Granny Z has no role models

There is something about reaching the top of the family tree, I think, that concentrates the mind.  Both the Sage and I have elder sisters, but no living parents, aunts or uncles.  And I’ve been thinking about my grandmothers.

I know so little about them, you see.  My mother’s mother died when she was only 25, from complications in her second pregnancy, so there’s very little to know anyway.  She had a lot of siblings, she was the ninth out of ten children, but my mother lost touch with them during WW2 and I know nothing more, except that her name was Janet.

But my father’s mother was still about when I was born, though I doubt I had much contact with her.

I’ve mentioned her before, I know – she was the daughter of a very wealthy owner of a Norwich brewery, she married at the age of 16, had a son at 17, bolted at 21 and was married after the divorce to the father of her second son, had a third, then her husband died of cancer and my grandfather, seeing her destitute (her parents had cut her off when she’d ‘misbehaved’), remarried her from a sense of honour.  The youngest son died in the war – not in action, actually, in a flying accident.  She had cancer in her face and had early radiation treatment, which killed the bone so that the wound never healed over and she wore a bandage tied carelessly round her face from then on.  She was an alcoholic, had a sharp wit, was not loved by her eldest son who had had a miserable childhood, abandoned by her when his father was away during the way,  my sister was afraid of her and she died, a vastly old woman from her appearance, at the age of 63.

I can flesh out very little.  On their return from honeymoon, actually on their way home, they called on friends of his or her parents in the middle of the afternoon and were offered tea – “You must be parched!” said the lady of the house hospitably.  “Actually,” she drawled, “at this time of the day I usually have a gin and tonic.”  However much she was wanting to make an impact, it probably worked, it being 1910 and she so young!  Apparently, it was not unusual for her to drink champagne at breakfast too.*

Once, out with the family, when my sister was a child, they parked the car at the same time as another small saloon drew up.  She watched in silence as a family piled out.  Mother, father, grandparents, a procession of small children – no seatbelts in those days and children must have been on laps, crouched on the floor, they had squeezed in anywhere there was a spare inch.  When the last finally emerged, Grandmother spoke.  “I suppose …  the others couldn’t come.”  We still say it in our family.

What else?  Not much.  She was totally careless of appearances.  She had a lovely bow-fronted display cabinet in the drawing room (my parents had no idea what happened to it and suspected that the staff sold most of the house contents as soon as she died) and it was full of foil milk bottle tops.  A rag and bone man used to come round every year and was given them.  When he stopped coming, she still kept the milk bottle tops and they were shoved in the cabinet.  She listened to the radio, but didn’t know how to tune it, so had three in every room, each tuned to a different station – Home, Light and Third.*

When my mother first met her in-laws, on her wedding day (and after she and my father impulsively married), the door was opened by the butler and they were ushered into the drawing room where my grandfather, just out of hospital after an operation, was in his dressing gown.  They were given sherry.  My mother took a cautious sip, never having tasted it before, and put her glass down.  She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye.  “My word, dear girl,” boomed her new father-in-law.  “You’re fond of sherry, better refill your glass.”  Strictly rationed alcohol didn’t suit a desperate drinker, and she grabbed it when she could.

My grandfather was devoted to his civic duties.  He was a town councillor and alderman for many years and was mayor of the town for a total of 13 years, including all through the war.  Their remarriage was not happy, and my mother always wondered, was Grandad always out because Granny drank, or did Granny drink because Granddad was always out?

I have absolutely no way of ever knowing, but I can’t help wondering what her point of view was?  Was she reconciled with her parents, before or after remarriage?  Apart from her youngest son, my uncle John, did she love anyone?  Did she have friends?  I have a few photos of her, but they are indistinct – the most noticeable thing is the bandage or scarf knotted around her head to cover her cheek.

I have her napkin ring.  Her name was Helen.  And that’s about it.

*Both these seem jolly good ideas

18 comments on “Granny Z has no role models

  1. Mike and Ann

    I know just how you feel about ‘having reached the top of the family tree’. When Ann’s mother died last year in extreme old age, she was much missed, having been a well loved matriarchal figure with a keen, sometimes subtle- sometimes not, sense of humour. And then, a while afterwards, Ann found she’d suddenly become the family matriarch, and I felt a thoroughly patriarchal figure. It’s not just that it makes you feel your age, it makes you feel somehow a responsible person. And when our youngsters now feel the need for family information, they now come to us instead of to Great Gran. Oh well, part of life, I suppose.

  2. von LX

    When my paternal grandmother died, our family tree fell apart. She, and her home, were the central focus and meeting place for the family. Now it is all fractured into family bushes.

  3. Z

    I seem to have steered an altogether different path, fortunately. I’ve never resorted to stealing the sherry out of someone’s glass, anyway.

    Champagne for breakfast would be a bit much for me, I think. I like to get going slowly. Elevenses would be great though.

    I’m still irresponsible though, fortunately Mike. My children keep a careful, slightly anxious, eye on me.

  4. Z

    I think it’s having grandchildren that’s made me realise, von LX. It’s a pity about your family, but it seems inevitable, there’s always one person who keeps everything together.

  5. Tim

    There’s a novel’s worth in there. I think everybody should write a post about everything they can remember about their ancestors. I’ll have a crack at it later in the week, when I’m in Wales and webless.

  6. Z

    I recently bought a purple handbag in fact – that is, my children bought it for my birthday. And I’m wearing a red top and red shoes today. So I’ve evidently reached That Age!

    I already did, Tim, I was surprised to find, looking back in the blog, that it was five years ago. I could just republish old posts for a while, when I can’t think what to write about! You’ll be back in Wales? – safe journey xx

  7. Anonymous

    I felt old when realizing that I am old enough to be the grandmother of most of the neighbor children. Well, that and one mother asking me (childless/no siblings) for child raising advice.
    Z, couldn’t you go on some internet geneology site and research your ancestors a bit more?

  8. Z

    Well I could, but I haven’t really any purpose in doing so. I can go back to a great-great-great grandfather already and that seems enough.

  9. Z

    I thought it was apparent I meant people who are alive. We all have ancestors, whether we know all their names or not. You still have your mother though, one’s perception changes when one is the oldest generation in the family.

  10. Sir Bruin

    I agree, there is the basis of a novel (or, at least, a mini series) there. Being adopted, my ancestry is more than a little clouded. Stephen Fry once said, on an episode of QI, that we can all trace our roots back to Charlemagne. That’ll do for me.

  11. Pat

    What a delightful wit – can’t you just see Maggie Smith saying that line – and what a tragic life?
    Well its all down to you now ducks!

  12. Z

    And for me, Sir B. I care more about who you are (or anyone else is) than where their antecedents came from.

    She must have been bored stiff, Pat. A house full of servants and nothing to do, and with an acid wit that was probably quite off-putting for many people. She never ate sweets until rationing came in, and then she solemnly bought and ate her 2 oz or whatever a week. Rationing was still in when Wink was little, but she ate her ration in front of her granddaughter’s longing eyes! Not out of unkindness, they were her sweets, it didn’t occur to her.

  13. mig

    I had champagne for breakfast once. It was rather nice but I nearly fell asleep at church afterwards.

    Your grandmother sounds quite scary but she must have had a terribly hard life. There’s something tantalising about knowing only the bare facts of one’s relations’ lives especially when those facts are so eventful.

  14. Z

    I don’t think she can have had a happy life. Apart from a short time when her second husband died of cancer and left her penniless, she had a lot of money, times were not hard in that respect – but there’s no way at all of finding anything more about her as a person. She had very lovely dark brown eyes, that’s all I do know, apart from some indistinct photos of her – with her dreadful old scarf knotted around her face!


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