By Felix, @felixthefemale
1914 - 1986
I remember I was quite old before I knew your proper name – Beatrice – you didn’t like it, and nobody used it. You were Babs to Grandpa – who also used a middle name in lieu of his disliked first name – Ma or Mum to 4, Granny to 11, and God to a succession of very well-trained dogs.
You had three siblings yourself, youngest of four, one sister and two brothers. As the youngest of three it wasn’t often that I got anybody to myself for any length of time; but we sometimes talked, you and I, and you always took children seriously and individually – I’d forgotten how rare that is, rare and intimidating. You had famously said that you weren’t really interested in children until they could talk; I think perhaps you meant until they were rational – you had no difficulties with non-verbal animals into which I would class babies and toddlers, but a low tolerance for silliness of all kinds – manners were important to you, not so much the etiquette type (though an elbow on the table would get a telling-off) but the consideration for others. One of your stories that you re-told to us was travelling through Africa with Grandpa: you had eaten on the train travelling to arrive (somewhere) in the evening, only to find that your hosts had unexpectedly laid on a multi-course dinner with you and Grandpa as guests of honour. Already full, you nonetheless ploughed through the meal because you couldn’t dream of having your hosts realise that this wasn’t as delightful to you as it was to them.
You travelled fairly often, Africa and Europe, until the last few years of your life. My favourite photo of you you’re sitting on a trunk in a cabin, on your way I think to meet and marry Grandpa in South Arica in 1939. There’s a hat on your head, a fag in your mouth and you look quite fabulous. Grandpa’s favourite photo of you is equally wonderful – with a jackdaw on your shoulder in your garden in 1951. You really were legendary, even in your lifetime. You rode a motorbike daily – configured as a moped but with too big an engine to be classified as such, so we could boast of our motorcycling Granny at school. You’d practiced yoga for years – and celebrated your 70th birthday by standing on your head for the camera. You rode a (rather vicious) horse called Roddy, famous for kicking the back out of a stable, and also for breaking your neck. Threw you off while you were taking him over jumps. You crawled up to the house from the paddock, hands and knees, for help. ‘Only’ a fractured vertebrae, 2 months bed rest, you rode Roddy again – but didn’t jump him anymore.
You had a tiny little teddy bear called Every Bear that had even tinier souvenirs from the places you’d travelled in. Every lived in the car, and went into the coffin with you for your last journey, as was right, teeny tiny beer stein and all. My own son has his own Every now – an elk – who is filling up his tiny travelling trunk with badges and fridge magnets. I can recommend the approach to any other parent exiting via the gift shop – “what’s the smallest thing we can find to buy?” – and I remember you every time we add to it.
I remember so many stories… You married Grandpa in secret; both teaching in South Africa, Grandpa couldn’t have got permission to marry as they wouldn’t let him ‘live out’. So you married, and met up secretly, and wore your wedding ring round your neck until it became obvious that Grandpa would need to go back to England and enlist, so you could get married but already were, and had to find a vicar to perform a blessing, and tell everyone that was your wedding. You taught – French – until you were publicly married – at schools in England and South Africa.
After children started coming, you huddled under an Morrison shelter – which seems to have been chicken wire around a kitchen table – during the air raids, and had a wall come in on you all leaving you unscathed bar a baby completely covered in soot. Three children in wartime and one more after Grandpa was belatedly released from the Army; brought up on rations and packing cases and waiting for promised ‘Utility’ furniture to replace everything destroyed by buzz bombs. Once the children were all at school and you had time to think, you wrote a short series of French primers based on Noah’s Ark which were popular until French was dropped from the primary curriculum. Writing stayed with you, though I don’t think you had anything more published. When we’d visit we’d look through the windows of your writing shed, hidden in amongst more rhododendrons, but were never allowed to intrude.
It was years after you died that the Official Secrets Act restrictions were lifted, and we found your name on the rolls at Bletchley Park. Just for a few months between coming back to England and having Ma. There must have been another legendary story, but you never shared it with us. If you shared it with Grandpa he never said.
And so to a mid-century middle-class life, raising children and following Grandpa to his teaching jobs until his side-job of writing textbooks was profitable enough to move to the country – into the place we knew you. Just a bungalow, but set in 4 or 5 acres with some grass and some woods. Space for an annexe with bedrooms, space for a hut with tents around it. And so by the time your children had children, and at least once a year, there was space for everyone to come and stay.
I can believe we took it for granted at the time, I can’t believe how lucky we were. Every year, to meet up with all our cousins, build dens in the rhododendrons, climb the trees. Dung runs; where we’d all be given a bucket or a trowel and go through Roddy’s field collecting manure for the vegetable patch. Podding well-nourished peas on the sun trap at the back of the house with your portable radio permanently tuned to Radio 3. Hut concerts, where we’d all do Turns with a capital T – cartwheels, recorder playing, singing, all the horrors of primary schoolchildren and you’d sit on your camping chair with at least one dog at your feet and be delighted with everything we did. Sunday roasts – with all the leaves out on the main table for the grownups and perhaps the very eldest grandchildren, and the rest of us on a smaller table in the sitting room. And all too often a cry of “I can’t understand why it’s not cooked yet, it’s been in the oven since 9 this morning”. Oh I miss that.
You were an excellent model of how to do womanhood. You always seemed to have done things your way, been your own person, but with such excellent manners that no one could object. You and Grandpa were a team – an equal partnership – it’s only so much later on that I realise how uncommon that is, and how much to be desired.
And I remember when the smoking caught up with you and your kidneys failed. Unnoticed by the staff at the BUPA hospital where you’d convalesced after the NHS took your appendix out. Appendices run in our family – you lost one brother to peritonitis when I was a toddler, and your youngest daughter was ambulanced away from a skiing trip in her teens. I’d had my appendix out 2 years before you, but I just had 5 days in the local hospital.
But you and Grandpa had paid into BUPA for years, so you got your private room and your private flowers and your private TV that you didn’t watch and your private nurses that weren’t monitoring your fluid ins and outs and so, barring a very few weeks at home while they hoped that twice weekly dialysis would work, you saw out your final year in the local NHS Hospital.
That old and slightly crumbly NHS hospital was a bare ten minutes’ walk from my school at the time, and I got to spend quite a lot of that last year with you. And I have so many fragmented memories of that time. Of the first time you were sinking into cardiac failure and I fed you arctic roll on a teaspoon and you rallied for a few more months. And how, in my 17 year-old hubris, I thought I’d done something amazing, and later wondered if I’d done something awful, to confine you to a few more months in hospital, where you didn’t belong.
And the time I cut your hair for you, the way that you would do it yourself – combing the hair out horizontally, cutting on the vertical, to make short layers. Sometimes I read to you, sometimes I told you what I was up to. As we went into your last summer I’d got into politics and was off to subcommittees and councils and gigs and rallies – I don’t regret that, but I regret that I’d go to see you for shorter times and longer intervals and then you died. And I wasn’t there. And I couldn’t feed you arctic roll, or read the paper with you, or rub lotion on your hands, carefully around the stents, and you are missed.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to write. How to explain my remarkable grandmother to people who will never know her. I think I wrote a love letter. I hope so.