Every year, as the days of December dwindle and the anniversary of her death approaches, I try to leave the catch firmly fastened. My grief was once the size of a suitcase. A suitcase with dodgy wheels, that kept catching at my heels and making me stop in crowded places to pull myself together. Now it has shrunk to the size of a satchel. But as soon as I flip the catch and begin to unpack my grief, it is bottomless – the Mary Poppins Satchel of Grief.
How my dad managed to keep the news from us until Boxing Day, I will never know. It happened three days before Christmas, when Granny and Pa were making their way back home after a party. The other car was driving on the wrong side of the road and the collision killed her instantly. There aren’t words for the effect that night had on our family. I remember being furious that the English language offered such meagre means to represent what happened: “tragic,” “accident” and “loss” were inadequate. Loss? This was no loss, she was snatched from us.
I was given the lavender pashmina she was wearing when she died, dotted with three perfect crimson bloodstains. I slept with it for weeks afterwards and was inconsolable when her perfume began to fade. It wasn’t until years later that I dry-cleaned it, but even that felt blasphemous, as if I was destroying crucial evidence.
It has been fourteen years and every December 22nd, I lie in bed combing my mind and polishing my memories of her, like tiny trophies: her wild laughter, her fit-to-burst fuchsia Filofax (which I now own in black, by osmosis), her infinite grin, and the unprompted announcements that she had forgotten to wear knickers that day. She was a riot. With each passing year, I find joy in dusting off a buried mental fragment or discovering something new about the rich, beautiful life she led.
Jennifer Cordell was born at West Middlesex Hospital on December 6, 1939 and grew up in Teddington, in the midst of an intense period of Blitz-time bombing. She was doted on by her father, an employee at Heathrow’s Air Ministry, while Duncan, her younger by seven years, was their mother Eileen’s “little solider.” Following her formative upbringing amid the war, Jennifer grew to be self-assured and lively, and always stood up solidly for herself. After passing her GCE O Levels, Jennifer was accepted as a student nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. She loved regaling Duncan with her patients’ strange ailments and the shenanigans of student life – he remembers her bringing home a collection of student (and qualified) doctors, one of whom was eccentric enough to be wearing two ties simultaneously.
Jennie and Ian met in 1958 at the Lillian Holland ward of St. Mary’s. Ian liked the way Jennie moved around the ward: graceful, poised, swift; she had an air of efficiency about her and yet she treated patients with such empathy. He first noticed those dazzling blue eyes over her surgical mask, as she assisted him with a minor operation. It was love at first sight.
They were married at St. Martin’s Church in West Drayton on November 7th 1959. The sky was thick with fog and as they left the reception for their honeymoon in Mousehole, Cornwall, Jennie’s father said: “If it gets too bad, come back”. They weren’t sure if he meant married life or the fog. But they set off into the fog of life together and never looked back.
Even after four decades of marriage, they were an inimitable pair – whether she was screaming at him, livid, “Iaaaaan! Can you do nothing right?” (their fights were colossal) or clasped to him, waltzing slowly round the kitchen as the toast burned on the AGA. They were made for each other.
While Ian was serving in the RAF, Jennie split her time between his parents in Ripon and her parents in West Drayton and then at 20, she gave birth to Mark at Hillingdon Hospital. Sarah was born two years later. In 1963, Ian’s father retired and handed down the management of North House Surgery to his son, so the family made the move north to Ripon. She was a brilliant household manager, or rather Lady of the House, becoming adept at cooking, gardening, decorating and when necessary, handling Ian’s patients during evenings and weekends.
Jennie gave birth to Jonathan in 1967, and they moved again, to a house not far from the practice, where they lived some of their happiest memories as a family. Jennie’s kitchen was something of a debating chamber for the children’s school friends, discussing all the latest trends and world affairs. She loved meeting them, often surprising them with her wit, colour and frankness.
Her personality was nothing short of magnetic and she could light up a room, stimulate debate and push conversation forward, often in one single breath. Jennie was whip-smart and could be acid-tongued when she wanted, which made it easy to forget her vulnerability. But it was that which gave her the ability to reach out to so many people.
My mum wasn’t around for much of my early life, and Granny and Pa often stepped in to help Dad out; looking after my brother and I at their house in Harrogate, or driving south (with the dogs in tow) to care for us for weeks at a time. It was during these years that my bond with Granny deepened, extending beyond just grandparent and grandchild: she was my guide, teacher, best friend. Her ability to extract information from me was astonishing and she could access emotions I didn’t know how to articulate. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she had been a relationship counsellor for over ten years; helping couples solve their marriage issues with the charity Relate.
While her and Pa’s generation were taught to be seen and not heard, under their rules we were raised to be very seen and very heard. Which meant raucous mealtimes, often ending with one of us crippled by the giggles. Food, on the other hand, was taken very seriously. Granny was Nigella before Nigella graced our screens, and she insisted on clean plates at every meal, with Pa often threatening to serve the leftovers for breakfast if not, as his parents did. On one occasion, I sat for (what felt like) hours in front of a plate of cauliflower cheese, finally forcing it down on Granny’s wishes, as the rest of the family watched me blanche and gag. Despite the incident, she continued to call me “Fuss-Pot-Ben-Nag-Nag” and I haven’t been able to stomach cauliflower cheese since - although I do share her passion for cooking. I have so far failed to recreate one of her best-loved dishes, the artfully named ‘muck-up:’ pieces of sponge cake, tinned fruit, jam and fridge-cold custard. Bliss.
Granny's commitment to helping raise my brother and I was quite extraordinary, and I will cherish the fond, messy memories of everything we shared together. But one of the most extraordinary aspects of losing someone who played such a crucial role in my shaping, is everything I didn’t know about her. That she was a devoted supporter of the NSPCC and that she invited children from difficult backgrounds to stay at the house for weekends. That she befriended a local boy, Derrick, who came from a large, often troubled family. He was deaf, misunderstood, and lonely – she listened to him, gave him clothes, fed and helped him. He never forgot her kindness and when he moved away from Ripon, he would walk miles to visit her. That she craved intellectual stimulation during her children’s teenage years, and so completed a five-year OU degree in Social History from York University. That she was a woman of myriad talents – china painting, flower arranging and even salmon-fishing. She was a perfectionist who could turn her hand to anything, obsessional about all her pursuits; she poured her heart into everything she did.
When I daydream, it is about how our relationship would have evolved had she survived. The phone calls that would have brightened a lonely and difficult final year at university, the conspiratorial pre-dinner gin and tonics, the brisk walks – and even brisker banter – at her favourite North Yorkshire haunts and the scatological dinnertime discussions she would have stoked with my twin brothers, whom she never got to meet and would have adored. We would have had a lot of fun.
A formidable wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend and primarily - woman, Jennie left a mark on everyone whose life she touched. “Life is a journey, not a destination” was one of her favourite sayings. I know the years we shared will stay with me throughout my journey.