Grief’s a funny thing, isn’t it?
The thing is, I expected to cry when Grandmum died – though I wondered if I would. I remember when Granddad died, I hardly cried at all, and felt a bit bad about it. He was a lovely, sweet, gentle old man, but he didn’t say much, and I never really felt like I knew him. Grandmum, though, was the chatty one. She was the one who cuddled me when I was upset, and could always find something silly to say on any subject.
When we got older, I think we started to intimidate her. I know that when my mum was a child, her junior school teacher sat Grandmum down one day, and said “You really have no idea how clever she is, do you?” and she was intimidated from that day forward, I think. Don’t get me wrong, my mum’s not a genius of any sort, she was just the first in her family to go to grammar school, and college, and train to be a teacher. Grandmum didn’t know how to set goals for such a child.
Aunty Lynda was pretty, or so I’m told – the style of the day makes it difficult for me to concur enthusiastically, based on the photos. She was certainly thin – my mum was very hung up about that at the time, and still is, to some extent. She went to the secondary modern, and became a nursery nurse – she recently retired from running the same playgroup as she’s been involved in for thirty years. She also married, at twenty-one, the boyfriend she’d had since she was at school.
My mum, on the other hand, was rather less thin, although when I recently looked at the pictures, she was a plump child, not a monster. I would never have guessed that from what she says. She had great miserable waves of teenage angst, homework no-one could understand, and she didn’t have a boyfriend at all. All my poor Grandmum knew, was that fat women didn’t get anywhere in life, and she made my mum pretty miserable in her effort to fix the problem. She meant well, though. She loved her very much, and saw it as doing the best for her.
As I said, mum was no genius. She took three A Levels, but failed two of them – to this day she maintains that if she’d been allowed to only take two, she might have passed them both, and matriculated. As a result, she went to teaching college, but wasn’t allowed on the degree course, and is one of a whole generation of teachers for whom a degree wasn’t considered to be necessary. If she intimidated Grandmum, then I can only imagine how I, with the fa?ade of confidence that I inherited from my father’s family (and it was a fa?ade, mostly), and my low-effort, high-attainment approach to school, must have intimidated her much more.
To some extent I see the pattern repeating itself – rather than see herself as the member of her family who broke the mould, who changed the expectations of future generations, she fixates on the fact that she thinks I’m much cleverer than she is. When she looks at herself in the context of her parents and sister, she puts herself down, because she believes that she is fat and ugly and doesn’t fit in. But when she looks at herself in the context of her children, and husband, when he was around, she still puts herself down, because she’s stupid, and can’t do computers.
Interestingly enough, since Grandmum died, she’s lost three stone. Not accidentally, she’s worked very hard at at, and is still going. I really think she can do it, this time. She inspired me to join Weight Watchers, anyway, and I’ve lost a stone and half myself, and I’m very proud. I don’t know whether the timing is a coincidence or not. She’s lost significant amounts of weight before, but struggled to hold them off for more than a year or two. I really think she can, this time. I don’t know if actually being thin will undo the damage of being considered fat for so long, though.
I intended to talk about Grandmum, didn’t I? I got kind of sidetracked, but you do have to understand a lot of this stuff, I think, to understand her.
Grandmum couldn’t comprehend her younger daughter, and was intimidated by her as a result. Much less could she comprehend my dad, for the eighteen years they were married, or the children that were a little of both of them. Actually, that’s not true – my sister, Clare, fits into the Aunty Lynda mould much more. She struggled with school, she always felt stupid next to me, and after some difficulty finding her feet, she’s now a clerical assistant of some sort in the Inland Revenue. She loathes the job, I think, but it’s regular money, with theoretical promotion prospects at least, and I get the impression that she’s good at it.
Just me then. I was the one they didn’t understand, and were just a bit afraid of, and who fought against their every effort to make me fit into their idea of how I needed to be to do well in the world.
Grandmum apologised a lot. She and mum were both born peacemakers (or do I mean doormats?), and one of her strategies, which drove me insane from the age of twelve onwards, was to apologise, if you were at all unsure. Hopefully, real confrontation would never occur, if you apologised for every little thing. It kind of worked for her, in a passive-aggressive sort of way. I think it drove me mad because I knew it was an attempt to keep me on the back foot, and I felt it as a sort of manipulation. I couldn’t really articulate it, and I’m not sure I would have wanted to use such nasty words against Grandmum if I could, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, and made me feel disempowered, and helpless.
She loved me, though. With all her heart. She used to send me letters, especially once I went away to University. I hardly ever replied, and occasionally I still feel guilty about that, but it’s a fairly futile line of thought, so I try to dismiss it. For various complicated reasons, I gave her as much as I had to spare. University students are not renowned for their consideration in such things, and I was no different.
A little over a year ago, she moved from her house, the house she’d lived in since before I was born, where my mum got married from, and where she nursed my Granddad up to the last week of his life, to a one-bedroomed flat. It was only across the road, but it was quite half the size, she couldn’t take the cat, and it was “sheltered” housing, which she considered to be a wise move, as she was nearly eighty, and becoming gradually less sprightly with age.
We all turned out – too many of us, probably, for the amount of space we had to manoeuvre in. Kevin and I, Clare and David, Peter and Joanne (my cousins), Uncle Keith, Aunty Lynda and Mum were all there, to try to shoe-horn the contents of a good-sized house, into a fairly tiny flat. We worked pretty hard all morning, and at lunch-time, Joanne and I went to the chippy to get lunch for everyone. We waited for ages, because it was a big order, and it took a good while to get everything dished up onto plates when we got back, but eventually, I sat down with a pie and some chips, next to Grandmum on the sofa.
I ate a chip.
She looked across at my plate, from her similarly-laden one.
“You shouldn’t eat that,” she said.
I knew what she was driving at, but determined to make her say it outright.
“Why not? I’m hungry,” I replied.
“Well, it’s bad for you,” she said, meaningfully. I remained purposefully obtuse.
“It’s bad for you, too,” I told her.
“That’s not the same thing,” she insisted.
At that point, I lost my temper, and told her that I’d worked pretty hard for my dinner, and that if she didn’t leave me alone, I would go and sit somewhere else – now who’s manipulating whom? I never did get her to say “Because you’re the fat one” out loud, and I doubt I could have done it.
She meant well, though. She had an appalling sense of timing, and tact, but she loved me dearly, and she meant well.
I cried when she died. I surprised myself, and I think everyone else, by being the most inconsolable at the crematorium. At the time, grieving her meant grieving for my Granddad all over again – not only had we lost them as individuals, but we’d lost the thing that was the two of them together. That realisation made me look again at marriage, and how the whole can somehow be greater than the sum of its parts.
Then I stopped crying, and learned to live with the fact that she wasn’t there any more. That Christmas will be different. I wonder if the lack of old people will change what we do? Somehow, I doubt it.
Two weeks ago, my remaining Granddad, my father’s father, was taken into hospital for a heart bypass and valve replacement operation. There are clear similarities between this and the knee operation that killed Grandmum – neither SHOULD be life-threatening, plenty of people benefit from such operations, and if they think you’re about to drop dead, they tend not to bother anyway. But there’s no escaping the fact that no surgery is simple, when you’re eighty, and in worrying for him, I’ve found myself pushed back to grieving for her.