I’ve just finished reading Salley Vicker’s latest novel, ‘Grandmothers, bought for me this Christmas by my daughter. I’m a Salley Vickers fan, having first discovered her when I went to Venice for my 40th Birthday, and followed in the footsteps of Miss Garnet’s Angel. In Grandmothers, there was a lot of tender, well observed detail, that made the characters believable. The detail may well have come from Salley’s own experience of both being a grandmother and remembering her own. My prose tutor tells us that remembered detail is very important to making characters believable, and with my paternal grandmother’s birthday this week on the 23rd January, I thought I would write a little piece by way of introduction to my grandmothers and jot down some of the detail from my memory of them.
I had two grandmothers: Nanny Dora and Nanny Gwen, both living close to home where I grew up in Worthing, on the Sussex coast. They had both lived in the village of Durrington as single parents to my mum and dad, on the same estate, having both had marriages that suffered as a result of the war, but that was where the similarities ended.
Nanny Gwen, my mother’s mother, with her love of lilac had a ladies dress shop in Hurstpierpoint when I was a small girl, and one of my earliest memories is of her flat with its sloping bedroom ceilings and single beds with purple patchwork quilts, one of which I proudly own. Nanny Gwen made little paste pots of jam, dainty scones and had beaded cotton covers for her porcelain milk jugs. She had a fluffy cat which my father, who detested cats, would throw his coat over when he arrived. Nanny Gwen was nervous of men and would hand a male visitor the newspaper on his arrival; a huge fan of the Royal Family, this was always the Daily Mail.
Her birthday was on 23rd December, and the family would gather to watch her open her presents, which were many, and the present opening ceremony to this small child who would be perched on the settee, alongside her younger brother and cousin, best behaviour expected, would take hours. With each new parcel. Nanny Gwen would look up, with watery eyes, and genteelly ask, ‘is it for me?’ taking her time to carefully slit the Sellotape with her ornamental embroidery scissors before remarking on the beauty of the wrapping paper and ribbon, and carefully folding it to be used another time.
Enterprising and crafty, she would make Christmas and Birthday presents for us, although these were often the same year in year out. There is a limit to how many string tins, made from Lyons coffee tins, covered in pretty, sticky backed plastic and braid my father needed. We had a glorious collection of Nanny Gwen’s homemade waste-paper bins, made from liver tins collected from the butcher, and covered, you guessed it, in sticky backed plastic and braid. For those also born in the sixties, you will remember sticky backed plastic was quite a thing, especially for my Nan and Blue Peter presenters.
I was given a variety of crochet ponchos with tassels, pom-poms on strings and matching berets. There was a handy bush on the way to school where these well-meant gifts could safely be stashed until the walk home, to avoid social suicide. Red, white and blue were popular themes, her being a devotee of the Royals.
Nanny Gwen had beautiful handwriting, having learnt calligraphy skills, and I treasure both letters she wrote to me when I had left home and was away at college, and a picture she drew in pen and ink called ‘The Seed Merchant’, which hangs on my study wall. I’ve just come home from shopping in Hexham with a bunch of the new season’s daffodils, which I buy every year in memory of Nanny Gwen who did the same. The china cow was hers too, and although has been glued together on countless occasions is a much loved memento of this fine lady.
Nanny Dora in contrast was rather more ‘down to earth’. She called a spade a spade and had would make her feelings about people known. She was not averse to talking about ‘that dreadful man’ when walking past a house, regardless of the fact his wife was pruning her rhododendrons within full earshot. Mrs Brown, of Mrs Brown’s Boys reminds me of my Nan. She was not course or vulgar, and would not have sworn, well, at least not in front of us kids, but she did wear a nylon housecoat, and would have a man’s hanky in her pocket. She was a smoker, up until Grandad died of lung cancer, when they both gave up, but until then, had smoked from being a teenager. She only ever smoked y the kitchen door to the garden, ‘nasty filthy ‘abit!’ I loved rolling her ‘shag fags’ with the little red rizla rolling machine, but we kept that from my Mum, who wouldn’t have approved. Desperate for her to give up when we were older, and witnessed her hacking cough, we would hide her Old Holborn and Rizlas, much to her vexation. ‘I’ll tan your backsides’ she used to say, but she never did.
She had a glorious ‘telephone voice’ dropping her h’s and adding them on and would get words jumbled in a most endearing manner. A trip to London, to the Halbert ‘All, was rounded off with a meal at a Berni Inn, where she had a ‘hoppin’ great pork chop and a side saddle’.
She was my best friend in life when I was growing up. ‘What’s that ruddy church gone and done to you now’ she would say, as she greeted ‘her precious’ with open arms at the doorway to her bungalow, smelling of face powder and stale tobacco. I loved the safety of those arms.
We spent many a night having sleepovers at Nan’s – memories of eating crab and prawns on Cream Crackers, whilst watching the wrestling on a Saturday afternoon when Grandad picked at winkles with a pin, having come home with leftover scraps from Mac Fisheries. On rainy days we were allowed to heap the settee cushions on a pile and jump on them or would have drawing competitions – she always won! On sunnier days we played or helped Nan in the garden. She grew trays of bedding out plants in wooden kipper trays and we set up shop and sold these out the front of her house, along with tomatoes and runner beans from the greenhouse. I feel her presence sometimes, when I’m picking tomatoes in my own greenhouse. There is something so evocative about that smell.
The bedtime routine involved getting undressed in front of the roaring coal fire (everywhere else in the house was Baltic) having had a bath in two inches of scalding water and being sat on the loo until you had done your number two for the day. She would then tuck us up in bed, a mug of milk with skin on the top cooling on the bedside table, where she knelt and serenaded us with ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ pausing to cough and splutter, then kiss us, her face all whiskery and powdery. I loved my Nan so much.
I wrote a short story about Nanny Dora, and the jug I own that was hers when I applied for Uni, and as I write, I have her photo by the side of my laptop. I miss her. I hope very much I can revisit my memories of both Nanny Dora and Nanny Gwen, and they like will appear as characters in a story. There is so much more to write about them. Now I am a Grandmother myself, I wonder if little Daisy will one day be reminiscing about the times she had at ‘Nanny’s house. I hope so.
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