YESTERDAY I listened to a radio program. People rang in with memories of their grandmothers. I was surprised, and a little disappointed, by the way the memories seemed to be predominantly about food. Often, the memory of the grandmother was equivalent to the memory of apple pie or sponge cake. Surely their grandmother meant more to them than that? What about their grandmother’s favourite music or book? What did she laugh about? More important, how did she make them feel?
I wanted to ring up, but felt I couldn’t do my grandmother justice by explaining in a few words what she meant to me. Even though I am 65, I think about her every day. Often in a tricky situation I’ll ask myself what she might have done. She doesn’t let me down.
Born into a large family at the end of the 19th century, Elizabeth grew up on a farm in England’s Lake District. When her father died young, her mother was left to run the farm and to somehow feed and clothe her children. After a limited education, the boys worked alongside their mother. The girls were sent out to domestic service.
Nothing about her life had been easy. Yet she had the capacity to enjoy the simplest pleasures. Cream added to her tea gave her ‘‘ nectar of the gods’’. A new bloom on a plant, a letter in the mail, butter on new potatoes, a favourite song on the wireless, a poem, a story, all gave her infinite delight. Humour could be found in ordinary events. Some of my favourite memories are of Grandma and me shaking with laughter over something, almost to the point of collapse.
My grandmother had plenty of spunk. At the same time she was the essence of warmth and kindness. Everyone who came to her door was welcomed. To her family she was unfailingly devoted and loyal, and she helped them in every situation. She could find the right phrase for a homework composition, pick strawberries to fund a trip to London, be the extra in a card game, comfort a crying child and mediate wisely in any household dispute. When my mother’s marriage failed, we were taken in. The best years of my childhood were spent in my grandparents’ home.
I’d love to be able to report that she had the ending of her life that she deserved. It wasn’t so. After my grandfather died, she suffered a series of strokes. The last years of her life were spent in a nursing home, away from places and people she knew. My grandmother was well cared for, but I knew she longed to go to sleep and not wake up. When she died, I immediately had a strong sense of her presence. The family in England sent me her engagement ring. What a privilege to wear it.