Tomorrow is the day of my Granny’s funeral. It’s the day we get to say goodbye.
There is sadness, but also gratitude for her long life. She got to see her children grow-up, she saw her grandchildren become adults and got the opportunity to get to know her four great-grandchildren too. It’s not like the grief I felt when my Father died aged 60 in 2006. His death caused a seismic shift in our lives and took many months to recover from. My Gran’s death is different. She was tightly woven into the fabric of our family, we all have to adjust and that is going to take some time. We have to get used to her not being here, get used to not being able to talk to her, show her things, talk about milestones in our lives…
Over the past few days I have been looking through lots and lots of photos of her. It only brings home what a long & varied life she led. It’s hard to know where to start, there’s just so much she told us about her childhood, her early life away from home and her family history.
She was born in 1920 into a poor mining town in the Rhondda Valley in Wales. My Granny had countless stories to tell of her childhood. The sense of community was important in those days and everyone seemed to know everyone else. She had a sister, Hilda and a younger brother Colin. Sadly she lost another sister in infanthood. I only found out recently that my Great-Grandmother always wrote her lost baby girl’s birthday in her diary every year.
My Mum has written down many of my Granny’s early memories. Some are sad, some are happy. Living in a mining community was hard. Her eyes would fill with tears when she thought about the loss of life through mining disasters, even 60 or 70 years after it had happened. The poverty left an indelible mark on her memory, particularly as she lived through the Depression in the 1920s and saw her Father & many other miners go on strike. At one point the miners stayed on strike for seven months, finally they were starved into surrendering by the mine owners.
My Grandmother often spoke of her own Mother’s sacrifices. My Great-Grandmother would sometimes tell the children at teatime that she would eat when their Father came in from the coal mine. When he did return home for his evening meal, she would say that she’d eaten earlier with the children. My Granny and her sister didn’t dare reveal their Mother’s white lie. Going without food so her children and husband could eat was just something her Mother accepted.
There will always be plenty of sadness in a poor upbringing, but they had a free-range upbringing with the mountains as their playground. They got up to all sorts of mischief with the neighbour’s children. My Gran would make us laugh with stories of the things she got up to with Hilda, local characters in the Rhondda and funny sayings her own Mother would come out with.
Aged just 16, my Granny was sent away to London to start earning a wage. This was something in later life that would sometimes upset her, she felt she had been too young to be parted from her family. But with little other employment available in the Rhondda, this may have been the only solution & her Mother wanted a better life for her children. Between 1924 and 1939, 50,000 people left the Rhondda to look for work, often moving to other countries. Life was difficult for communities built solely around one industry, especially as most families were on a single wage.
When I look at photos of my Granny in her late teens in London, then Eastborne and eventually Frome where she was evacuated to, she looks incredibly happy. It must have been hard to leave home at 16, but I think it made her into a strong person. She was someone who could talk to people and get along with almost anyone. Like her own Mother, it also made her a strong woman, there’s a steely nature that runs through my Granny’s family. I was always a tiny bit scared of my Great-Grandmother when we visited her in Wales & my Grandmother wasn’t always demonstrative with affection. But, underneath it all, they loved their families dearly.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, my Gran turned into a glamorous young lady. She had an interest in fashion all her life and would always take great care with her appearance. She made her own clothes and would proudly tell us ‘it took me 45 minutes every morning to do my hair’ back in the 1940s. I think the photos of her with victory rolls, smart jackets and glam dresses are probably some of my favourites. She definitely sparked my interest in all things vintage. Due to her poor upbringing, my Gran was thrifty. She hated to see waste and hated to throw things out. Many of the things she owned became ‘vintage’ just by the fact she held onto them for so long. She would often say: ‘do you want this piece of fabric?’ or ‘can you make use of this tin?’ and I would always gladly accept them. I blogged about the John Lewis sewing needles she bought during the war in London. I now have lots of little reminders of her around our home: a peg bag made from fabric she bought in 1945; Pyrex bowls from the 1960s, cake tins featuring logos dating from many years ago. Every piece is a slice of history and I love them.
My Grandmother met her husband in Eastborne before the war & moved to Bristol to get married in peacetime. They had two children, my Mum and my Uncle Antony. You can see how happy she is with her young family in this photo taken in 1952 on Weston seafront (my Gran is second from the left). My Mum, aged two, is wriggling about down at the front & my uncle, with the blonde hair, is looking straight at the camera. Her husband sits to left of the photo and her parents are on the right.
Weston-super-Mare held lots of fond memories for my Gran. When she lived at home in the Rhondda, paddle steamers came ‘across the water’ from Wales to the Somerset coast in the Summer months. I think their jaunts to Weston in her childhood and early teens may have been the only holidays they ever had. One of my favourite photos of my Gran is this one at the open-air swimming pool on the seafront. I blogged about it a few years ago…I love the swimming costume and heels combo.
As time went on, my Mum and Uncle married their respective partners and bought four grandchildren into my Gran’s life. We’ve gone on to give her four great-grandchildren. As I mentioned above, family was everything to her. She always wanted to know our news, and all the extended family’s news. She was a prolific letter writer and her mantelpiece would groan with Christmas cards every year. She reached out to many, many people. Friends from the ATS, colleagues from work, neighbours old and new and of course her family.
The above photo shows my Grandmother with her four grandchildren at her 90th birthday party. She loved a fuss on her birthday and we had many family parties. She was at her happiest when she had her family around her. Some of my earliest memories are going for Sunday lunch at her flat in Clifton. I was about three or four and the high Victorian ceilings made it feel like we were in a palace, I often thought that my Grandmother was a very grand lady. My Mum has other ideas about the ‘grand’ nature of the flat she grew up in. I’ve heard stories of the snow gathering on the inside of the sash windows, burning chilblains and having to use an umbrella when you sat on the loo due to a leaking skylight (although I’m not sure the last one is entirely true). Anyway, I loved going there. My cousin Jo and I would set up a ‘shop’ in the kitchen and serve customers over a wooden clothes airer. We would also sing songs together whilst my Granny recorded them onto cassette. The lyrics of ‘a bicycle made for two’ are burnt onto my brain forever & I think my Granny kept the cassettes for many years.
After living in Clifton in the same flat for over 40 years, my Gran decided to move to Weston-super-Mare to live in a bungalow. I was about six at the time and I remember watching the tea chests being carried out of the removal van into her new home. After living on the first floor of a flat for many decades, my Gran finally had a garden she could walk out into and she loved it. She was incredibly lucky to have over thirty happy years in her bungalow.
When my Dad passed away in 2006, my Granny became even more important to me. After years of knowing ‘Mum & Dad’ as a couple, I struggled to get used to my Mum being on her own. I like to have a close link to my family and with the loss of my Dad, I appreciated my remaining family even more. My Mum would regularly bring my Grandmother to our house in Bristol and we would share meals and she would make us laugh.
When our daughter was born in 2009, we decided shortly after to move back to my hometown so that we could be closer to family. When we moved back in 2012, our daughter had just turned three. She was incredibly lucky to have a Great-Granny and we would visit her nearly every Wednesday at her beloved bungalow. We would often meet my Mum there & my daughter played with toys & ate biscuits on the living room floor. I feel incredibly blessed that my daughter could see four generations of her family in one room. Sometimes I would do housework as my Gran became increasingly frail, but mainly we would talk. And boy could she talk. She would talk about anything & anyone that came into her mind. My Granny had so many stories to tell. A long life will do that for you.
In May 2013 she decided to move into a nursing home. It was such a hard decision for her to leave her bungalow. She really wanted to end her days there. But she was too frail and struggling to cope, so residential care seemed like the best solution. It was hard to see her lose her independence. But she fitted in and made friends with the other residents, talking & chatting as she’d always done throughout her life. We all adjusted to her new home. My daughter loved seeing the pet rabbits who lived at the nursing home, or ‘resting home’ as she called it and there was always a supply of biscuits.
From late November 2013 my Gran’s health seemed to go downhill quickly. Her desire to go out & visit her family declined. She had always enjoyed meals with her family, she had an amazing appetite for a lady of her age. So when she stopped taking an interest in food, socialising or even drinking…we started to realise that the Granny we knew was fading fast. I look back on it now and think that she had decided that enough was enough. She was part of a generation who’d lived through huge changes in the world. She was tired, her body was tired.
The last time I saw her in the nursing home was on my birthday on the 16th December. She didn’t feel strong enough to come out for a meal, so we bought my birthday cake to her. We sang happy birthday, drank tea & my daughter played happily on the floor.
We’d gone away to Cheshire to visit my husband’s family for Christmas, so the next time I saw her was in the hospital. By that time she was very ill and couldn’t speak to me. She’d been admitted on Christmas Day with Pneumonia. She’d fought it before, but that was when she was stronger and had the will to fight it. Now she was weak, too weak. The doctors decided to remove life support, they couldn’t prolong her life any longer…
They didn’t know if it would be hours or days, but Granny, being strong to the last, held on for four days and three more nights. Her family stayed with her night & day during this time. They moved her to a private room and we sat around her bed holding her hand, talking to her and playing music. She didn’t regain consciousness, but the nurses told us to keep talking, I hope she could hear us, hope she could hear us reminiscing about all the memories and the stories she’d told us. The nurses were wonderful. They washed her, turned her, made her comfortable, combed her hair and talked to her. They gave her the respect & dignity she deserved. My Granny passed away on 30th December with her son, daughter and daughter-in-law by her side…
During the last three days of her life, I would sit with my Mum at the hospital in the evening. My daughter had got used to me not being there at bedtime, she knew I would be with Granny at the hospital. On the day my Granny died, my daughter asked me at bedtime why I wasn’t at the hospital. I had explained to her earlier about Granny passing away & said I no longer needed to go to the hospital because she wasn’t there anymore. She said ‘Granny’s in the clouds isn’t she?’, I thought for a moment and said ‘yes, I think she may well be’. ’I bet she’s flying really fast’ my daughter replied ‘and when we’re out and see a fast cloud, we’ll know it’s Granny’
Apart from the fact it made me burst into tears, I think it is one of the loveliest things she could’ve said. For my daughter, this is her first experience of bereavement. At five years old, it’s hard to know how much she understands, but if she likes to think Granny is in the clouds, then that’s fine with me. Since losing Granny, we’ve been on a number of walks. We’re always on the look-out for fast clouds…checking to see if Granny is up there, zooming across the sky.