This is terrible to admit, but I have really patchy memories of my nan. I’ve been thinking about her today, and the stuff that slipped my mind is… well, it’s terrible that I almost forgot about some of the things that happened.
I think I tried to forget, because I feel so guilty.
I only have nice memories of the way she treated me. She involved me in everything she did. She used to let me have the cherry out of whatever drink it was she used to get when they took me to the social club. She took me with her when she went out for the day, even though it was meant to be her time alone. She listened to me.
Yet, somehow, we weren’t ever close. She never let me in. I remember hand-holding, but I don’t remember hugs. The only time I used to give her hugs and kisses was towards the end, when she was sick.
She was very quiet. Not quiet like I am, where every now and then I feel the need to get truly loud, but always genuinely quiet and reflective. We never really knew what she was thinking.
Towards the end, she was sad a lot more, but my family didn’t talk about feelings (‘Why are you crying? Well, stop it.’) so I’ll never truly know why. I’d imagine that knowing she was sick and knowing there were no more chances, no more operations to be had, may have had something to do with it. But she never said anything. Was it that she didn’t think she could? Possibly.
I feel guilty for not talking to her. I think there was an unspoken agreement in our household that our lives were pretty crappy but if we never talked about it then we’d never have to acknowledge it. I disagreed, but was outnumbered. From the age of 13, I went to London to escape. It was the only thing that kept me sane. Perhaps if I’d paid attention to what was going on at home, then I could have made her a bit happier before she died. Yet another ‘what if…?’
Maybe she wouldn’t have spoken to me, anyway. It used to bloody infuriate me as a youngster that I couldn’t get her to open up. I couldn’t even get opinions out of her without her deferring to whatever my grandad said. Was this some leftover attitude from when women’s opinions didn’t matter? Or was she worried about saying the wrong thing by mistake? Yet another mystery.
My grandad was definitely the dominant force in the household, to the point where we constantly clashed. I was supposed to remain stiff-upper-lipped and fall in line but I was highly strung and determined to do as I pleased. My nan and I never argued though; she just wasn’t the type. I angered her once in my entire life. She swore at me and started crying. I’d never heard her swear before that, and I never heard her swear again.
She was funny about that, actually. Both my grandad and I would swear multiple times a sentence while we were indoors, but she’d tell us off if we swore while we were out or if we had people round. He wasn’t meant to swear in front of other people, and I wasn’t meant to swear at all. It’s unbecoming of a lady. You sound like a docker. I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.
There are a lot of things I wish I could find out more about and there are things I wish I didn’t know. My dad stained my memories of her a little bit by telling me a secret which I’m still appalled that someone trusted him with. And I can’t talk about this secret, because it’s not mine and it’s awful, and because I don’t know the full story (like when it happened, or if she was in a relationship with my grandad at the time, or what happened afterwards) so all I can do is draw conclusions from mildly-educated guesses. That’s never a good idea, under any circumstances.
Does it explain why she was the way she was? Not entirely. Things were always hard. She was the oldest girl in her family, her dad was killed overseas during the war (although she said she didn’t know her dad, so I’m not sure what he did), and she had to leave school early to take care of the home and family so that her mother could go out to work. Her youngest brother had spinal tuberculosis and she used to have to carry him around while she did housework. She got strep throat and didn’t receive medical treatment so she ended up with rheumatic fever and then rheumatic heart disease which made her sick for her entire life. Things were pretty fucking shit already, to be honest.
But she just got on with it. She looked after everyone. She did almost everything at home, and she never made life easier for herself. They never had a washing machine the whole I time I was growing up. Or a microwave. Or a fucking toaster! I was so excited when I got to use a toaster for the first time. She’d handwash all our clothes, and use a spin dryer before hanging it all out on the line. Then she’d bring it in and iron it all. In contrast, I use my tumble dryer as storage when I can’t be bothered to sort out all the clothes I lazily throw from one machine to another.
She wouldn’t be proud of me. She didn’t exactly have high hopes, but I know she wouldn’t be impressed. I can’t even write something decent about her.
My memories of her are patchy because she was always there. She sat quietly in the background of every scene that made up my childhood and her gentleness contrasted my mother’s harshness in a way that probably saved me from becoming a complete monster. Sadly, that’s also part of the problem: she was always there, but she was so quiet I often didn’t notice. I became more and more unstable but she never responded to the provocations that I unleashed when I did notice her there. I made things worse. She was already ill, why did I have to treat her like that? I didn’t even realise how bad I’d been until I was 16 and living miles away from her. I apologised when I came home, but the damage would have already been done.
I live with the thought of ‘I might be overreacting to think they died when they did because of me, but if I think about it too hard then I’m probably going to realise that I’m right.’ I can’t turn back time and change things, but I can’t just pretend it didn’t happen and move on.
How do you make amends with the dead, though?