Photo taken by Peter Page, 1966
A Letter to NANA
This is a picture of me sitting on your knee at three months old. It probably isn’t the first time we met but that’s how I think of it. Previously I was probably not so aware and wouldn’t have been grinning like this. We just look so pleased to see each other. As always.
When I went to senior school everyone started having their ears pierced and my friend told me that her ‘Gran’ said that if we were meant to have pierced ears we would have been born with them. This seemed such a contrast to you who would never say such a thing but you did buy me earrings. I remember that a lot of the other kids had their grandmothers living with them or at least round the corner. We went to visit for holidays and every second Christmas so it was more of a treat. We had chunks of time together.
For decades you kept asking me what I would want from your place and I always said ‘the little wooden chest of drawers’. I’ve filled it with ‘keepsakes’, the sort of things you keep for no reason other that the memories associated with them. In one of the drawers I have a thirty-something year old lavender bag in the shape of a mop-capped teashop lady from the gift shop at Tatton Park. It now smells of dust, rather than lavender. I wonder why? I also have a post card of a cartoon mermaid you and Bampa sent me in 1974 when I had got my swimming length as well as many other examples of your distinctive curly handwriting in various letters and cards.
When staying at your house as a child, you gave me little jobs to do in the kitchen. Unwrapping the butter was an important job. No good leaving it wrapped, is there? I have a vivid memory of feeling very important, having been promoted to washing the lettuce while my cousin unwrapped the butter.
Once, when two things were accidently broken in a day, you sent my brother and I outside to smash an old saucer. I remember thinking it was funny and also feeling slightly unsure about being asked to purposely break something. We went outside and smashed it on the flagstones.
I also remember going to see you and Bampa when you were staying in a hotel on holiday. The weather was cool, dull and breezy and seemed to fit in with a feeling of dislocation in not being at home or at your house. We went up onto a cliff top that over looked the Wash and you taught us how to sit back-to-back and lean on each other.
You were always very interested in everything I was doing, however dull. You would want to know what I had seen at the theatre, had I bought any new clothes, what I was reading at the moment and all the details about my work, friends and holidays.
I really believe that this is one of the best things you can ever do for someone you care about; take an interest. I often have to remind myself to do this, preferring to glean information rather than question people but I think it came naturally to you.
It was a standing joke in our house that we always wanted to send you the skin off the custard through the post because we knew you liked it and none of us did. We never actually did post it though. Or even attempt to cram it into an envelope.
During my visits, we talked and talked about everything, sometimes lingering over the breakfast things, in our dressing gowns, for far too long. You taught me to play scrabble and then I started winning every time. I’ll never have that cross-word-finishing-perseverance of yours though. We often talked about food and I heard tales of how you coped with rationing in the war. We share some favourites: beetroot, marmite and bread sauce. Not together obviously. When you moved into the care home I dared not ask whether you ever got any of these things. But some of the food was all right you said. And at least you got tea. I would love to know how many cups of tea you drank in your 97 years.
I always enjoyed a few days rest from work, just chatting and eating and going on ‘The Great Carlisle Shopping Challenge’ when I was sent into town with a list of things I had to find. Before you lived in Carlisle you were in Wilmslow so we did a lot of shopping there too. Back then you were driving. I know you never passed your test because there was no such thing when you learned to drive. I remember you stopping at the butchers and getting back in the car with a chicken in a plastic bag and just throwing it over your shoulder onto the back seat of the car. Only very recently I reminded you of the day I was going to go to Southport and you went out before me and locked me in your flat. You remembered this and we laughed at the fact that I never did get to Southport.
There is one event that particularly sticks in my mind. I think it was on the day of Great Nana’s funeral. I went upstairs to look for you and found you in your mother’s bedroom, sitting at the dressing table. You were brushing your hair and looking in the mirror. For a fraction of a split second I thought it was Great Nana. A ghost perhaps or a just figment of my imagination.
My Mum says there’s a saying that you don’t become a woman until your mother has gone. You looked like your mother, as though now you had subtly changed, the colour of your hair, perhaps the way you were sitting, as though you’d stepped across an invisible line.
Maybe you saw my face and my reaction, in the mirror, because you turned round and smiled at me. Your smile was reassuring but also as though I had broken you from a reverie. Was I intruding on something? I felt instinctively aware that you had been thinking about your mother. I felt I was reading your thoughts like you would a character in a film or on television.
Whenever I went home after staying at yours, you would stand at a window to wave me off. I would turn and wave as many times as I could as I left and you’d always still be there.
You said you just wanted to fly away and you told me that every night you prayed the fairies would take you. Then you said you just wanted to die.
I’m so pleased you got what you wanted.
You will live on in my memory. You were one of my best friends.