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Wednesday 25 January 2012

My Gran, Stories and Me

A few days ago I was looking at some old family photos and came across some pictures of my maternal Grandmother, my Gran. I idly posted some messages on Twitter about my memories of her and suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I really missed her and wished that I could see her again.

Some people on Twitter sent lovely messages, sharing memories of their own grandparents and a few said "You should write a blog about her", so I have. I am sure there will be mistakes and omissions in this post. Some stories will be half-remembered or perhaps embellished a little - but you don't have to know everything about a person to love them or cherish their memory.

Christened Jane, though most folk called her Jean, she was born in 1908 in Ayr, birthplace of Rabbie Burns. She was one of 9 children; 8 girls (Annie, Belle, Agnes, Jenny, Mima, Alexandra, and Bessie) and a boy (David) . She came somewhere around the middle. Her father was the trainer of Ayr United Football club and they made ends meet as families did in those days, with Sunday shoes a luxury and dolls conjured from wooden spoons and dishrags.

She was around 60 when I was born. She and my Papa lived in a small brick "corporation" bungalow in Ayr, with an immaculate garden full of roses. Gran would sometimes set a bowl of water with rose petals in it near a radiator or the fire and the sweet, dusky smell of roses reminds me of her.

She always wore dresses - never trousers, rarely a skirt and blouse that I remember - shift dresses or "shirt-waisters" in strong colours with strings of sparkly crystal beads that you now find in trendy vintage clothes shops. She wore cardigans, with a hanky tucked in the pocket or up a sleeve. She had horn-rimmed glasses which made her big hazel eyes even bigger. When she died I asked if I could have her glasses and they are still tucked away somewhere in our attic, several pairs all the same with their blue-ish rims.

I never saw her dance, nor wear a swimsuit. The swimming pool was "the baths" and the beach "the shore". She never swam (I don't know if she could) but sat on the tartan rug ready to wrap you in a towel and provide a "chittery bite" to stave off the cold.

She had arthritis and when we went for a run in the car we would stop and pick sheeps' wool from the barbed wire fences which she would wash and use to cushion her painfully twisted toes. She wore sturdy girdles with suspenders attached and sometimes I would have to help her with them because her poor sore hands couldn't manage the fastenings. I think my Mum sometimes found her weeping silently with the pain, but I don't ever remember seeing her cry.

She was a wonderful cook, not a great baker, but a magician with savoury treats. She cooked sweetbreads and ham hough and boiled ox's tongue. She also made legendary creme caramel, sometimes equalled but never bettered in any restaurant kitchen. The kitchen and pantry had grey slate flagstones and for special occasions she would stand at the kitchen counter and make elegant curls or balls of butter with two wooden pats.

She was very particular about table manners and always used good linen, which was folded away in the sitting room sideboard, where a green glass box full of stamps sat next to a little square of mirrored tiles and a china figurine of an old beggar lady. Out in the hall there was a thin red runner bordered by lino which was excellent for marbles, though sometimes we got in trouble for the racket they made.

The beds were old fashioned, probably just a cut above utility and had blankets and candlewicks or old fashioned satin eiderdowns. On cold nights there were stone hot water bottles, wrapped in towels, to warm the sheets. Pink fabric lampshades with ruffled rims were clipped to the headboard for reading in bed.

The bedroom was papered with hunting scenes and in front of the window was a dressing table with three hinged mirrors on the top. I would move the little cut glass tray with candlesticks and trinket pots which sat on top and close the mirrors around my face, till it was reflected into eternity like Rita Hayworth in "The Lady from Shanghai". Sometimes, I would try to make myself cry to see what it looked like. Nothing about the house was unusual, yet many objects in it always had a certain exoticism, perhaps because they were of the past, part of a world that was tantalisingly out of reach.

Because the house was small, I often slept in the double bed with Gran and in the mornings my brothers and I would get a story, quarters of orange sprinkled with sugar and, sometimes, a "Black Magic" chocolate. Trying to recall her face as it really was is difficult of course, frustrated by the insistent images of photographs which drain life from the original. The nearest I get to recapturing her true image is when I picture her telling us a story, her eyes wide and mischief in her smile.

She told wonderful stories, mix and match fairy tales where Cinderella would climb the beanstalk and discover seven dwarves and the heroines were cheeky and resourceful and often told the princes "Thanks, but no thanks" at the end. She liked gory stories too. She would tell us of the man who loved to eat pigs' trotters and who one day, ate and ate and ate till he could eat no more only discovering as he got up from the table that HE HAD EATEN HIS OWN HAND! (I think it took me till I was about 13 to work out that this couldn't possibly have been true.)

She bought us wonderful children's books. I often wonder how and why she picked them. They were rather out of the ordinary for the time I think, though many are now classics. "Madeline" of course with her unruly nature and ruptured appendix, lots of books by Roger Duvoisin, "The Happy Lion", "Petunia" and "Veronica's Smile". The one I loved best was "Anatole", about an honourable mouse who saves the Duvall Cheese factory with his exquisite palate ("good""not so good" "needs orange peel".) When I was a bit older my favourite was "Cuckoo Cherry Tree", a book of dark fairy tales by Alison Uttley .

My Gran was clever at school and excelled at English. On her last day at school she ran home eager to tell her parents that her teacher wanted her to apply for a bursary to attend Grammar school, but her mother told her firmly, "Jane, I've got you a place", a place in service and she started work as a maid the next day.

After she died my Mum found scraps of paper scattered around the house with fragments of remembered poetry, and the beginnings of stories written in Gran's spidery hand. In another time would she have made more of her love of language? Who knows. Her life didn't lend itself to periods of introspection.

After the war she took in lodgers and with the profits she rented a sweet shop. She made a decent enough go of that and wanted to buy a guest house, but my Papa wouldn't sign the mortgage papers. He didn't refuse out of malice, he was just a working class man of his generation who didn't believe in taking on debt.My Gran took the money and booked a long holiday on the continent, travelling to France and Italy with my Mum and Aunt, an exceptionally rare experience for women like them at that time.

She was a strong woman who knew her own mind and wasn't afraid to speak it. She had a temper and a sharp tongue and was prone to feuds with the local butcher, being barred on more than one occasion when she questioned the provenance, or cost, or something of his ham bones. She liked to watch the wrestling and would shout "Bite his bum! Bite his bum!" before letting out a throaty chuckle, eyes wide again in mock horror behind the blue-rimmed specs. She had her secrets, some of which I know but even now wouldn't share, because they're not my secrets to tell.

She died of pancreatic cancer in her early 70's, her hair still almost jet black with just a few strands of grey. After she died my Mum says a that a strange black cat with a smattering of grey hairs suddenly appeared in our garden. It would sit and watch my Mum hang out the washing or tidy the weeds. After a few weeks it disappeared as suddenly as it came. Perhaps it was my Gran's familiar, perhaps not. It's a good story, one she would have liked.

My parents live close to us and see my daughter often, more regularly than I saw my Gran. Sometimes she will stay with them and we will get a phone call from the three of them giggling like naughty schoolchildren in the queue for sweets at the cinema or in the toy shop. Sometimes I would come home from work in the dark and see them dancing in the lit sitting-room window. Sometimes I see glimpses of my Gran in my Mum, and my Dad will look at me when I am being thrawn and say "Aye, your Gran'll never be deid."

She is not here anymore, but she has left her mark, part of herself, atomised in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not just in her blood, it's not that simple, but in the memories we share and the stories we tell.

Friday 6 January 2012

Memories are Made of er, Something

Contender for most depressing news of the day is that apparently our brains start to deteriorate from as young as 45 - 15 years earlier than previously thought. According to a study in the on-line version of the BMJ, memory, reasoning and comprehension skills all tend to get worse as we enter middle age.

Well, tell me something I don't know. No, please. Tell me. Especially given that the list of things I don't know grows by the day; passwords, the name of my Primary 3 teacher, what happened at the end of "Moonlighting".

I have known for some time that fings ain't wot they used to be in the brain department. I'm not quite at the stage of wafting down the street in my nightgown, trilling "We'll Gather Lilacs", but there are days when I've got one foot out the door.

I've never had a particularly good memory. Not for events at least. My memory seems to resist a linear narrative in favour of a jumble of split second recollections, lightning flashes of past moments, untouched by troublesome context. My brother will say "Oh, that was the day Gran had the fight with the butcher. I got a comic and you were sick on Mum's shoes." To which, despite entirely useless and annoying promptings, I will reply, "I don't remember." I really don't. I have no memory for like, what actually happened or stuff. I just remember my Mum had nice shoes.

My memories are of picking the hot tarmac out of the pavement, or the rustling wrapping of the sweets I stole from the secret drawer in the dressing table. Basically my memory is all "Don't trouble me with the facts, dude."

I also have no memory for lyrics or quotations. All I remember from four years of English Lit is that old perv John Donne going on about a "hairy diadem". I did however have startling powers of recall where conversations or jokes were concerned. Like a choir master with perfect pitch auditioning a tone deaf school boy, I would wince as some poor soul mangled the punchline to a juicy story. No longer.

Sadly, it is my facility with the spoken word that seems to be showing the most wear and tear. I used to roam the sunlit uplands of language at will, merrily vaulting symbolic stiles and fording rivers of simile. Now I need a good mental run up to the minor incline of a longish sentence, before collapsing in the heather of an over-extended metaphor like this one.

That terrible feeling of the wheels grinding slowly, click, click, click, till the brain at last shudders to a halt at the right word and the tongue falls weeping on the required phrase, "Yes! I would like a BANANA!" Banana! It is a BANANA! Joy to the world! We are saved!

No wonder I seek out the company of fellow peri-menopausal women: women who point dumbly at the sky like a UFO obsessive because they have forgotten the word for cloud; or who are reduced to miming "scorching case of thrush" to the practice nurse while they make a phone call on their purse.

All of which makes me realise that I don't think I hear men talk about their "senior moments". Certainly not as often as women do. Is it because they don't have to contend with that spot of hormonal bother? Or do they simply like to keep their linguistic and other mental deficiencies to themselves? Perhaps their brains get more regular exercise from rehearsing the scores of decades of international football matches?

Perhaps we women are too hard on ourselves. As I keep telling my daughter as she rolls her eyes at yet another instance of my mental infirmity, "Everybody remembers what I forget, but you forget what I remember." Great swathes of dull domestic family life still fall on women's shoulders and it's not the kind of stuff that anyone wants to hear about. I could drag you to the pub to chew the fat about what went in this week's lunch boxes, but why bother when we could pour bleach in our eyes? (Plus, I can't remember.)

I do miss the mental athleticism of my youth, just like I miss a 24 inch waist or my real hair colour. But where does that get me? The solution is big pants, a bottle of hair dye and er, something else.