In one of the universe’s subtle attempts to mess with me, my grandmother died yesterday on the same day that I finished this painting – Girl Seated in a Cemetery by Delacroix. In another week or so, I’ll be standing in cemetery myself with lots of other sad people, remembering the fantastic lady who was my grandmother.
Nan was less than two years away from her century. She was born before the First World War; before electricity, motor cars and aeroplanes were commonplace; before computers and television. She was born in a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and the world was much bigger than it is now.
Nan and Grandad lived two doors away from me when I was very small and they often took care of me. My mum went back to work when I was only 3 and I used to come home for lunch at my grandmother’s house. She’d make me egg sandwiches with the white removed (Yuck! Nasty stuff!) and then make meringues with the whites. And they say that the kids of today are spoiled!
Sometimes, they would take me up to London on the bus. We couldn’t take the train because Grandad got sick (something to do with the war) and even on the bus, we could only travel for about 20 minutes before we’d have to get off and wait for the next one. Getting up to London – 12 miles away – was an all day affair.
But it was worth it.
The only time I attended the Changing of the Guard was with Nan and Grandad; the first time I fed the sparrows in St James’s Park; first time across the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. So many firsts!
A very happy memory puts us in the Science Museum. Nan suffered her way through all the planes and machines and cheesy demonstrations of static electricity but when we got to the Way We Used to Live section, she suddenly came to life! It turned out that that section was modelled after Nan’s childhood and she had owned the very same brand of washing tub, mangle, jars of jam, soap and pretty much everything else that was essential to a working class house in the first part of the 20th century.
Grandad died about 30 years ago and, without the need to change buses every 20 minutes, Nan started to travel. The first time I left the country (a day trip to Boulogne on the ferry) was Nan’s first too but she soon made up for lost time. Of course, my favourite was her first trip to the New World. When she was 86, Nan came to visit me in California.
I have no idea how she made it, but what a joy it was to meet her at San Francisco airport and drive her – with the top down in the convertible! – to our house in Los Gatos. By day, she was taunted by a mischievous two-year old (“Mum! Nan wants some lemonade!” How many times did he get away with that before we found out that the soda was for him?) who taught her how to use a computer for the first time. Actually, “mis-taught” would be more accurate as he delighted in her frustrated laughter each time he put 8 pickles in the jar even though The Count only wanted 7.
But by night… By night she would tell us stories.
Children tend to lose touch with their grandparents just when they have the most to learn from what they have to say (or maybe that’s just me?) but we made up for lost time that week.
We heard all about the Coronation and The Blitz and about Doodlebugs (they were aimed at London, but plenty fell short). We heard about the Battle of Britain – she watched it overhead – and about how she sent her four young daughters off to four different cities in the north of England to escape the air raids and about her quest to go round them back up and bring them back when it was clear they were no safer with strangers than they were at home.
Nan brought up those four daughters on her own after their father was killed in a road accident. I learned one of life’s great lessons when she calmly explained how quickly the policeman arrived to give her the bad news. Nan: “There’s no point in worrying. If there’s bad news, you’ll know it soon enough.”
My sister made a family tree a few years back. She managed to trace our family back to the 17th century on several different branches. In 400 years, no one ever moved more than a couple of miles from where I grew up in Footscray. Now, in a generation, we are spread to the four corners of the map.
Nan’s part of the tree was particularly bushy with four daughters each with multiple children and then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of their own. But today there’s a piece of the tree missing and the world – or, at least, my little corner of it – is a little bit sadder for the loss.