My grandmother, Anne, was born in January 1908. She was a formidable woman. Unusually for the time, she didn’t marry until she was 31 years old. She gave birth to my mother in her mid 30’s and she was almost 40 when she had my uncle. She was four years older than my grandfather – but he never knew how old she was, she wouldn’t tell him, and kept hidden any documents revealing her age – and lived until she was 95. Coincidentally, I am four years older than my husband (unfortunately he knows how old I am, wish I could pretend to be four years younger like my grandma did all her life) and also had my children in my mid to late 30’s.
Grandparents are often described as ‘characters’ but my grandmother really was. To illustrate here’s a story that has become family folklore. In the mid 80’s my mother was having some work done on the house. The head builder and my mum were about the same age and as they chatted, came to realise they grew up very close to each other in a town just outside London. When my mother told him she lived in North Road his face lit up with recognition.
‘North Road! Yes I remember that road. I did a lot of work up there when I was an apprentice. In fact, I used to be a milkman’s mate along that route when I was a lad. Cor I remember a customer on that road, right miserable old cow she was – what a tarter! Now what was her name…’ he mused, rasping the stubble on his chin as he thought. ‘White hair, she had, always yelling at my boss for getting the order wrong…’
Yes, it was my grandmother.
Her husband, Phillip, was deputy head of a local school. A Physics teacher, he was well known for getting boys’ attention by hurling the chalk board wooden rubber at their heads. My mother was resigned to hearing stories about the impact her parents had had upon people’s lives. I wonder if that is why she got out of dodge as quickly as possibly by marrying my Dad and moving to the Middle East from 1966-1982.
The stories about my grandmother have passed into family legend. Always left wing, she taught herself Russian in her 60’s and 70’s, wearing a huge fur hat whenever she went outside. She was a great admirer of all things Cold War and her shelves were filled with biographies of Russian leaders.
She had a Magnus Hand Organ in the dining room. I don’t know whether you are familiar with them but they looked like this.
There it stood in all it’s 60’s glory in the corner of the room. What was typical of my grandmother was the way she had annotated the sheet music resting on the top. She had the music for ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and next to the lyrics ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ had scrawled phrases such as ‘What about the appalling treatment of black people?’ and ‘dreadful treatment of native Indians!’ There was also writing in Russian and Shorthand; I never found our what it meant but there were a lot of exclamation marks. On any Russian music, particularly Tchaikovsky, you’d find written ‘Wonderful!’ and ‘Marvellous’ in bold, approving letters.
She also used the phrase, ‘well you’re a braver man than I, Gunga Din!’ all the time. I find myself, in my old age, having to bite my tongue from saying it myself. It would certainly confuse, and probably offend, my pupils.
I came to know my grandmother in three ways. First, through the stories my mother and uncle told me, secondly from my own memories as a granddaughter and later her carer. What I am most excited about, however, is the third and final insight I have been given which is this… ( I will come back to this later)
My memories of my mother’s parents are pretty standard, I should imagine. When we returned to the UK we would visit them every Sunday for high tea, which I loved – my grandmother made an amazing trifle – and parlour games. My grandmother adored her food and was greedy as I am. She was a big fan of puddings (as am I) and we never had a meal which wasn’t concluded with a number of different puddings on offer. My mother had too many puddings as a child so wouldn’t make any for me and my brother when we were young. (I was a bit cross to find a letter in this suitcase that my mother wrote just after getting married. In it, she describes all the lovely cakes and puddings she cooked for my Dad – how come she didn’t make any when we were born!?) The effect of this is that if my brother and I get a hint of pudding being available we gorge ourselves until sick. I think my brother, now 46, has grown out of this habit – I, sadly, have not.
There was quite a formal atmosphere at my grandmother’s house; a contrast to the jolly atmosphere of my father’s family. My grandfather, a cultured and intelligent man, seemed very remote. I remember I showed him an A level English essay for which I had received an A grade. I was delighted with myself but his response was to identify every spelling mistake I had made, which popped my balloon somewhat. His letters show a different side: clever, thoughtful and very funny.
Anne was an indulgent grandmother, she once drove my mum crackers by giving seven year old me a chocolate sandwich – literally, a chocolate sandwich: a bar of Dairy Milk between two slices of bread (the days before Nutella) – because I didn’t fancy fish for supper. They both encouraged and supported me in my dream to become a teacher, and, along with my mother, were great readers. Their house was full of books and family conversations centered around recommendations and discussions about books. It is only now that I appreciate how much of an influence that was when choosing teaching English as a profession.
Listening to my mother, however, a story is told which shows a much darker and more complex side to my grandmother. Anne was a vehement and stubborn atheist. I don’t know why, but all the time I knew her she had no truck with any kind of religion. The most awful thing she ever did was to refuse to attend my mother’s church wedding. She was happy to pay for a reception, but nothing would persuade her to be there the day my mother married my father. I am not sure my mum has ever forgiven her for this. I wondered if it was because she had issues with the marriage but no, she thought my Dad was wonderful (and flirted with him whenever she could) so it wasn’t because she didn’t want mum to marry. No, it was the fact the wedding was held in a church. She didn’t attend my wedding to my first husband for the same reason.
Perhaps even more cruel was the story about the Christening gown. As my father was catholic, one of the conditions of them being able to marry (eyeroll) was their first child had to be baptised a catholic. Pregnant with me, my mother – on leave from the Middle East – asked my grandmother to buy a Christening gown and send it out when I was born. Anne agreed and my mother returned to the Middle East.
I have read the letter Mum wrote announcing my birth to my grandparents countless times. It’s beautiful: filled with the wonder and joy of a new parent. She describes me in loving detail: length, weight, colour of eyes, size of hands. One cannot fail to be moved by it. As a PS the letter ends with a request for Anne to send over the Christening gown as arranged. In return, Anne sent a vicious, hateful and angry letter refusing to buy and send the gown, detailing in full what she thought of the ‘nonsense of religion’. My mother ended up making me one out of the train of her wedding dress.
It is a measure of how upset my mother was by this that she stopped writing to my grandmother for years, only communicating with my grandfather. What happened was never spoken of. Relationships eventually resumed and continued as normal. Years and years later my mother spoke to her Dad to ask what he thought of the way Anne had behaved. His response was that he admired her principles and the strength she had in sticking to them.
Mum would describe to me how Anne wouldn’t let her have friends from school round for tea. One memorable occasion a boy my mum fancied rolled up uninvited and knocked on the door. Anne told him my mum wasn’t in (when she was) and that was the end of that.
I had the privilege of developing a relationship with my grandmother way beyond that of the small child/grandparent when I was her carer for a few months, along with my brother, when Anne was in her 90’s. My parents were working abroad and my brother and I looked after the family home while they were away.
This was in the mid to late 1990s. I was working in my first school and my brother was trying to get his band off the ground. My grandfather had died in 1989 so my grandmother sold her house and bought a little flat just down the road from my parents. While they were away in the Far East, Mum asked me and my brother to stay in their house so we could take Grandma shopping once a week and keep an eye on her – as well as making sure the family home didn’t get robbed in their absence.
She was coming up to 90 at this point but her years of playing hockey, cricket and golf, followed by lots of walking, stood her in good stead and she was hale and hearty with her wits fully intact. A great cricket fan, she would while away hours watching the ashes on TV as well as gazing out at a magnificent Horse Chestnut which stood at her window. She would make notes in her daily diary commenting on the antics of the wildlife residing in the tree. Her diary was unsentimental: one entry, on 24th Jan read, ‘Phil Dead.’
We would make sure we saw her twice a week, once to the shops and then once for lunch or tea and a game like scrabble. (She always won). We would bring her crystallised ginger – one of her favourite treats – and in return she would ply us with biscuits. Bright and interesting, she was good company. She could be quite naughty. Once I had to get petrol on the way to the shops and Grandma was with me. As I got out to fill up, the internal handle on my door swung loose.
My Gran leaned over and shouted out at me through the open car door. ‘You’ve got a screw missing from your door handle!’
‘It’s all right, Nan, I know,’ I replied, opening the petrol cap.
‘You need a screw!’ she continued, before indicating a white van full of smirking workmen parked alongside. ‘Ask those gentlemen in the van. I’m sure they can give you a screw.’ Her head disappeared back into the car as I died of mortification, my face steaming red. I still don’t know whether she did this deliberately to embarrass me or just didn’t know what ‘screw’ meant.
Sadly, after a year or two, her good health waned and Anne got very ill. For a few weeks she refused to come out shopping with us and just handed over a list. Then, she wouldn’t let us into the flat and wouldn’t come over to play scrabble saying ‘you young people don’t want to be bothered with an old woman like me.’ A week after this she didn’t answer the door, so my brother broke in.
It wasn’t good. She was in her bed and looked wizened. I was shocked to see a rim of dirt around her forehead. Her hands were tiny claws, clutching the bed linen. We called the doctor who diagnosed malnutrition and dehydration. She had stopped eating and drinking and horrified me by asking just to be ‘left alone to die.’ Anne flatly refused to go to hospital or leave the flat so for the next few months my brother and I took over her care.
I called my mother and reassured her all was fine and that we were managing. I was naive; looking after the needs of a 90 odd year old was way outside my and my brother’s skill set. We didn’t want to worry my mother, though, so made light of how bad Anne was.
Eventually, we organised carers to come in to wash Anne and bring her meals. (She hated most of them and would express her hatred with great fluency.) Before that was established, my brother and I shared between us the tasks of getting her up, washed and dressed, giving her meals and putting her to bed. Once, in the first few weeks of looking after her, when she was still bed-ridden, I pulled a book from the shelf in desperation as she seemed so far away from us and I was worried she had just given up. I started reading aloud. It was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. I read the first line and as I read, my grandma’s eyes popped open and she looked up at me with her wicked little smile. Word for word she recited the whole of the rest of the poem along with me from memory.
That was a turning point and she got out of bed shortly afterwards. She used to keep asking me how old she was and I’d say, ’91, Nan’ or ‘You’re 92 now, Nan’ and she’d grumble that she was ‘far too old.’ She once remarked that she always got a shock when she looked in the mirror as in her head she was only 36. It reminded me of the line from a Plath poem, ‘Mirror‘
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.’
I appreciate the horror of these lines now I am approaching 50, in a way I didn’t then.
I’d wash Anne’s face and hair and try to get her to let me tweezer out some of her face hairs. She’d moan I was just making them grow more but I persevered. I got a friend round to do her nails and she loved that.
With the naivety of a woman in her early twenties, I thought it would be a good idea to get Anne up and out for a little walk. She had been stuck inside for months and I thought she should get some fresh air. One day, I bundled her up and stuck her feet in a pair of my Dr Marten boots. She was still so thin I could support her fairly easily out of the door into the front garden. Anne stood breathing in the cold, damp spring air and smiled at the Horse Chestnut tree. Ah, this was a good idea, I thought.
It all went horribly wrong when I tried to get her inside and she tripped. I caught her, but not before she’d knocked her knee against the edge of the door step. Because her skin was so thin, all the flesh just fell away from her shin, like a loose sock which gathered in folds around her ankle. Blood poured out in a glistening flood.
‘Oh Christ, Nan! I’m so sorry!’ I sobbed, lifting her up and carrying her in. I called for an ambulance whilst holding up the sock of flesh around her neck. I was sick with the horror of it.
‘Don’t worry, darling,’ Anne reassured, ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine, it’s that damned abscess.’ She had been hit on the shin by a cricket ball years ago, and the wound never fully healed.
The ambulance came and, wretched with guilt, I went with her. Anne was bright and chatty and had a good talk with the paramedic. Her stoicism astonished me. The hospital patched her up and I was glad to get her back home.
For the next few months my brother and I continued to look after Anne. We had some wonderful conversations about books and boyfriends and cricket. We bought her wildlife documentaries on video as well as old cricket matches. She would clap and shout ‘well done, sir!’ at every good catch or bat.
She had this habit of saying, ‘please God let me die,’ over and over again when she thought nobody was listening. A surprise for the dyed-in-the-wool atheist I knew her to be. She kept doing it until I told her we found it really annoying. She would laugh and agree to stop. Ten minutes later I would hear her whispering… ‘please God let me die, please God let me die.’ and I would look over at her. ‘Nan! You’re doing it again!’ and she’d laugh again, miming zipping up her lips.
At the time I was going out with a boy whose mother was dying of leukemia. She was in her 40s with children in their late teens and early twenties and she was desperate to live. Listening to my grandma’s mortal whispers while a young woman fought to beat the disease which was killing her, reminded me over and over again how bloody cruel life could be. Anne was ready to die. She had lost her beloved husband, she had lived a full life with her family always around her. She was over 90. But she lived another five or six years after that whereas my boyfriend’s mum died at 45.
It wasn’t easy caring for Anne. She could be stubborn beyond belief and hated having to be cared for by others. Having to clean her, take her to the loo and get her in and out of bed wasn’t fun. We got through thousands of adult-sized baby wipes – I didn’t even know they existed. The only good thing about doing this when we were in our early 20’s is that we didn’t appreciate the tragedy of it all. Of course we knew it was sad, but we were young and optimistic. The horrors of mortality and illness were things we shrugged off as we thought we were immortal. What this meant was we had a lot of laughs. We would persuade Anne to tell us stories of her childhood in a sweet shop (how she never got diabetes I don’t know) and funny tales about our mum when she was young.
We would tell her about our day and think up things to make her laugh. We would ease the embarrassment of lavatory trips by making jokes. She was always a darling about it. We weren’t professional carers, we were family – I don’t know how good a job we did, but I am so glad we did it. We did stupid things: rather than get her ruined mattress removed by a proper company, my brother set fire to it in my parent’s garden, the scorch marks lasted for months. I was entirely responsible for her having a wounded leg for the rest of her life – God it gives me the shivers still to think about that day – and I’m not sure we fed her very healthily; she would only eat puddings, and we would let her, desperate to get her weight up. My brother would feed her eggs at lunchtime so she wouldn’t need the loo on his watch. That would be my job when I got home from work.
It was a big responsibility and it was difficult but I see that time as very precious and I am sure my brother does too. We formed bonds with my grandmother as adults, and that was very important to us. Saying that, we were also in our early 20’s with lovers and social lives and looking after Grandma could feel like a real chore. When Mum and Dad returned from the Far East to take over Anne’s care we returned with joy to our social lives without looking back – oh, the heartlessness of youth.
When my grandmother died in 2003 my mother gave me this suitcase. It contained all the letters my grandmother considered special and they included the correspondence between her and my grandfather when they were courting, and just after they were married when he was away during the war.
The earliest letter dates from 1921 when Anne (also known as Adah) was 13. This was one of my favourites because in it she describes watching the boys play cricket at the school where I now teach.
When I first got the suitcase I was about to get married for the second time – to a much nicer man – and didn’t have time to go through the suitcase properly. I do remember the delight I felt when I looked through a few envelopes and saw the familiar handwriting of Anne and Phil, younger than I was then and full of love and joyful tales of everyday life. It was a pleasure to get a glimpse into the younger selves of the elderly couple I knew.
I’ve had this suitcase for 14 years and apart from collecting letters together into years, going by the post mark, and reading a couple, I had not done any more. I always meant to catalogue and copy them out one day as they are a fascinating insight into mid-20th century lives.
I have decided to tweet a letter each day beginning with the first tweet which will appear on 31st December 2017. I meant to do this last year as I love the neatness of publishing a letter from 1936 in 2016, exactly 80 years apart but, you know, family/job etc.
You can follow the tweets by looking for the hashtag #DarlingAnne. You can also find them as a blog here.
They begin with letters from Anne to Philip when they were courting. I have some of his replies but not all. In 1937 he was teaching in Yorkshire whilst Anne was in Kent. I have almost all the letters he wrote to Anne between 1937 and 1945 but sadly few of hers can be found. She insisted he write to her daily. He moans about this all the time, but still wrote every single day – pretty much. Once war was declared, after they were married, the letters continued, and it was lovely for me to read his letters detailing his joy at becoming a father. She was always trying to make him learn shorthand – she was obsessed with shorthand – but he refused. Some of the letters she wrote to him are in shorthand – can anyone translate them for me? I’d love to know what they said. I hope they aren’t really rude – wouldn’t that be awful!?
12 thoughts on “‘I’ll never set foot in a church, not even for my daughter’s wedding.’ My Grandmother Anne: Atheist and Communist.”
Looks like Pitmans shorthand.
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Do you know how to read it?
No, learned something called Dacomb decades ago. Pitmans was more reliable and was used by court stenographers. I’m sure with a bit of research you’ll be able to find out more. It would certainly be worthwhile.
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I’ll have a look – thank you!
This is fascinating – my grandfather was an atheist and communist in London. I don’t do photos – the only photo of anyone I have in my flat is of my grandfather. He was a huge and enduring influence on me and, through me, my children. Like your grandmother, he was an extraordinary person
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Thank you I really appreciate the read. Was you grandfather a member of the Fabian society? She sure was difficult but anyone who met her never forgot her. She was an excellent example of a very strong woman.
No, although curiously his surname – as was mine – was Webb. His background was poverty-stricken and he became and remained a train-driver, so moved in a different milieu to the Webbs. He did however teach himself to read so that he could read the Bible, on the grounds you should never discuss anything you didn’t know for yourself.
Truly extraordinary man!
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Sounds incredible – nice you keep him alive in your memory
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