When I was five, my grandmother took me – just me, not my mum and dad, not my noisy, bitey little brother, just me – on a holiday to Folkestone. I don’t remember very much about it: I know we stayed overnight in a hotel, which was a massive treat – mum and dad never, ever, took us to hotels. I know we went on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch steam railway, because I remember seeing a postcard we brought back. I remember there was shortbread in little packets in the hotel room. But mostly I remember the feelings that weekend generated. I had never felt so special. For 48 hours Nanny made me the centre of her world. I had never felt so special.
I guess that’s what all grandparents do. But to me, ‘Nanny Grinstead’ (named for the town where she lived, to distinguish her from my paternal grandmother, ‘Granny Poole’) seemed to make me feel extra-special. I was her first grandchild and her only granddaughter. I gave her her first great-grandchildren and her only (to date) great-granddaughters. Although once I left home and moved north I rarely saw her, I felt a bond stretching across the miles and the generations, and I know she felt it too.
If I inherited most of my looks, my impatience and my perfectionism from my paternal grandparents (I wish I was less of a perfectionist. I wish, like Nanny Grinstead, my favourite phrase was ‘That’ll do’), I like to think I got at least some of my better characters from Nanny. Above all, I hope that like her I am always generous with my money, belongings and time.
Born in 1922, Nanny (whose real name was Marjorie), passed away earlier this week, just a few days after her 95th birthday, the last of my children’s great-grandparents to do so. Nanny lived all of her life in East Grinstead, and knew everyone there. You couldn’t go ‘up the town’ with her without stopping to greet half a dozen people. She didn’t gossip, she just loved a chat and to look out for her friends. At Christmas, I have never seen anyone with so many cards as her. They would cover every sideboard and surface, cascading down the walls like waterfalls.
She was widowed when I was eighteen months old and lived alone in a neat little bungalow. I remember always being fascinated by the under-floor heating, which would rise up from slatted vents in the carpet like steam from a New York fire hydrant. There was a macramé hanging basket in the porch and always antimacassars embroidered with ducks on the armchairs. Not to mention the fact that she had two loo roll holders side by side in the WC.
I imagine it would be pretty frustrating to have your neat and tidy domain invaded every so often by a pair of marauding grandchildren but, if it were, she never let on. She tolerated us rushing in, pulling all the games out of the toy cupboard, bouncing up and down on the giant teddy she once won in a raffle (she was the luckiest person I ever met – I never knew her to enter a raffle and not win), and rearranging every single one of her precious collection of wooden elephants. The only place we somehow knew we shouldn’t disrupt was her bedroom, although I would often sneak in to gaze at her sitting at the dressing table with her back to me, brushing her hair, or to look at myself in her full-length mirror, something we didn’t have at home – if I wanted to see my bottom half I had to stand on my parents’ bed, then jump off again to see my top half.
Nanny was definitely no pushover – if I needed a telling-off, I would get a telling-off. Hard-of-hearing for as long as I can remember, if you spoke too quietly, or merely said something she didn’t understand or didn’t agree with, you’d receive a brusque ‘Eh?’ But a decade of dependency in a care home weakened her mind, body and spirit. By the end, she was pathetically grateful for my pathetic attempts at communication from a distance. By the end, her hair was thinning and her skin almost translucent, so fine it felt like silk. By the end she had few belongings, although more than you would expect could fit into that one small room at the care home, little dignity, and very few peers left. She outlived her younger sister and most of her friends. There were occasional glimpses of her feisty nature and sparkling eyes, but truly she had had enough. Thank goodness for her eternal companion – Sky Sports.
Nanny had a pathological obsession with sport. Until her stroke, she would get up every Monday morning to go swimming in the local pool. I went with her once or twice – it was freezing! At school, she excelled in stool ball – a uniquely dangerous Sussex sport kind of like cricket played at head height. Football, tennis, snooker and especially cricket, you name it, she would watch it. She would take a cantankerous like or dislike to the players based on very little – during the nineties she could frequently be heard referring to the England cricket captain as ‘That Atherton.’ She also loved nothing better than a game – and I think having grandchildren was a pleasure to her for that reason. Cards, especially, were her favourite. She would get out her button box for betting and me, my brother, mum and her would play Newmarket while dad hid behind his newspaper and muttered about the ‘Devil’s picturebook.’
When I was in junior school, I interviewed Nanny about her time in the Land Army, for a project. She was full of tales of the camaraderie, full of jokes about having to bury the carrots in sand to stop the mice from eating them. It must have been tough for an educated middle class girl to knuckle down and work the land like that, in all weathers, but if it was, she didn’t say. And it didn’t put her off a bit of cultivation. The garden at her bungalow was always full of runner beans, raspberries, rhubarb and sweet peas – even if it was generally full of weeds as well. She focused on growing, not on tediously weeding, and who can blame her? In autumn she would take us blackberrying along the old railway line.
After that trip to Folkestone, I would regularly go and stay with Nanny Grinstead for a few days at a time. The part of the week I most looked forward to was her Thursday afternoon shift volunteering in the League of Friends café at the Queen Victoria hospital. I guess it was my first taste of work experience, my first taste of doing something useful, my first taste of interacting with people, and I loved it! I loved sneaking out from behind the counter to collect the dirty cups. I loved the big old urn and the checked tea-towels. I loved counting the stock – packets of Frazzles, Wagonwheels and Polo Mints – to see what we needed to re-order. I loved taking orders, taking the money, and giving people change. I realise now that I must have got under her feet all the time. I must have been slower than her at all those tasks. She must have had to recheck the stock-take when I wasn’t looking. But she never let on. She never told me to go and sit down and do some colouring. She always indulged my enthusiasm. She was the first person to let me go in a loft – my parents always assumed I would put my foot through the ceiling.
Many of my memories of Nanny revolve around food. Whenever I stayed she would make sure we went out for lunch at least once. Sometimes with her best friend, Auntie Joan, whose gruff Scottish husband would only eat sausages. Nanny would always get in a Kellogg’s ‘variety pack’ of cereal for my breakfast. She had a small kitchen with mugs hanging on hooks under the cupboards. Together we would bake sweet concoctions of sugar and desiccated coconut stuck on a base of melted chocolate. She would do things with condensed milk. She made an amazing pudding of ginger biscuits soaked in sherry, stuck together with whipped cream and the entire thing coated in melted dark chocolate. It looked like an enormous caterpillar and tasted like all the good bits of a trifle with none of the fruit. On one visit she brought out an old electric waffle-maker (my Grandad had been a great one for gadgets), and every visit after that we begged her to make batter for waffles again. When I went off to university she let me raid the boxes and boxes of old cooking equipment in her big double garage (She drove a succession of Minis – trading each one in when it was three years old so that she didn’t have to go through the stress of getting an MOT). All my saucepans, wooden spoons and fish-slices came from her. I must have been the only person who turned up to Fresher’s Week with two fish slices.
The last time I saw Nanny was in April. She was in a geriatric ward in Redhill from which she was not expected to return. Yet, once again her tough-as-boots old body pulled her back from the place where perhaps her mind already wanted to go, had wanted to go for some time. I am so glad I made the trip: I took Caitlin (who tottered around the ward, almost tripping up gentlemen in dressing-gowns and Zimmer-frames, delighting the old ladies, and causing the staff to ask if I could possibly bring her in every week to cheer everyone up). She will now be able to know, if not to remember, that she did meet her great-grandmother. I think maintaining that link between the generations is important. And I am glad, now, that Nanny is finally able to rest with peace and dignity. No longer reliant upon others for her most basic of needs. No longer in pain and not able to understand why. No longer alone in a sea of faces. And I am glad that she got to spend her final days in the caring environment of the ‘home’ that had been her home for so long, with staff who truly did care for her and were as much family to her as I was, with a decent palliative care package that meant she didn’t have to move to an unfamiliar, clinical hospital ward. Nanny’s death is the end of a generation for my family, the end of an era, the end of something special, but the special qualities she embodied live on in her daughters, granddaughter and great-granddaughters. May she rest in peace.