This week, whilst cooking an extremely adult meal of fish fingers and baked beans, I described to a friend a ‘Nannie meal’: fish fingers, boiled potatoes, tinned sweetcorn and peas, all covered in white sauce and served in a Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit bowl. It doesn’t sound like much – and I imagine half of its appeal was probably the amount of salt used to flavour things in a way that only people of my grandparents’ era did – but this meal was a staple of my childhood and one that sticks solidly in my memory. I only knew my Nannie – my father’s mother – until I was about eight, but I started thinking about the rich collection of memories I hold for all four of my grandparents, and how so many of these tiny little things have shaped my life in some way or another.
A regular conversation amongst myself and my friends at the moment is around the pace of change in the world today. This most likely stems, in part, from my current obsession with re-watching the TV series Mad Men; set in the 1960s, I am constantly taken aback by how different the world looked just sixty years ago: how gender roles and social status’ were – for many – so set in stone, how the glass ceiling was so much thicker than it is today, and how keeping up appearances was essential at all times; even just how everybody wore a hat any time they stepped outside. I find it crazy to think that my grandparents were part of this world, and to imagine how overwhelming it could be for their generation to deal with the world as it is today, with the technology, the politics, the freedom.
My Grandma Evelyn – my Mum’s Mum – was a worrier; a trait I have certainly inherited from her, and I know today’s world would have caused her much anguish. When I see older people travelling around London, I’m reminded of my little Grandma and Grandad; I often wonder how they’d have managed to mind the gap between the train and the platform edge with their little legs, how they’d have coped with the hustle and bustle. London isn’t made for older people, for people who can’t move at top speed. But then I’m reminded that my grandparents lived through much harder times than me, through the war, rationing, times of great change (they also bought their three bedroom house for £1,000, but that’s another matter!).
My Grandma was the kindest, most generous lady; she loved the theatre, music; singing and dancing. Grandma visited every single Monday, always leaving pocket money for myself and my brother, along with other gifts – gel pens, hair clips, chocolate teacakes, old dancing shoes for the dressing up box. She and my Mum would spend the day shopping; Grandma would choose something nice from M&S to take back for her and Grandad’s tea. Then she’d wait for us to get home from school and we’d wave her off on the bus home. Three rings on the phone when she got in, just so we knew she was back safe.
I still make my Grandma’s corned beef hot pot on a regular basis – another one of those very simple, hugely comforting meals; a meal that comes from her childhood, growing up in a Yorkshire back-to-back house where money was tight and corned beef was the cheapest option. Corned beef, potatoes and onions, served with red cabbage, brown sauce and a slice of white bread to mop up the juices: heaven.
My Grandad Norman, always the joker – he loved Morcambe and Wise: ‘What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!’, Frank Sinatra (we played Strangers in the Night at his funeral; a beautiful song, even the thought of it brings tears to my eyes), roast lamb with mint sauce made fresh from the garden. He loved smoking his pipe, even though it drove Mum and Grandma crazy; carbolic soap (yes, that stinky, burgundy coloured soap that they used to use in school toilets!), because it reminded him of his childhood. My brother inherited his red hair and his cheeky demeanour.
I used to joke that Grandma and Grandad had a better social life than me: they had ‘the dance’ on Monday, ‘the club’ on Thursday; regular ‘Tinsel and Turkey’ holidays or coach trips with friends. Outings with familiar duos (to me) like Ken and Joyce, May and Dennis, Jill and Bob. They’d travel around Birmingham on the bus, enjoying days out together, always a story to tell. They came as a pair; Grandad was never the same after Grandma died.
I wish I had more photos to include here – and this makes me realise I have no photographs of my grandparents in my home – there are boxes and boxes in the loft at my Dad’s house; photos from a simpler time when you just smiled and were happy with the first shot. I love looking through these nostalgic snapshots, imagining what was happening at the time they were taken. It breaks my heart that some of the faces in these photos will be nameless to me forever. My Mum was my grandparents’ only child.
My Dad’s parents, my Nannie, Betty and Grandad, Ken hold yet more memories for me. I remember my Nannie’s soft and gentle voice and her magic jar of Zambuc, a waxy green ointment that cured any ache or pain. I remember being jealous of her bright white Marks & Spencer plimsolls and her modern electric typewriter; how she taught me to sew one evening whilst babysitting, a delightful little basket full of coloured threads and chunky needles. There was the most fantastic library of Enid Blyton books at Nannie and Grandad’s house, endless choices, each story more exciting than the last; myself and my cousins would check books in and out each time we visited. Nannie would record episodes of Noddy and The Borrowers for us to watch on video, arrange little tea parties in the summer house with plastic bowls of marshmallows, chocolate buttons, pink wafers. She always did things properly: I remember a holiday on the Isle of Wight where we had fish and chips on the seafront: Nannie brought plastic plates, napkins, knives and forks. No eating out of the paper for us! I know that she became very ill, but I don’t remember really noticing it at the time; to me, she was always put-together (I think she wore a wig, but I don’t think I knew that at the time), always refined and poised.
Whenever I smell that turps-y, woody-y, garage-y smell, I’m reminded of my Grandad, Ken. He loved making things, fixing things, finding solutions to problems; he was always in his garage, filing something with a lathe, gluing something back together with araldite. He used to say ‘Oh crumpy!’ if something went wrong. No surprise that he was an engineer; he was even awarded an MBE for his achievements. After my Nannie died, Grandad kept himself busy, completing courses at the local college and even beginning a History of Art degree at Warwick University. It breaks my heart that he didn’t finish it, but I know that having that sense of purpose meant so much to him. At one time, three generations of my family – my cousin Emily, my auntie Anne and my Grandad – were all studying at University. How intellectual! I remember many family get togethers at my Grandad’s house; rock cakes, trifles, birthday cakes thick with icing. I remember Grandad making toast for breakfast and cutting it into crazy paving for me, each little piece thick with butter.
I’m reminded all the time of the cruel nature of old age, but I don’t want to remember my grandparents by how they left this world; I want to remember all they achieved in their eventful lives, how they travelled from one period in history to a completely new one. I want to remember all the love they gave to those around them; all those funny little quirks they passed on to their children and then on to me – the things that make my family my family. I’ll hold on to these tiny memories forever.