In part one, here, I talked about my father’s mother, Nana. Time to look at her rival, my mother’s mother, my Gran, and the unlikely role she played in extending Nana’s mortal coil.
If Nana was passive, old and psychosomatically infirm, Gran was the antithesis. There was no question of her Going Gentle into That Good Night. Gran was a force of nature.
She lived in a narrow five storied Georgian house on the sea front at Herne Bay in Kent. When the wind blew – and it did, a lot – from the Arctic and the shutters rattled fit to bust, you had no difficulty believing in banshees and spectres and ghosts and ghouls. Her front door had two lobbies that for most of the year had to be opened and closed in the correct sequence or the wind made it very difficult to open or shut any other door in the house.
Staying with Gran was a treat. Each Easter Mum would take us off to Gran’s and leave us for a fortnight. We two boys would walk along the sea front as the storms battered the shore, letting waves crash against the seawall and soak us. We would watch dull-witted seagulls try to beat their way out to sea only to turn, forlorn and let the gales send them inland like feathered ICBMs. We spent hours in the library where the Archaeologist taught me how to love reading and choose a book.
We played by the boating lake until, one never to be forgotten afternoon I fell in. Gran was furious when someone went to fetch her Not for my safety – I was clearly alive – but because I had interrupted her bowls match.
We would take the money Gran gave us to go and pick up her sherry refills from the off licence and keep the change for chocolate. No one questioned giving two pints of sherry to two small boys with cherubic faces and a skill at inspired mischief.
We would test the flexibility of the swings, trying to go as high as we dared – he always out dared me but that was ok. And we explored the rock pools and soft sand when the tide went out with no one interfering with our dangerous play. What can I say? We survived and were always at home in time for tea. I don’t think Gran’s cooking anything special but it was always there.
There were some areas where staying at Gran’s wasn’t fun. I was terrified of the thunderous toilet flush and refused for many years to be in the same room when it released its flood water. The top floors were occupied by tenants and strictly out-of-bounds. If the tenants appeared at any point we were under strict instructions to hide quickly. If they caught us playing on the stairs they would inevitably complain and Gran would feel duty bound to chastise us in some way. The only time she really go cross however was went we bombed the mean male tenant with rubber bricks, about the size of Duplo and red-brick coloured. I’ve looked them up – they’re called Minibrix and there’s even a fan website. What do you know? The Archaeologist managed a direct hit and we took our punishment like men.
Those stairs were two small boys’ dream. They had a bannister that was smooth and polished and went from top to bottom; four floors, four flights and the dare was to slide from top to bottom without getting or falling off. The notion that we might fall the wrong side never occurred to either of us or Gran who let us get on with it. I can still call to mind the exhilaration of my first full flight. And the shuddering end as I crashed into the newel post at the bottom. By then the Archaeologist had perfected the roll-free, falling off the stairs and crashing to a halt on the shaggy, stinky mat on the hall floor rather than have your arse split in two. As it were.
Eventually my grandmother’s aged. In Gran’s case, because we were used to her fierce independence, her solo travelling across Europe (as a small boy I remember the talk of her coach trips – I imagined some sort of horse-drawn Cinderella-esque carriage rather than a functional charabanc), the impact of Time’s Winged Arrow hit hardest. In 1980 living as I was in London, training to be a Solicitor – my family home was in rural Hampshire – the Textiliste and I caught the train to visit Gran. Mum hadn’t seen her for several months and I think she had missed her weekly phone call from the call box at the end of the road – Gran wouldn’t pay to have one in the house. We found a shrunken visibly fading old lady in place of the five foot two dynamo we were expecting. We made her some food, and stayed all day. Having company perked her up greatly but this wasn’t the Gran I knew. I went out and called Mum and told her what I had found.
Mum and Gran were very close; when my grandfather fell ill in the late 30s my mother left school at 12 to nurse him while Gran went out to work. She brought up her two young brothers too. They kept the family afloat and that team work, forged in circumstances neither asked for or expected brought them together in ways unlike a lot of mother-daughter relationships.
There was no question; Gran was to sell up and go to live with my parents in Hampshire. Both the Archaeologist and I had recently left home and there was space. No thought was given to the new burden. Gran moved in, in about 1981. It restored her to health and vigour and she lived for another seven or eight years, meeting her eldest great-grandson before she died.
By contrast my father and his mother in law had a curiously combative relationship with a lot of admiration mixed in on both sides. But the sniping was pretty constant and often amusing.
Meanwhile Nana was still in Caterham, in a sheltered flat and fading in a gentile, moany kind of way. Then she got to hear about the arrival of Gran chez my parents. Within months she too was ensconced in the family home, taking the best room and making it her own. She took to the space, demanded regular visits from one and all and began to snipe.
A cold war that had simmered for years had suddenly become very hot. You see, Gran came from a reasonably well to do family of bakers and grocers, while my maternal grandfather’s family were rich enough their oldest boy, my great-uncle Bernard set up a flying school before the first word war.
Rental income formed a reasonably significant part of the family income in the 1930s but my grandfather’s untimely demise in 1940, war damage and some poor decisions meant all that was left by the time I knew my gran was the house on the north Kent coast. And in 1981 that sold with two long-term sitting tenants for eighteen thousand pounds (I know – I did the work – as dad would say about my legal skills ‘why keep a dog and bark yourself’ when he wanted free advice). Not a great deal of cash but more than Nana ever had. That nest egg, Gran’s energy, her sparky relationship with my father which for all its flammability was a better and more wholesome one that he had with his own mother – all this poured fuel on an already smouldering set of embers.
And as battle was joined they embraced certain classic tactics
Befriend the power
My mother was the power; at home for sure. For gran it was easy, as I say. For Nana, she had work to do and she set about it with a constant stream of poetical flattery, emphasising how difficult it was for her, Nana, to do much but how constantly grateful to Mum she was. How leaving her dinner tray at the top of the stairs was an achievement because of her increasing funny turns – she would ask rhetorical questions about her ailments, one of which was how she wished she didn’t have so many funny turns so she could come downstairs more. The Archaeologist, in a feistier mood than was his wont – he was like Mum with a placid temperament – suggested that given the amount of whiskey, Stone’s Ginger Wine and Sherry she got through ‘taking more water with it’ might help. For a while after that I became favoured Grandson, not necessarily a title to which either of us aspired. And if you think that cruel on an old lady well read on.
Play to your strengths
Nana was a natural invalid; she could scent a sympathetic audience at a mile. If guests appeared, so did she, calling for high-backed chairs and pillows and rugs and a footstool so she could ‘just sit and listen’. If asked why she took such risks leaving the sanctuary of her room the natural martyr in her descended, beatifying her tired smile. ‘One must keep up appearances – they (my parents) do so much for me, it is the least I can do to help them entertain’. Inevitably a guest would ask how she was. ‘I can’t complain’ opened the monologue to be followed by a litany of imagined ills. It was a source of disappointment that the doctor who treated my mother’s many real problems (rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, a lot of pain) would refuse to find any tangible basis for her self-imposed invalid status – clearly he had to be incompetent. Indeed every test she had, she passed until one day she simply did not wake up. She was 92.
Gran ‘couldn’t be doing with all that nonsense’. If she was in pain she refused to say. At 89 she broke her hip in a fall. It took two weeks before she gave into the pain and asked to see a doctor. When she went into Bournemouth hospital and was asked if she was allergic to penicillin she said she had no idea never having taken medicine. So far as she knew she had never been in hospital other than to visit. Gran was determined to be ‘useful’. Once she was restored to health – and that was a matter of weeks after she arrived – she fizzed and buzzed, insisting on doing all the washing up, a lot of the washing – my mother’s first washing machine appeared towards the end of the 1980s – and hoovering.
She and my father clashed often, neither giving much ground. They were both stubborn and they both knew the unspoken reason was my father’s inability to do something about his own mother, whose contribution to the house was zero, increasing the burden on my far from well mother. However, when Nana died in 1983 the release of tension was felt in London. Dad and Gran formed an unlikely partnership with her selling his spare vegetables at the roadside and making enough to pay for all his seeds and then a new greenhouse. They would still argue – she never passed up a sale and if that meant there were no vegetables for us that night, so be it.
She died in 1989 and an era ended. How did my parents survive living with warring grannies, I’ll never know. Sometime around about when I married the Textiliste in 1984 mum told me that under no circumstances would she ever live with either the Archaeologist or me. She would not be that burden; Dad never made a similar promise. In many ways, looking back now, it is a shame I never enjoyed that privilege. The Textiliste may have thought differently of course! Fortunately for our marriage, I suppose, it never became a topic for discussion.