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