How old will you be in 2023? About to turn 63 as I’m writing this column, I’ve always been grateful for being born at the start of a decade and in the first month of the year. Being a child of the Sixties sounds far more exciting than a child of the Fifties, and it’s very easy to calculate my age at any time.
A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots
My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.
I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.
With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.
“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.
I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.
But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.
As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.
But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.
They were flowers fit for a fairy.
The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not
Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.
But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.
As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.
I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.
Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.
Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.
From Fact into Fiction
And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.
In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.
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My contribution to the Authors Electric collective blog this month
Visit their website to find a different post by a different author,
every day of the month (I post on the 30th)
As a novelist, I like to think I make everything up.
While the standard disclaimer appears on my copyright pages declaring each book a work of fiction, little details creep in from real life.
Snippets and snapshots are dredged up from the ragbag of my memory.
Sometimes this is for no apparent reason, such as the recycling bins that appeared in three separate stories in my flash fiction collection, Quick Change. I didn’t even notice the repetition until one of my beta readers asked why they kept cropping up. For fear of seeming obsessive, I replaced one bin with a bonfire, which made for a much better story.
Other times I manage to wrestle the reasons from my subconscious after I’ve finished writing the story, such as the forget-me-not motif that runs throughout my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.
In the first novel, Best Murder in Show, Hector, the local bookseller, remarks on the colour of Sophie’s eyes. She’s in fancy dress as Virginia Woolf on a book-themed carnival float, while he’s playing Homer, togged out in a toga.
“Your eyes are the wrong colour for Virginia Woolf,” he tells her. “Hers were grey. Yours are forget-me-not blue.”
As the series progresses, forget-me-nots become a symbol of all that Sophie stands for. (I won’t spoil the plot by explaining what that means.)
The Roots of My Fondness for Forget-me-nots
Only after weaving this motif into the story did I realise my affection for this humble little flower dates back much further. It originates in the unlikely setting of a suburban London garden most unlike Sophie’s home in the idyllic Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.
You see, forget-me-nots flourished in my grandmother’s back garden, in my childhood home town of Sidcup. Visiting after school, I’d skip up her garden path, admiring the low clouds of tiny blue flowers edging the concrete path beneath her washing line. Often I’d pick a bunch to present to her on my arrival, complimenting her on how beautiful the garden was looking.
Compared to the carefully cultivated garden of my other grandmother – the one I picture when I write about Sophie’s Auntie May’s cottage garden – the forget-me-not grandmother’s garden was sparsely planted. The only reason those flowers appeared there in such profusion was that she often didn’t bother to plant much else. With no competition, they quickly took over the flowerbeds. My grandmother may even have regarded them as weeds.
To my childish eyes, with their sky-blue colour and fairytale name, they were as precious and exotic as the very best hothouse roses.
I’m very glad that Sophie likes them too.
A Growing Fancy for the Little Blue Flower
Since writing them into Sophie’s stories, I’ve started to acquire forget-me-nots all around my writing desk – fake ones, of course, so they last all year round. The latest addition is a vintage pottery candleholder decorated with forget-me-not transfers, a must-buy at the local Guides’ jumble sale. Seeing my little forget-me-knot collection every day spurs me on to write more and makes me happy.
What Next for Sophie Sayers?
Their manifestation in my current work-in-progress, Murder by the Book, came to me in a flash, and I’m very pleased with how it’s worked out. Set between New Year and Valentine’s Day, this fourth Sophie Sayers adventure will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.
But I’ll have to wait till book five, Springtime for Murder, before I can allow the real flowers to blossom in Wendlebury Barrow. Oh no, hang on, I mean fictitious ones.
Roll on, spring, I’m ready for you, real or not.
(A post in praise of my two late grandmothers and their different attitudes to matching china tea-sets, crockery and cutlery)
Now here’s a little-known antidote to stress: take a few moments to admire matching crockery, as displayed on the Welsh dresser in my kitchen.
There are many reasons why the sight of this dresser gives me great pleasure:
- a folksy look that goes well with our country cottage
- light and cheerful colours
- vintage design from the 1920s (it often pops on tea-tables in period TV dramas)
- sentimental value, the first pieces being a wedding present from a special friend
- low cost, thanks to a factory shop that sold cheap seconds (sadly now closed)
- ease of replacement via Chinasearch
But most important of all is that it reminds me of tea with my grandmothers, though their attitudes to china were polar opposites.
Grandma’s Matching China Tea-Service
My paternal Grandma favoured matching crockery. She had a classic set of pale sage green utility china which was brought out every Saturday when we went to tea.
For my brother, sister and me were reserved three melamine cups and saucers, long after the age when we couldn’t be trusted with breakables. My brother’s was chocolate brown, there was deep rose pink for my sister and tangerine for me.
Toning tastefully with the china, a stylish set of tiered plates sporting a 1950s fern pattern always graced the centre of the tea-table. The bottom tier was reserved for thinly sliced, fresh-cut bread and butter, with cakes and biscuits of gradually reducing size on the top two tiers. Viennese whirls, Swiss creams and chocolate covered marshmallows still make me think of tea at Grandma’s, served from those elegant plates, and eaten politely all sitting well-behaved around the table, me perched on a stool brought in especially from the kitchen because there were more people than chairs.
The orderliness of the tea-table was as dependable as the bananas offered to the three of us as a treat after tea. Unlike us, Grandma remembered rationing and regretted the prolonged absence of such fruit from her own children’s diet during the war. I didn’t always want one, but I knew instinctively to pretend that I did, and accepted with gratitude.
My siblings and I were born in the same order as her children – my father sandwiched between my two aunts – and it must sometimes have felt like an action replay to have the three of us there, particularly as my brother was the image of my father as a boy.
Equally reliable was her pressing a shilling (equivalent to the modern 5p) into our hands as we left – our weekly pocket money. Our other, wealthier grandparents gave us each a halfcrown (12½p), but I was always careful to show equal gratitude to Grandma and Grandpa.
Mam’s Mad Medley of China & Cutlery
While I loved this orderly tea-time ritual, I also adored my other grandmother’s more anarchic approach to crockery. At Mam’s, we didn’t even have to sit up to the table, balancing our tea plates on cushions on our laps while we watched television. On my grandather’s salary as an accountant, they could certainly have afforded matching china, but it never occurred to Mam to buy it. Every plate in her cupboard bore a different design, and although some cups had a matching saucer, no two came from the same set.
The same was true of the cutlery, some of which was cheap and ancient, imparting like a condiment an odd metallic flavour to each forkful. One year my parents replaced our cutlery and presented Mam with their old, still serviceable stainless steel set. She regarded it with undisguised suspicion.
Having noticed that some of Mam’s china was chipped, I bought her a beautiful bone china cup and saucer one birthday, splashing out more than I should from my student budget. The set was adorned with a delicate lily-of-the-valley designed – Mam loved lilies – and the word “August”, because her birthday fell on August 1st. I thought this personal touch would ensure that only she would ever use it, and I hoped it would enhance the pot of tea with which she fuelled herself each morning before anyone else in the household was awake. She admired it enthusiastically before tucking it carefully away for safekeeping.
Like Grandma, she could not shake off the memories of the Great Depression, followed by wartime rationing. When she died not long after that birthday, not only was the August cup and saucer still in its box, but in her airing cupboard we discovered unopened packets of tea and sugar, carefully stashed away against any future risk of shortages.
Decades have passed now since both my grandmothers died, but I still sometimes have such vivid encounters with them in my dreams that it comes as a shock when on waking I realise they’re no longer with us. And what usually happens in those dreams? Well, of course, I’m visiting their houses for tea.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:
- Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma
- Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks
- The Scent of a Mummy