Doris – Ode to a Grandmother

My Nan was a bit of an old bag when it came to socializing. You could spend the best part of an afternoon sorting out a great outfit to wear to a family christening and you could be sure she would criticize it at some point in the afternoon. She would sit on the sofa in her best ensemble, some ghastly multi colored relic left over from the Blitz, being waited upon some poor undeserving junior niece or nephew, like Pontius Pilate waiting for the soap to appear.

Her hat, a poor man’s copy of something the Queen Mother might have been buried in, would be jammed on her head with all the finesse of a German Stormtrooper, the frontal flowers carrying the pale yellow, unmistakable traces of nicotine streaks, which characterized her entire wardrobe. Apart from the nicotine stains her clothes were surprisingly chic, her shoes were always clean and in good repair, her handbags always matched her shoes and her hair nets always matched her hats.

The eyes would travel up and down the outfit, taking in every detail. Usually they would come to rest on some tiny defect, a slightly wrinkled hemline or a droopy lapel, and linger there, waiting to see if the wearer was going to give in and crack under the scrutiny.

Invariably Nan would be unable to resist a caustic remark about where the outfit came from, how much it cost, whether there were any other unfortunate wearers likely to show up at the same function and whether their version might look better on them than mine did on me.

Nan’s last effort at being charming had a lasting effect on various members of the family and the result was that not many showed up at her funeral only a year or so later. I think this was great shame as she was a true pioneer of free speech, even if it did cost her the affections of her grandchildren and most of the members of her local Bingo club. Hard to imagine this horrifying old biddy had once been the toast of London and enjoyed the attentions of a small battalion of admirers.

She was born just before the end of the first World War. In her day she had an adventurous spirit. She began her working career at the age of twelve when she became a nursery nurse to two young well to do children in a London suburb, where she stayed until she was in her twenties. Her early training served her all her life and she was always able to diagnose childlike disorders and calm a screaming baby. The family were very fond of her and purchased for her a highly fashionable and expensive wardrobe, the very latest styles complete with matching accessories.

Doris had a high old time rocking about in the family Bentley complete with chauffeur and was encouraged to frequent only the best places in company with the children. She learned to eat and drink well, adopting the best deportment and manners and generally became one of the family, leaving only when the children went away to boarding school. During her time with them she enjoyed all the treats on offer as the family sidekick, including a ride in a hot air balloon and a wing-walking lesson when a team of display flyers pitched up on the local airfield. In those days for a young lady to even consider such a stunt was completely off the wall of propriety and she must have endured a lot of criticism before finally arriving at the airfield for her afternoon of aerobatics.

All through her life she was a magnet for disaster, some of it comical and some not quite so amusing. She got married and had three children and a full quota of grandchildren but was prejudiced toward most of them. The only members of the pack she had any time for were the children of her daughter, my mother, whom she believed raised her children to match Nan’s exacting standards and therefore deserved recognition. The rest of my cousins were turned away from her door when they showed up to visit on Sunday afternoons, such a shame that she missed out on so many affectionate relationships. My cousin Gary, though, visited because he knew it annoyed her to have to answer the door for the hundredth time and turn him away each time. He did not change and he grew up to be an annoying person in all things, but he is another story.

Nan’s husband left her for another woman when my mother was twelve, and although he lived only a few miles away with his new love, he and Nan never saw each other again, not even to accidentally bump into each other, not even once.

Nan was a keen gambler and was the chairperson of the local whist club, a member of the Bingo club and was on every possible committee as the main raffle organizer. Unfortunately she always purchased a ticket and was seen to win too many times for comfort and this was the reason she fell out with the organizers of the village whist drive. The recriminations that were bandied about had far reaching repercussions for years afterward and poor old Nan never forgot, forgave, nor failed to mention repeatedly, the details to the parties involved, at every opportunity.

Being a pragmatic sort of person by nature though, she moved on, and made the best of things and for the most part, enjoyed her life, especially when she managed to wangle an invitation for herself to spend Christmas or summer with us, wherever we were living at the time, which was varied because we moved around a lot, as my father’s work took him to far flung corners of the world.

Nan would arrive by turbo charged broomstick wherever we were, and set up in a corner of the drawing room where she would expound her opinions on the lives of each and every one of us, usually liberally sprinkled with what she saw as constructive criticism.

For a time when I was only a tiny child, we lived in a caravan through the summer holidays, while my Dad was lecturing on Management throughout the West Country. Nan came with us and they were the happiest times I remember. She and my mother decided to empty the portaloo one morning, carrying it between them down a grassy slope from where the caravan was parked.

Predictably, Nan stepped in a hole and the entire contents of the portal emptied into her shoes. She laughed all the way back to the caravan. I never remember her being glum in those days, only much later, and now that I am grown up I understand why. She was having an affair, apparently one of several, with a married man in the village. He had promised her to leave his wife that summer and so she was full of hope. I learned later on that my mother had put a stop to it all and sent the man packing, and poor Nan never saw him again. He ran away, and so left the wife and Nan, and it seems such a waste really. When I was much older I reflected upon how hard it must have been for her to return to her lonely house after the summer holidays, to a village where she had become a bit of a scandal, without the support of her family or the man she loved.

That same summer I remember Nan having to visit a clump of bushes in the woods as she had consumed a full pint of sweet cider in the village pub where we were staying. Just as she was about to squat lower, my mother screamed and Nan froze, balanced an eighth of an inch above a man trap, its iron jaws nano-seconds from her bottom. We ran back to our field as fast as our legs would go and I remember being horribly stung by nettles in our hurry.

Eventually Dad was offered an overseas posting and holidays with Nan became a tradition of the past, as she came to live with us for the first two years of our life overseas. She did try to adapt to her new lifestyle but her heart was not in it and we knew that one day she would decide to return home, but in the meantime our lives were colored by her opinions and little prejudices.

Bringing boyfriends home was, for me, an ordeal of embarrassment. My friends all had, it seemed to me with my selfish fifteen year old outlook, highly glamorous grandmothers, with grey but elegant hairstyles, long hair turned into French pleats or dainty little combs gracing the temples of an elaborate chignon. Spotless pastel colored twin sets, ropes of pearls and pale nail polish, and the scent of gardenias.

Nan, on the other hand, had a tight frizzy perm which was colored yellow at the front (see paragraph 2), a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth, and a way of sitting in her chair with her legs touching each arm, which displayed her pink brushed cotton bloomers for all to see. Not a pretty sight I can tell you. She loathed foreign food of any description, especially rice eaten as an accompaniment to a main course. In her opinion rice belonged in a pudding she said, and she said it each time rice was served, even if it was served nine times a day, which in Singapore it frequently was.

Our tour in Hong Kong some years later was enriched by the purchase of a sailing yacht, which we took out every weekend, starting out from our mooring at the fashionable Hong Kong Yacht Club. Imagine my horror one Saturday morning while socializing with my trendy friends on the deck of my father’s boat, when I spied Nan determinedly marching down the decking armed with her knitting basket, clip-on sunglasses and an ominous-looking picnic hamper guaranteed to contain no trace of boiled rice. It took ten minutes for her to dispatch all four of my pals back to the clubhouse and establish herself as guest of honor for the duration.

We dropped anchor at one of the islands in the afternoon to eat our picnic and enjoy the sunshine. Nan decided to go ashore in the dinghy accompanied by my father, looking like thunder. The trip ashore went okay; it was trying to get her back into the boat that caused mayhem. She grabbed the ladder of the boat, leaving her feet in the dinghy, her body arched at 45 degrees – fatal, as any respectable sailor will tell you. Well, she fell into the sea between the boat and the dinghy and poor old Dad was obliged to dive in and rescue her, coughing and spluttering and accusing everyone of attempting to kill her. (Which was nonsense, because if anyone was going to kill her, it would have been my brother and me, a long time before this…?)

By the time my father had reached the peak of his career we were living in Indonesia. Nan came to see us from time to time and occasionally we went to UK on home leave for several weeks at a time but by now she was getting on in years. Nan openly disliked all her grandchildren now, who had grown up and were all living within a mile or two of her front door. Gary, my mischievous cousin, had offended her forever when he sent her a Christmas present, which consisted of a series of boxes, decreasing in size and grandeur, all gaily wrapped, at least ten of them. The final box was only a tiny jewel box and Nan, an avid collector of Gaudy Baubles, was filled with excitement as to the contents. Inside was a miniature plastic chicken, a relic from a Christmas cracker of the previous year. Gary was criticised throughout the family for pulling such a mean trick on a dear old lady (yeah, right…) and Nan never spoke to him again. Ever.

My daughter came along in 1987 and Nan launched herself into the business of being a Great Grandmother like Winston Churchill directing a War Committee. Nan was strict and traditional when it came to babies. She was notorious for advising Boots the Chemist in her High Street that they were a blot on the landscape of child care, by continuing to stock pacifiers, which were a by product of Satan himself in her opinion, and a sure sign of a Bad Mother, not to mention certain Disfigurement of the Gums for the Child. I never bought my baby a dummy, as we called them, I was too frightened of Nan. At nine thirty each morning for the first three months of my daughter’s life, Nan rang me to ask why I was not out walking the baby. And I was not to pick her up until she had cried for ten minutes, Unless I Wanted to Spoil The Child, I was warned darkly.

My daughter was two before I really understood the legacy Nan had left me. My child was healthy, happy, would eat anything, drink anything, try anything, climb anything and was free of just about all nasty diseases both emotional and physical. Her early babyhood was set in a routine designed by Nan and I will always be grateful to her for that.

When Nan was 84, she got the surprise of her life one day, when the postman delivered papers from her estranged husband Jack, asking her for a divorce! She trotted happily off to the solicitors and signed the papers, and her divorce came through a few months later, but she dined out for a long time on the fame of being the oldest person in her village to get divorced.

Strangely, Jack committed suicide the following year, nobody could find out why. Nan was buying stamps one morning in the post office, when a funeral cortege went slowly by, and upon examining the floral tributes, she realized the funeral was Jacks. The shock sent her to her knees and she had to be helped onto a bench near the bus stop, until she felt able to walk home. She swore to her dying day that he was her only love, in spite of the several dozen affairs she was reputed to have thoroughly enjoyed, and his passing affected her deeply. She cheered herself up by buying herself a color television and lived on to be nearly 86.