My Nana – so called because she thought it was posh – looked exactly as I do now (although in deference to 2017, I have forgone the perm). At my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary 6 years ago, my uncle Keith who I rarely see (his crooked teeth a perfect match for mine) said, “Bloody Hell – Florence lives and breathes!”
It is strange to look exactly like someone, especially when they’re dead and gone, and it’s strange never to have noticed this when she was alive (an act of will on my part). Other people always said it, but the similarity passed me by. Am I just a facsimile? No teenager wants to know there’s nothing original about their face or shape – that they look exactly like another.
But as I was in my 40s at my parents’ 50th, and because Florence had left the planet years before, it felt, well, surreal to be reminded of this again. (I know others have suffered too because of me – I was a very sensitive child and quick to tears, so when any younger cousin cried they’d have directed at them ‘Mary Bloody Brearley’ as if this was a bad thing.) I smiled at my Uncle Keith and he smiled back.
“You gave me a fright!” he said.
“Happens to me every day when I catch a glimpse in the mirror!” I smiled.
“You look exactly like the woman I remember as a young man. Terrifying!” Keith laughed, heartily, fully until he coughed, “Don’t go lining up the mirrors to spy on me,” he said.
One of Florence’s most famous wheezes: lining up the mirrors so she could be sure that her sons were not getting up to any hanky panky when they were entertaining young women in the parlour from her vantage point in the kitchen. My turn to laugh, “I’ve better stuff to do Uncle Keith!”
In every picture – Florence is wearing an a-line skirt of one indistinguishable colour or another, cut off at the knee. Her feet are always in flat, sensible shoes and Ernest, her somewhat shorter second husband stands beside her. He always has a mischievous grin beneath his pencil thin spiv moustache. She has laughing eyes and cheek bones like launch pads (where the biggest similarity with me lies) and yet she is somewhat serious, held in, held back. I don’t know why. My memory of her is that she was dignified, contained, inside: as if life had taken a few swipes and she’d survived. She held secrets.
There are two incidents that sit in opposition to this buttoned down woman. One when I was quite young, perhaps 4, was never repeated through Christmas after Christmas though she had the opportunity. It was summer and we were visiting their tiny caravan in Hawes, Wensleydale (six vans in a field, no facilities, years before the whole world caught onto the benefits of being outside). Florence got completely pissed on banana wine. We were playing Monopoly as a family. I was partnered with my mam and Nana was brazenly cheating – not for herself but for my older sore loser of a brother who she was partnered with. I watched her slowly sneak money from the bank pile to his. I looked around. I was sure she’d done it but no-one else reacted, I began to doubt myself. And then, she did it again. I was up past my bedtime and certain I’d be sent packing so I widened my eyes at her, a little cheekily to say I know exactly what you’re up to. And Nana winked! I was so shocked I wanted to laugh instead I tried to focus on her daring do as she stole more and more for K. He smiled too.
A few years later at our annual Christmas visit at their house (which was often a bit of an endurance) Nana appeared to have had a personality transplant. Normally it was a five hour trial by silence where we did our best to be behaved. Instead, Nana had prepared all sorts of games (perhaps she’d read about this in the Woman’s Weekly?) and all afternoon we played pass the balloon, between our knees and neck and various others that now escape me. It was very tense, trying to enjoy without getting over-excited and wrecking the joint. I’m not sure why we worried, it never happened again. The following year we returned to awkward questions and long silences.
I liked going to their house though. It was an extraordinary contrast to the other side of the family (Nana married up – perhaps that’s were her inner struggle lay?) which was on a housing estate. Here, out in a village you could see the cars flying down from Little Weighton, going a little too fast until you felt it might not end well, and brakes were applied just in time. Lights danced on the ceiling of their living room and because it was always Christmas (we only visited once a year) it was dark.
Nana’s house had a distinct smell and I’ve never encountered it since. I’ll know if I do: somewhere between fruit cake and salad on a plate and washing powder and plants and aftershave.
The last time I saw Nana was in the hospital. I went along to visit and arrived a little too soon. The door to her room was ajar and I saw Grandad, Ernie, helping her slowly to move. It was the singularly most intimate thing I’d ever seen, these two people in their mid-80s, thrown together by the war years, close, tied by a history I didn’t know, him trying to make her comfortable: failing. She’d had an operation on her stomach and was in severe pain which was plainly visible on her face. They didn’t know I was looking. But it gave her away.
I knew then that I was saying goodbye and a week or so later she died.