Posted in Family

The Scent of a Grandma

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.

Nina and Laura together
It seems Nina (98) and Laura (11) share the same smile genes

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

Old photo of Nina aged 20
Nina at the age of 20

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?

old photo of my Grandma
My Grandma

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

Selfie of Grandma's cousin Nina, my aunt, my sister, my daughter and me
The four-generation selfie

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.

More formal photo of Nina, Thelma, Mandy and Laura
Four generations, total age nearly two and a half centuries

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.

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Tale of Two Grandmothers – and Tea Sets

(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.

My Welsh dresser
By far the most orderly part of my house

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

Grandma's tiered cake plate
Who ate all the cakes?

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.

Toy tea set in Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggywinkle design
Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle always reminds me of Grandma

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

Emma Bridgewater design tea set
My daughter’s toy tea set by Emma Bridgewater

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.

My daughter's drawing of a wombat drinking tea at a tea table
My daughter would like to show you her picture of a wombat drinking tea. As they do.

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.

Three matching coffee cups and saucers with pattern reminiscent of coffee and cream stirred together
Matching coffee cups, snapped up at a Farm Open Day recently

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.

National Trust tea tray showing a tea party
My favourite tea tray, bought eons ago from the National Trust

If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:

Posted in Family, Personal life

My Gooseberry Harvest

SavedPicture-201372122148.jpg
Unlike their camouflaged green cousins, red gooseberries are easy to spot amongst the thorns.

Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.

In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.

Forbidden Fruit

There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.

Old photo of Grandpa and Grandma
My Grandma and Grandpa, around the time I went to their house for school dinners every day

But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)

Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.

Cottage Garden Idyll

20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.

But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.

Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.

Sharp Reminder

A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.

These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.

SavedPicture-201372122158.jpg

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read:

 Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma.

Posted in Family, Personal life

For Father’s Day: A Voyage Around My Father’s Talents

Laura and Grandpa on the beach writing in the sand
Laura with my dad on the beach at Mousehole

On Father’s Day today, seeing so many people remembering their late fathers on Facebook reminded me just how lucky I am to have reached my age and still be able to share this special day with mine. 

How lucky my daughter is, too, to be able to spend so much time with her grandfather, especially as I was 43 when she was born. Living just 20 miles away from my parents, she’s been able to build a close bond with them that will always be a part of her and who she is.

One of the many things that Laura has learned from my father is to paint beautiful pictures. They’ve both inherited my grandfather’s artistic talents. Here are two pictures that I treasure, which grace a corner of our living room – my dad’s garden by Laura and our garden by my dad:

Grandpa's garden by Laura
Grandpa’s garden by Laura (aged 7)
Grandpa's painting of Laura's garden
Laura’s garden by Grandpa (aged 70+)

My dad’s love of music has also filtered down to her. Here’s a music stand that he made for Laura when she started flute lessons:

Music stand made by Grandpa for Laura
In the background is the piano from my dad’s childhool home

He’s made many extraordinary pieces for me too, over the years, perhaps the most remarkable being this pewble:

Wooden pewble made by my dad
Is it a pew? Is it a table? No, it’s a pewble!

He even made an information panel, as you find in so many National Trust properties, giving curious visitors the history of this unusual piece of furniture.

Actually, that’s just a bit of fun – the pewble is entirely his own invention, created to make a virtue out of the uneven floor in my kitchen. It’s a cross between a pew and a table, the table behind the pew serving as a worktop. The table has longer legs than the the bench, to accommodate the steps. How cool is that?

Above the pewble is the stained glass panel my dad made to replace the old larder window that was broken when I bought the house:

Stained glass larder window
The window between the walk-in larder and the kitchen

With 18 separate panes of glass, it has the same proportions as the original. My dad etched it with the date that my first husband and I moved into this house. After John’s death, I remarried, so my father added a new inscription with the wedding date. Never let it be said that my dad isn’t even-handed.

A further celebration of my second marriage is the gorgeous calligraphy my dad made of the song sung at my wedding by my cousin Sarah (who also carries our grandpa’s musical genes):

Robert Burns calligraphy by my dad
Yes, he painted the rose as well

Now, stop me if I’m boasting, but I haven’t even mentioned the rocking horse yet, lovingly carved over many months as an early gift for Laura when she was barely big enough to sit on it. It now takes pride of place in our sitting room and is very popular with Laura’s visiting friends.

Laura's rocking horse
Stabled in our sitting room

I’m very, very lucky to have such a gifted, focused and productive father to make such beautiful things for my house. But that’s not the point of this post. What matters isn’t the beauty of these things – their good looks are just a bonus. What matters most is who made them and that he made them for me and my family. Whenever I look at any of these artefacts – painting, calligraphy, pewble, window, rocking horse – what I see most of all is a manifestation of my father’s love. Now that really is something to boast about.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

Another post about my father, written for his 80th birthday last year: In Praise of Pine Cones – and Grandpa

And in the interests of balance, a post inspired by my mum: The Scent of A Mummy

Posted in Family

What A Difference A Day Makes

Humorous leap year postcard postmarked in 1908...
Humorous leap year postcard from 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hurrah! At last February is on its way out, and I’m so glad it’s not a leap year. This means that March – and Spring – will arrive one day earlier this year. 

There’s a world of difference between the last day of dreary, chilly February and the first day of daffodilly, Easter eggy March. Even more so for my husband, because the first day of March happens to be his birthday.

How frustrating leap years must have been for him when he was a boy, making him wait an extra day for his birthday. But this year I’d been expecting him to hanker after a 29th of February, to put off the dawn of an alarmingly significant  birthday.

60 – The New 40

Yes, I know that 60 is often considered the new 40, but for me, 60 absolutely spells old age. (I say that from the safe perspective of someone still many years away from their own 60th birthday.) This is because my grandmother was born exactly 60 years before me, and for me she was the archetypal old lady. I thought that 60 years was the perfect gap between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I’ve always liked a neat round number.

To anyone who doesn’t know my husband, you might think me cruel to have bought him a watch for his 60th birthday. You might be concerned that every time he looks at it, he’ll be reminded how quickly life is passing him by.

But is he downhearted? Oh, no. He’s positively chirpy. He’s even requested we celebrate  with a party, although he’s not usually a party animal. I don’t think I’ll be feeling as cheerful when it’s my turn to leave my 50s behind.

This is a complete role reversal.  Usually, I am renowned for my optimism, ever the Pollyanna. For Gordon, not only is the glass half empty – it’s also got a crack in it. So why the sudden about-turn?

Saving Grace

The reason is, he’s a Scotsman. He appreciates the opportunity to conserve his spending. As a child, he and his sister set up a club in their loft, of which the key rules were pinned to the wall: “No smoking, no swearing, save money”. Although he has a generous heart and is capable of acts of extraordinary kindness, he is also very fond of opportunities to economise. And so as February closes, bringing old age closer by the second, he’s  preoccupied with  the financial advantages that turning 60 will bring him: his civil service pension, his free bus pass from the council, discounted entry to museums, and 10% off on Tuesdays at B&Q.

I don’t think such rewards will buoy me up when I turn 60. Instead I’ll be clinging desparately to my faith in the powers of nominal determinism. (Oh, how I love to slip that phrase into a conversation!) Because, after all, by marrying Gordon, I became Mrs Young. We have no intention of ever getting divorced, and so, no matter what my age, I will be forever Young. If that’s not a good reason to marry someone, I don’t know what is.

Happy 60th birthday, Mr Young!

Badge saying "60 Years Young"