There I was, lost in Wales, standing in a field as the rain pattered off my hood, when I managed to get probably the only bit of phone signal in the area. I ditched the OS map and checked my phone - there was a text from Mum: “Can u ring me re Gma thanks”. “Uh oh, this can’t be good” I thought. Grandma has been in hospital for the last few months.
And so it turned out that she had died.
When I came back from Wales I sorted the post and found a Cooper’s Catalogue (think JML for old people) - it had a vast array of useful stuff such as an omelette makers, thermal knee warmers and potato bags. It also had a Bird Feeding Station - hinged roof, separate seed and peanut sections, suet cage, fruit pin, mealworm plate - this was the Sunseeker of bird apparatus. I thought “That’s Grandma’s christmas present sorted… then again, maybe not”. Looking at it now, it had no Squirrel Deterrent System. Amateur.
It’s easy to not think about it because my everyday routine has not changed, but when I get to one of those moments when I expect Grandma to be there and she’s not I’m sure it will hit home. She won’t be there to talk to on a Friday night, she won’t be sitting reading the paper when I walk past her window, she won’t be standing in her kitchen watching the birds.
The thing is, although she had a long life, I never really knew her. I only knew the side of herself she presented to me. I don’t really know the struggles she had, the types of relationships she had with other people, it’s only when you get older do you realise it’s okay to ask questions which are deeper than ‘How are you?’ and ‘What have you been doing?’. People lead interesting lives they often don’t mind talking about. All it takes is someone to ask. I need to remember to ask more often.
Her life will serve as a reminder that as we get older we lose our independence. We lose the ability to drive and then to walk down the road. Life comes along and casually takes away your ability to speak or read. Next your bed ridden. You’ve lost your social life, your independence, and ability to entertain yourself. Yet through all this Grandma managed to keep a sharp wit and was quick to smile. She was grateful for what she had and often told me that she felt lucky.
She also serves as a reminder at how quick time goes. We celebrated her 90th birthday in 2006 yet it only feels like a few years ago. I thought she was guaranteed to shoot past 100 years with no problems, she was in such fine fettle! It makes me want to shout at older people “Get out and go do things while you still can”. It’s naive to think you’ll live past 100 - there are currently 13,500 people alive today who have lived that long in the UK. The chances are you won’t. Grandma had 17 years on the average life expectancy of 82. That’s enough to see one of your grand-children grow up. The longer you can delay losing a part of your independence the better. So as Dylan Thomas says “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
It just so happens that another Grandma I admire died this year. Terry Pratchett’s last book The Shepherd's Crown deals with the death of one of the Discworld’s most endearing yet formidable characters: Granny Weatherwax. Being a Discworld character, Esmerelda Weatherwax is in fact a witch, but with the usual Terry Pratchett spin. A witch’s work involves: a no nonsense attitude, lots of common sense and an abundance of hard work. They’re the midwives, doctors and sometimes chiropodists of the Discworld. There are qualities in Granny Weatherwax that I saw in Grandma - independent, proud and respected. Yet Grandma had many more I admired: She loved to talk about her family and great-grandchildren. She had sharp wit and yet didn’t mind being a bit silly. She had a no nonsense attitude but was a little bit superstitious. She kept active. She was always happy to see her family. Grandma was my Granny Weatherwax of the Lakes, well at the very least, of the village!
Although she’s gone she now lives in the minds and memories of many other people. Here are a few of mine:
One day I walked into Grandma’s kitchen, she was stood by the heater, which I imagine was a place of comfort for her as she could watch the birds, see out to the hill and be warm whilst doing it. I asked what she was doing: “I’m just watching that fly climb up and down the window. Silly, really.”
We used to share a phone line so when I managed to get to the phone first and start talking to a friend, hard-of-hearing Grandma would come on:
“It’s okay, it’s for me Grandma.”
“Hello, who is it?”
“It’s for me Grandma!”
And the phone would click off. I’m sure that used to make me smile or maybe it made me roll my eyes?
Grandma didn’t mind getting stuck in with the games at Christmas and when we introduced her to ‘Celebrity’ - basically a combination of celebrity names in a hat, teams, timers and charades - I’m not really sure she got the concept. But, by heck, she gave it a go, playing her own version of the game. She spoke during charades, did actions during the word phases, just straight out told us the celebrity's name, all whilst adamantly denying that she had added Lionel Blair to the pot. It was great fun.
Also, jam and butter on bread, egg sandwiches, sausage casserole, ginger biscuits, coke floats, her telephone voice, Brasso, Mrs McGee’s Dead, saying goodbye when I left for university, getting in her bad books for leaving it until Sunday afternoon to say hello, walking over to the bureau, the way she would hold a pen, maybe talking a little too loudly about other people when they’re in the same room, that clock with the bird-call chimes, waving as she drove past when I had opened the gate and many more.
Often when she finished telling me a story about her past or updating me on the happenings of a family member she we would end with: “Well that was a long story”, as if she felt guilty for keeping me there. The stories were never long, occasionally there may have been repeats but who doesn’t forget who’ve they’ve told what? Looking back at her life I can, for once, say “Yes, Grandma, that was a long story and a good one at that”.