My Grandma and I were very close. Her name was Doris Irene Gilbert (nee Stock). She was born in Islington in 1919, long before it was the cool place it is now.
She died in 2005 and I loved her very much.
Grandma only had one child - my Dad. She was sadly unable to carry any further pregnancies to term. She and my Grandpa were besotted with one another; people called them the golden couple and it’s easy to see it in their photographs. Sadly, illness took over in the early 70s, Grandpa’s personality changed as a result. He died in 1976 and Grandma never remarried.
From an early age, I’d spend holidays with Grandma at their bungalow in Herne Bay. She taught me to sew and much of my early creativity was nurtured there. I first learned to drink tea at Grandma’s too. We’d sit together in front of the fire and her beloved Coronation Street and Crossroads.
Grandma used to work at Save the Children in Herne Bay, which she referred to as “The Shop”. She’d cycle down the hill from her bungalow then, later, back up again. She was fit as a fiddle for many years.
When I stayed, I slept in Grandma’s third bedroom which was also her sewing room. Her blue tailor’s dummy would stand displaying her current project and I had a single bed which I loved as it was like a nest – blissful bedding of heavy counterpane and brushed cotton sheets. She had a drawer full of fabric and was never without a project.
When Grandpa became ill he’d moved into the second bedroom as his sleeping patterns changed. I clearly recall the stark contrast in the style of their rooms; Grandma’s was South facing, tasselled lampshades, a floral bedspread and a dressing table with her brushes and powders. Grandpa’s was darker, North facing, packed with dark furniture, a deep, berry red candlewick bedspread on a bed so high I remember panicking as I slid off it and my feet had yet to reach the floor! After Grandpa died it was kept as the guest room and when I got older and outgrew the sewing room nest, I slept there.
Grandma never wore anything but a dress, or, as she’d say, a frock. She’d wear a skirt and jacket to a wedding but her go-to outfit was a dress and one of her own hand-knitted cardigans.
When I was at university in St Andrews, Grandma came to visit me and made a friend in the B&B owner. This was typical, she had a magical smile, she was a real people person with many friends. As well as her easy warmth, Grandma was incredibly emotionally strong. She was called to a friend’s house in Herne Bay one day when the friend’s husband was tragically found hanged in their garage. Grandma had got on her bike, cycled over, helped her friend cut him down and stayed until help came.
I can imagine this so vividly and not at all. The impact on both women must’ve been enormous.
Once I hit my mid-twenties, my love life, or rather the lack of it was a real concern for Grandma. During the war, she’d been insulted by a Yorkshire man and subsequently had a real dislike of Northern men; she had a proper bee in her bonnet about them! So, when I met my husband David (born and bred in Clitheroe), I could tell she was torn between my great happiness and David’s Ribble Valley roots. As it turned out she loved David as soon as she met him and, of course, he felt the same way about her.
Here are some of my favourite of Grandma’s phrases:
On men and courting,
“Never let a man think you’re hanging on the back of the bedroom door for him”
On men and women,
“When the woman has the older head, the children never want for bread”
On being hungry…
“ I could eat a horse and chase the driver!”
On something looking a bit lost or out of proportion…
“It looked like a pea on a round of beef”
On any particular man who irritated her…
“He was standing around like a pig in a fit”
“He is as ignorant as a pig and not half as good looking”
“What else do you expect from a pig but a grunt?”
“He’s so mean, he would skin a currant”
And my particular favourite on men,
“He’s so eaten up with his self-importance he doesn’t know where his bottom hangs!”
On strong tea…
“The tea was so strong you could have walked a brown dog over it”
Grandma was kind, thoughtful, wise and had a strong sense of justice and fairness.
When my Dad left my Mum in 1985 for another woman, Grandma refused to take sides and continued to treat my Mum like her daughter. I think that says it all really – she lived her integrity and values. She’d get a bee in her bonnet about certain politicians or characters from the TV and I’d tease her about it sometimes. I had the kind of relationship with her where I could be cheeky and probably over-shared some of my love life stories. On these occasions, she’d flash one of her electric smiles and say with a wink, “You’re a wicked girl”.
I feel I’m a lot like Grandma. I can get that same bee in my bonnet about certain issues or people, usually around injustice, a lack of kindness or unfair treatment. This can, at its worst, make me judgemental and intolerant; not great qualities. On the plus side, I’m calm in a crisis and will drop everything to be there for someone who needs me, be it a friend with a problem or a woman on the train struggling with buggy and little ones. I make friends easily and get chatting to strangers in many situations.
I’m told I have Grandma’s smile.
I have creative blood on both sides and, as well as making this my career, I’ve whipped up ball gowns in the past and made David and our page boy’s waistcoats for our wedding. It was Grandma who taught me the basics of dressmaking.
How I loved being her wicked girl.