When Heather asked me to write a bit about my grandmother (my mum's mum), I thought it'd take 10 minutes tops as I knew her so well. Turns out it's taken several days to put this together. It's been lovely to recall memories with and of her. It's also been bittersweet and a little bit weepy, because not only do I miss her so much, I've learnt more about her from my aunts; and I wish that I'd asked her so much more about her life when she was still here. Overall though, I've loved learning more about my beloved Pau Pau and I thank Heather immensely for giving me this opportunity to write about her.
Gisela Stephanie Traill was born in 1915 or 1916. Nobody, even herself, could be quite sure. Something about her father taking her on the wrong date at the wrong time, and apparently in the wrong year?
Gisela was known to her friends as Bee, and to her grandchildren as Pau Pau. This is a Chinese name given to the maternal grandmother. Chinese because my mother married a Chinese man, my father. That's a whole different story for another time.
Pau Pau was born in Bangkok, Thailand. Here's the least complicated way I could find to explain her heritage... bear with me...It's a tad complicated as our family even back then liked to spread its wings across the globe. I think we did the cross-cultural marriage before anyone else. Trailblazers. Pioneers. Perhaps just rebels. Yeah, rebellion is the likeliest explanation.
Maternal side: Pau Pau's Scottish grandmother, Charlotte Amelia Ann Dennison, was born in India. When I read her name, my reaction was "Good god, could she have been any whiter??" Her grandfather, James Charles McLean Crichton, another Scots, was a tea planter in Madras. They had a daughter called Amelia Blanche Crichton...Pau Pau's mum. My great-grandmother with a name straight out of White Mischief *cough*
Paternal side: Pau Pau's father, Peter Trail, was half Scottish, half Vietnamese, the son of William Trail, Captain of the Thai Royal Navy's fleet (in the latter half of the 1880s). William was a Paisley-born man, 100% Scots, who married a Vietnamese woman. There's a rumour that the King of Thailand gave the woman to William as a gift. I don't believe there is an emoji in existence that can fully justify the emotion behind this wee factoid! Anyway, they had Peter, her father, who followed in William's footsteps and was awarded the title Luang Patapi Picharn** by the Thai Royal Family. Quite lovely really. I never even got Prefect.
Peter married Amelia and Gisela was born. She was one of nine children, her siblings were Henry, Edna, William, Cynthia, John, James, Tess and Lois.
When she was little, Pau Pau used to go with her cousin to play with the Thai King's children. Remember The King and I? Well, it was based on a real story, and my little grandmother played with those same children. My playdates were never quite as grand. Amanda from the up the street with the fancy shoes that I coveted so badly was the highlight of my after school playdates.
Pau Pau moved from Bangkok to Singapore when she was 11, and finished her high school studies there. She attended Raffles Girls School and had her pick of boys to carry her pile of books! She used to laugh when she told us that. "Make sure you have young men carry your books, then bags, then suitcases." *makes note to show this to both husband and son*. She was close with her siblings, William (we called him Grandpa Willy) and Tess, and they used to stay up late talking with each other in Thai, because none of their household staff could understand them. She lived a glorious childhood and even had someone dress her till she was 16 years old. *looks at mirror and realises I haven't brushed my hair yet and it's 2pm*.
When she graduated school, she took a job as a court stenographer. One of my fondest memories is of her clapping her hands with delight as she recalled how on the day my grandfather proposed to her, she rushed to her work place and resigned on the spot. Haha.
Pau Pau met my grandfather, John Ferguson (half Scots, half Japanese) in Singapore and they lived there with their 3 children until 1970 or so. (My mother emigrated from Singapore to England to pursue nursing and her parents followed her some 10 years later.)
My grandmother lived in Singapore through World War 2 -- through the Japanese invasion of her country, and being interned in a POW camp (though they were released due to my grandfather's Japanese aunts turning up and demanding the release of their Japanese nephew and his family). She was such a fragile soul that I wonder how she survived. Pau Pau always refused to watch Tenko on tv, saying it brought back too many dreadful memories. I never fully understood what she went through until many years later. I remember her recalling how during the war, they'd stand behind trees and bushes, throwing food and water to the prisoners of war that were marched through the country in the searing heat every day. Singapore is less than 30 miles end to end. She told me she'd always look out for her family members that had gone to war and never returned "just in case they were prisoners, you always hoped...". Their house was bombed, it collapsed with my mum inside, sleeping in her cot. Thankfully and amazingly, nobody was injured.
As an aside, whenever I read about what people went through (from my own family years ago, to stories about current warfare situations), I force myself to imagine what it'd be like for me and my family today. One day, we're living comfortably, moaning about the traffic and such like. The next, there are bombs being dropped and everything you've ever known is gone, possibly forever. To be honest, I can't imagine it. I count my lucky stars every single day.
My grandparents left Singapore for England in the early 1970s. I can only imagine the culture shock my grandmother must have suffered. From the blistering heat to the infamous grey and wet British climes. Not to the mention the food...especially as Singapore is such a food heaven. They moved to Great Malvern, a small town in Worcestershire and lived in a house at the foot of the Malvern Hills.
My memories of Pau Pau are of a little woman with a shock of white hair. She was always in a dress. Never once did I ever see her in anything that even remotely resembled a pair of trousers. She wore lace up shoes, always tights, never barelegged. No make up and just subtle jewellery. When her flat got cold, she'd pop on a pair of leg warmers. She couldn't bear any of us hunching, and would out of nowhere prod us in the back to make us stand up properly. Pau Pau didn't drink except for the odd sweet sherry once in a blue moon. She couldn't eat anything spicy, was the first person I ever knew that drank coffee, and just like my sister, she would come up with outrageous things to eat. Baked beans with lettuce, anyone?
We said our bedtime prayers with her every night.. Pau Pau knitted me a pale yellow batwing jumper from a pattern I'd found in the local haberdashers. I remember being utterly in awe that she could knit. We'd watch Songs of Praise on the tv together and sing along to hymns we knew from school. My sister and I spent almost every single day of our childhood with her.
Her world fell apart when her husband, my grandpa died. Pau Pau didn't have a clue how to boil a kettle, buy a book of stamps or much else. Her soulmate had doted on her hand and foot for years and he'd never complained. It was just the way it was back then. Though she had us, Pau Pau was never truly happy again. The worst of it was that she lived another 20 sodding years without him. How cruel. She had framed pictures of Jesus on her dressing table and for years I thought they were actually him. She said her prayers every night and I believe that it was her faith that kept her going until she passed away in her late 80s. We found a handwritten prayer in her diary when going through her things where she prayed that she would die so she could join John in heaven" cue massive, heaving sobs.
We have a joyful, stubborn, somewhat weirdo of a 6 year old son that is the absolute light of our lives. He has two grandmothers, one in England (my mum) and the other in Mexico. Whilst they're not hands-on, everyday grandmas, I'm grateful that our boy has his Nanny and Bella. There's something about grandmothers that I wish every child could experience.
Nicked from Wikipedia: Luang por (Thai: หลวงพ่อ; rtgs: luang pho, Thai pronunciation: [lǔəŋpʰɔ̂ː]) means "venerable father" and is used as a title for respected senior Buddhist monastics. Luang is a Thai word meaning "royal" or "venerable".