We are familie-e-e-e-ee
I was staying with my grandmother when I was three. She must have had her hands full, looking after me, nursing her sister Jessie who was dying from kidney disease in the big bedroom, and coping with her maverick younger son, who was staying with her before embarking for the Western desert, to join the maverick Long Range Desert Group – a match made in heaven!
My uncle, who was unmarried, childless, and in his early twenties, spoiled me the way everyone did since I was the eldest of only two grandchildren. So now he said he would take me with him when he went to say his last goodbyes to the other side of the family. It would be an opportunity for me to meet my great-grandmother for the first time too.
We crossed London by double decker bus, and arrived at a house filled, it seemed to me, with lots of old people in dreary black and dark clothes. I was made to kiss all these tall elderly people towering over me (they were probably not more than forty!) and then we sat down to tea round a big oval table laden with cake-stands on the lace table-cloth.
The grownups got on with their conversation, and my great-grandmother, a fearsome little lady, grey and wizened, but sharp as a button, leaned down from the head of the table with a plate of small cakes, and offered me one. I reached out to take one, then drew back, realising they had currants in them. “No thank you,” I said politely.
“Why don’t you want one?” My ancient relative asked sharply.
“I don’t like currants,” I replied.
“You’ll have one,” she snapped, “I made them myself.”
So I took one obediently, and sat quietly picking out the currants so I could eat the cake parts, while the conversation flowed around me.
Suddenly a stick landed hard on my knuckles, and I cried out in pain. My great-grandmother was leaning down the tea table and had hit me with her walking stick. I pushed back my chair, slid off it, and fled into the kitchen where I buried my head in some-one’s lap (a maid?) who was sitting there, and cried my heart out. Before long, my uncle came in and I was hustled out of the house in disgrace.
When we caught the bus, with my uncle still be-rating me for my naughtiness, I was so upset, I jumped off the open double decker, and rolled into the road. I wasn’t hurt, but everyone on the bus seemed to be very angry with my poor uncle for upsetting a little girl so much that she did something so drastic to get away from him!
Back at my grandmother’s, the poor young man related the whole sorry saga to my disbelieving grandparent. “But she’s always so good”, she kept repeating as he tried to get her to understand how unfortunate the afternoon had been. My grandmother just cuddled me, and he was miffed.
Later she came to stay with us in Dorset, and I repaid her kindness by flinging myself into her lap to give her a hug, and knocking her spectacles off her nose, and smashing them. It was difficult to get anything repaired with everyone concentrated on the war effort, but she returned a few months later, and stepped down from the train smiling, wearing her repaired specs. I leapt rapturously into her arms, and knocked them off again. They lay shattered on the station paving. And she forgave me again.
When I stayed with her in London, while my brother was born back in Dorset, she taught me proverbs and rhymes and skipping games. I learned to skip down in the disused cobbled stable-yard, happily singing and chanting these traditional rhymes to myself. But I hurried inside from the garden in the dusk, fearful that Germans might be hiding behind the laurel bushes.
They might get me if I strayed too far from the big Edwardian house in which she had a flat, and I never lingered near the head- stones and graves for dead dogs, because there were so many places where the Germans might be hiding. When she visited her friends and took me with her, I overheard their conversations about where the bombs had been falling and realised that the world was a very dangerous place.
I was just four when my father came to stay before returning to North Africa after being commissioned. But then he and my mother had a row, and he packed his suitcase and strode out of the door. My mother stood weeping in the doorway, watching him go, and then she sent me after him. I ran down the lane, and he stopped, put down his suitcase, kissed me, and came home. But then it happened all over again, and this time when my mother stood in the doorway weeping, and sent me after him, he was angry, and sent me back crying.
I stood in the door with my mother and watched him go back to the war, and my heart was like a stone. I cried because he hadn’t loved me enough to come back, and I cried because I had failed my mother. There were other memories. The songs my mother sang me. She loved singing. She sang ‘Cherry ripe’, and ‘ Where the bee sucks, there suck I, and ‘One fine day’, from Madame Butterfly as lullabies…
Nine months after my father had disappeared back to the war, my baby brother was born, and we moved to a red brick villa on the outskirts of Weymouth. She used to sing the words of a pop-song then: ” You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” It was many years before I heard those songs again, and nearly fifty years before I could bear to hear ‘you are my sunshine.’ My mother disappeared a little over a year after we moved to Weymouth. The skies had often seemed grey before she left.
After the baby was born she seemed to have lost interest in us. She had always been somewhat erratic even to a small watching child, but now she would read a book at meal-times so we couldn’t talk to her. She was often out, and we would be so hungry with no food in the house, and I felt so despairing, that I used to look for comfort at a picture in a hymnbook my grandmother had given me. It was a painting of Jesus floating on a cloud, and underneath were the words from a hymn: ‘There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky’.
I learned to mash Farley’s rusks with milk to feed the baby, and can remember when we had been away for the weekend with our mother, rushing in to rescue the abandoned baby in his cot, change his nappy, and make scrambled egg for the starving child. When I stood on a chair at the ironing board to iron our school uniform for the expensive private school we attended, she laughed, and said, “you’re my little slave, aren’t you – but don’t tell anyone I said that”.
The worst times were at night. If I woke I would creep along to her bedroom and very quietly open the door to see if she was there. If she was, she smacked me hard, but I didn’t mind, because she was home. If she was out, when the air raid siren screamed, I had to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air raid shelter. One night as we lay on a mattress in the shelter, my nose began to bleed heavily. I couldn’t stop it, and finally must have slipped into unconsciousness, because the next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a blanket, with my mother holding me and fire blazing in the hearth.
The worst night of all was when I lay awake for hours frozen with fear, hearing planes flying over endlessly, and certain that this was Hitler come to get us. It was only recently that I realised that this was the night of D-Day, when people all over the South of England were standing outside in their night clothes watching this great armada flying to the invasion. It was round about this time that my mother disappeared, and my grandmother left her home and friends to come and care for us – a six- year- old, a five-year- old and a traumatised fourteen- month-old baby. The next few years were the good ones.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
Having read a blog about not wasting food I felt challenged… I don’t think I do, but to be on the safe side, I used up left-overs today. I had a good serving of cooked rice, so decided to make kedgeree. Did my normal thing now of cooking the onion in the microwave before adding it to the frying pan, sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of curry powder, half a teasp each of cumin, coriander and turmeric, plenty of garlic and let them cook with the onion for a few minutes.
Having soaked half a cup of frozen peas and sultanas in boiling water, I added them to the mix to absorb the curry flavours, and then stirred in the cold cooked long grain rice. I had no smoked salmon left after making blinis endlessly for all the celebrations we’ve been attending, so opened a tin of shrimps, and stirred them in. Tasting it, I added some more curry powder, and salt. I didn’t have any fresh parsley to chop, but with a chopped hard- boiled egg each, it was a good lunch.
Food for thought
Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself. Albert Einstein
36 responses to “Bombs and a baby”
My goodness Valerie, what a childhood–so much of its difficulty caused by the war. I’m glad you had some good years after all the difficulties. My paternal Grandma was the sweetest, wisest woman. I would love to have a conversation with her now when I could better appreciate all she had been through to gain her wisdom. I like your quote, too. I am grateful I have never lost connection with my intuition. Thank you.
Good morning Ardys, thank you for your comment … I read some sociological report that said there really seemed no point to grandmothers in terms of evolution. I snorted to myself… and wondered how society would cope with so many grandmothers picking up the pieces, and generally holding families together !!!
Yes, intuition is one of those amazing aids to living that much of society forgets, I often think…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I am big fan of kedgeree. One of my favourite things to use is tinned mackerel. Your early story is not easy reading. When your mother disappeared were you left on your own for awhile? How did your grandmother know to come and look after you? Perhaps these are details you don’t remember.
I remember. My grandmothrr came for the weekend to give my mother a break, but she never returned
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ah, so it was an opportune (for her) moment seized.
How really sad but you survived to be an excellent mother and grandmother.
Lovely to hear from you, Margot… well, I was determined my chlldren would never feel like I did as a child… and being a grandmothers… well I think that’s one of the blisses of life… falling in love with grandchildren and loving unconditionally
What an amazing life story! I am so glad you shared it with us.
Thank you so much… lovely to know you found it interesting…
and there’s much more interesting things to come !!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
What an unusual childhood. I can’t imagine a great granny hitting a child because they didn’t like raisins! Different times.
Different times indeed, Kate… child psychology hadn’t even been . invented.then!
The currant thing – I think it was more that my great grandmother felt I was defying her…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I hadn’t thought of that. I couldn’t figure out why your uncle didn’t try to smooth things over but then again it was different times.
I think a childless young man was probably embarassed by a child in his care apparently creating a scene !!!
What a nasty old hag great-grandmother was. Not surprising that with that descent mother seems to have been a bit of a washout. Grannie, on the other hand, was just marvellous.
The songs you mention are really familiar to me. They tie in with memories of crying myself to sleep in a happy sort of way at the sheer beauty of Grieg’s ‘Morning Mood’.
Yes, Grandmother was… more about her later !
Those songs would be unknown to chlldren today, wouldn’t they…With no technology, I often think our childhoods were richer…Grieg… how lovely that you were so sensitive to such beauty …
LikeLiked by 1 person
Your childhood gave you wisdom beyond your years, kindness to heal others, and courage to do things that most people would never dare. Much love, Valerie.
Lovely to hear from you Rebecca… thank you for your beautiful words… yes, je ne regrette rien Love to you XXX
I read this with wonder, horror and the need to reach out and touch that wee child and hold her.
Thank Heavens for your grandmother.
Part of me wants to grab your Mom and say..Shame on you. Another part of me wants to understand WHY…and then there is a huge part of me that wonders if your Mom could have used some mental/emotional/physical help.
But mostly my heart says—what an amazing, endearing and grown up little person you were. It says so much about the kind, loving, warm woman you are today.
You are amazing, my dear friend. Truly!
Always so good to read your comments dear friend… yes, my poor mother needed a lot of help after her childhood … and there was none… so she simply couldn’t cope with mothering, and when she had another marriage and
another child, stuffed her into boarding school at age five, with horrendous emotional consequences for that child, I discovered many years later….
Thank you for the sweet things you say …
LikeLiked by 1 person
Oh..what a heart break and a waste of human beings. Children and that very damaged soul, the mother.
As you and I know, there was a reason on another level, for us all choosing these experiences and each other… so, I feel there were no accidents in having this sort of life – and situations which, if we are open to them, teach us so much…XXX
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a blessing that your grandmother was there to take the reins and love all of you! Grandmothers are a big part of the African-American community in the US, where there are, sadly, many too many single mother families. Your poor mother. I marvel at the vividness of your memories and always enjoy reading them, although “enjoy” isn’t always the best word. Thanks you, Valerie.
You may have read this that I wrote in answer to another comment… and your observations bear out what I’ve always felt…..:”I read some sociological report that said there really seemed no point to grandmothers in terms of evolution. I snorted to myself… and wondered how society would cope with so many grandmothers picking up the pieces, and generally holding families together !!!”
Thank you for your words, Janet,
I always appreciate what you have to say …
So many memories evoked by your post Valerie …..my Yorkshire grandmother in her ‘best’ navy frock, pearl brooch & ample bosom & always a lap to sit on when the world was totally bewildering….mind you her tongue would give you a lashing if she thought you needed it! God bless grandmothers….not so sure of gt grannies wielding walking sticks though! Loved the intuition quote too…..oh and your salmon kedgeree recipe is well loved in this household, must try with shrimps …..goodness must stop rambling!! …..
Hello Angela, Lovely to hear from you… loved your memories of your grandmother … grannie’s are indispensable aren’t they, and add so many dimensions to our childhood…I love to know you enjoy my kedgeree… love your so-called ‘ramblings’ please come and ramble as much as you like !!!
Your stories are so vivid and well told that I become the child you were as I read. I ached for the three year old who had her knuckles rapped for picking currants out of cake. (If I’d been punished like that for all of the times I picked nuts out of cake, I would have grown up with seriously impaired hands.) And then to be told you were naughty??? I’m glad you weren’t seriously injured jumping from the bus.
I hardly saw either of my grandmothers growing up. One , a poet, lived in New York. However, all through my childhood, she was my pen-pal. She wrote wonderful letters. The last one I received before age took its toll on her included a poem she wrote to herald the birth of my first son, her first great-grandchild. The other we never even referred to as Grandma…she was Mamie, my grandfather’s third wife, who was a dour hypochondriac. Ah…there I go. You inspire me to remember, my friend.
I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like going to bed in fear of being killed by the Nazis. But I thank heaven for your grandmother. She sounds like a dear lady who deserves to be remembered.
Thank you for continuing these stories. It’s a weekly portion of magic.
Hello Rochelle, are you still shivering in the big chill? loved hearing your memories of your grandmothers… the glue that holds generations together I often think….
Thank you so much for your encouragement to write my story… I’m surprised how much courage it takes to go back and remember, and write and wonder if it’s even interesting to others – so your words are really helpful, thank you, Valerie..
Another heart-pounding post, Valerie – I’m not sure I can take it! And at the same time, it makes utterly compelling reading – thank you for sharing. 🙂
From the child
Oh Liz, its so lovely to read your words, and know that my story is interesting…your encouragement is so affirming, thank you…
I agree with Liz, I want to hold the little girl you were. (would hug you today if you were here). thank you for sharing with us both the hardship and the happy memories. Sending love!
Dear Patty, on checking back on this post, I find I missed your loving and lovely comment – thank you so much, I love hearing from you, and hope all is well with you, with love, Valerie
How wonderful for your siblings that they had you to look after them and what a blessing you had your grandmother’s love and support. I recently read an article that stated that more grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren than ever before.
Dear Friend, on checking back n this post, I find I missed your lovely comment forgive me… yes, grandmothers so often fill the gaps these days, and I had the joy of doing that for one treasured grandchild too..
thank you for reading…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Oh my, what a resourceful little girl you were! Your fear of the Germans is palpable and your treatment by that Great Granny abhorrent. Thank goodness for your Granny who came to look after you all when your Mother left. I can’t help worrying about her and what befell her ……..
Thank you Sally for your thoughtful comments…sadly my mother never really had a happy life, in which anyone seemed to have cared for her, I found when at last I tracked her down. By then even her lawyer had embezzled all her money from the house she had just sold for her retirement and then committed suicide, so she ended up alone and penniless, and there was little I could for her from this side of the world.