The thing about having an elderly relative in a care home is that you know in most cases, they will only leave that home under one set of circumstances. Even if they’re in reasonably good form, twinkly and jolly when you visit, you know that once they’re too frail to remain in their own home and they move into residential care, somewhere, a clock starts ticking.
So when the phone call comes, you are sad, of course – a piece of your heart comes loose and is carried away – but there’s something else. You let out the breath you’ve been holding, unknowingly, for months. The worst has now happened. The bad thing has come, but it’s not quite the nightmare ghoul you were expecting. It is kinder than that. It’s a well-earned rest, peaceful and golden. The uncertainty has gone; you don’t have to dread anymore, just grieve, then bask in the memories. The endless, joyous memories.
My beloved Granny passed away a few days ago. I write about her a lot; how much I adored her is well-documented. Most of my more agreeable qualities – my sense of humour, my latterly-discovered need to have a cake freshly baked when friends visit, my love of dogs, my talent for debating politics at kitchen tables (perhaps not so agreeable, come to think of it) – all come from her.
As I get older, her voice pipes up in my head with increasing frequency. In the kitchen, she reminds me that eggs go on cooking after you’ve taken them off the heat and that home-grown tomatoes, planted in the greenhouse then ripened on a sunny windowsill, taste of heaven. I make a point of eating at least two Brussels sprouts at every Christmas lunch because she was old-school in her child-rearing and disliking the taste of them never excused me from having to eat a couple. I hear her rave again about the joys of having an Aga, and she tells me once more about her farming days and how during lambing season, if one emerged weak and sickly, she would bring it inside, place it by the warm belly of the Aga and wait for the heat to fire up those little, newborn bones. We laugh about the time that after one of her traditional Sunday roasts, she put what was left of the meat in the bottom oven to keep it warm, only to forget about it for a fortnight.
When I’m baking, I recite the “six of flour, six of butter, six of sugar” quantities for making sponge in my head – she only worked in pounds and ounces. When icing a cake, a knife dipped in hot water then dried will help create a smooth finish, and when you’re making pastry or crumble topping, cold hands are better than warm ones. Scrunch then un-scrunch your baking paper a couple of times before you line your tins with it – it’s easier to push into corners that way – and homemade mince pies, fat and round and golden-topped, are always better than shop-bought ones. Always.
I don’t just hear her in the kitchen, I hear her on winter days when the air is stiff with cold, the ground crackly with frost and the sky is icy, icy blue. “Coo, it’s chilly-willy-wombles,” she says, and nags me to wrap up in as many layers as is humanly possible. “Don’t you have a coat that at least covers your backside, darling?” And now I have a puppy, my stern dog voice is her stern dog voice. She loved dogs, all dogs, but spaniels most of all. Somehow I don’t think it’s wholly a coincidence my partner Greg and I came to have a Springer spaniel of our own this year.
My tendency to dissolve into helpless and prolonged laughter is hers – via my mother, who’s also a terrible giggler – and Greg is always amused when something renders me weak and squealing with mirth. Granny was never above a bit of toilet humour and silliness, and I have no doubt she would highly enjoy the conversations Greg and I have about our puppy’s digestive events.
I love libraries because she took me to them, and never vetted what I read. If I wanted to read bits out to her – and the aforementioned laughter made reading aloud to her a giggly pleasure – she dropped everything to listen, but otherwise, she knew reading anything and everything made me happy, so she let me get on with it. There’s a lesson here, I’m sure: let children read what they want. The classics and canonical works will wait.
Granny wasn’t perfect, of course she wasn’t, and I’m sure her children could tell many stories of how she infuriated them at times. She never got to grips with the internet, and was rather old-fashioned in some of her views – but she never minded being argued with. If you upset her, though, she had this maddening habit of doing everything really quietly, as if trying to seem invisible. It was the human equivalent of puppy-dog eyes, and good grief, it didn’t half make one feel guilty. She was bossy – she could have given CEOs the world over masterclasses in delegation – but took it in good humour if you said, “Granny, stop being so bossy!” She wasn’t especially house-proud; cleaning and ironing bored her, but she wanted people to be looked after, and that meant everyone had to pitch in to prepare and clear away meals.
She was never anything other than totally herself, all the time. I’ll never forget her talking her way out of a parking ticket in Midhurst town centre – “I mean, where else is there to park?” she harangued the traffic warden. And once, at a village Christmas fair, she noticed a group of children singing carols, dragged me over and made me join them – only finding out afterwards that they were the choir from a local school. That I did not attend.
She’ll be deeply missed – obviously. Her laugh, her need to care for people, her epic Christmases. She excelled at Christmas – making pudding, cake and mince pies from scratch, and her method for decorating the tree was to essentially throw handfuls of baubles and tinsel at the branches and hope for the best. I don’t think she had an easy life – she was a mere seven years old in 1939, she spent her adult life farming, and she cared for my grandfather during his periods of severe depression – but largely she was cheerful, and she loved more than anything to be busy, to feel useful, tending her garden or cooking.
I’m so glad to have had her as my grandmother, and she gave me so much. Every time I step outside into a cold morning, the dog pulling me forward, I’ll think of her. Every time I bake, we’ll have a chat in my head. Every time I sit down with a strong gin & tonic, I’ll raise a toast to her.
I was so lucky.