A whole century gone in an instant

January is always somewhat downbeat. You start the first week of it thinking about all the plans you have, and looking at travel websites to firm up your holiday plans. Then you’re entirely overwhelmed by stacks of work, and stacks of personal life admin that suddenly need doing overnight.

This year was no exception in that respect, but perhaps a little harder as my grandmother died on New Year’s Day. She died of a heart attack in her house, apparently on the way to bed. The neighbour found her, and somewhat mystifyingly, Coventry air ambulance was deployed to try and revive her. She was 101, and she most certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be kept alive by a thread, only to be released from hospital into a nursing home.

Everyone has to die sometime, and she had more than lived her life. It was obvious she was nearing the end, and I was quite sure I had seen her for the last time on the 18th December, but of course I still hoped that she would be around just a little longer; that time at some point in the future when you have told your grandparents all the things you ever wanted to tell them, when you have truly expressed your appreciation of everything they taught you. That time never comes, and you never send that letter that is ghosting through your head for years before they die. She is so deaf that our last visit was conducted largely in silence, and I was going to write her a letter before Christmas, giving her the information I wanted to share with her. Of course Christmas was “so hectic” that I didn’t. I’ve never any idea why an enjoyable bit of time off work should always result in such pandemonium; it certainly didn’t for my grandparents, they just stuck an orange and penny into a sock and left it at the end of our beds. This was the cause of substantial tears when we stayed with them.

My grandfather taught me how to make white sauce, butter cream, Victoria sponges, and how to really read Horace in a way that gave me much more enthusiasm for it. Until he went through my A Level revision with me, I had found Catullus, Cicero and Virgil much more engaging, mainly because the subject matter seems more relevant. Horace is somehow a bit lost in the past, perhaps because he is gentler and more philosophically flexible than other Roman writers. My grandfather was always more interested in how to translate the literal words into a more lyrical, idiomatic English that would be relevant, while I was always more interested in the idea in general, and Horace’s ideas were about contentment in life, which appeals a lot more at 39 than it ever did at 17. I wish I had written down what he told me, or rather that I still had those revision notes. He used to write me little translations of the Odes, or showed me his original text books and some translations from Oxford in 1933. It was what he wanted to share with me, and it made him so happy to see his own erudition passed on in some small way. It was certainly why I applied to Merton, because the place itself seemed an intrinsic part of him and his priorities. Apparently it was not a very academic place in the 1930s, being more interested in good rowing, cricket and rugby results. He was always therefore quite amused (without really being terribly interested,  it wasn’t cricket after all) that I was quite so into rowing. I don’t know a great deal about his life; in the war, he was apparently in Intelligence in Czechoslovakia. He spent his career, or most of it, working for what is now the Department of Work and Pensions in Coventry, something to do with prisoner rehabilitation according to my mother. His colleagues gave him a rather touching retirement present:


My grandmother taught us how to use a sewing machine, embroider and attempted to teach us how to darn socks. She almost never cooked once they both retired, although she did tend to be quietly fixing my grandfather’s little glitches in the background – discreetly re-rubbing the crumble mixture, stopping things burning, preventing him from using too many eggs for his rather yummy herb flapjacks. They were always so careful about everything they used, and so irritated by us lolling about in bed, or leaving the lights on, or eating sweets between meals. She was I think quite sad that our youngest son has some difficulties, and very keen to hear the outcome, which she never will, partly because I don’t think we ever will either. I wanted to explain all the details to her; she seemed interested, and wrote to me sharing everything she knew about foot deformities from the family history – she couldn’t find any, which is unsurprising if it is indeed the random post-fertilisation mutation our geneticist suggests. I should have taken the time to explain all this to her, as she seemed to feel personally responsible for a genetic glitch she thought might have been passed down.

It’s hard to believe they were both born in 1915, and I wish I had ever succeeded in extracting more detail of what life was really like then. My grandfather unsurprisingly had fixed views on a number of things. He viewed Margaret Thatcher as an evil witch (“That bloody woman is on the radio again, switch it off”), and viewed Marketing as a non-job for stupid people who would be better off learning a proper trade. I don’t think he was religious, notwithstanding my mother’s assertions. They were just decent people who wanted to do the right thing in life, and tried not to judge everyone else all the time; except obviously if you left the lights on or overfilled the bath or ate three pieces of bread, you were definitely judged for that.

We went to clear out some furniture this weekend, taking a lot more than we planned; the oak dining table they sheltered under in the Blitz, which is actually in need of substantial TLC; a trolley that was filled with travel Bibles (one for “H. Rawson, on your departure to South Africa, 1900”); an Ercol rocking chair; a selection of German poetry books; a set of nested coffee tables that are a bit broken; crystal glasses and a decanter; a set of 1960s crockery, and some chocolates she had obviously been given for Christmas. All the stuff is so old, and mostly broken and mended many times, and most of it will end up in an auction or a tip. She kept all of her 70th wedding anniversary cards, and all of her 100th birthday cards, and hundreds of photos of all her grandchildren. It’s so touching how much all these physical objects mattered to her, but death makes them all seem meaningless overnight. They had meaning  only in relation to my grandparents, in their place in the rooms that I remember from my childhood. Hopefully we can restore the table, and give it new meaning through our own family memories. Hopefully the people that wanted to buy her house will keep tending the delicious raspberries and tomatoes in the garden. Everything else, the 1950s poppy patterned wallpaper, the Aga, the patterned carpets, the pink bathroom, will be ripped out by builders in the course of a few days I should think.


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