She still hugs me very tightly every time I see her, and tells me very often that me she loves me.
I wasn’t ready to be a grandmother. Come to think of it, I was probably never ready to be a mother either. But is there really a ‘perfect’ time to have children or grandchildren? I don’t think so. If you wait for the timing to be right, there will always be another dream, another dollar to pursue, or another job to apply for. Maybe it is the way life is supposed to be, that these things creep up on you and surprise you when you least expect it. Being a grandmother is the best experience. I plan to write about it. But at the moment I find I am really thinking a lot about my own grandmothers, and secretly hoping that I have what it takes to be as good as they have been at the grand-parenting business.
I have the urge to write about both of my grandmothers, and also about my great grandmothers. I can’t write about them all at once – they are all too special and each deserve their own chapter and reflections. Since I wrote about some of my earliest childhood memories last night and I mentioned one of my grandmothers, I figure I should start with that one. It wasn’t a great memory, but the truth is that even though I thought she tried to drown me to cure my middle ear infection, this grandmother has been the most constant woman in my life up until this point. She is my maternal grandmother and she is still living in her own house and struggling to stay independent. At 88 years old I think she is the toughest, bravest, most beautiful woman in the world. She has survived losing her parents, two husbands, all of her brothers, a son and three grandchildren. Five of these were terrible, tragic deaths, and many people would fall apart even if they only had to deal with one of these situations, let alone five. Not my grandmother. She’s a legend in her own right.
Nan was one of thirteen children. She has raised four children of her own and has been a wonderful grandmother to thirteen grandchildren. She has countless great grandchildren (I can only count the sixteen from my siblings and I, the ones from my cousins are hazy) and now several great-great grandchildren. She has loved us, nurtured us, and taught us. She’s a rock, a matriarch and a role model. But she is slowing down, and lately she’s become very fragile. It’s the little things that I notice. She’s slower to get up out of the chair when someone knocks at the door. She no longer feels confident enough to walk outside and say goodbye without her walking stick. She’s shorter than she used to be. Making a cup of tea leaves her breathless. Her skin is paper thin, and tears and bruises with the slightest bump. But she still dresses beautifully and puts on makeup to go to the shops or the doctor, making sure her bag and shoes match and that her lipstick is just right. Although it’s a struggle, she still gets down on her hands and knees to play with her great-great grandchildren and smother them in kisses. She still hugs me very tightly every time I see her, and tells me very often that me she loves me.
I remember spending lots of weekends and school holidays together. At Nan’s, the spare bed was large and cosy, and had an electric blanket. The dressing table was perfectly laid out with crystal and a hair brush set which I was allowed and encouraged to use. It was expected that I would just fit in with her schedule, there was no special agenda. We would do simple things, like dusting the crystal and polishing the silver. Helping with the spring cleaning was fun – I would be allowed to take everything out of the china cabinet and wash it, then rearrange it however I liked. I remember shelling fresh peas and peeling vegetables for dinner, and learning how to cook bread and butter custard. I loved meal-times with my grandparents. The table was always perfectly set, with the milk in a little jug and covered with a lace doily. There was always a pot of tea on the table. Real butter lived in a butter dish and was slathered on fresh bread.
Nan would take me to visit relatives that I barely knew existed, and this way I was connected with my extended family and learned some of my family history. She looked after several of her brothers into their ‘old’ age, visiting regularly, doing their washing, cooking them meals. Tagging along on these visits could be terrifying or fun – but that’s another story.
Even through my adult life Nan and I have spent a lot of time together. When my own children were small and I had the luxury of being a stay-at-home mum, I would visit her several times a week. I am not sure why, but I am usually the first one she calls when something goes wrong. Maybe it is because I live not too far away, but I like to think it’s because she knows she can rely on me to come straight away. I’ve been by her side through many terrible times now, held her while she has grieved and have helped her to plan funerals.
The look on her face when I told her I was moving to Switzerland for a few years nearly broke my heart. Saying goodbye just before I left in August last year was terrible. I don’t think I have ever been held so tightly. But the wonders of the internet mean that the world is a smaller place. Thanks to my beautiful daughter visiting her regularly and taking her iPad, I’ve been able to Skype with Nan once a week, show her my Geneva apartment, and talk to her almost like we are in the same room. It’s great, and she is truly amazed by the technology, but it’s still not the same as actually being together.
Now that I am home on a visit, I try to call her at least once a week and visit on weekends. A few weeks ago we enjoyed a very special Saturday lunch date – Nan, Mum, Catherine and me. Four generations of women together, enjoying the views from the National Aboretum and a wonderful meal. It’s the first time we have ever been out together, just the four of us, and it’s a memory I will treasure forever.
In the last ten days I have seen her a lot. I’ve had to take her to the emergency department twice and to the GP. We’ve made several trips to the pharmacy, always taking the time to sit in a cafe and have a cup of coffee while we wait for her prescriptions to be filled. Our conversations these days are simple. Usually about her little dog, what the rest of the family is up to, who has visited her and who she has spoken to on the telephone. The beauty of our relationship is that we don’t actually need to talk. It’s enough to just be together and enjoy each other’s company. She keeps asking when exactly we will be coming home to live. It’s almost as though she is checking just to make sure we are not going to move permanently. I think she is still angry at Anura ‘for dragging me all the way to the other side of the world’. She says it jokingly, but I know she means it. I keep telling her that it’s not his fault – I wanted to go just as much as him. Then she tells me that of course, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, and we should make the most of it. She tells me it is good for us to leave our children behind and let them fend for themselves. She tells me life goes on.
I have this horrible sense of time running out, and know that the day is coming when I will have to say goodbye to her again. I will wonder if it is the last time that I will see her. It makes me cry just to write that, and I don’t know how I am going to cope when that day comes, but I know I have to and I will. She has taught me how.