Once upon a time there were two grandmothers. Grandma , let’s call her Eunice, who was my father’s Mother, and Granny, let’s call her Hettie, who was my mother’s.
Remember, as you read this story, I am old enough to be a grandmother. I’m not one though.
Grandma always wore pebble rimmed glasses, a wrap-over pinafore and a severe look, except when she went to Chapel; twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays, when off would come the pinafore and on would go a dull brown coat and a squashy felt hat. The severe look lasted through the week. Grandma lived with my grandfather in a sandstone Victorian terrace somewhere in Worcestershire. There was always cold ham for tea, Colman’s mustard in a tube and little red vitamin capsules you could bite into and the oil inside would squirt out. Every visit was the same, more or less.
At first, Granny lived down a long, long lane somewhere in Kent, far beyond where the tarmac had run out, in a house overlooking the part of the lane that was just ruts and pebbles. A little later, she moved to another house, on a properly made up road. It is here I remember her clearly first, sitting in her bedroom, knitting lickety split, four knitting needles to make gloves; only three fingers on her right hand. One had been severed in a cycling accident. She’d got up and walked to hospital with the severed finger wrapped against her hand in her scarf. She moved again and again. She could never find the best place to settle. Every visit to her was different, more or less.
Granny was squat, dense and angular with a hook nose and a strong, determined jaw. She had a stoop, but always held herself erect. Dignified. She had a brown coat too, but it was shining mock Persian lamb, elegant. Grandma, conversely, was dumpy, squashy looking, with a little pursed mouth and hair scraped back in a whispy bun. Grandma called me by my hated full first name. She was exact in this regard. She knitted too, lumpy bedsocks and pullovers. Here the exactness failed. They were always vastly too large for me. She somehow saw me as bigger than I was.
Granny knitted us toys, a teddy, first of all, and then a whole teddy family, Mrs Tubby, Mr Tubby and Little Tubby. There was a knitted elephant too, and a fox, bizarrely kitted out as a little huntsman. She used to knit in the dark. Once, in this darkness, she knitted three purl rows into the generally plain back of my Mother’s school jumper. She didn’t undo the mistake. She called me by my preferred name. Granny was unpredictable. She played the piano, mainly hymns, and would entertain me by thumping out my favourite numbers on request. These were usually Christmas carols, but she’d readily sing along to Come all Ye Faithful in August and add some encores for good measure – ‘Oh my Darling Clementine’ (lost and gone forever) and ‘There was I waiting at the Church’ (Can’t get away, to marry you today, my wife won’t let me). Sometimes, though, she wouldn’t play the piano for months.
Early on when I was still very young, my father took me to pick Grandma up. We didn’t pick her up from Chapel, or from the high street, or from the big stone house with Virginia creeper where the minister lived, but from a little private school. Grandma’s been tutoring, explained my father. She’s a Maths tutor; they needed her to teach here for a while. Grandma emerged from the green door in her brown coat, with a little smile on her face, looking purposeful and carrying a little brown brief case. She didn’t have her hat on. She got in the car and we drove back to the house. For a long time I waited expectantly to hear more about this other interesting side to Grandma and to see the little briefcase again, but I never did.
I can remember all this. Now here is the part of the story I can’t remember for myself. Other people have told some of it to me. Now I’m telling it to you. I’ve had to fill in some of the detail. So you could say it is my story too.
Grandma was Eunice. Here is Eunice, at 17. It is 1922. Eunice has a round, keen face, currant bun eyes and is sharp, sharp, sharp. Brain as sharp as razor. She thinks logically, in elegant patterns. She excels. She is being prepared for Cambridge, to read Mathematics. For Eunice, all is exact. It will work out. She studies hard, and she takes the exam, and she goes for an interview at Girton and it doesn’t work out. She doesn’t get a place. Dozens of men, some cleverer, some much less clever, get a place to read Maths at Cambridge in 1922 but Eunice is a shopkeeper’s daughter from Salford and she doesn’t. She goes instead to Manchester University, which is still rare for a lower middle class girl in the 1920s. In 1912, her Head Teacher, the female head of the elite Manchester grammar school, herself once a Maths student at Girton, had wondered if Maths might be too taxing for the female brain. It does not tax Eunice’s brain. She is studious and it makes her happy. She is doing extremely well, and, attending university in Manchester, is still living at home. While at home, she starts to walk out with an earnest young man from the chapel with a round keen face and currant bun eyes and a solicitous manner. This, of course, is exactly what is expected. It is what you do. And perhaps she sees herself, reflected. He will give her back her self. Perhaps she thinks, here is the other half of the equation. X plus y.
Equals. Equals. Well, even I, who was never much cop at Maths, can tell you what that will add up to. Eunice gets married.
To Eunice’s alarm, on her wedding night, Alfred, the earnest young man with the currant bun eyes wishes to engage her in something other than conversation. She’s not sure what. But she’s having none of it. She rolls over and stuffs the bolster down the bed between them and goes to sleep. This happens the next night, and the next, for six months, until my perplexed grandfather seeks advice from an elderly aunt. Elderly aunt visits Eunice and gently enquires as to whether she is aware why there seem to be no little ones on the way. Eunice professes herself bemused and puzzled. The elderly aunt explains. Disabused – you could put it that way- Eunice dutifully puts aside the bolster, and find that some part of an equation she might not have been calculating on bring results. She has five children; a girl, and four boys. My grandfather gets more and more involved in the chapel. If she no longer sees herself reflected in him; she doesn’t say. She just gets on with it; doing what she is supposed to do. Somewhere, deep down, perhaps she is furious. But it wouldn’t do to say.
Hettie. Granny. Granny is further away. Less exact, more impulsive, she moves often and is harder to capture. Here is Hettie at 30. She is the daughter of the owners of a respectable seaside boarding house on the Kent coast. She has four brothers, and one sister, who has choked to death, at the tea table, aged fifteen, in front of Hettie and her mother and father. Hettie has had a little education. Not too little, she can read and write fluently in a wide looping cursive hand; can speak a little French, play the piano. Not too much education, either. She’s ten years or so older than Eunice. Her brothers insist she deports herself like a lady. Her parents expect her, as the only remaining daughter, to make herself useful and look after them in their old age. This means a heck of a lot of crotcheting and playing the piano; both of which she enjoys and is good at. But it also means that when the brothers’ backs are collectively turned, she can help out with the business end of the boarding house. This she also enjoys and is good at, having a shrewd business brain and a lot of time on her hands.
In 1916 the brothers are all in France, and a company of Irish Rifles are billeted in Eastbourne, some of them in the respectable seaside boarding house owned by Hettie’s parents. There follows something not so respectable, the details of which are hazy. Did he, whoever he was, take her by the waist and dance her round the parlour, and was she overcome by sweet words and promises? She was 30 by this time after all and some sweet words and promises had been a long time coming. Or did they keep meeting on the stairs, or in the hall way, and did she realise, the third or fourth time, when she brushed against him, or he against her, that she was desired? Was she taken, or did she take what was hers for the taking? Or was it a bit of give and a bit of take for both of them? I like to think that she looked at him and knew she was desired, and said yes to him freely, but this being 1916, the sweet words and promises probably had a lot to do with it. Whatever, there wasn’t much in the way of bolsters coming between them. The baby is born in a Salvation Army hospital for fallen women; but extraordinarily, my great grandmother and Hettie together hide the fact of the baby’s existence from her brothers. Hettie remains in touch with her daughter for years, even as she meets my maternal grandfather, Edgar, a dapper chap with a nifty moustache and a swagger and an eye for a girl who could do him a good turn. As it were.
So what happens here? She is shrewd and twice as savvy as him in one way; he is a chancer. And at this time, what other chances are there for her? With a generation of young men dead in France, it is this or the boarding house for the rest of her life. Is there a swift, heady rush? He wants me; he wants me? I don’t think she is stricken by desire this time. But maybe she is by impulse; by the desire for something else; a way out. Three children follow, all born out of wedlock. Money runs through Edgar’s hands like water; a series of moonlight flits, on the run from his previous wife’s brothers who are blackmailing them (previous wife already dead). Edgar is generous, randy, illiterate and a liability. It seems Hettie comes to love him eventually with a type of fierce commitment to making the best of things. Steelily, she eventually marries him. She deals in a little property, invests in a house on a ribbon development, refuge of the seedy and shady, that some might see as a dead end and, pulling together a little bit of this and a little bit of that, brings up the three children on not very much.
Eunice’s naivety and the business with the bolster was somehow family history; my father’s aunt told my mother; my mother told me. Hettie never spoke about what had occurred in the boarding house or afterwards. The first daughter was adopted at sixteen and she lost all contact with her. She never spoke about her again. She was hell to live with. Proud, dignified, private, holding herself aloof. I’ve put together her story like a piece of patchwork.
You could say Eunice’s story was written out for her. Until the end, that is. At 78 or so, she took to her bed. The bolster was so longer sufficient. She demanded a separate bedroom, downstairs, away from my grandfather. She stopped going to chapel, initially pleading a cough, subsequently just refusing to go. Here in the downstairs room she subsisted on tiny pieces of Kendal mint cake and weak tea, until she was admitted to hospital with mild pneumonia. She worked on that pneumonia. She put no barriers up. She died aged 80, embracing death with a dedicated vigour she had not shown my grandfather for a long time. Hettie had died some years before, outliving Edgar by a couple of years. She was frail and bent, but fiercely dignified to the last. Perhaps Eunice crafted her death. It was something she could make something of. Perhaps Hettie accepted hers. Her life was a piece of patchwork but she’d chosen some of the pieces.
There is rope, a thread, a strong bond of connection that I feel my way back along to these women; both so intelligent, both strong rearers of children in spite of themselves; in spite of passions and inclinations that might have taken both of them further and elsewhere, given another time and place.
They were both snarled up in domesticity when I knew them. Knit up in it, you could say. They both knitted, to the last. I can’t knit, not to save my life. I have tried. It doesn’t bother me much, that I can’t knit … I can take it or leave it, you see.
And so, I hope, can you.
By Agnes Dance