A few years back, a friend suggested online on a forum of the club we both belonged to that we each write a few lines about women who had influenced our lives in some way. We were given guidelines – a teacher, a doctor, a woman who had been a kind of surrogate mother to us, our best friend from junior school and a grandmother ………. and that was how I got to know nana, my maternal grandmother, a woman who, I realized, I’d taken for granted during the time we’d been allotted to spend together on this planet. Describing her, in words which others were going to read, made me put together all the bits and pieces of information about her which were filed away in different parts of my memory bank.
My first thought startled me. Given that my first memories of her were probably when I was around five years old, that put her at around 50 at that time. Of course, she seemed really old to me then, and now 50 seems quite young! She was around at the previous millennium celebrations, but not old enough to remember them, a link with the 19th century, a part of history now. She must have remembered the suffragettes, but, heck, when she turned 21 she wasn’t even eligible to vote. None of that had occurred to me during her lifetime. I knew far more about my grandfather than I did about nana, and I suppose that’s down to the male chauvinism of the times, the times in which she grew up, and the times in which I grew up.
Her story, when I pieced it together, might shock today’s young, western women, and yet I have a feeling that the essential elements are still repeated, if less frequently than they were. My great-grandmother bore 16 children, and Nana was the second eldest child, and the eldest girl, with the inevitable consequence that she became the second mother to the family, her own mother being pregnant for much of Nana’s own childhood. It was she who made sure they all got home safely from school, helped prepare their meals and made sure they did their chores.
No-one ever said out loud back then that her father was a drunk, but I know now that he was. He was still alive when I was old-enough to remember, and when he visited us he spent his nights in the local pub, which puzzled me a lot. This was odd behavior to me. We were a teetotal family, (and his behavior partly explains why that was), and I could tell that everyone thought he was bound for hell. It’s easy to figure out that my grandmother’s antipathy to him came from his rolling home drunk and knocking up his wife on a regular basis, and somewhere at the back of my mind there is a memory of something someone once said, which I can’t pull out, which tells me that he was violent too.
She was a clever girl, and passed exams to go to grammar school, but that was just a pipe dream – she wasn’t allowed to go. Instead, as soon as she was old enough to leave school, she was sent to work in the local mill to supplement the family’s income. They lived in Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire, England, the heart of the woollen industry at that time. One thing I do know is that she hated that mill and resented not being able to go to school. One reason I know that is because she pushed her own son so hard academically that he turned against her. I don’t doubt that she wanted him to have the education she was forced to miss. I don’t doubt that wanting her family to have things she missed was a great motivation for her, but that, plus a bitterness she carried about her person, made her withdrawn and unapproachable, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I have a blank on the next few years. I’m not even sure how she came to meet my Lancastrian grandfather. Travelling from county to county wasn’t the commonplace thing it is now. Did she go to Blackpool on a family holiday or outing perhaps? They must have married about 1925; my granddad, seven years returned from WW1, when he had travelled to Egypt and India, places I am sure that as a boy he never imagined he would visit; my grandmother having lost three of her brothers in that same war. However they met, the version I have of their story is this: when he went off to war granddad was engaged to be married to a girl by the name of Ada Ellis. I have a photocopy of a photograph of them together. Whilst he was away, she died, leaving him heartbroken. So that when he met another girl of that very same name he must have thought it was fate, and they married very soon thereafter. Nana, I can imagine, must have been overjoyed to leave behind a very dysfunctional family life, and make a fresh start half way across the country. Little did she know that she had married into another one.
I am not clear as to whether my great-grandfather was alive at this point, but his family had a very respectable (because that wasn’t an adjective which applied to all) boarding house in Blackpool. My aunt likes to say that when Ada arrived my grandfather’s mother took to her bed and never got up again. In other words, she handed over all the hard work and drudgery to her new daughter-in-law, and lorded it over the family. Nana was tethered to another grindstone.
Indications are that the business flourished, but it wasn’t an easy life, especially in the summer season. The years passed. The wicked mother-in-law died, leaving the boarding house to my grandparents. Nana gave birth to two children, my mother and my uncle Jim, as she continued to work in the boarding house. Then came WW2, when the house was always full of servicemen on leave, Blackpool being mostly ignored by the Luftwaffe, despite its proximity to Liverpool. Then there was no season any longer, just a year-round business, and that is how my parents met. My father was billeted there when on leave from the air force, and as soon as the war was over they became engaged. My uncle and aunt had married shortly before, so you’d think with a family to run the business together things might be easier for Nana? Wrong. Perhaps the hardest part of her life was about to begin.
No-one, who now remembers, knows from where granddad got the idea of wanting to own a market garden, other than owning one’s own land was a common dream then. Sometime between my parent’s wedding in November of 1945 and my birth in December of 1946, the boarding house was sold, and a market garden of three acres was purchased, on the edge of town, where it merged into countryside. It’s where I grew up. The entire family lived there, my grandparents, my parents and I, and my aunt, uncle and cousin. All sounds a bit like The Waltons now, doesn’t it?
This is nana’s story, and not granddad’s, so let’s just say that there must have been a gradual build up of hurt and depression and worry, when first my dad and then my uncle had to look for “normal” jobs, leaving her with the burden of helping on the land, as well as looking after a big house, and acting as kind of nanny to my cousin and me. Both our moms had long since gone out to work. It was a situation which bore more resemblance to the turn of the century more than to the late 40s. There was no mains drainage in the countryside then, and the outside toilet had to be emptied regularly. That was one of nana’s jobs.
Hard work was no stranger, though, and it wasn’t so unusual either. She was a physically very strong woman, but emotionally, barriers between her and the rest of the world had gone up. What hurt her most was her husband’s neglect. My aunt says she doesn’t remember Pop, as granddad was known to everyone, ever saying one kind word to Nana or giving her one gentle touch on arm even. Maybe the touching isn’t so surprising- the offspring of Victorian parents were often like that, but even with people who are formal one senses a connection, and there was none between them. Further, Pop, at last master of his own domain, turned into a laggard. Sure he turned over the soil and planted seeds, and sure that was hard, physical work, but he spent as much time drinking tea with neighbours or chatting with salesmen and distributors when they turned up. Sure, this must have been better than Nana’s memories of her own father’s drunken escapades, but it occurs to me now that she never experienced love or any demonstation of it from the men in her life. The family view is that Pop turned away from her because he was still in love with the ghost of the first Ada. It’s something I’ll never know, even had I asked back then, I wouldn’t have had a straight answer. It wasn’t the way one behaved.
Even though she acted as our nanny when we were small, made our lunches when we came home from school, made sure we went back after lunch, and that we were safe until our moms got home from work, I actually don’t remember any tenderness from her. I suppose it had all withered by the time I was old enough to remember.
The market garden struggled along until Pop died, and then Nana was able to sell it and move into an apartment in town. It was the only time I remember her being relaxed and making a joke, and though I hadn’t put the pieces together to make the story, I knew this was a new start and a better time. Sadly, it didn’t last too long. Eight years after Nana moved my cousin died, followed a year later by my mom, and the shocks reverberated in my grandmother’s mind setting off a downward spiral into senile dementia, at least that’s what the doctors called it. My mother died in May, and one late afternoon in the following cold and hard winter I called by Nana’s house, to find the front door wide open, but her coat still on a chair. Thinking she must have popped over to see a neighbour I sat down and waited, and waited, and waited. This before cellphones, remember, and eventually I went to find a call box, and started ringing around. No-one had seen her. My aunt and uncle came down from their home, about an hour’s drive away. With temperatures around freezing, we were now beginning to fear the worst, when a police car turned up, with Nana in the back seat. Only, it wasn’t Nana in a way. It was her body, but her mind was ……. elsewhere. She had been found wandering that icy night some miles away from where she lived, coatless but clutching her handbag. She was very lucky to have been found and identified by the police before it was too late.
Of course she spent her remaining years in a home……. seeing ghosts. When I visited she thought I was her dead sister or my mother; when my uncle visited she thought he was her brother, killed in WW1. She said little that made any sense to us, but, incredibly, she seemed happy at last. Maybe it was because for the first time in her life she was being cared for. The staff told me that she helped a lot in the kitchen, and from things they told me, we worked out that she thought she was back in the boarding house. Maybe that’s when she was happy, after her mother-in-law passed on, with two small children and maybe before granddad turned his back on her. Of course I’ll never know, and partly because in my youthful stupidity and arrogance I didn’t take the trouble to connect the dots before. I didn’t have all the information then, but I could have perhaps pressed her more than I did. Not only might it have helped her to break down the barriers she had put up, but she was, also, living history, as we all are, and she must have had so many stories, had I been able to unlock them.
Nana’s story seems tough by our standards today. I know young women who will be shocked by her subservience to the men in her life who made it so hard for her. I also know women who, in that respect, live lives not a whole lot different, but today they do have a choice. They have the vote. They are obliged to continue in education until they are 16, and if they are denied the right to further education by their parents it’s possible, though hard, I know, to leave and follow their own path. They have the right to step out of an unhappy marriage. They have the right to a share of the assets of the marriage, so they can start a new life. They can get a mortgage in their own names, without a male guarantor. Some of these things have even come about in my adulthood.
It’s a mystery then that some women in the west choose to continue on a similar path; but it is heartbreaking that stories even harder, much harder, than Nana’s are still being played out elsewhere in the world. We owe it to our sisters throughout the world to support their rights to live in freedom and dignity.