One Hundred, and a Half, Years of Life

My grandmother died this Wednesday morning, peacefully, after a recent fall and subsequent operation at the grand age of 100.5 years. On the left you can see her beaming at another new great grandchild in 2000.

She was well looked after and relatively happy in the various homes she lived in after she gave up her own but as a fiercely independent woman she didn’t like not being able to manage on her own.

She used to come and stay with us for Christmas, and possibly for the occasional holiday but they didn’t stay in my mind. The joy of Nan at Christmas was that when I woke up early, at 5 or 6 o’clock (or so my memory tells me) I would go and sit on her bed and have a present from her and a chat. I didn’t realise then that her mission was to let my parents sleep and keep me away.

There are many photos of my two sisters looking happy away on holiday staying with both grandparents and I still wish that I’d met my grandfathers, either of them. However I spent a considerable number of holidays on my own with my grandmother which gave me the opportunity for some very long conversations and getting to know her. I used to be scared of her, being absolutely careful to say please and thank you, to not use slang and to use correct English. I also used to wash behind my ears which I don’t remember doing much otherwise.

She had two drawers full of loose photos. One of the great conversations was led by just dipping hands into the drawer and bringing out a handful. The date, time and place would usually be written on the back and Nan would sit down and reminisce. I remember so very little of what she told me then other than the enjoyment of sharing. It was also the only times we sat down in the better dressed parlour rather than the more usual sitting room in the back. It was during these times that she would tell me about my father’s brother who died as a teenager, and whose existence I would have never have known from my father. We also sat and discussed how she was worried about getting old and her brain going. She did not want to be trapped in a body unable to communicate and I promised her, from a very young age, that if the time came I would smother her with a pillow if necessary. Thankfully it wasn’t.

We would go on short walks round Wakefield. She could take you on a twenty minute walk and show you every house she had ever lived in, and the primary school where both she and my father had gone, although clearly not at the same time. We might treat ourselves to a slab of real ice cream from Lumbs dairy at the Busy Corner, long since gone. We would also visit Sandal Castle, a wonderful motte and barbican that was excavated when we were very young so it seemingly grew up with us.

Although she never moved further afield, she did travel quite a lot, visiting Russia, China and the United States. These journeys went on until her travelling companion died and she didn’t want to continue on her own. I liked this contrast in her though, that she was adventurous and questing, but also incredibly domestic and traditional.

When staying with her I would wake up to the perfect smell of bacon and fresh cobnobs. Nan made her own bread, from scratch, with her own fair hands. She did bake loaves but most of her bread was in the shape of cobnobs, a word I’ve never found used elswhere, to represent an oblong bun, just perfectly sized for a couple of slices of bacon. Fresh bacon, in a still hot, minutes old cobnob with melting butter is a special treat, never to be repeated. She would make me miniature cobnobs, just a mouthful or two. When she came to visit us she would make us some bread but it was never quite the same.

As I got older she took me to Guernsey on holidays, where she had relatives she was very close to, lovely cousins (or thereabouts) who I would never have got to know if she hadn’t taken me. They had two dogs, Pippa and Monty and we used to take them on long walks round the island, a fairly perfect place for holidays with wonderful cliff top walks and bays full of golden sand and cold but blue water. Nan was warmer with these people and at some point in my childhood she transformed from the slightly scary grandmother I initially knew to a warmer loving person with stories to tell and and relatives who could make the younger her come alive again.

Once adult, we drifted apart somewhat. I exchanged letters with her as a child but I don’t remember them, nor have I kept any. I eventually moved to Harrogate where I married and had my firstborn. Nan used to walk round the town, pointing at each of the many hotels or former hotels and tell me that she’d danced in them as a young woman. I’m  not sure there was a hotel she hadn’t visited for a dance and this was not an image I had of her.

When my first child was born she came to visit in the first few days before anyone else did. I remember well him going to sleep for a few hours before she arrived. Rather than join him, I spent the time having a massive tidy up so that she wouldn’t tell me off for the domestic tip. She arrived and proceeded to tell me that when she first had children she thought she had to maintain an immaculate home, keep her housework to her usual high standards as well as look after a baby. She’d since realised that was far too much and it was better to relax, enjoy and get a bit more sleep. She also said that she wouldn’t give any advice as raising babies changed from one generation to another. The one thing that we clashed on was that she would regularly say that she liked to hear a baby cry as they needed to ‘exercise their lungs’, a saying that my sister and I both told her off for.

When we moved away contact was severely diminished and turned into occasional phone calls and even rarer visits. She eventually started to get older and a bit more frail. My parents held their 50th Wedding Anniversary a few years ago in Wakefield as my grandmother refused to travel and we all went up last year for her 100th birthday which is when this photo was taken, with her son, my father. We shared birthdays, something I often resented as a child as it meant those days were not special to me but that I was also incredibly proud of; I felt we had a special relationship that others could not share.

She used to buy herself presents and say they were from Nelly to Ellen. She’d been called Nana by all of us and even when she quietly said she’d prefer Nan, it didn’t really catch on with the rest of us.

I’m aware, as I write this, of how much I don’t know and how hazy on the details I am but this is about our relationship rather than her life. She had a long one and a good one although she did survive virtually everyone she knew. She got bored the last few years, too frail to do anything much but too stubborn, far too stubborn, to give up. My sisters, my parents would present very different portraits of her but all I can say is that I loved her very much, and that it was a privilege to have known her.

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