‘Nanny Grinstead,’ with love

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.

Advertisements

First world problems

‘First world problems.’ It’s a phrase I see quite a lot on my newsfeeds. Used self-deprecatingly to mean, ‘This shouldn’t really get to me but I need to moan about it,’ or to joke about someone overheard in the supermarket:

‘Waitrose had run out of own-brand humus. I don’t know what I’m going to do for lunch now. #firstworldproblems’

‘My car’s broken down. I had to walk the kids to school without any mascara on. #firstworldproblems’

I even came across a blog post the other day about the ‘dilemma’ of ‘choosing the right sunglasses for your face shape. I mean, wtf, really?

And now this. More than twenty people dead, many of them children. Nearly sixty people injured. Young people still missing. Families torn apart. Parents grieving. Siblings who will never grow up together. Puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?

How can I go on, complaining about the antisocial parking outside my house, when somebody lost a child last night?

How can I go on, making a fuss about the lack of accessible toilets, when somebody lost a child last night?

How can I go on, protesting about having to accompany Benjamin to nursery, when somebody lost a child last night?

How can I go on, trying to take a stand on climate change, when somebody lost a child last night?

How can I go on, fighting discrimination against disabled people before and after birth, when somebody lost a child last night?

Because if I don’t go on, terror has won. If we don’t stand up for fairness, thoughtfulness and compassion even in the small things, this is where it ends. Whether it’s the man giving a stranger a hug or a lift home from the Manchester Arena, or one mum giving another the twenty pence she needs for the coffee machine outside ICU. Whether it’s fighting for a little bit more understanding among my neighbours, or for the rights and dignities of people I’ll never meet. Whether it’s casting a can of beans into a food bank, or casting a vote on June 8th. I may have a small voice, but I won’t be silenced, against those who would have us all clawing our way to the top and crushing those who fall beneath. Or those who would have us give up, close our doors, and at the same time close our hearts.

Yes, in the context of last night’s events, changing places toilets and preschool SEND provision are rightly viewed as first world problems. But in the context of last night’s events, life can be short and every problem is worth solving, to make every life as good as it could be. Okay maybe not the humus…

… in fact, maybe even the humus. If you have a little boy with ASD who is only able to eat something exactly that shade of beige and that particular style of mushiness. Maybe even the humus, if you’re an anorexic teenager who has pushed and pushed and pushed herself to go buy a snack that is healthy and contains some calories and then is completely floored to find it not there and ends up going home and eating nothing because anything else just hurts too much. I’ve been there. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Let’s keep fighting, together, without judgement and with compassion.

#Manchester

Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t make it right

A few of days ago an article popped up on my timeline. It was entitled How working in an abortion clinic changed my mind about terminations, and was written by a student midwife, Lucy Kelly. A bit ‘clickbaity,’ but I was baited and I clicked.

It is a beautifully written, convincing, strongly worded essay. The direction in which the author changed her mind (spoiler alert) was towards terminations. She wasn’t put off by what she bravely and compassionately witnessed, she was inspired by the fortitude of the women she met in that clinic. And some of what she wrote, yes, I do agree with. It is a terrible decision to have to make and I do not believe many parents take it lightly, whatever they decide.

But some of it, profoundly, no.

‘Women who are having late term abortions are only doing so if their baby will not have any quality of life outside the womb.’

Termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks may legally be considered, in the UK at least, on the grounds of foetal abnormality if there is a substantial risk that the child would suffer physical or mental abnormalities that would result in serious handicap. There is no definition, in the law, as to what constitutes a ‘substantial risk’ or a ‘serious handicap.’ Quality of life is not required to be evaluated.

Sadly, on this basis, women are undergoing mid and late term abortions of babies with Down syndrome, with spina bifida, with hydrocephalus, with cleft palate. Conditions which do not, necessarily, affect ‘quality of life,’ whatever that means. Let alone affect it so much as for it to be preferable to have no life at all. Who are we to decide, as mothers or as a society, that those lives are not worth living, or would be better not lived?

I was advised to abort my son at 38 weeks because his brain was not properly formed. Because he would likely never walk, talk or feed himself. Ours wasn’t one of those miracle stories you read in the Mail where the doctors are proved wrong. My son is indeed profoundly disabled – he will never walk, talk, feed himself. He will likely never roll, sit, or support his own head. However, I would dispute anyone who says he has no quality of life.

And, while the child’s quality of life may be one of the reasons (rightly or wrongly) for women to have a late term abortion, I know that it is not the only one. In fact, the child’s quality of life may be less important in the decision-making than the effect on the mother and any other members of the family. I know because I could have been one of those women. The arguments (and yes, there were arguments: painful, heated, lengthy and almost irreparable ones) surrounding our decision whether to abort, centred partly on our son’s likely quality of life, but partly on the impact on the rest of the family – myself, my husband, our at the time one-year-old daughter, the grandparents. Had we decided to abort – and don’t get me wrong, we very nearly did – it would have been in no small part for the latter reason: to ensure a better life for our existing daughter, to protect her from the isolation, stigma, and lack of opportunity that may come with being sibling to a disabled child. Protection that I believe could and should be achieved by changes in society: by inclusion, accessibility, support, kindness and a lack of judgment. Not by terminating the life of an innocent individual.

I do not doubt that the mothers, fathers, families, who choose abortion on the grounds of disability do so with much heart-searching. As, in fact, do those who choose abortion for other reasons. They may do it on the basis of misinformation. They may do it under strong pressure. They may do it because they truly believe they have no other option. But that does not make it right.

‘I cannot fathom how any politician can believe that they understand more about a woman’s health, and survival, than the doctor caring for her… This is not your life. This is not your pregnancy. This is not your experience. You do not get an opinion’

No, I cannot fathom that, but this is not just – or often even at all, except in incredibly rare and tragic circumstances – about the mother’s life. This is about – as Ms Kelly agrees from 24 weeks at least – a child’s life. The child whose life is at stake doesn’t get an opinion unless doctors, parents and policymakers give them one. That is our duty as a civilised and compassionate society – to give a voice to those who are voiceless.

‘Until you have lived this hell, made this decision, held the tension of two terrible fates and had the courage to make a choice that will break you to pieces, you do not get to judge a woman or decide what is best for her.’

I have lived this hell. I have made this decision. It still breaks me every single day. I am not judging these women; I am judging the circumstances they are placed in, the information they are given, the pressure that is brought to bear, and the expectations forced upon them by the misguided and mis-prioritised society that we live in.

I wonder if Ms Kelly is confusing respect for these mothers – which I share unreservedly – with agreement with their decision. Just because the decision was difficult, just because it was made thoughtfully, carefully, heartbreakingly, soul-searchingly… doesn’t make it right. The solution to this terrible, terrible dilemma is not to make it more acceptable, easier, less traumatic to abort a baby; the solution is to work change in our society so that it is easier to bear that baby, to birth that baby and to bring that baby up, whatever its nature and its circumstances.

**As a courtesy, I offered this piece to Spinoff, the site on which Ms Kelly’s article was published. They declined to publish, saying they weren’t ‘that kind of website’. I think it’s sad that they aren’t the kind of website that would like to show two perspectives on this issue; that they are willing to publish an opinion piece about a certain group of women, but not willing to publish the thoughts of one of those women; that they are not keen to be involved in working the kind of change in society that I describe above. I hope other readers will be**

Thoughts from no-man’s-land

Last week, we had our twenty week scan. Everything looked normal, as we knew it would: Benjamin looked entirely normal at twenty weeks. That didn’t stop me rushing home and googling the baby’s head circumference until I found a graph that put it on the 60th percentile. That’s got to be good, right?

So now we are into that no-man’s-land, the period between 20 and 38 weeks during which we know something happened in Benjamin’s brain (or rather, something didn’t happen that should have). Within eighteen weeks we will know whether to expect a healthy baby, or no baby at all.

I’ve tried to avoid all the ‘pregnancy propaganda.’ I haven’t signed up to any of the weekly emails telling me “your baby is now the size of a butternut squash;” “this week you should be choosing wallpaper for the nursery;” but I am still bombarded with unbearably positive images of pregnancy. At my weekly pilates class we are encouraged to “hug our abdominal muscles around our baby.” The midwife gives me leaflets about breastfeeding, talking to the bump, singing to it even, getting to know the baby before it is born. And why shouldn’t she? Not many women are placed in the no-man’s-land. You either can’t wait to meet your baby, or you do something about it pretty damn quick.

Contradiction is my constant companion. Cognitive dissonance, if you will. It is increasingly obvious that I am pregnant; still I spend my energy trying to ignore the fact. I know that there is every chance this is a healthy baby; I fear what will have to happen if it isn’t. I love my son dearly, I believe that he is happy and that his life has value; but I cannot receive another like him into my family. I grieve with friends who have lost children; yet I know that if my own child doesn’t make it, it will be my own doing and I will have no right to grieve.

And so, as my energy slowly returns, I try to fill my time, to distract myself from this mental tug-of-war. Not with choosing baby names, sorting tiny vests, writing a birth plan. With working and researching and writing angry letters to the council about school transport. With coffee mornings and playdates and planning Halloween costumes and ripping weeds out of the garden. But then something will happen to stop me in my tracks. I cannot end this post without reference to a dear lady, who was good enough to reach out to me when I first started to share my hopes and fears for this pregnancy. She was also pregnant, with near-enough the same due date as me. Today she learned that she has lost her baby.

It’s illogical, of course. I am tired and shocked and hormonal and alone. But I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign: a message that life is fragile, and precious? Some days, perhaps I feel the baby kicking, I am filled with love and wonder and hope for this new life. Others, like today, it is as if I am stuck on a hurtling freight train, moving inexorably towards an abortion, and I cannot get off. All my motherly instincts are beating at the doors but I Can’t. Get. Off.