I only ever knew one set of grandparents, my maternal grandparents. Sadly, my dad’s parents died when he was quite young. I think he was only ten or twelve years old when after packing his lunch and seeing him out the door and on his way to school his mother had a fatal stroke, that was the last time he ever saw her. Talk about a traumatic childhood event.
I never knew these details until just a couple of years ago when staying with my dad, late at night and after a whisky or two he shared some photographs of his parents and of himself as a young boy that he wanted me to have.
After all the years of knowing him it seemed strange that he waited this long to ever talk about his parents in any detail. So awful to think of him with such a sad and traumatic experience. He was brought up for a while by a couple of wonderful caring aunts and when his dad remarried by his stepmother who he referred to as “an evil woman, a witch.” At almost eighty years old he obviously still felt very strongly about her as before passing me the photo of his dad and stepmother he tore the photograph in half and threw one half into the fireplace, the witch at last got her just deserts.
Random memories of my maternal grandmother.
Known as Granny, sitting around the table with a last cup of tea before she left in her little white car. She had about an hour’s drive to get back home. Mostly she visited on her own leaving Grandpa at home, she said "he’s only be grumpy to be around and would make us all miserable". He was fifteen years older than her which was quite an age gap.
We used the best china for tea and cake with Granny, we were always expected to be on our best behavior. Granny was always kind to me; I remember being so excited to see her. She smelled of lavender lotion and face powder. Granny always looked immaculate, her hair just so. In the cold weather she wore a big sheepskin coat which she hung up by our back door on our overcrowded coat hooks. I remember her coat always had to be hung up on the highest possible hook as our beautiful and usually well-behaved collie dog named William (he was a rescue and came to us with that name) would try to pull it down and mate with it! Yes really, you did read that correctly. It happened without fail, William would often get so carried away that when Granny was getting ready to leave, he would try to leap on her back. It’s funny the things you remember from childhood.
At the time I was too young to realize what was really going on, over time it became a family joke, that Granny’s coat was really William’s girlfriend. I am sure the grown-ups laughed longer and louder when us children weren’t around.
I loved sitting next to Granny, she was so kind and always made me feel special. I am sad we didn’t stay close in distance or relationship as I grew older and moved away from home. I was a busy teenager and Granny was older and didn’t visit very often. There had always been an underlying tension between my mother and grandmother, over the years this became more obvious with neither of them doing much to hide their dislike of each other. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I discovered the reasons behind all of that negative emotion.
Whenever she was about to leave our home, before putting on her coat she would take out her makeup bag and powder compact, always adding the finishing touch by carefully applying a brightly colored lipstick, dapping at her lips with a tissue so as not to smear the edges. She always said she needed to “put on her face before going out into the world”. From a young age I was fascinated and longed for the day I was grown up enough to have my own make up bag and compact.
Occasionally she would hand me the tiny mirror and apply a touch of face powder and lipstick to my awestruck face. “There” she said, “you are beautiful”. Just writing this has made me realize that I often use similar words, when getting ready to go out I’ll call down to my husband “Nearly ready, just putting on my face”. I must have said those words unconsciously for decades without fully realizing where they came from. Her words live on.
As I watched her once at around five years old, I innocently asked, “your clown’s face?” I guess clowns were the creatures I knew that wore a lot of make-up. She would smile and laugh.
Years later when I was in my late teens, I replied the same way as she was getting ready to leave to head back home. She looked at me kindly, almost wistfully and said “you remember that? How funny” before wrapping me up in one of her wonderful bear hugs in that same everlasting sheepskin coat. I’m sure that coat must still be in existence somewhere, keeping someone warm and tormenting some poor collie dog. They made coats to last in those days.
It was granny along with my dad that passed on to me my love of gardening, she always had some unusual vegetable growing in her garden. She was experimenting with kohlrabi and other now “in” veggies years before they became a current health trend. I would help harvest the food, while she cooked, I would try to win over her beautiful pure-bred Siamese cat called Ming, she had the most volatile temperament and it was dangerous to get too close to her sharp claws. I was drawn in by those enchanting blue eyes.
We rarely visited Granny’s house but when we did her garden was a child’s paradise. It seemed huge to me then with a large fishpond and stone fountain shaped like a seal, spouting water from it's upturned nose. The adults sat around the edge of the pond talking while I explored. My favorite place to play was under an enormous weeping willow tree, so pretty in the spring with its tiny yellow flowers. I would take my dolls and play camping and other games under the shade and shelter of the tree, in my own little magical world. As my brothers grew older, we would all enjoy hiding beneath the cool canopy of branches, often playing hide and seek.
Granny’s was a fun place to be, I never wanted to leave. She would always slip me a coin or two, a sixpence or a thrupenny bit, worth a lot of money to a child back then, always putting her finger to her lips in a conspiratorially way telling me to not tell my mother.
I have very fond memories of her, it’s hard for me to reconcile the side I knew of her and the later stories I heard of her treatment of my mother, in hindsight she seemed like two different people, which is entirely possible. I do often think of her and wish I had made more effort to stay in touch, things get busy once you have young children and when we visited with my youngest child, by that time she was in a care home suffering with dementia and although she recognized me it was fleeting. I like to think that the best parts of her live on in her grandchildren and beyond, certainly she always impressed upon me to always be kind, it’s hard to go wrong with that, such great advice to live by.
Below is a photo of my grandmother, younger than the time I have memories of. Somewhere I have a photo of her with our dog William, I had it out ready to add to this page & now am unable to find it. I am sure it will resurface at an unlikely moment and I will be able to add it here.
What memories do you have of your grandparents, were they close or distant? Fun to be with or much stricter? It's interesting to hear other people's experiences and see how they are similar or different to your own.