October 14, 2020

My Gran

My Gran

In memory of Joan Sheila Ammon

I started writing this article on the day I heard my grandmother had passed away. I then had to re-write parts of it later as it took me a while to finish and I am only posting it here now, 11 days later. I am not sure why I wrote this post - if it was to share with others, as a record for myself, or as part of a cathartic healing process. Anyway, I enjoyed telling her story so to speak, from my perspective, as the person she was to me.

My grandmother passed away on the 3rd of October 2020. She was 93 years old, which is a pretty good innings, especially for someone who suffered so much hardship and trying times in life.  My father arranged what had to be a basic funeral for her, a few days later, one myself and so many other family members due to a combination of geography and Covid, could not attend. Covid restrictions resulted in it having to be a small affair and no hymns could be sung, no tea and cake served afterwards. At least it was something though - a send off, a ritual to mark the end of a life, a form of closure for those left behind. It was hard being so far away during that time but I chose to mark her passing by visiting a beautiful old church and lighting a candle for her, and later toasting her life with a glass of Scotch whiskey.

My gran was one of the strongest and most resilient women I have ever known. She could be obstinate and sometimes too assertive, or even rude. I have witnessed shop assistants and doctors alike, tremble in confrontation with her. This is the honest truth. I don’t agree with re-writing the past and painting a better picture. It isn’t fair actually. None of us are saints, yet there is always plenty to love in a person, when you care to look for it.

I think her assertive and practical nature was as a result of the circumstances of her life as opposed to ingrained personality. She needed to be a fighter as she only had herself to really rely on in the end. She once told me how a fortune teller reading her future, had turned the cards she was using back over and refused to continue the reading. That’s how distressing the road ahead looked.

My gran lost her youngest sister, Charlotte, when she was a child herself. She let go of her hand minutes before her sister ran off, falling onto a pencil she’d been carrying. It ended up entering her brain, killing her. I think my gran carried some guilt over that, and later a sense of terrible loss over the death of another sister, Iris, who passed away from illness. One of her brothers died in an airplane crash, ironically and sadly while on his way back from fighting in the war. Sadly the loss didn't end there as my gran was widowed in her twenties. After looking after her ill husband for several months, George suffered his last of a series of debilitating heart attacks, leaving her to provide for her two young children, while still dealing with that terrible loss.

My gran went through a lot, but she survived. I often thought about the story she told me of how George died. She gave me the other details, the little pieces from the day that people don’t think about, like how she was left stranded on the beach with her daughter who was just a toddler, the daughter’s friend and their family dog while my grandfather’s heart gave up from the shock of the cold water and he took his last breaths. This was long before cell phones, before it was easy to get help. I wondered how I would have coped. And then afterwards, having to fetch your seven year old son from school and explain to him his dad was never coming back. She loved my grandfather George very much. Despite making an error in judgement and marrying for a second time many years later, I don’t know think she ever got over him. She told me he was the love of her life and I remember how one time I arrived at her home to visit spontaneously, only to find her in tears, as she had been thinking about him. Not many people really saw that side of her - the tender, vulnerable version of a woman whose heart had never fully mended.

My maternal grandmother sadly died when I was young and so I was fortunate to have my paternal grandmother in my life for a long time, and as such have many memories of her. I remember playing with her grey cat, Cindy; the way her kitchen smelt and the little strange ornamental houses that were neatly arranged for display on the top shelf. I remember her chocolate cream cake with flake sprinkled on top, as well as her zesty orange cake that I would enjoy more as an adult; the way she made fish cakes each Easter and her crispy roast potatoes when we visited for Friday night dinners. She was an average cook but an excellent baker and the most missed treat of all, has to be her famous shortbread that she used to bake in abundance every special occasion and dish out in tins. It was a welcome gift, especially at Christmas time and was always a delight for my daughters when we visited her. Her shortbread even got sent overseas to extended family and friends whenever someone was going abroad.  I am fortunate to have many of her recipes, in her slanted handwriting, but somehow I don’t think I will ever try the shortbread. Some recipes, like people, can never be replicated.

I remember dressing up in her beautiful wedding dress as a young girl, looking at my reflection in her full-length mirror at her home in Clyde Bank Road. I am grateful my gran lived long enough to not just attend my wedding, but get to know my daughters too. What a blessing to watch your great grandchildren grow up. And she really adored them, “my babies” she would call them, even when they were almost teenagers. She shared a birthday with my youngest daughter and I remember how she was the very first person to visit in the hospital and get to hold her. Without telling a soul, she had arranged a lift with a friend and beat everyone else to the hospital! Although very English, she was the one who decided my daughters should call her ‘Oumi’. My youngest’s middle name is named after my gran’s mother’s middle name. I never knew her, but my gran would often talk about her with love and near the end of her life, when dementia set in, she would frequently ask after her.

My gran’s life was eventful and frought unfortunately with pain. She suffered a serious car accident that left her deaf in one ear; lost a breast and most of the lymph glands down her arm, but miraculously survived breast cancer in her 40s, and had many back operations throughout her life. Most days she would complain about her back aching, or her severely swollen feet, but that of course never stopped her squeezing them into her favorite smart heeled shoes! She used to live in a little retirement center and was extremely self sufficient, keeping a clean home and remaining fairly active, until a bad fall rendered it impossible for her to live alone. I remember going to fetch her and take her to the hospital. I stayed with her the whole day and she was only seen by the doctor late that afternoon. She was crying with pain and at one point passed out in my arms and I had to shout for help. Later when the doctor said only her wrist was sprained, she argued fiercely with him as her hip was so sore and she could not move. It took another week and a trip to the specialist to discover she was right after all and she had in fact fractured her hip. That whole incident was so distressing for me, as I tried to deal with it on my own and she was screaming and crying from the agony of it all. It is a terrible thing to be powerless when someone you love is in pain. I am so grateful to my one aunt for staying the night with her that evening when I could not get her into the care center to be looked after, as she would never have managed. After that incident she was unable to go back to her little house and my father arranged a room in a suitable care home in the same area, for her. To top the list of illnesses and injuries off, a couple of months ago, at age 93 she contracted COVID and recovered before anyone at the care home even realised she had it!  That was just like her - to kick Covid’s butt.

Yes, she was a fighter. A strong and determined woman who I know many found cool and difficult to love, but I was lucky, I was the first grandchild and loved by her before I even arrived here. My gran had a strained relationship with her children but loved them both deeply and was so very proud of my father. She also thoroughly loved and adored her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and enjoyed seeing photographs of her family overseas. She loved getting together with family and having regular visits and I used to try and go see her on a weekly basis. She also thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my cousin Nicholas when he visited and whisked her off on a road trip. It was on that occasion that I remember getting her to enjoy rather a few sherries one chilly night in Langebaan.  My gran was never much of a drinker and she was always rather prim and proper, but she had another side to her that could be up for a laugh. I remember once when she visited with her nieces and the stories they were remembering together and laughing about. She seemed so relaxed and happy in their company and I remember thinking how we are different versions of ourselves to the different people in our lives. There are all these many different versions and interpretations of ourselves out there. So, when each of us mourn her passing, perhaps it is a different version of her that we each have lost.

My gran took pride in her appearance, always ensured her hair was neat and she had lipstick on, if going out. A good knitter and seamstress, she made many of her own dresses and most days would be seen in a smart dress, stockings and high heels. She was unsentimental and very down to earth, often talking to me about her own death or commenting on a person’s weight or appearnce.

She dreamt as a child of going to China; she loved chocolate, especially Ferreira Rocher; she regularly made my young daughters coffee when we visited as she saw nothing wrong with that; she suggested I name my baby Beyoncé as she had read the name in a magazine and liked it; she always wore her silver cross; she helped deliver a baby; she nursed two ailing husbands and relatives; she never drank or ate too much but we convinced her one Christmas lunch to down some champagne out of the bottle - and she did! These are some of my memories of her and things she shared with me.

It wasn’t a shock, her death. I am just so grateful she did not suffer in the end and that she is now finally at peace. But that does little to console my grief. It was raining the day she died and I remember thinking that the sky was crying too. Now though, wherever she may be, I hope she is laughing  - and baking shortbread.