My column from the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
When I posted a photo of my dad on Facebook yesterday, a friend who hadn’t seen him for decades remarked how similar we are. That’s nothing, I told her – you should see how much I resemble his mother. I added a picture of my Grandma, aged 60 when I was born, by way of demonstration.
Only then did I realise that my older brother is about to turn 60, and how much he looks like our father and our grandfather. When family resemblances are so strong, it’s easy to see why older people often call relatives by the wrong names. Grandma often resorted to a roll call of possible candidates, stopping only when she hit the right person: “Thelma, Sheila, Merna, Mandy, Debbie.” At least she didn’t include the cat, unlike my friend’s mother, much to her disgust.
When did my brother and I become this old? I should take comfort from recent reports that no-one should now be considered old until they hit 85. I prefer my own definition, which works on a sliding scale of my current age + 10 years. The elegance of this system is its “jam tomorrow” principle: by definition, I will never grow old.
I also recommend the ploy of marrying a Mr Young, another way to ensure I remain forever Young. It’s also a great incentive to avoid divorce.
As anyone living in the UK will know, today there is a General Election. Opening the shutters this morning to glorious sunshine rather than the grey rain of the past few days, I wondered to what extent the fine weather would influence the end result, encouraging more people to go out to vote.
Suddenly an old playground skipping rhyme popped into my head. The rhyme probably represents the dawning of political consciousness in my childhood – that and the fact that our local MP, Edward Heath, had been persuaded to open my brother’s school’s summer fete.
While I’m usually glad to hear my daughter (11) play clapping or skipping games that I recognise from my own childhood, this is one that I hope has by this election become obsolete. it’s a group game, played with a very long rope, with children lining up for their turn to jump in. The name in the verse changes, according to who is skipping, and the last line is shouted as the skipper leaves the turning rope.
Vote, vote, vote for little Debbie
Calling Debbie at the door
For Debbie is the lady
Who is going to have a baby
So we won’t vote for Debbie any more!
CHUCK HER OUT!
A decade after I last jumped to this rhyme, our country’s first female prime minister was elected: Margaret Thatcher (aka “Milk Snatcher” for abolishing free school milk for children while Minister for Education). I was astonished to discover just now that she was a year younger than me when she came to power. That would have precluded her from having babies during her term of office. Which might be one reason it took us 13 long years to chuck her out.
Whatever your political affiliations, if you are a British citizen of voting age, please make sure you use your vote. Elections really aren’t a game, as I learned from my grandmother (born 1900). She had to wait till the age of 28 to be allowed to vote. Read more about her experience and influence on my political thinking in a post that I wrote during the previous General Election: I Wear My Vote On My Sleeve
Picking up on the thread from my Mother’s Day post, The Scent of a Mummy, I’m reporting here on a memorable meeting with my late Grandma’s cousin Nina.
It was with some trepidation that I offered to take my Auntie Thelma (my father’s younger sister) on a round-trip to Minehead, on the Somerset coast, to visit her mother’s (my grandmother’s) cousin Nina.
Outings with Auntie Thelma are always good fun. She’s good company, generous, funny and liberal-minded, and from since I was very young, she’s been more influential on me than perhaps she realises. She’s introduced me to different arts and crafts concepts, taken me to terrific museums and galleries, and helped shape my aesthetic tastes. She’s also inspired me with her endless creativity and application to the arts and crafts that she enjoys producing herself – much like my dad. (There’s a post here celebrating my father’s many talents.)
Next Best Thing to Visiting Grandma
So it wasn’t Auntie Thelma’s company that made me nervous, but the prospect of meeting for the first time a lady who was my Grandma”s cousin. Grandma died when I was 12. We were very close, and I still often dream at night of going to her house to tea, and wake up disappointed to realise I can no longer do that in real life. Grandma was born in 1900 (a very neat achievement, I’ve always thought), so would have been 114 if she were alive today. Nina, by contrast, at just 98, is a spring chicken. She is however the oldest person I have ever met. Born in 1916, meeting her was a useful opportunity for my daughter Laura, who is studying the First World War at school this term. We took a special photograph of the two of them together for Laura to take into school the next day for show-and-tell. Her classmates were impressed.
Nor was I anxious about being in the company of a very old person. I love old people, and for years was good friends with my next-door neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton, James and Hester Harford, who when they died in 2000 wer aged 96 and 90 respectively.
Why So Nervous?
So why the big build-up? It was because the only photograph that I’d seen of Nina made her look very much like my Grandma. I thought it might be emotionally overwhelming to meet someone who was Grandma’s spitting image, not least because it would fill me with remorse for having never made the effort to meet Nina before.
As it turned out, Nina didn’t remind me of Grandma visually (although comparing her photo with Grandma’s I still see a resemblance). But she shared my Grandma’s quick wit, dry humour and candour, and I really enjoyed her company. Although she is less mobile than she’d like to be, using a tea-trolley in lieu of a zimmer frame to get around the house, she is absolutely on the ball, and her conversation is wide-ranging, evocative of past times but anchored in the present, seasoned by the self-knowledge of a very old lady looking back.
A Lovely Afternoon
We enjoyed lunch together, and after a couple of hours took our leave, wary of wearing her out, but not before we’d taken plenty of photographs, both of her old family portraits – there’s a stunning picture of her when she was 20 – and of ourselves as a group: Auntie Thelma, my sister Mandy, my daughter Laura and me. There can’t be many 98 year olds who enjoy being part of a selfie.
But the visit was not without its emotional trauma. Having parked outside her apartment block (an elegant building with a view of the sea), as we stood waiting for her to answer the door, I was overwhelmed with a strong perfume that suddenly descended upon me like a cloud for no apparent reason. It was an overpowering floral scent. One moment it was not there; the next it engulfed me.
A Fragrant Mystery
I couldn’t quite identify the fragrance. It was neither honeysuckle, nor freesias (my Grandma’s favourite scent), but it was equally heady, yet I didn’t spot any immediate cause of it in the plain, paved yard in which we were standing.
Then Nina opened the door, we went in, and in the flurry of greetings, I neglected to mention the perfume to anyone else, to see if they’d noticed it too. (I did however doubt my sanity for a moment, because a former boss of mine, the editor of a magazine I worked on decades ago, told me with the benefit of his previous career as a psychiatric nurse that olfactory hallucinations, to use his technical term, was a sign of madness.)
It was only days later, having opened a purchase that I’d made on the bric-a-brac stall at a village fete on Saturday, that I realised which flower it was. What I’d bought was a richly-scented Penhaligon candle, still in its box. Its perfume, exuding so powerfully from the packaging that you could almost see it, was Lily-of-the-Valley.
And then the connection hit me: that this was the fragrance that engulfed me as I stood on Nina’s doorstep. And what you need to know to realise why this connection was so extraordinary is this: my beloved Grandma’s first name. It was – of course – Lily.
An update about one of my freelance writing projectsFor the last year or so, I’ve been writing a regular column for a British online parenting magazine calledKideeko (www.kideeko.co.uk). I first became involved with Kideeko when I was still working part-time at the children’s reading charity Read for Good. At first, I was writing exclusively about children’s books and reading, fuelled by the knowledge and experience I’d gained through my work at Read for Good, and these articles provided a valuable opportunity to raise awareness before a family audience of Read for Good’s excellent work. For those of you who don’t already know, Read for Good is a UK national charity which exists to promote reading for pleasure among children. There are two distinct parts to the charity, which is funded entirely by donations (it’s easy to donate online via their websites):
Readathon, which provides schools with free materials to runs sponsored reading schemes in thousands of schools all over the country, at any time
ReadWell, which takes free books and storytellers into children’s hospitals to make life better for young patients, their families and their carers
In the three and a half years that I worked for Read for Good, I learned what I had already known instinctively: that books change lives for the better, in all kinds of ways.
Growing Up With Books
My own life experience endorses that view. I was a lucky child: I was brought up in a house full of books, taken on regular visits to the local public library and had my own bookshelves in my bedroom. Books were valued and reading always encouraged. Whether sharing books with other members of the family, listening to stories on the radio or on vinyl records (no CDs or iPods in those days!), or reading alone, I grew up loving books. It was no surprise to anyone when I chose English Literature for my degree, or when my career revolved around writing, at first under the guise of trade press hack and PR consultant, and latterly as a published author, journalist and blogger. Although Kideeko’s editor has now asked me to address broader parenting topics, the joys of children’s books and reading are never far from my mind whenever I’m writing about children. (I also write for Today’s Child Magazine, available in print and online.) For evidence, you have only to read my article about Mother’s Day in Kideeko‘s March issue, in which I hark back to treasured moments sharing books and stories with my mum. You can read that column here: Making Mother’s Day
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to sharing Mother’s Day with my child, as well as my mum, this Sunday, and I wish a happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere.If you’d like to read more about my lovely mum and daughter, here are some past posts about them:The Scent of a Mummy – remembering my grandmothers’ and mother’s perfumesThe Only Certainties in Life: Birthdays and Taxes – celebrating my mum’s 80th birthdayFather’s Day To Follow – my daughter’s take on such celebrations
(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: