A life – This is the thirteenth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs
My step grandparents accepted me for better or worse, but not as a grandchild, so I called one Uncle Bill, which wasn’t his real name, the other Nana. She was a tall, slim, elegant woman with a cloud of white hair piled up on her head. When she went out, she wore little, high-crowned, fashionable forties hats with a black veil tipped over her fine brown eyes.
She wore expensive and beautifully- cut black or grey suits in wool or gaberdine, with slim straight skirts, and flimsy, white blouses, in silk, finest lawn or crepe, which buttoned to the neck or tied in a bow. She always wore high heeled, black suede shoes by the Swiss makers Bally, the style called Toby, and she never wore anything else, summer or winter.
She lived happily alone in her flat in a wide quiet street lined with large Victorian houses, in an affluent leafy suburb, which was as unchanging then as she was. I loved her walnut sideboard with elegant mirror hanging over it, and the Imari bowl on a stand on the piano which rang when your finger tapped it. On the mantelpiece she had a pair of fine bronze statues, a pair of large art nouveau urns with tulips on them, and over it, another large mirror.
We sat in deep grey and black velvet sofas and chairs round the fire. She always sat in the same chair, or rather, perched in it, at an angle, with her elegant long legs crossed, and her back unbending. Even when alone, she sat in this way reading The Telegraph, living out her vision of herself as a beautiful lady.
On the refectory dining table in the window, set with high backed comfortable chairs, she always had a vase of beech leaves, verdant green in spring, somewhat darker and leathery in summer, and in autumn, sprays of brown leaves. She bought them from the same florist, year after year. On a trolley by the kitchen door a set of cups and saucers, sugar bowl and milk jug with a net cover weighted with beads over it, sat ready for a cup of tea to be made. She herself lived on tea and toast fingers. She said they helped her keep her figure, and they certainly did, until old age, when her system collapsed with shingles.
She had no friends, except perhaps, the two nuns who called once a year, collecting clothes for the poor. These callers she welcomed in, and laid her finest china and crispest napkins, and plied them with afternoon tea. They must have known that this visit was one of their most valuable acts of charity, for they never failed to make time for this occasion.
She told me once, that when she was a young wife, she saw a tramp outside, so she invited him in, and laid a tray with her best china and linen, and gave him a slap-up meal in grand style. She loved style, and she was obsessed with privacy. She could open up to the strangers at her gate, but to no-one else.
There were pictures of herself and her separated husband in the spare bedroom, where I slept when I stayed. She was a beautiful young woman with wide, large eyes, a mass of dark hair, and a whimsical smile playing round a firm, well-shaped mouth and strong chin. Her husband was in his World War 1 officer’s uniform, a fine-featured, handsome, young man quite unlike the rather gross, heavy-jowled old man I knew.
The only remnant of his former beauty was his fine, well-shaped nose. Neither of their children had inherited these good looks, but neither had they inherited their parent’s personalities either. The son was as courteous and good-humoured as his father was irascible and unpredictable, and the daughter was as gay and energetic as her mother was withdrawn and languid.
I lived with her for six months when I attended the Regent Street Polytechnic after I returned from Malaya. She gave me her favourite book to read, ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. In the mid- fifties Vera Brittain hadn’t become fashionable again, but I read it, and was ravaged by it, in spite of having to overcome my resistance to her pompousness and priggishness at the beginning.
I understood my step-grandmother much better after reading this. She told me she had watched her fiancee march gallantly off to war in 1914, bands playing, banners waving, flowers flying through the air. The tiny remnant which survived returned to the little north country town, to be met by a shattered community. She never really recovered from the loss of her fiancee, but settled for second best, rather than be left on the shelf.
So they both suffered, but her vanity supported her through the long, lonely years of her life. She told me about the doctor who told his sister he had seen the girl he was going to marry, and his chagrin when he saw her pushing her baby’s pram, the clothes she had worn then, and on other occasions, and which outfits won her flowery compliments.
She described the floating thirties chiffon dress she wore to the garden party at Shrewsbury School when she met the Prince of Wales, the complimentary things that sales girls said to her out shopping, or having tea at Fullers, telling her that she and her daughter were the nicest mother and daughter who came regularly… and she told me about the second war, the war which came to civilians, when they hid under the stairs night after night as the planes came over, and stepping over the fire hoses in Leicester Square, going to see ” Gone With The Wind” after a heavy night’s bombing.
She told me these things, not because she was close to me, but because I was interested, and I was someone to talk to. I don’t think she ever felt any affection for me, but she was never unkind to me. Our relationship was one of unchanging good manners and consideration. I was polite and grateful, she was kind and courteous.
As the years went by, the drawers in the walnut sideboard stuck, the handles became loose, and a hinge fell off the cupboard door. The art nouveau vases on the mantelpiece developed a jigsaw of tiny cracks, while the velvet chairs sagged, and the springs went, but she went on perching upright in the corner on the springs, nibbling her toast fingers and sipping her tea. Until one day, it all caught up with her. She was very ill and never recovered.
Now she began to disintegrate. She needed constant nursing, so they found a good nursing home. The respite only lasted a month or so, and then she was expelled. This pattern continued for the rest of her life. No nursing home could handle her. So she came home. Now, after a life of food deprivation she had become a foodaholic and was forever raiding the kitchen wherever she was.
After starving herself all her life, now she couldn’t stop eating. She became a hugely fat old lady. Everything in the kitchen at home was locked up, but she would even stand on a stool dangerously balanced on a chair, to reach cold mashed potato hidden at the top of a high Victorian cupboard.
The last time I saw her was on my wedding day. Wearing her fluffy pink dressing gown, she called me into her bedroom where she had permanently sequestered herself, and produced, from heaven knows where, a box with a beautiful little coffee set in it. It was finest white porcelain, with a deep blue and gold border, cups, saucers, sugar bowl, jug and coffee pot, unchipped and perfect. She told me it had been given to her on her wedding day. I never used it, but I carried it around the world for years.
A few years later in Hongkong, I had a brief letter from my stepmother – the only one she ever wrote to me. It consisted of two sentences, one which said she hoped life was still treating me royally – had it ever really treated me so, I wondered? And the next sentence told me her mother had died.
Food for threadbare gourmets
We had gone to a barbecue supper with some neighbours, but since it turned out that they rarely ate red meat like us, there was a lot of barbecued steak left over after we’d eaten. Rather than condemn themselves to eat it, they pressed it on us, so nothing daunted, my love suggested they come the next night to eat it with us! What to do with cooked steak? I found a recipe which sounded just the job- beef stroganoff.
I made it as simple as possible – whizzed the chopped onion in the micro wave, gently cooked lots of sliced mushrooms with garlic, added a good glug of red wine and let it boil-up, then stirred in a heaped table spoon of flour. I’d made stock by boiling all the mushroom stalks, and I now stirred this into the mushroom mix, added the onion, stirred them altogether, and added a dash of Dijon mustard and a stock cube.
When we were ready to serve, I stirred in the steak, chopped into thin bite-size pieces, plus half a cup of cream –( I should have used sour cream for a stroganoff, but in deference to a toddler, I went for something less sharp), plenty of black pepper, and served it with rice and salad, and sliced courgettes cooked in olive oil and garlic. It was as good as re-cooked steak could get!!!
Food for thought
“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honoured, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”
― Ken Wilber – philosopher, writer, teacher