but one lived in England, while we lived in Cape Town and though she'd visit for long periods, obviously that wasn't the same. The other was a very old lady when I came along, still active and wonderful, but also lived quite a drive away, and didn't drive herself. My parents had me later in life so both of them, though long-lived, were gone way before I was an adult, and only now that I am an adult, do I fully grasp how lovely they were and how hard they both worked, and how little they asked for, and most importantly - in common with your granny - very, very rarely complained. No whining, no entitlement, just got on with things, usually with a smile.