A eulogy to my wonderful nan, a big inspiration behind The Pretty, Good Project.
Read time: 5.5 minutes
This is a eulogy for my nan. You will know her as a massive influence in The Pretty, Good Project, with such blogs as ‘could my nan use it?‘ or ‘nan-trap bingo‘. However, this post doesn’t really have anything to do with that, it’s more just a moment to honour her as the lovely person I knew. She died a few months back now, but this month would have been her 100th birthday, so it’s happy birthday too.
We were all absolutely convinced she would make it – so much so her relatives from Australia booked flights to come and see her way back in 2018. But it turns out 100 is pretty old, and it just wasn’t to be. Kids born today will have a 1 in 3 chance of reaching 100 though, so we have a lot to learn from people like my nan and other present day centenarians to help us when we get there (OK, I had to get a tiny bit of learning in there ;p).
My nan has been ‘old’ for as long as I can remember. When I was born she was only in her 60s – but to the toddler me she was unfathomably ancient. My memories of her as a child revolve around her being squishy and cuddly and making the best food ever. Scrag end of lamb stew, bread and butter pudding and an apple pie to die for. She used to let me play with her bingo wings as she stirred food in the kitchen. She sound it funny and I found them fascinating like a Newton’s cradle as they swang rhythmically as her arms circled the saucepan or bowl.
Just a moment of silence here for her apple pie. Don’t get me wrong, me and my brother are obviously incredibly sad nan is gone, but the loss of that apple pie recipe pains us deeply too. My nan was the kind of cook who just shoved a bit of this and a bit of that in and somehow made it work, and she certainly never wrote anything down. All we really know is that it contained cloves because she often forgot to take these out. My family used to play a game of clove roulette every time she made us one – revelling when someone other than us bit into the lurking clove leading to eye-watering yelps!
Only as an adult did I really get to know and appreciate her as a real person with history and stories and feelings. As with many of us, far too late really. By the time I was at university she was already declining and experiencing what we now know to be symptoms of dementia. But she lived really independently for a long time with the incredible help of my mum and dad who lived just a few doors down from her. And she still loved to reminiscence and chat over a cuppa and a custard cream any time I popped in, which I happily did.
One thing was for sure, she had a really tough life. She was mostly brought up in a kids home at the end of the First World War. She never knew her father and her mother was too ill to really be able to take care of her. She also had measles when she was very young that led to her have problems with her eyes her whole life including multiple operations on them. I think this time in her life made her who she was. She was tough as nails, but always perfectly mannered too, and looked a bit like the Queen.
At 16 she went into domestic service for a couple of years and this seemed to be the path for the rest of her life. But then the Second World War broke out, and it was here she really experienced life for the first time. For her it was an opportunity, an adventure. She often lamented how much she wanted to man the barrage balloons or help in the land army, but she was assigned to the NAAFI instead because of her size and health. But it was here she made lifelong friends and met her husband – my grandad – and so began the story of my family. She certainly had fun before that though. I loved all her stories about dancing with the American GIs who were stationed at her base. But I will leave these tales just between me and nan ;p
My grandad and nan were married in the middle of an air raid in London. All the guests went down to a shelter, but she and my grandad decided to chance it under a table. Quite the honeymoon. He was only on leave from the army for two days, which I have always thought is terribly romantic. She borrowed a dress from her manager to get married in, her guests had saved up their rations of corned beef to make sandwiches for them, and there is just one single photo of the day. It was a different world.
Soon after my dad, and then my aunt, came along, the joy of her life. They lived in Peckham in London and she worked hard. Especially as her husband and sister died far too young to be fair. Remarrying again in her 50s she had another burst of life though, volunteering with St John’s Ambulance and travelling to Spain whenever they could when package holidays began to boom.
She eventually left London and came to live near us after her second husband died. In fact she outlived pretty much all of her peers by 30-odd years in the end. I can’t imagine how hard this was for her, but she was in her element being an amazing nan to us during this time. Cooking for us, loving us, cooking for us some more. And endless weird old wives tales: onions on your chest to treat a cold, earrings to help your eyesight. She also had a string of pets during this time, from budgies to cats, that almost universally seemed to somewhat comically hate her, but she loved dearly nonetheless. Then in her 70s she headed off on her own to travel Australia with her half brother’s family. The changes she must have seen in her almost 100-year lifetime make my head spin. Born in 1919 when travelling to Australia must have been like travelling to Mars, she took it all in her stride.
For this reason, seeing her life reduce down in her final years was so sad. First she wasn’t able to get out and about. Then not able to get upstairs. Then finally her life was just in one room, barely able to reach the kitchen and not safe to operate anything there anyway. My parents did a sterling job helping her every single day, adapting her home with stair-lifts and walk-in showers to keep her at home for as long as possible, but in the end her home just wasn’t suitable. She fell over often and was in and out of hospital regularly. This is how nan-trap bingo was born. Though we made light and she always seemed to bounce back, this was tough on everyone. In fact, the night before my wedding she fell over on the way to the loo and was laid out in the cold all night until we found her hours later. But after cup of tea and a biscuit she was as right as rain again. She was just plain hardcore.
Moving into a care home in her late 90s rejuvenated her for a couple of years, I think partly because she was able to socialise again (she loved a chat and here was a captive audience!), but mostly because of her insatiable sweet tooth was enabled. Me and my nan have always been kindred spirits when it comes to cake and her final years were oh so sweet in this respect.
As I said, she never made it to the big 100 (even though we were all secretly convinced she would live forever), missing it by just 5 months. We were so looking forward to that message from the Queen. So this is to say happy 100th birthday nan. Cheers to you. We miss you. And thank you xx