It’s International Day of Older Persons, which seems a good excuse to talk about our Nans. Hooray.
My wonderful grandma Lilian is, and always has been, an inspiration to me. She has the best legs in the family – to this day – and has spent her life mostly loving and laughing. Married twice (unheard of in her day), a foster mum to more than 70 children, mother to four and a grandma and great grandma to boot.
I am very lucky to be Lilian’s only granddaughter and because of that we share a loving bond and a wry sense of humour. Throughout my life, Lilian has been the one I can talk to openly and honestly about anything, and she was where I retreated for a cuddle and a cheer-up when things were pretty crap at home.
Even to this day we share a subtle eyebrow raise at certain things and know exactly what each other is thinking (it’s normally quite, quite rude). Like me, Lilian has a penchant for a vino destructo and a good old boogie and some of my happiest memories are of me and her showing the dancefloor how it was done at the local club she used to take me to.
I sadly don’t see her as often as I should due to that age-old ‘life getting in the way’ thing, but I think of her often and love her dearly.
“My paternal grandmother was an outlandishly bad influence: she smoked and drank heavily and was noted to continue doing both while cooking.”
I loved my grandmothers, and they could not have been more different. My mum’s mum was very proud to have been born in Stratford, as it meant she was not an Eastender, and she was very proud of all her family except for the fact that I could not make tea. (“What is going on? She has not even warmed the pot.”)
She was a very proud gardener and loved arranging flowers, and she was a demon card player and Scrabble fanatic. I loved visiting her; she made salads with grated carrots and hard boiled eggs and would always let me stay. It broke my heart when, like all her nine brothers and sisters, she was lost to dementia. It was very hard to see her confused and unclear.
My paternal grandmother had been farmed out to relatives all her life, after her mother died young and her dad remarried. She was a piano accompanist and married my grandfather, a professional singer. She was an outlandishly bad influence: she smoked and drank heavily and was noted to continue doing both while cooking.
She was an early adopter of fast food, possibly because it freed up time for smoking and drinking, and delighted my (slightly older) cousins by taking them to Kentucky Fried Chicken. She lived with us, on and off, for many years and she taught me how to pour barley wine without too big a head and how to mix a gin and tonic without too much tonic (“Don’t bruise it!”).
She would bet on anything, and we’d watch the racing all day in the school holidays. She had an acid wit and relished being absolutely evil in social settings, and would probably have been very popular on Twitter. In this picture, I am confident that she has just said something alarming to the woman standing next to her.
“So I’ll spend the daytime writing my poetry and doing warmups, then I’ll be in West End theatre shows at night. When I write my books, you’ll help me sell them on Saturdays, won’t you?”
“What about Sundays?” My nan asked with her serious voice.
“I’ll probably still stay with you if you cook me egg and chips and we have cold custard and watch Bullseye.”
My nan never burst my rose-tinted bubble. She inflated it and encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be on every day of the week. I stayed with her at weekends in her one-bedroom council flat. It smelled of cooking, soap and cigarettes. It was every bit as cosy as her cuddles and as immaculate as her thick, white curls.
She slept on the couch and I lay in her lap of luxury and had a new notepad every week to assist my creativity. Cream cakes for breakfast, a video card so I could watch the Police Academy films as many times as I liked (far too many) and stories from the vast collection in her head ensured that she was the ruler of my world. And the reason why I was in adult jeans by age nine.
“I would love to meet her now, woman to woman, find out how she would fix the world and its rotten manners, or come home from work to find her wearing a pop sock over her head because she thought it was funny.”
I’ve never known eyes bluer than hers, eyelashes as long or anyone with a darker sense of humour. She had me in stitches, while remaining completely deadpan herself. She scolded ‘youths’ for swearing on the bus as she sat calmly lighting a JPS with a Swan Vesta match.
She taught manners by shouting “thank you” loudly at anyone who had omitted to say it when necessary. She nurtured anyone who was a bit of an underdog, would use the last penny of her pension to buy me a record in Woolworths and made some chronically difficult choices in her life which I will never fully understand.
I don’t know how tough she had it, and it would break my heart to find out, but I know that sometimes she looked sad and no amount of tap dancing from me on the piece of MDF she fashioned as my stage, would make her better. But I think it helped.
She once got on the back of a motorbike with a ‘young man’ on a caravan site on one of our holidays, insisting he took her for a spin. Her expression rarely changed and, even at 70mph around Pontins, her face didn’t move. She dismounted, re-set her hair and put the kettle on. We couldn’t blame booze. She only ever had a Snowball at Christmas.
The 58-year gap between us was bridged by a bond of humour, bus rides and blackcurrant sweets. I haven’t tasted those since she died when I was 11.
I would love to meet her now, woman to woman, find out how she would fix the world and its rotten manners, or come home from work to find her wearing a pop sock over her head because she thought it was funny (I screamed and cried for about two hours when she did this to eight-year-old me). I’d love to play cards with her for hours and let her have my bed and I would sleep on the couch.
Sadly, I can’t. But if ever somebody points out that I have a stern face, take on too many waifs and strays, and have a darkly wicked sense of humour, I can be thankful I know why.
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