These photos were taken 8 years ago, at my wedding.
I was fortunate to have made it to the age of 36 with all four of my Grandparents. But my Grandma died three weeks ago and the next week we found out my Nan only has about 3 months to live, now that the breast cancer she’s been fighting to overcome has spread to other organs.
My Grandma was a witty, kind and humble woman. She lived until two months before her 94th birthday. My Grandpa remained devoted to her up to the very last moment.
My Nan is more than 10 years younger than the rest of my grandparents, and (with my Grandad) lived closest to me when I was growing up. We moved into a house opposite them when I was three. My earliest memory is looking out of the window at the top of my Nan’s stairs (she must have been holding me) and watching my parents moving our furniture into our new house.
The fact that she is so much younger is important. The fact the she is in my earliest memories is also significant. She has always seemed to me to be invincible. She has always been bold and brave and steady in her every endeavour. Endlessly benevolent too. Church warden for 48 years, I regularly used to accompany her to the church and church hall when she’d run her errands, let people in, set up for activities or events and so on. She would always be cheerily chatting to me the whole time, while busily sorting or arranging this and that. As well as looking after the church she would open or close curtains for neighbours who were away, check on older neighbours, knit and make cakes and other things for church bizarres, and so much more.
The coach trips she organised were legendary. I always sat at the front of the coach filled with (mostly elderly) people from the local community and we’d go to places like Margate, Southend, Yarmouth and even as far away as Blackpool. At the end of a day spent on deck chairs on the beach eating sandy sandwiches and us children playing with buckets and spades, we’d go en mass for a fish and chip dinner having, previously organised by Nan. Rain or shine, fun was always had by all.
I have similarly happy memories of Christmas and New Year’s parties. Christmas Day evening or Boxing Day often took place at my Nan’s, especially before my parents got divorced (aged 9). Knees-ups and tree presents and too much cola fizzing up into my nostrils. New Year’s Eve parties at the old Church Hall when I was very young were filled with music, dancing and laughter. There are many photos circulating in my family of near-riotous crowds enjoying each other’s company again at an event organised and maintained by my Nan.
There was a running joke that our 10 minute walk to the shops would take at least an hour because my Nan would be stopped every few steps to chat with friends and neighbours and church-goers who would want to catch-up with or thank her for her latest good deeds. She seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew her.
Despite now being bed-bound, her generosity of spirit continues. She tells my aunt, uncles, Mum, brother, cousins and friends to not worry about her and tries to retain cheery conversation.
She had 5 children, four surviving. The first three – girl, girl, boy – must have all been one school year apart, then the next son was born about 8 years later and the next son 5 years after that. She lost her first son nearly two years ago to the disease that is consuming her now. He died in her arms in his room in her house. This devastation is something I don’t think she recovered from fully.
When my Grandma had a stroke a couple of years ago and I first visited her in her care home, it was such a change. She was no longer ‘my Grandma’. She was still here but her light was dim. Visiting her was heartbreaking, but I felt she was getting comfort from seeing us, especially my children. My Nan, although much weaker now, is still ‘my Nan’. I can’t imagine a world where her light is gone. She did and still does so much for me, as she does for so many.
For me, Nan was my heroine and my constant when I was growing up. When my parents got divorced and what I thought I knew about the world was torn apart, it was my Nan’s constant, steady presence – as she lived over the road and would regularly come over to check on things and help my Mum emotionally and practically – that kept me together. My Mum didn’t cope well with getting divorced and made many terrible choices due to the depression and complete lack of self-worth she felt. I don’t think anyone else apart from my brother, my Nan and me knew the extent of my Mum’s depression at this time. There was other family around but I don’t remember any support from them, nor any time after that, apart from that given by the uncle who past away nearly two years ago. She was still a great Mum in many ways, and my lovely Dad was visiting every week and I think maybe even twice a week, but the unhappiness of our everyday lives must have been covered up well, or ignored. My brother and I have tried talking about some aspects of it as adults but realised we have many mental blanks and parts of our childhood we have obviously found too upsetting to give any space to in our memories.
It was my Nan who sorted out my worst bully, a little boy who lived up the road. My Nan got this little boy to our front door and warned him that she knew his mother and didn’t think she’d be happy to hear what he’s been doing. He left me alone after that. It was also my Nan who let me stay off school when the depression I was feeling made me sometimes unable to put on the brave face I did every other day at school. Because my Mum worked some days until later than school finished, and because it wasn’t safe or acceptable for me to be in the house either with just my brother looking after me or with the alcoholic imbecile my Mum thought was all she deserved, my Nan, and sometimes my Grandad, would look after me until she got home. Bringing me drinks and snacks and making me dinner – I was vegetarian from the age of 10 and I know now that the ‘veggie’ toad-in-the-hole and so on she’d make me was in fact made with meat. But I know she did it because she thought it was the best thing for me.
When I moved away to live with my Dad and then off to university and my depression really took hold, after therapy and self help I came to the realisation that I wanted to write a thank-you letter to my Nan so she knew how much her steadiness and love had meant when I was growing up. Her letter in response was so comforting and warm.
As I’ve got older and got married and had children my Nan has remained committed to always being there for me and my family and anyone else who let her. When my Mum’s now mostly well-balanced disposition cracked at my wedding, it was again my Nan who held everything together and prevented most of the guests from knowing anything out-of-the-ordinary was going on.
In more recent years she has been talking about her Mum a lot and the farm she grew up on. She has never been one for being open about her past, so these little insights are priceless.
Her desire to help others and the way she is able to remain calm and clear headed when needed are characteristics I still try to emulate. Of course, she is not perfect, but who is?
After a lifetime spent being proactive, creative, strong and constantly busy, her current state, needing help to get around and to do her hair and allowing others to look after her, must be near unbearable for her. It is very difficult to see. She’s full of guilt about it, but everyone tells her it’s nothing after everything she’s done for them.
I love the fact that she still takes time to put her lippy on and find the funny side of her misfortunes.
I just hope we have many more weeks to give back some of the kindness she’s given to so many.