This time last weekend, we said goodbye to my gran. It was a hard and horrible day, one which I am sure most people can relate to.
As far as funerals go, it was a nice service. One of the hymns was ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’, which I think we can all agree is one of the best hymns. It is also very ‘gran’. There was a short summary of her life – a very concise summary, when you have to condense almost 95 years of life – and it finished with the Elvis version of ‘How Great Thou Art’. My auntie joked that the minister had better get the right track – 11, not 1, as the album begins with ‘Burning Love’.
No matter how long you had to speak, it would be impossible to condense her whole life, her whole person – it’s why I’ve had such trouble writing this post. She was a proper character. She was a hilarious, crazy, clever woman, and she’ll always be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.
I was going to introduce her to a boy for the first time. She would have been delighted. She once called me a career woman, and I think it was half because she was proud of how much I worked toward my education, and half because I never brought anyone home. She would say to me almost every single time I saw her, ‘Just tell me if I’m being too nosey, but have you met any nice boys?’ My dad would say, ‘Leave her alone!’ 95% of the time I would answer, ‘No, gran’, and the rest of the time I mentioned names that never materialised into actual people for her.
I was so excited for her to meet him because I knew she would love him, and I couldn’t wait for him to meet one of the most important people to me. As I live in London now, bringing someone home became an even bigger deal, because I’d have to ask him to come to Scotland, but my friend’s wedding at the end of May was the perfect excuse. I was home in March for the hen do, and I dropped in to see gran and told her I would see her at the end of May.
She was taken into hospital at the beginning of May. After a week, she developed delirium. I don’t think I realised, or I refused to realise, what was really happening, and I still thought we would go to see her, even if it meant in hospital rather than her home. It was only when my sister advised me not to take my boyfriend, whatever I did, that I started to comprehend how bad things were. When I got home on the Tuesday evening, my dad advised me to visit sooner rather than later. I went in the morning.
I won’t say too much about the last time I saw her as it’s not how I want anyone to know her. I just had to let her know, if she could hear or understand me at all, that I was happy. It was a huge part of the reason I wanted her to meet someone who has brought me so many good things. Gran wanted us to have it all, and no matter how fleeting all of this may be, I wanted her to know that she didn’t have to worry about me. It might have been wishful thinking, but when I finished talking, she might have been smiling. I don’t know if it’s better or worse that some part of her might still have been aware.
The next morning, the day I imagined we would visit her, was the morning my dad got the phone call to go to the hospital. In the end, she held out for another two days, a fighter until the end. The past few weeks have been tumultuous; she died on the morning of my parents’ anniversary, and the morning of the wedding we had come back for. I don’t think I let myself register what had happened for a week. Her funeral was a few days before my birthday. There have been some of the worst days, and then moments where I’ve been so happy, only to feel guilty about it afterwards.
However, gran would say to make the most of the happy moments. She was a positive person, despite experiencing so many things that could turn a person. She lived more of her life as a widow than she did married, losing my granddad before she even turned fifty. I did worry a lot about her being lonely. But she had the odd boyfriend, and she would go on holiday to St Ives, and she would come back with all the stories of the people she had chatted to on the train journey. One of them was a young man on his way to propose to someone, and she always wondered if the woman said yes.
I think she liked chatting to people for the same reason she loved reading – everyone has a story, and she wanted to figure them out. I think reading was a brilliant diversion for her – it’s why it was extra sad when she got cataracts and arthritis stopped her being able to hold books, but it’s difficult to avoid any effects of old age by the time you reach your nineties. I wanted to get her audio books, but dad joked that her neighbours wouldn’t thank me, because gran was a little bit deaf – or, according to her, she just needed her ears syringed. I am sure the neighbours were still subjected to the occasional terrible TV show.
Aside from soap operas, we had a lot in common: shared loves of books, music and travel. She had good taste in novels, introducing me to Kate Morton. She would always ask me to play Living Dream Waltz on the keyboard, as that was one of her favourites. She had always wanted to play piano, but being one of six siblings meant her parents could only afford for one of them to learn, the privilege falling to her younger brother. She was furious when he gave up lessons! She never did learn in later life, but she loved to sing – she even made a record during the war.
She encouraged me to travel and always wanted to see photos. I think she would have loved to have travelled more. Perhaps many of the things grandparents encourage in us are things they wish they had been able to do more of. I think it’s part of the reason she wanted me to make the most of my education, as very few people (let alone women) went to university in her day.
Gran left school at 14 to work as a window-dresser, and the war began soon after. She was in the WAFs, stationed in Glasgow, where she met my grandfather. She told us so many stories, but one of my favourites was actually about her brother. He got leave and decided not to tell his girlfriend so he could surprise her. He went to her office and called her from the next room, and she was so excited to hear from him, commenting that it sounded like he was right next door. Then of course he walked in and she was over the moon. That was the day he proposed, or the day they married – I wish I’d written down these stories, as the details are already fuzzy.
Gran was one of the few people who saw my own writing, mainly poems. She always took them seriously, reading them carefully and then asking what I meant by certain lines or why I’d written them a certain way.
She was also instrumental in me being where I am today. No one in my family was very keen on me moving to London, from a place of concern (mainly that I’d bankrupt myself). In the year after graduation, I visited gran more by myself, and she would tell me stories about the war and the years after and about other people, as always, and she would ask how the job hunt was going. It was one year after having handed in my dissertation when I admitted to her that I was really stuck in a rut, and I thought London might be my last chance. She simply said, ‘Well, you have to go then.’
It was all I needed to start reapplying for work experience, going back to basics. I had two offers within a week, and everything snowballed until I found myself in the big city, with three months before my money ran out. Luckily, the dream job turned up within two. I was so happy to be able to tell her I had finally got that career after all.
When my sister and I were young, my gran said to my mum that she was sad that she wouldn’t get to see the two of us grow up. (We were the youngest of the cousins.) She always thought she was going to die – of course one time she would have to be right. Every few years, we would get a little extra birthday money, as she wasn’t going to take it with her, was she? And it was a whole ten years ago that she announced to my cousin that she was off to pay for her funeral – the bronze plan. Very organised.
So she got at least a decade more than she anticipated. She ended up with three children, who provided six grandchildren, who provided five great-grandchildren she was able to know. There were weddings and babysitting and jobs and holidays. She got to see my sister and I reach our mid-twenties, become fairly settled and become something at least resembling grown-ups. We rarely keep those we love forever, so there would always have been something she would have missed; I am just grateful for how long we got to keep her, and for the moments she was around for, and I hope that she was proud. I hope we provided her with some decent stories!
I am finding again just how difficult it is to try to convey the spirit of a person, and I’ve written more than I intended, so I’m close to stopping. I just wanted to write some sort of tribute to her, which has become an introduction for you. I think anyone would have enjoyed meeting her, and, as you now know, she would have loved to have chatted with you too.
So I’ll remember that when we were little and we started crying, she would tell us to stop, because ‘tears are precious’.
I’ll remember that she told us stories about fairies – even if I can’t remember the stories.
I’ll remember that she told us about when she dyed her hair purple and orange (presumably on different occasions).
I’ll remember that she loved to sing; when I hear the Skye Boat Song, or ‘Getting to Know You’ or ‘Shall We Dance?’ from The King and I, I’ll always think of her.
I’ll remember false starts and tough times she guided each of us through.
I’ll remember when she looked after my sister and me when our parents were away, and dinner would descend into laughter when she said daft things without realising.
I’ll remember the baby photos she showed us of my dad – and will encourage one of my aunties or my dad to get all those old photos scanned.
I’ll remember that she didn’t always spell my dad’s name correctly, despite being one of the two people to choose it.
I’ll remember strawberry Swiss rolls.
I’ll remember one of the days after she had her hip replacement and was in a wheelchair, and we took her to the park. There’s a downhill slope on the way back to her flat, and my sister accidentally let go of the chair. Gran went flying off down the hill, and we went racing after her. When we caught up, there were tears in her eyes – from laughing so hard.
I’ll remember her strength.
I’ll remember her ninetieth birthday, when she asked for a tattoo. We got her transfers and she put a butterfly one on her thigh, hitching up her skirt to show it off to everyone.
I’ll remember her humour, her intelligence and how she didn’t take life too seriously.
In the end, what I really mean is that it would be impossible to forget her. She’ll continue to influence us, as she helped us grow up. Perhaps we’ll always hear her voice saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do but…’ before telling us what we should do.