A life – part three
My grandmother was my favourite person. Whereas I had always felt responsible for my baby brother and younger sister, when she came to look after us when my mother left, I felt I could hand over the burden.
When she moved in to pick up the reins, she brought all her Victorian past with her. Up went the heavy, red velvet curtains in the bay window in the front room where my sister and I had watched the big girls playing on their roller skates across the road, peering through the brown sticky paper, taped across the windows in diamond shapes, to stop the glass shattering in a bombing raid.
I loved the texture and the colour and richness of the velvet. I loved the shiny brass rods with the rings that clanked when the curtains were pulled, and the big brass knobs at each end. I loved the aspidistra in its brass pot standing on its tall, spindly, three -legged table. On the other hand, I hated the Staffordshire figures which were her great pride. I thought them ugly and clumsy – and still do, for that matter, though I did like her Meissen angels.
Upstairs in the bedrooms, our little utility divans were replaced with deep feather mattresses into which we sank in blissful security. The dark mahogany and rosewood wardrobes and dressing tables filled my senses with deep satisfaction. The sheen, the grain, and their generous size were comforting and solid in a world which in my experience had been bleak and insecure, able to be blown away by a bomb in the red sky of night.
I remember the pleasure of sitting at the oak dining table as I dreamily chewed my bread and jam, and gazing at her knick-knacks on the oak sideboard the other side of the room – deep, blue Wedgwood biscuit barrel for chocolate biscuits, silver- bound oak biscuit barrel for plain Vienna biscuits, and the silver stag standing at bay on a writing tray which held all her letters and bills. Brass candle sticks stood each side of the biscuit barrels. The tall, wooden, barley-sugar twisted ones on the kitchen mantelpiece over the coal range now stand on my dining table.
She boiled the kettle for afternoon tea in winter on a little cast-iron stand which hooked onto the side of the grate in the dining room fire. And there was the bliss of making toast over that fire with a long brass toasting fork. It tended to taste of flames and soot, but was warm and crisp and a great treat. The thick red and blue patterned turkey rug in front of that fire was my favourite place. Kneeling with my elbows on the rug I would bury myself in a book while I was supposed to be watching the butter soften by the fireside.
Deep in my book and oblivious to butter, duty or anything else, I would be discovered crouched by the saucer of swimming, melted, precious, rationed butter. But if I was reading I was excused. No-one ever got into trouble for reading in her house. Until the day she died she was encouraging her great-grandchildren to read, as she had always encouraged me.
Not that I needed it. I longed passionately to be able to read grownup books. My mother had already taught me to read when I finally started school at five and a half, having stayed home to keep my sister company until she was old enough to start school with me. I was forever bored as the class limped along the wall friezes which said things like ‘A for apple, ‘B’ for bat’. The teacher didn’t know I could read, and it never occurred to me to tell her. I was so shy I rarely spoke at all. I read every textbook as soon as they gave it to us, a habit I took into secondary school, so I already knew all the answers in class.
Books for children were scarce, presumably because few were printed during the war. So, when my grandmother arrived with her box loads of books, it seemed like treasure. The children’s books were my father’s First World War and Edwardian boys’ books, the plots mostly centred on some pious crisis of conscience, but which I read nonetheless. I was particularly fond of my grandmother’s bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ journals, rows of red leather binding and gold tooling, with pictures as well as stories inside.
They tended to be about Evangelical but highborn young men who possessed crisp, fair curls, and wore boaters and striped blazers, and often went punting, and they also featured swooning young women, often orphaned, but in truth, of noble blood!! I learned a lot about mourning from these tomes, and the fact that ladies wore lots of black crepe – whatever that was – and black jet jewellery for such occasions. Not that I had the faintest idea what mourning was, except that it made people cry.
My grandmother also pressed on me her books from her Victorian childhood. ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ was the most memorably painful, about a family living and dying in various stages of starvation and violence in the East End of London (my brother and I laughed years later that we were probably the last two people in the world to read this grim novel). There were The Wide Wide World’, ‘The Lamplighter’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’, all tales about orphans. I wept buckets over them. When I had surfaced from these agonies, there was’ A Crown of Thorns’, a suitable tale for a seven -year -old about Dutch Protestants being buried alive by the Spanish Inquisition during the time of Elizabeth 1.
I baulked at ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. My grandmother’s big volume with the original illustrations, with Christian stuck in the Slough of Despond, and the depravities of Vanity Fair and all the rest, depressed me more than any of her other books which included ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’…
Editions of Mallory and tales of Arthur, Merlin and Morgan Ie Fay in Arts and Crafts bindings, and Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with art nouveau drawings educated my eye as well as my mind. I laboriously read Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in one of the original editions – which my grandmother collected – another large leather-bound tome with engravings protected by tissue paper, like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress ‘and Foxe’s ‘Martyrs.’ I still remember the terrible shock when Crusoe and I found Man Friday’s footsteps on the beach!
And I read Swift’s account of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, and later found the children’s watered-down version pallid and boring. My favourite book then is still one of my favourites, ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’. When I re- read it as an adult, I recognised many of the ethical imperatives in the novel as having influenced my thinking ever since, while ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ introduced me to the concept of slavery and abolition.
Later when I unguardedly revealed to my recently returned father and his new wife that I enjoyed ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’ and they laughed themselves silly over its Victorian sentiment, I feared the rest of my reading was also material for mockery, and buried its existence in the back of my mind. And since my new parents did not want to be bored with tales of our past, I never discussed these books, and much else, so was never able to put them in context.
Even the green and gold Tate and Lyle golden syrup tin which sat on the table at breakfast to use instead of rationed sugar, was worth reading and squinting at as I spooned the treacle over my porridge…’ out of the strength cometh forth sweetness’ it proclaimed. My grandmother was very pleased with me for taking her injunctions about reading so literally, and boasted to her friends about it. So whenever I was due for a present they dug into their shelves for a book suitable for a seven- year- old bookworm, with the result that I had more copies of Aesop’s fables than any other child in history, I would imagine.
She introduced me to gardening. She gave us a small plot of our own, and we went to the news-agent where they sold seeds as well as sweets, newspapers and bread, and chose the seeds we wanted to grow. I loved the name Love-in-a-mist, and since they were also blue, my favourite colour, I took several packets. Every day for the next three weeks I rushed outside in the morning to peer at my little plot of earth until the glorious dawn when I detected a faint green haze – the first sign of the green mist through which the blue flowers were going to emerge.
Like many gardeners, my grandmother couldn’t resist breaking off twigs and cuttings wherever she was, if the opportunity presented itself with dignity. But once her scruples were nearly undone by a hidden fern we passed regularly when we all walked down to the beach with my brother in his push chair. Every time my grandmother passed this wire fence with the little fern nestling there, unloved, and unseen by the people whose garden it was, she fantasised about bringing a trowel one day, and leaning over to dig it up. Finally, she couldn’t trust herself any more, and to my great relief removed herself from temptation, by going the long way round.
She was deeply religious and never missed a Sunday at the Salvation Army, which she had joined in its early days when she was a girl at the turn of the century. She told me tales of marching through the squalor of the East End being pelted with tomatoes, and trying to give the ‘War Cry ‘ to drunks outside pubs. Because the rest of the family disapproved of her ties to the Salvation Army, she sent us to a church Sunday School near us, and made sure we were as regular as she was. Consequently, I became immersed in religion. She and I were never ones to skim over a thing lightly, so I read more Bibles and Bible stories than most children of my generation.
She was obviously a highly intelligent woman who had been frustrated for most of her life – clever, feisty, quick-tempered and even in her eighties – a rebel. She could add a column of figures faster than anyone else, and her memory was phenomenal. I inherited the memory, somewhat watered down, but not the ability with figures. While her elder sister Lizzie, who was famous for being bossy, trained as a nurse, became matron of a hospital in Leeds, and shockingly for those times, lived happily with a married man, Mabel, my grandmother, married young, and unhappily. With her religious beliefs, it was a great shame to her that she was divorced.
Her memories of her late Victorian childhood fascinated me and stretched my imagination. Most important of all her stories was not her grandfather captaining the first paddle steamer up the Thames and receiving the Freedom of London when he stepped ashore, but her description of the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up.
She and her sister Jessica were in their bedroom and the windows blew out, the dressing table mirror was shattered, and the sky was red and filled with flames.’We threw ourselves down on the floor and prayed’, she said ‘We thought the end of the world had come’.
Not having the faintest idea what Woolwich Arsenal was, I was instead riveted by the phrase ‘the end of the world’. The possibility had never occurred to me, and it teased my mind with the same horror as the Victorian bogeyman she threatened to call on, who apparently had a similar facility for descending chimneys as Father Christmas.
She taught me to knit and sew and do French knitting, and embroider dozens of stitches I’d forgotten till leafing through an old Mrs Beaton cook book recently – daisy stitch, herringbone stitch, blanket stitch, chain stitch, back stitch, buttonhole stitch, cross stitch. She told me the names of flowers and saints and cousins I’d never seen, the stories of dead great uncles, of people who lived in our street – like the woman detective who went to meet the SS Montrose when it docked – to arrest the famous murderer, Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. She gave me a wealth of information and taught me prayers and proverbs and family history. Her love for me and mine for her was one of the rocks at the base of my life.
I never really knew my grandfather, her husband, and met him only a few times. He had loved another woman for seven years before my grandmother finally gave in, and they settled for divorce. The other woman’s husband was so incensed that he threw acid in her face, disfiguring her for life. My one memory of her as a four- year- old was a gentle woman with a pink blob for a face, which I had to kiss. My grandfather loved her till the day she died, some years before he did.
And since he had willed their house to her, thinking she would outlast him by years, she unwittingly made him homeless when a distant nephew inherited the house from her and turned the old man out.
To be continued.
Food for threadbare gourmets
It’s too hot to cook a meal at midday, so we’re having salady wraps instead. He has wholemeal and I have spinach, and I spread them with either mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing. Torn crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves are spread over this, and then chopped ham, grated cheese and green peppers for him are arranged, and the whole thing rolled up and held in place with tooth-picks. I have hard- boiled egg moistened with a little vinaigrette dressing, and then chopped tomato, and grated carrot along with the lettuce and tooth-picks… filling and refreshing on a hot day. We’ll have chicken tomorrow, pastrami for him and an assortment of vegetables including cucumber, avocadoes and thinly sliced red onion…
Food for thought
When we re-examine what we really want, we realize that everything that happens in our lives – every misfortune, every slight, every loss, and also every joy, every surprise, every happy accident – is a teacher, and life is a giant classroom. Arianna Huffington
42 responses to “The passing of an era”
A wonderful account of what your dear grandmother has done for you! With your blog you are now able to give something back to her, your precious memories. Looking forward to reading your next episode.
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Dear Peter, Thank you so much for your comment, it’s so good to know that you enjoyed reading this tribute to my grandmother … really to all grandmothers who cherish us and pass on our heritage …
I loved you summation. Thoughts to be pondered by every generation!
Good friend, lovely to see your comment … yes, our forbears have so much to share if we are open to their gifts, haven’t they…
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I enjoyed reading of your memories of your special woman. I had a special treat in that I used to work for an auctioneer in Springfield ,Illinois where a lot of antiques were in barns and attics. Your descriptions of items reminded me of those things that I used to deal with al the time, in the 1980’s. Thank you.
Good to hear from you… I was filled with envy at the thought of all those antiques mouldering in barns and attics… what fun you must have had dealing with them…
I felt delighted and envious reading of your early life. The contrast to mine was painful. What would I be IF my parents had encouraged reading – which I did despite their scolding? I did imagine, from my books, a life different from my rural prison.
I too look forward to the next installment.
Hello Dianne… yes this was the happiest interlude of my childhood, and when things were not good later, at least books remained a comfort…
I felt really encouraged by your comment that you looked forward to the next instalment – thank you
Loving this series, Valerie.
Mark, your encouragement means a lot, coming from a discriminating reader and writer like you, thank you … hope all is well for you in the South… is the drought affecting you?
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Had about four days of rain here in Marlborough Sounds on mild temperatures; it’s been welcome as fire risk in the bush beforehand had reached extreme (and lots of freedom campers here doing daft things like lighting fires despite no fire signs everywhere.)
Really behind on work, however, so head buried in a computer screen most of the time 😦
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What a wonderful, vivid account of your grandmother and this period of your life Valerie – the details are so clear that I was absolutely immersed in it.
Andrea, thank you so much for your generous and discriminating comment.. so encouraging from a writer like you …
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Your recollections reminded me of my grandmothers, both of whom were highly intelligent and born in a time of great change. Just recently, I purchased a tatting shuttle as a nod to the past when one of my grandmothers tried to teach me the gentle art of tatting. She was simply magic to watch. Alas, I headed back to my bookshelf…. I do love visiting…
Good morning Rebecca, good to see you as ever… I always found watching people tatting fascinating… but it wasn’t for me either.. crochet yes.. tatting – no …a time of great changes for your grandmothers .. my grandmother was still a late Victorian so the changes were slower for her, even though she lingered into the late seventies…
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I love to crochet!! My grandmother was born in 1899, at the turn of the century. I remember thinking of her on the day that we turned to the year 2000. Little did she know that she would see a man land on the moon. I have been fascinated by the Victorian era and the ways in which woman moved with the times. We have big “shoulders” and “aprons” to stand upon. I love our conversations.
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So you like crochet too!!.
In my time I have crocheted three double counterpanes, as I changed the colours in our bedroom – nine single bedspreads for children and grandchildren, and countless throws and rugs … I even took a large rug I was doing into a Royal Commission every day… I could see the judges just itching to tell me to take it out but because the Royal Commission was about my husband’s work, they had to refrain !!!
A ripping instalment, Valerie! I thought of you this week when I saw Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes. It was an excellent speech in which she said: “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”. Keep well.
Ardys, lovely to hear from you, and such a pleasure to know that you enjoyed this post … Oprah’s words echo so many messages reaching us all at the moment that ur truth is valid, that it’s truly wonderful isn’t it…
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What a wonderful person she was!
She was – but greatly un-appreciated by her family, who only saw sides to her that I rarely did.. and who among us is perfect anyway !!!!
I hope you realize how lucky you are to have had such a beautiful woman as your grandmother. It was unusual for a woman of that time to be so well read and so accomplished. What a great legacy she gave you. She was lucky too: to have had a granddaughter who respected and savored her teachings.
I do I do, Ronnie… more than that, it was the only time I ever felt loved and appreciated during my childhood, during those few precious years with her…
And she too, was never appreciated by her family, who only saw her rebellious difficult side – a side I never encountered.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting and recognising the truths I try to express , it’s so validating….
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You have truly reached new heights of magnificence with these posts Valerie. I adore them…never mind like!!
That is an amazing gift of a comment, thank you Stephanie, and very much appreciated – so good to know you’re enjoying my reminiscences – thank you again…
What also amazes me is how much you speak of has also been my experience and how many of the things you have mentioned are common ground to us both although separated by around 20 years in age. I deeply appreciate your writing, it strengthens me and gives me courage to speak myself.
How interesting to think that so many of us experienced much the same over such a stretch of time…
And thank you for your words about my writing… they are a two-way exchange, because your words strengthen and encourage me. Writing truth takes great willpower I’m finding…
I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying these accounts. You were so fortunate to have such a grandmother. She was your saving grace.
I find myself setting time aside to read your posts. They have been and are a feast for the eyes and the soul. Thank you for sharing them with us.
I was also a reading child and my prized possession was my library card. My mother had a storehouse of books she’d read while my father was overseas in WWII. One that I still cherish is her copy of Gone With the Wind in which she pasted pictures from the original 1939 program. The poor book is falling apart. I still remember the double take my 7th grade English teacher did when she asked what we did over the summer and I said, “I read Gone with the Wind.”
It’s definitely not too hot to cook here. 😉 We had a reprieve for a few days and now it’s back in the minus column Celsius. Warm hugs to you and himself.
Love and Shalom,
what wonderful words you send me… and so glad you’re enjoying my memories… yes my grandmother was my saving grace …
Loved your story about Gone with the Wind… I read it at boarding school, and to my horror, the last few pages of the library copy had gone missing when I reached the end!!!
I saw the film eleven times before finally growing out of it and realising what pernicious propaganda it was – conveying that life in the South was an idyll for slaves as well as slave owners – and suggesting that the Klan was started and peopled by noble heroes like Ashley Wilkes !!!
Sorry to hear your cold is snapping back again… you did not look too happy in your last photo!!!
Oh, what a sad story about your grandmother and grandfather, and his second wife. But the undeniable love and devotion of it is beautiful too.
No-one ever got into trouble for reading in her house. How admirable to be able to say that. I think I can say the same for my own childhood, barring a little very gentle fun-poking, for walking home from the library and reading as I walked, oblivious to my surroundings.
Your grandmother sounds wonderful. My favourite person is my mum, and I suspect they may have been a little alike in character.
You are the only person who seemed to have noticed that tragic story about my grandfather and his second wife… yes, I’ve always thought his devotion was beautiful…Loved your description of walking home reading… a book worm will seize any opportunity !
How lovely that you feel that way about your mother… I would love to have had a relationship with a loving mother , good to hear from you – thank you for taking the time to comment with such insight…
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As I read this I kept thinking…you Are your grandmother.
In so many ways the person she was was is fulfilled in you.
I see myself in my oldest granddaughter…more her than any other child I have. Terry says he sees himself in our grandson.
When I was growing up I wondered if I was like my paternal grandmother she was so accomplished is so many things…MANY things. I wanted so much to be like her…there wasn’t ANYTHING she couldn’t do…and I do mean anything.
But as I matured and finally came into my own, at the ripe age of 60…I realized I am my maternal grandmother….her gifts are subtle as mine are. I still search daily to know what mine are.
But as a school teacher my grandmother gave to others the gift of self. I hope I am able to do the same.
Anyway…as I kept reading I kept seeing you….the YOU I come to know— complete with the joy of marvelous decorating and the ability to help each one of us reach into ourselves through your words.
Love you, Dear Friend!
Dearest Linda, thank you as ever for your loving and thoughtful comment… I had never thought of myself as being like my grandmother but as I read, I thought… oh, that;s where my love of beautiful china comes from… and than I began to see traits my children had inherited from her too…you have set up all sorts of trains of thought and recognitions thank you, Dear Friend…
Isn’t it interesting that you can see likenesses in your grandchildren… as though some gifts skip a generation… anyway, you’ve given me much food for thought with your comments… I can well see that your gifts are subtle and sweet, and unique… and thank you for the sweet things you say about me … I loved your words and thoughts of course …. XXXXXXX
Your account is filled with sensory details that transported me to your childhood home and memories. I particularly loved your passage about the toasted bread in the open fire. My own grandmother did it when I stayed at her house with one or two of my cousins. The smell and taste are exactly as you describe them and still so vivid to my memory.
Lovely tribute to your grandmother.
Evelyne, so good to hear from you and to know that you related to the toast in front of the fire… those sort of memories are unforgettable aren’t they … thank you for the lovely things you say… I’m so glad you enjoyed the story…warmly, valerie
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Your blog is filled with tons of great stories. Always a pleasure to visit you there.
We are blessed when we have someone in our lives like your grandmother and thank goodness for your good memory so that we can enjoy these stories and the lessons she can teach all of us. I also admire your grandfather for continuing to love his second wife despite her disfigurement. That takes real love as well.
I read with a smile your paragraphs about reading. I don’t know what I would do without books as I’ve never been without them my entire life. Although some of the old tomes are indeed tedious, I’ve always appreciated the British authors abilities to write books for young people that are really books for every person, that bring truths with wonderful stories and without condescension, such as Lewis, Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, and J.K. Rowling. Oh, that all authors were so good and so timeless.
Cheers and prayers for a happy week,
Dear Janet, thank you for your lovely generous comment – I know how much time it takes to write a long thoughtful comment like yours…and I love it that you’re enjoying my reminincses…
I was so interested in your insights into those English writers… had never thought of them like that… your list reminded me of another wonderful writer, Susan Cooper, whose five books in her series ‘The Dark is Rising’, I still re-read and savour… … I can’t recommend them too highly, though the first one in the series is much weaker than the rest.. my favourite being the second which is called The Dark is Rising, and the others are very very good too.. Ursula le Guin is also an amazing writer of the same ilk, though her books are much darker, and I don’t feel strong enough to re-read them!!!!… have you come across these writers, , as a voracious reader yourself?
Thank you, have a good week yourself, warmly, Valerie
Another riveting post Valerie, thank you – can’t wait for the next instalment! I was intrigued to learn more about your favourite book, and find on Amazon that you can get the Kindle version of John Halifax, Gentlemen for free. What a contrast this must be to the careful acquisition of treasured volumes by your grandmother. And I love the idea of it being too hot for cooked meals at the moment – it is very chilly here, with yet more snow and ice forecast for overnight – brrr! 🙂
Dear Liz, checking back on this post, I found I had missed your lovely comment … how intriguing about dear John Halifax Gentleman! loved your comment on the contrast with KIndle !!!
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Oh, what a treat this is! My Granny taught me all those things too and I have taught my Grandchildren how to do French knitting. She also taught me how to play cards – but never on a Sunday! We, too, used to make toast on a long fork on the fire, almost always with some burnt bits but relished nonetheless.
The acid attack horrified me as do the ones we read about happening today and the thought of that generous and loving man being made homeless.
Love your salad wraps but not today when the cold wind (1C) has driven us indoors and I now have the pleasure of reading these wonderfully evocative posts. 🙂
Sally I loved your memories of your Granny – yes, I’d forgotten French kitting … but no cards for us… my Grannie’s religious scruples didn’t allow them on any day of the week!!!
Thank you for your word evocative for these posts.. I’m loving writing them…