Thursday, 4 August 2011

Gran - a bit of her life before her death

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In my last blog post, I talked a little about my Grandma, a woman who was born in 1896 - a time that I have come to regard as one of the prime eras of Victorian industrialism. Gran was born in West Vale, Halifax in a Mill cottage belonging to Prospect Mill, which in those days, probably didn't look too unlike this photo of it.

Prospect Mill, was started by my Great Great Grandfather, George Ingham, and my Gran's father Fred Sutcliffe had started work there 'at the bottom' and through a passion for self education, managed to better himself into eventual marriage of the bosses daughter Harriet and promotion to wool buyer and a seat on the board of directors.

Gran was the youngest of four children and to give some scale to her story, her sister Lily was twenty years her senior. Gran said that even as a small child she never felt excluded by her older siblings. At family concerts, she sat under the piano until she was old and adept enough to sit at it and accompany her sister Olive who played the violin. Gran's brother Ingham had "a bit of a gym" set up in the loft and patiently taught his little sister, my Gran, to climb ropes and wall-bars.

Eventually, the family moved from the cottage, to a huge house in Halifax, 'Gads Hill' (named after Dicken's house), it was set as the name suggests, up on a hill. They had large gardens and a tennis court. As the older children matured into teenagers and then early adulthood, house-partys and tennis evenings were common. Fourteen places were quite usual at meal times. These family parties, were also often bi- or tri lingual, as Ingham had been sent to study in Germany, spending time in Hannover and learning to speak the language fluently. Following Ingham, when their turn came, Gran's older sisters Lily and Olive were sent to 'Finishing School'in Switzerland and also became talented linguists. My Gran, Phyllis, visited them in Switzerland and shared the family talent for languages; even aged 104, she would sing herself to sleep in French or German. Lily corresponded in French to her old friends even in her 90s hampered as she was with bottle-bottom glasses and failing sight. Sadly Auntie Lily died when I was in my teens. She was the one that I really would have liked to know as an adult - we have several interesting things in common.

It was a priviledged childhood for all of them - one where servants reigned in the kitchen and were summoned by bells. Fine art and music were topics of discussion and actively persued as hobbys. Music was my Gran's first love and as she finished her time at school, she stayed on to teach the younger ones music and trained to become a concert pianist.

That was the plan - but then war broke out "and that..." said Gran, "...was that!".

Coming from a home where servants cleaned, they soon found themselves as trainee nurses scrubbing floors with carbolic soap, making ready a large house to recieve wounded soldiers covered in mud and blood from the 'front'.

Lily and Olive also nursed in France and their younger sister, my Gran nursed in England and Scotland. She had fond memories of 'her boys' and kept a photo album of some of her patients as they recuperated from the horrors of the trenches and the front-lines of places such as flanders. Ingham was sent to Egypt, where he survived war, only to contract Pneumonia from a swimming pool and die prematurely leaving a young widow and two daughters. The years of war were pivotal to my Gran, the austerity and horror of the First and then the Second World War gave her a self discipline and a code of living that remained with her always, it shaped her attitude to life and society. The live-in home helps that she had to have in the 1990s had a very hard time trying to live up to her very simple way of life and I was constantly smuggling loo rolls and other 'luxury items' in for them. Gran declared that they should only use one sheet of toilet tissue at a time and woe betide anyone found throwing food away! Gran used to search the rubbish bins in her kitchen for food waste and on finding anything discarded by her home help, would 'tut-tut' through her teeth - mumbling darkly while observing the newly found scrap - words like "this would feed a child...".

She was not an easy person to care for, or shop for. Nothing was ever quite right - or up to scratch. When she once cut her leg and I spent 5 hours in A&E with her, it was an eye opener for me. She spent the time re-arranging the department from her cubicle, stating what (in her WW1 opinion) was not rightly placed, proportioned or positioned. The Doctors, all of which she declared, were "...far too young and LOOK he even has a PONY-TAIL". Being deaf as a post, these comments came out at full volume. I was mortified and I think the Dr with the Ponytail was pleased to discharge her!

As a consequence of her fussiness, I never ever offered to do her shopping, having realised at quite an early age that it was a recipe for disaster, more than that, an open invitation for criticism and for falling out of favour...

My mum was terrified of Gran and also her sister, my Aunt Joy. Having lived her whole life on the end of my Grandma's critical tongue and my Aunt's equally critical and caustic tongue, she never felt that she had gained her mother's approval - certainly she didn't get her sister's approval. Having witnessed this, I was not going to enter into the possibility of a critical relationship with my Gran and Aunt as I saw how destructive it could be. So, when I eventually started to visit them more regularly, after my mum died, we ate cakes, drank tea and developed a relationship that involved art and literature. It was a relationship, for the most part devoid of conflict - I simply wouldn't play into the game and avoided it.

After my Aunt Joy died in the 1990s (Gran nursed her from the age of 3 till her death at 58), the dynamic between us mellowed and we became quite good friends - regardless of this, I still had to maintain the status-quo between her and her 'carers'.

However, after mum had died in 1991 and I became inseperable from coffins, hearses and graves, Gran was more than a little perplexed at my chosen career. She would often pronounce in exasperation her mantra, "women don't go to funerals in our family..."

When my Aunt Joy eventually died, Gran refused point blank to go to her funeral - repeating again and again, the family funeral mantra. I pointed out that as we were a family consisting only of women, it seemed a shame that none of us would therefore go to each others funerals...and she backed down, but only as far as saying she would be picked up in the limousine. When we arrived in the cemetery for the graveside service, Gran refused to get out of the car - hence (see last blog post) me having to place it nearer the grave in the hopes that the very expensive set of digital hearing aids would pick up what the doddery Vicar that Gran had chosen was about to say. I didn't realise that the Vicar was doddering about behind the limousine, hence he got a bit of a tap on the leg. Things went from bad to worse when the doddery Vicar started reciting the 23rd Psalm and a pneumatic drill sang forth just down the road, drowning out his words.
However, by some miracle, (or wishful thinking on her part), Gran said that she heard every word of the service and that it was lovely - funny that - I was standing next to the grave and couldn't hear a thing. This was possibly, either because I didn't have any digital hearing aids, or because I was laughing so much internally as the doddery Vicar didn't seem to know a thing about my 'Auntie Wheels'. Joy by name but not always by nature!

Gran perked up hugely after Joy died. Being her constant carer for 58 years had been a huge commitment and although her life didn't change much from a routine point of view, Gran became more interested in my work and we started to have more regular afternoon teas. Her 100th birthday came and went - she was disgusted when she spotted the printed signature on her telegram from the Queen, but failed to notice that her birthday lunch was held in a very camp Gay Hotel. She was however, astonished that her Neice (Auntie Joan - who's funeral I blogged about), had been brought down from Worcestershire and the following day, she entertained Joan, who returned to my home in the evening, shattered, and remarked wistfully about my Gran, that "she didn't even have a rest after lunch...." Joan was at least 30 years her junior!

So, that was my Gran - well, a little insight into her. She was a tiny woman with a large personality. Throughout her life, although her parents moved down south after the Great War, she remained a Yorkshire woman at heart. Her motto was that "if it's Yorkshire, it's alright" - but, you have to say that like she did, because she retained the correct accent!

It worked for her.

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