When the grandmothers came to stay (Part One)…

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My grandmothers – Herne Bay Beach, mid 1950s

In Laurie Lee’s classic novel about growing up in Gloucestershire soon after the First World War, Cider with Rosie, he includes two characters – Granny Trill and Granny Wallon. These two formidable old women war with each other and do all they can to avoid each other despite living, one above the other in a  small cottage. Finally one dies and shortly after the other fades away having nothing to live for, the fight having been won. That was my two grandmothers.

It took me until I was about ten to realise there were tensions between the two – rarely did they visit at the same time except at Christmas.

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Christmas circa 1965. Could there be more plastic smiles than those on the two old dears. And my father is clearly loving every minute. That or he’s hung over from Christmas eve at the Rugby Club

My father’s mother was Nana. Drippy name but it suited her. She had several problems which she would list at length and which were never explained to the young me: rheumatics, vapours, digestives (certainly not the biscuit, not the French after dinner drink) and, ubiquitous to all old people I encountered as a child, a terror of the ‘bowels’. She regularly took something called ‘Complan’ but whether this was to free her up or shut her down was never, happily, explained to me. All I now remember about it is it smelt much liked the grey paste Dad use to fill in holes in the exhaust pipe on our Ford Cortina (you bound the hole with chicken wire, smeared it with this gunk and let it set).   I suppose that alone tells its own story.

 

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Helmet hair – check; brave but tired expression – check

She wore her hair in a sort of helmet, pinned down against an unexpected wind and did a lot of sitting. Most of the food she served to the Archaeologist and me, when we visited her house was beige: oddly soggy white fish, milk puddings that shimmered when cars passed, mashed potatoes which contained smooth almond-shaped lumps that defied mastication.

The house she lived in had a deserted feel, each room suggesting it hadn’t been opened for a while when you went in. Indeed each room had its own aroma: the kitchen mixed tangy bleach with burnt toast; the bathroom a background drainy smell with lavender; the sitting room – her parlour – wood smoke and oil of wintergreen – Nana would dab this and other oils on her wrists and massage them while we sat and played endless games of cards, or Helma, or snakes and ladders.

We loved those afternoons and evenings with her if my parents went out for dinner. Leisurely paced, no homework, the TV on in the background. I was even allowed to watch Top of the Pops (the Archaeologist hated it and my parents wouldn’t countenance it at home but Nana let us each chose something so long as she watched her beloved Coronation Street – the only soap operas we were allowed at home, in our aspirational middle class house were on the radio – Mrs Dale’s Diary and the Archers).

Nana didn’t do discipline. She merely shut her eyes and sighed if the Archaeologist and I fought and let us get on with it. Her garden was a treasure trove of overgrown banks, fallen trees and glory of glories an Anderson Shelter – this was an air-raid shelter my grandfather and father dug out in 1938/39 in anticipation of the blitzkrieg expected as and when Britain went to war.

anderson shelter

pretty much what the Archaeologist and I found one day, only Nana’s was built into the hillside

We took a while, from memory, bashing our way up her garden, eventually finding there was a back entrance onto a lane. We were so excited but knew better than to tell Dad (because he’d tell Mum) or Mum (because she would worry about ‘what we had been up to’ and add it to her list of proscribed activities (the contents of which we were not privileged to know but would be cited if we fell into the trap of saying too much)). We also knew to tell her something. ‘Nothing’ was a hopeless answer, immediately arousing suspicion. Far better a version of the truth. ‘A caterpillar’s nest’ or a ‘really interesting tree’. Here  the Archaeologist’s early skills at terminological inexactitudes (in Parliament you cannot call another MP a liar but you can accuse them of using  TAs – apparently first used by Winston Churchill in the 1906 General Election)  paid dividends.

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Nana as a VAD (a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse)  during the First World War – as she later recounted it was simply an opportunity to flirt with the men

Nana didn’t like loud noises, excitement or rush. She was patient, kind and methodical. I think she felt let down by circumstance. In the 1920s my grandfather ran his own successful tailoring business in Brixworth in Northamptonshire, in the East Midlands. He tailored for the hunt and was a respected man. The depression saw for his business. Cash is king and those who owed him money were owed in turn. He was bankrupt and faced ruin and humiliation. So they, my grandparents and my father, left all they knew and moved to Caterham, on the edge of the North Downs in Surrey. My grandfather started working for Montagu Burton in London, the 50 shilling tailor, making ready to wear suits. It was a severe come down and a mix of illness, probably the residue of shell shock from his time in the trenches in the First World War and the severe dent to his pride eventually meant he had to stop even this. Instead he became a teacher, teaching men to be tailors. During the Second World War a lot of men, invalided out of the Forces came through his technical college in Croydon, learning a trade that gave them a future. But I don’t think Nana ever really recovered from that sense of loss, that loss of place, of dignity. The gay woman seen below was no more.

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acting a part – not something that survived her later disappointments

By the time we knew her, Nana was already fading, albeit slowly, accepting the role of old lady with, if not grace, then resignation. Indeed she would probably have faded away completely if not for my other Grandmother’s change of fortunes.

 

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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22 Responses to When the grandmothers came to stay (Part One)…

  1. My dad’s mother was a Nana too. But she lived in a two up, one down, toilet out the back. But yes, upstairs did have that unused aroma. And, oh yes, grandma tensions between the two. Amazing.

    On Cider with Rosie, or rather Laurie Lee, have you read the book by someone who decided to recreate his Spanish journey? (as I walked out) Quite interesting.

    Like

  2. cindy knoke says:

    I had a Nana too. I also had a grandma. I need to pay much more attention to what you write. This is so compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Theirs was perhaps the first generation of women to outlive their usefulness. Husband dead, children grown up, grandchildren thin of the ground. Nobody needed them for anything anymore. Women were probably dead before anyone noticed them idling in the pre-war generations.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. roweeee says:

    My mum’s parents lived in a Queenslander house where you had a space under the house to let the wind cool it down and it was also good in flood prone areas. She ended up pretty much stuck up the top towards the end and couldn’t manage the stairs. Her parents went through a similar experience in the Depression. Her father was a school teacher and he had a breakdown and had to stop work. It was put down to the Depression but it was OCD and he had a real thing about germs. My grandmother had to leave school and work as a hairdresser for her aunt to help support the family. By the tie her younger sister was the same age, family fortunes had changed and she went to a Private school and studied ballet.
    Interesting the twists and turns of fate!
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love these old family stories. I had no relatives when we came to Canada. By this time, one grandmother was already gone and the other became a widow shortly afterwards, both in the old country. 🙂

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  6. I love the smart day dresses on the beach. My mother’s parents died before I was born and my father’s mother died when I was 5, so I really only remember my Grandpa in any detail. He was the youngest son out of about 8 and had a non-identical twin sister, Grace. Being the youngest girl, she was expected to remain at home and look after the ageing parents, yet she was obviously a talented woman and was an LRAM piano, though I’m not sure if it was teaching or performing. I remember her well. Whilst her siblings went on to become doctors, lawyers, missionaries, and so on, she was at home, churning butter and bottle-feeding lambs. I often wonder how she felt about that, though she was a good-natured, smiley person. Perhaps she didn’t mind a career wasn’t on the cards.

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  7. Mixed memories, no doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Judy Martin says:

    I love hearing old stories, Geoff. My two Grandmothers or Nanny Riggs and Nanny Manual bickered and argued like hell. They lived next door to each other right from before mum and dad were born. My mum’s mother ran a guesthouse which my dad’s mum referred to as a ‘knocking shop!’ Needless to say, she got a piece of my other nan’s mind.
    It seems like your Nana had a very full and interesting life. It can’t have been easy for her at times by the sounds of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ali Isaac says:

    Lovely post, are you going to write one about your other granny too? I should say I have a Nana, she is German but she has lived in the UK since my mum was born. She still speaks English with a German accent after all these years. She was born 2 months premature and lived in a shoebox of cotton wool. Her skin was bathed regularly with oil. No one expected her to survive. Now she’s nearly 90, has a toyboy in his 70s, and regularly travels to Spain for some sun. I love her to bits and am taking the boys to see her in a couple of weeks. They hardly know her cos we’ve travelled so little since Carys came along. I dont know how much time she has left, which scares me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. esthernewton says:

    What lovely photos and a super post.

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  11. Fascinating! I am going to try and inject ‘terminological inexactitude’ into a conversation today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve written about my Nana a few times on my blog. It’s lovely to read these old stories, Geoff. It brings back happy memories of times where we all probably had far less.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Charli Mills says:

    Your Nana’s story touches my heart. That line about her already fading by the time you came to know her is often true of grandparents. I like that you explore who she was and how she came to be the Nana you knew and loved.

    Liked by 1 person

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