My grandmother was one of those extraordinary people able to convince absolutely everybody that they have a special relationship. She was loved by everyone who knew her – even by strangers passing through – and her own reservoir of love was unending.
Her grandchildren had only ever known her in retirement – for the entire duration of our lives, she had been living out her retirement – and yet she remained ceaselessly busy, always offering herself to the service of others. And ceaselessly youthful, never seeming to age, until the last few months. My earliest memories of my grandmother were our trips with her to the park in our summer holidays. We would wander around the boating lake, past the aviary, watching the brave souls taking on the splash boat, enjoying our time with her amidst those beautiful colourful gardens. When she and my grandfather later moved down south, similar delights were in store for us whenever we visited.
Seated at that modest kitchen table that we grew so attached to over the years, she would set out a dainty blue glass bowl of cheesy Wotsits and a plate of sandwiches with the crusts cut off for her grandchildren. In turn, years later, she would do the same for her great grandchildren. But who could forget her rabbit-shaped jellies with sultana eyes or the pink blancmanges of our childhood? And whoever could forget her delicious lemon meringue pie, with its crispy golden brown lid?
She was the eternal friend of the children of the family – always there to offer a smile and a hug, never to get angry or sad, never to utter anything except a kind word. She would make a tent for her grandchildren out of a drying rack and a picnic blanket. A fluffy toy could always be relied upon to emerge from the cupboard under the stairs. There never seemed to be a panic around her best china or fragile furniture. Her house — she somehow managed to convince us – was our house. As we grew older, so too grew our friendship – it was true of all of us grandchildren, each of us considering ourselves immensely blessed for the special relationship we had with her. She gave and gave without end.
When I moved down to London for University, I began to see much more of her, travelling by train from Marylebone to see her at weekends. She obviously saw to it that I was properly fed to make up for my poor student diet. At the end of my first year at university she sent me some money so that I could treat myself to a celebratory meal to mark the last of my exams. I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday when I invited my friends to join me for a proper slap up meal. They turned me down, telling me that they just intended to get drunk, trying to convince me to do the same. But instead, having just turned my back on the bottle after eight months of excess, I headed out into the city for perhaps the most embarrassing meal I have ever had: I sat in grand surroundings before a brilliant white tablecloth, polished silver cutlery in hand and set about ordering my finest meal of the year, as the remaining customers stared at the eccentric loner in their midst. Yes, it was hideously embarrassing, but at least I could tell her that I had spent her money well.
My grandmother then would have witnessed the period of reform that followed, as I tried to rid my system of a year’s worth of stupidity. In the midst of the summer she accompanied me and my brothers to All Soul’s Langham Place, in Central London, a church she truly loved. We returned again at a later date, and her eager eyes fell upon a room for let on the church noticeboard, helping to secure my accommodation for the year. Yes, perhaps she had seen in my drawn and gaunt appearance the excesses of my first year at university and wished to help set me back on a better path. Under her influence I began attending All Souls week after week, where a sermon and song would feed an agnostic’s soul and a good Sunday lunch would fill his stomach.
My grandmother had a lively, active faith that was apparent to all who met her. Her hymn book on the piano in her living room saw constant service. The prayerful man that watched over us whenever we sat at her kitchen table was a summation of her whole outlook on life: to thank God for his bounties.
Over the years that followed, our Lord seemed to draw us together repeatedly. When I graduated from university, I found myself back in her company, resting my head in her back bedroom as I journeyed to the library day after day to look for a job. After a year in Scotland, I landed a job in the south east and for the first few weeks found myself back in her company, where she would treat me to the full glory of a souffle omelette with poached tomatoes. Years later I looked back on those days with regret, wondering if I had ever said thank you, or if I had taken her hospitality for granted: don’t be silly, she promptly replied: that’s what Grannies are for! And anyway – who would she have discussed the Telegraph Crossword with?
My grandmother was great company and always a generous host. Daily Telegraph induced discussions were always best avoided, but her tales of her adventures in her beautiful garden entertained us for hours. When we became neighbours – we settled in a town twenty minutes away from hers – afternoon tea with her became a regular occurrence. We would become the sounding board for her latest misdemeanor in the garden – digging out a shrub that should have been left to a gardener, scrubbing her patio, moving a heavy planter, defrosting the outside tap with a hair-drier, lifting the lawnmower into the back of her car – which she would accompany with a laugh and a plea that we tell no-one. Once she told us just such a tale in hysterics, after a younger member of the family had told her on hearing it to grow up and act her age.
The laughter of her later days was something I didn’t remember from childhood. Yes, there was her perpetual smile: but this laughter was quite different. Once, after a day trip where she had shown us the first house she owned with my grandfather, we sat in our kitchen drinking tea while she recounted a particularly naughty tale concerning a patient at their Surgery. She laughed so much that our sides split too. Perhaps the trip down memory lane had been a tonic that she could not resist. Later we would visit London to visit her old haunts during the war – and there again those tales of old returned, mixing humorous yarns with stories that could only humble us.
Our grandmother had lived a long life, with so much wisdom and experience to impart to her grandchildren. She was not very impressed by the talk of austerity throughout the recent recession, for she had lived through the war. She had queued up for her ration of butter and sugar for the month; she had had furniture made up from scrap wood. She had lived through good times and bad, and yet her eternal optimism remained.
Whoever could forget her telling us that she would be visiting the old folk one day – seemingly oblivious to the fact that some of them were 20 or 30 years her junior? Who could forget her taking an old dear out to lunch, as if her companion was far more advanced in years? Oh yes: that great optimism of hers, even when visiting our weed-filled garden: she could always make excuses for anyone.
To her great grandchildren, my grandmother was just as much their Grannie. The cheesy puffs were back in the bowl on the kitchen table. The sandwiches with their crusts cut off were waiting for them when they arrived. The fluffy toy dog from the cupboard under the stairs was sitting on the stool to greet them. She was always on the end of the phone. Always ready to accept an invitation to come over for afternoon tea. Ready – even at the age of 92 – to play football with two little characters in the back garden.
At the beginning of November she suddenly suffered a stroke. It was ironic that after months of putting plans in place in case of an emergency, in the event I was unreachable due to a dentist appointment. We make plans, but in the end it is out of our hands. Sadly she passed away later the same day. I miss her dearly, but somehow I am numb more than distraught. Numb, I suppose, because her door is now closed. I went to the hospital shortly after she had died and sat beside her body: strangely unmoved though I loved her so much. Perhaps because I was prepared for this. When death comes, it is sudden: there is no warning. We have an appointed span of time to live out our lives — and then the door closes. While we are alive we have every opportunity to believe, do good deeds and repent. But when the door closes, so does our book.
To God we belong and to God we shall return.