Thursday, 9 August 2012

Others - A Memoir of My Grandmother

My last grandparent died recently, drawing a close to a very precious era in my life. 36 years of feeling loved and cherished and watched over by those precious 4 people who brought my parents into the world. The older generation are all now laid together in their double graves, one coffin on top of the other, with gravestones set to mark where the bodies of such formative people in my life will gradually turn to dust. “Muzzy”, my maternal grandmother, was the last to go, reaching 91, glad to be leaving this world and “joining her maker” at last. A woman of devout and unflinching faith, she used to joke “My dear, I never meant to live this long! I would have been quite happy to go before!” She had utterly no fear of death and was almost keen to join her god. Her main goal had been to make sure her husband (who we called Papa) went before her, and never had to live without her constant care of him.

He died two years ago and she had a last “honeymoon” in her final years, living in comfort with people around her who cared for her, her brain still sharp and her heart overflowing with pride and love for her family. She wrote letters to us all until only a few weeks before she died. She was constantly interested in our lives, what we were doing and who we were. Of me, she wanted to know what my work as a therapist meant, who I helped, how it helped, how my daughter was getting on. She wanted to be updated about my relationships and loves. She lived and breathed her family.  She avidly watched the nature around her, still making her pressed flower cards and giving the proceeds to raise money for the RNIB. Muz’ life was about “Others” (the motto of her schooldays) – something I found myself thinking about as I reluctantly tried to do some housework, cook my daughter dinner and get the washing on the line.

When things happened in the family, especially funny things that the children said, or events that shaped things, she would say: “O, I must put that in my Memoirs!” or if she was telling a story from the past, there would often me an aside:  “It is written out in my Memoirs, one day you will read it”.
When she died, I knew that it would be too much for my ill father to go and help his sister to clean out her room. The memoirs, the letters, the pressed flowers, the old books and objects – they were all in there and they would distress him. I offered to go and help, knowing also that in a strange way it would help me to feel close to her still. Also, I have become something of the family historian: it seems that it is my pattern, indeed - my obsession, to not lose information about the past – about who these people were who lived before me, who have me their genes. I have long wanted to garner all the knowledge of them that I can, before all this information is lost forever. It goes back generations: my “museum” of family history is probably getting larger than the space I have for it. Right back to the 1800’s.

It may seem strange, but I get immeasurable comfort from contact with the everyday objects they will have used in their own lives. Just using the old paring knife my grandfather used to peel his apples can make me feel close to him again. I use my other grandmother’s battered colander, Muz’ hideous (and slightly rusty cheese grater) in preference for anything new. My house is now FULL of old fashioned, outdated objects from their lives. Objects as well as stories that tell me something about who I am, through who they have been: I crave them with a passion that perhaps borders on obsession. In their last years, I recorded both Muzzy, and my maternal grandfather “Pampy” talking about their lives – stories from the war, how they met and fell in love and odd stories about their parents, my great grandparents. Muz relished the opportunity to talk about all these things. I knew her “Memoirs” would be different though: written throughout her life, they span the oral history of her parent’s life before she was born (starting in 1910) through to a year before she died in 2011. One hundred and one years of intimate family and social history. I was nervous, but also excited about reading them. My father wanted me to read them, and for the time being, I have them here with me. I have been dipping in and out, my head buzzing with the wealth of interesting information about all of our lives and the wider context of the world in which they lived. The scale of it is fantastic. Next week I am off work and plan on trying to put them in proper order and begin to copy them electronically so that they are available to all the grandchildren in my family, to be passed on to Muzzy’s 12 great-grandchildren as they get older.

This week has been a hard one for me. I am self employed, and in order to pay for the two week’s forthcoming holiday, had to cram my diary full of appointments. Extra supervisions and client sessions. Covering facilitation of the “Relapse Prevention” group for a colleague who was away. Admin up to my ears. My time has been spent trying to keep the counselling agency I jointly manage ticking over smoothly. In this time, I have ignored my housework, allowed clothes and toys and washing to build up.  My fridge is empty, for want of making the time to get to the supermarket. Keeping house has not been something I have cared about. Today I had a day out of the workplace and I have found that the last thing I actually wanted to do is wipe down my worktops or polish any of the dust off my books and instruments.

Instead, I dipped again into some pages of Muz’ memoirs. I chose 1945, the year she married my grandfather and they set up home together. I sat and read in my messy kitchen.  I knew already that they had been poor. Muzzy fell pregnant quickly, though they didn’t know that she was expecting twins until her actual labour. Elizabeth died after 3 days and Muz never saw her or held her. My Aunty Heather survived. It took Muzzy a long time (according to the memoirs) to not be fearful that she would lose her second baby girl too. The practical description of their early life together in the Cotswolds really impacted on me this week and I have decided to share a part of it here. The contrast to my own life was so stark, so noticeable:

“Heather was 9 months old when we moved to Donnington Cottage.. I was much happier here – there were 3 rooms one on top of another, one window in each and a blank wall at the back. Open cottage gardens in front.. We had no sink, only a tap in a dark alcove at the back of the room where coal had been stored. We popped a bucket underneath and all washing and washing up was done on the table, which was in the middle of the room.
The toilet was an earth one, at the end of our long garden. We kept it clean – a hole in a large wooden seat. I used to get cross with my poor Herbert when he went there in dark evenings, because he always insisted he took our Tilly lamp with him and we had to light a candle! No gas, or electricity of course. We cooked on the old kitchen range which had to be black-leaded – it seemed to work quite well for our simple needs.
Even the flat iron had to be heated on this range and this was difficult. No sooner than it was hot, than Heather would cry or need attention, and time after time the iron would be cold. I well remember getting cross over this many times and also once finding some of her little cotton frocks (no nylon then!) quite mouldy in the drawer from being flung in desperation at some time or another. I heard, with shame that years ago a woman had brought up 7 children in that cottage!! She needed a halo at least.
The nice part was sitting on the door stop in the sunshine while peeling potatoes and chatting with my fellow neighbours doing the same. This was happiness. Heather outside as much as possible, on the cobble stones; she learnt to walk without fear on the stones and rough ground....
I busied myself with the usual countrywoman’s chores. We kept fowls, dug for vegetables. Herbert made me a sawing bench and WOODING became a serious business and one of the happiest. Sawing the wood occupied at least an hour some days and it was used to boil saucepans, kettles and to warm the oven, as also to heat the copper to boil the “whites”. We would go to the pile to obtain a handful of twigs to get the kettle, or copper to boil..The washing in bad weather was suspended over our heads and in the winter nappies had to be dodged all day long. Herbert used to get sick of this – so did I, of course.
There was always a pile of mending – it never ended. I used to repair and repair again. Herbert’s shirts had stiff collars and cuffs at that time and needed a lot of care in ironing and starching. There was always a bowl of starch “on the go” for the collars, cuffs and Heather’s little dresses to make them smart”.
Once my well-to-do Aunt visited us, and I was doing the weekly “turn out”. I imagine that is exactly what a “turn out” is. All the furniture, matting, bowls etc were outside on the cobbles and I had no where to put her! I shewed her to a chair on the path and there she sat ‘til I had scrubbed the floor, put the furniture back and she was able to come inside!”

When I read Muzzy’s memoirs, I can hear her voice reading them to me. She had a sing songy, quite sweet voice. She was like a tiny, quick voiced bird. She loved recollecting these things: how much life changed in her life time amazed her. I think she was proud she survived their early poverty, even enjoyed it. In time she came to have the washing machines, the electric irons, the microwaves. But her life as a mother did not start like that. It was ALL hard work, wooding, scrubbing, cleaning, washing - though with those blissful communal moments of talking to her neighbours as she peeled potatoes. As I read, I imagined her looking at the state of my house, my apathy at the idea of cleaning it. I imagined her looking into the drawers and seeing Eleanor’s unironed, unfolded clothes. I imagined her shock that I don’t actually know the names of the neighbours living opposite me. And I thought: Hannah, you CAN make some headway into this housework today. Because all you need to do to make tea, is click a switch on the kettle. All you need to clean your floor is to reach for the vacuum cleaner under the stairs and plug it in.

I wish the end of this blog was that I could report I did just that: that I cleaned my house in a great haze of Mr Muscle and old fashioned elbow grease. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t. Instead, my daughter and I lazed around and had a quiet day reading. We rested ourselves. I read more of her memoirs. And then I stopped and thought of her life of service and care of “Others”. And I thought of my life of work running the agency in Bristol. I realised I work just as hard in my care and service to “Others” in this context. I work incredibly hard in my care of Eleanor: though I don’t worry that her dresses rarely get ironed. I am deeply lucky. It no longer matters if my fire is not blacked well, or if my “whites” gradually become grey. Society has changed. But hard work hasn’t. Mine just looks different from hers. I do wish though, that I could sit on my doorstep and peel potatoes, chatting with my neighbour. That does sound like happiness and something I worry that we may have lost..


  1. Hi Hannah,
    Thankyou for a wonderful read. A couple of observations strike me after reading. Firstly, how similar your writing is to Muzzy's. The style of the prose as well as the actual writing. Secondly, what an erudite and seemingly well educated woman she was for her time, especially considering her social status. What a wonderful and informative read her memoirs must be, I envy you the delights of discovery! I read the partial memoirs of a friend (now passed) during his time as a radio operator in the jungle above Singapore during the war and I so wanted him to finish them. Alas he never did. They were a fascinating insight into a way of life I will never experience.
    Like you at the end of your musings, I find it fascinating that things do not really change. The world may change around us but life continues in the same vein. I also worry that we are losing the type of community that chats over potato peelings. It is something I strive to achieve through music and my allotment, which in my opinion is the last bastion of community.
    Thankyou for your post and I look forward to the next one.

  2. I love your story, but I love the name of your blog even more! I think about how important it is to pass our stories onto the next generation and loved reading your post. I wrote a memoir about my grandmother, also married in 1945, titled The Significance of Having Curly Hair and am always interested in similar stories. Thank you for taking the time to write this.