My grandmother Elsie served mashed potato from an ice cream scoop. It would sit, bosom like and a little uninviting on the plate like the rock of Gibraltar. Curiously, I don’t remember what else was on the plate. Chicken? Carrots? Sprouts? I don’t know much, but I’m fairly certain the potato shouldn’t be main feature. She lived at number 52, 6th Avenue: the house directly behind the library and among it’s many features was an outside loo that was equipped with Izal Medicated (look it up) and, when things were tight, newspaper cut in squares.
I liked her. She was easy to like. She had a little twinkle in her eye and naughtiness in her soul (and, quite frequently, in reality.) She had had a hard life – you could tell from the dip of the shoulder and the greyness of her hair. In my memory (although perhaps not in reality) she always wore a flowery wrap-around pinnie and fur-lined ankle boots with a zip at the front. This bit can’t be right, because even in the frozen north of Hull we had summer and no one wears fur-lined boots in August. I saw her a lot: we’d walk to her house as a family group every fortnight or so and I’m struck by how, because I saw her a lot, I can’t remember much specific detail about her: she was just always there – smiley and, by the time I knew her, benign.
She taught me to knit. I learned this sitting on the floor looking up so now I knit backwards but as I do both purl and knit the wrong way, it comes out right. She was encouraging: and I am certain that I made her at least one hat that she dutifully wore. I always sewed her and my grandpa a tea cosy (and miss spelt grandad – as you do – although she evidently didn’t mind.)
She had a series of operations across her lifetime, mostly gynecological and was in and out of hospital. I don’t remember the detail but I do remember the visits. By the end, her insides were mostly removed or re-arranged. She was a living, breathing miracle.
She also made the best cakes and biscuits ever so that her house had the smell of sugar and baked goods: maids of honour, fairy cakes, flies graveyards, short-bread, jam tarts and all manner of other stuff. When we visited, we were spoilt for choice: but as the choice was limited to one it was often traumatic to ensure that you got the right one. For me, it was Maid of Honour. Always. Puff pastry shell, with curds underlined by almond and jam. I will never taste such wonder again. It was extraordinary that she could create such magic in the dinginess of that kitchen which was bleak: but wonderfully practical. She baked on the kitchen table leaning over so that her back grew sore. It was, for them, the best house – a council property that they saw as an extraordinary gift from the state. The sink tap had a rubber nozzle on the end that could direct the water were it needed to go, and a jar full of the ends of carbolic soap (pink in colour, I think) which she would later press into a new, useable bar later down the line. This was a legacy of the war: a practical no-nonsense make-do and mend approach that we could do with adopting again.
Legends surrounded Elsie. Like the time, for example, that her son locked her in the toilet and then she chased him half way round Hull and walked him to the police station for his crime. She was not above raging and rampaging the streets if her family strayed or someone upset her and, by all accounts, she had a vicious temper (though I never saw it.) But mostly it was the richness of her language that has been her legacy (look away now if you’re easily offended.)
So, you’d say, “I wish I had x or x or x.” And she’d say (as my mother said after her), “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.” These words often dance around my head in the work context, but I’m smart enough to know that that’s not for sharing… or if a meal was hot and you made the not unreasonable observation that it was, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven and you’d get hot.” Quite. There were no flies on Elsie.
She was somewhat younger than my grandfather – and he died long before she did. I was never certain whether she got over this. She also went deaf very early and I have a strong recollection of her being isolated because of it. I have a visual memory of her sitting in my Aunt’s house underneath the budgie and not being part of the conversation – these were knockabout things that moved fast over numbers of people and it was hard to keep up when you could hear it all! I am not sure how this isolation occurred or whether it was a deliberate ploy on her part. I like to think it was: I like to think that the world in her head was somewhat more exciting than the world around us and she’d retreated because it was the best place on earth. As time moved on, and she began to get elderly she withdrew further still and, one time, she disappeared. By that stage she was in an old people’s home and though she re-appeared in time for tea, no one knew where she’d been. In my head she had spent the day on one last adventure…seeking out a few final thrills on Beverley High Road, holding up the post office with her sawn-off umbrella and hiding her stash in the church yard of St John’s Newland.
I visited her in the old people’s home but she didn’t really know who I was. She called me Joyce – which is my mother’s name – and that was good enough for me. There were dozens of older women in the lounge ,one of whom kept standing up and saying, “What am I doing here? Where am I?” only to be comforted by a nursing aide that she was exactly where she should be and it wasn’t time to worry.
My grandmother Elsie died soon after that visit and it was very sad. I don’t remember going to the funeral and I suspect I didn’t because I was elsewhere – where, I don’t recall. But I did, a few years later, take part in a Christmas concert at that old people’s home. Half way through Once in Royal David City, that old lady stood and shouted, “Where am I? What am I doing here?” and she was comforted again and reassured and I was grateful that my grandma hadn’t been subjected to that rather sad purgatory over the preceding two years.
(Many apologies for the lack of comments. I am in a very busy work period and also lots of trips for family and friends. I will catch up!)