Grandma’s bowl is a deep, rosy pink. Exuberant yellow, mauve, and blue crocus flowers adorn the rim and the hollow. On its bottom is the maker’s stamp, Maling, Newcastle on Tyne – which means nothing to me. What captivates me about Grandma’s bowl is its opaline lustre. Its surface is alive with reflected light. And memories. It was by far the prettiest object in my grandparents’ rather spartan, sepia-toned living room, where its colours were jarring against the palette of brown, beige, and nicotine stains. Grandma used to keep her keys and bits and bobs in it – amongst which, if I rummaged, I could usually locate a sticky mint humbug or two. In the same way as the scent of Pear’s soap, Grandma’s bowl conjures up not her ghost, but her flesh-on-bones presence; if I gaze into it, I can give myself over to believing that all four-feet-ten-inches of her are standing right there beside me.
Grandma… Why do the words dart away from me like speckled, cunning fish when I try to describe her? How could I have spent so much time in her company – getting under her feet in the kitchen, running the laundry through the creaking mangle, scrubbing my face in the bitterly cold bathroom under her supervision, watching her prod the coals to life in the fire grate, trudging with her up the steep hill to the local Co-op – and not really have known her at all?
More than three decades ago, during a session with a counsellor, I was given the task of selecting and laying out stones to represent the key people in my life, myself included. I picked out a plain, rounded, unremarkable grey stone to represent me, because that was how I felt about myself. For Grandma, I selected a rather pretty, intricately patterned stone, golden with flecks of fiery red. The counsellor seized upon this: ‘Perhaps your Grandma represents the prettiness and delicacy you feel you lack or crave?’ ‘Um… maybe,’ I replied, somewhat losing faith in the exercise.
You see, my tiny but fierce Mancunian Grandma Eva was anything but delicate. In old photographs of her as a young woman, there is a distinct beauty and softness: big, dark eyes, milk-white face, jet black, bobbed hair pinned functionally back with plain grips. Her gaze, however, is guarded and defiant. Grandma was raised in the run-down back streets of Manchester through the First World War with her boisterous brother Alan who, she delighted in telling me, made a sport of lifting her onto a stool and goading her into exchanging fisticuffs.
In hindsight, I think I picked that stone not so much for its prettiness, as for its gritty feel and its sharp, uneven lines. It was not a stone that sat comfortably in the hand. Her cuddly appearance aside (picture a sparrow in a black wig and a pinny, and you have a fair impression of what my Grandma looked like), Eva was a rough-edged stone indeed. A staunch, teetotal Methodist, she was the embodiment of ‘small but mighty.’ Despite being dwarfed by the brooding brown furniture all around her, Grandma ruled her home, her morals, her pantry, and Grandad, if not with an iron fist, then at least with a sternly admonishing index finger.
Whilst it is often true that, to quote Maya Angelou, ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ I cannot even explain to myself how I felt around Grandma. Mostly, my recollections of her are slightly faded stills from a stuttering film reel of objects and routines. Her pretty bowl aside, it is of course the most mundane of things that bring Grandma back to me. Mushrooms, for one, which were the devil’s own doing in Eva’s book. I never can slice one of those large, flat field mushrooms without hearing her derisive snort. Standing mournfully over the frying pan containing Grandad’s breakfast, as the grey-gilled specimens landed in the spitting puddle of lard she would shudder, rattle her dentures with her tongue, and mutter the same, weary refrain. ‘I hate mushrooms, don’t you? Horrid, slimy little things! They smell all earthy!’ I can picture her now, irritably wiping her hands on her pinny and gurning in disgust.
The pantry off the dimly-lit hallway was an Aladdin’s cave of tooth-rotting delights: McVitie’s squidgy Jamaica ginger cake, stacks of Heinz tinned puddings, Mr Kipling’s sugar-dusted apple pies, Bourbon biscuits, angel cake, Tate & Lyle syrup, jars of lemon curd… Grandma regarded fruit as nature’s reminder that white cane sugar is not sweet enough on its own: the dejected raspberry canes in her unkempt back garden fruited resentfully, doubtless aware that their meagre bounty was destined to be suffocated beneath an avalanche of sugar then turned to lava for Grandma’s gritty little jam tarts. Although I disliked the resulting tarts, I loved ‘harvest time,’ picking the puny berries and depositing them in the pockets of Grandma’s pinny and, to this day, raspberries are my favourite fruit. Apples would be vigorously polished on the frill of that pinny until they gleamed like a ruby, then sliced, and presented on a plate alongside a little glistening mound of sugar in which to dip them. Evidently, Grandma was indifferent to the career prospects of my emerging adult teeth. Oh, the wickedness! The stickiness! Never would such debauchery have been permitted at home…
Almost as thrilling as Grandma’s gung-ho attitude towards sugar was her Manchester accent, of which she was justly proud. The phrase I loved above all, and would frequently implore her to repeat, was ‘Let’s have a look in the cookbook’ (which she pronounced ‘Let’s have a loook in the coook boook’). What a fine and entrancing way to pronounce a double O! From the softening of her features when I asked her to voice those vowels, I sensed that they were a doorway held ajar to some long-lost sanctuary.
I found solace of my own in the long and rather sombre garden at the rear of Grandma’s house. Left largely to its own devices, it straggled bumpily up the slope, culminating in a solemn gathering of trees. Behind these was a slightly sinister gap in the fence, through which you could peer into the garden beyond. Out front, a tiny oblong of lawn was chaperoned by overbearing yet affable Elephant’s Ears, an unfussy plant with an industriousness that pleased Grandma greatly. I was charmed and comforted by their friendly name, their thick, rubbery leaves that jostled out of the border and onto the cement drive, their jaunty abundance. There is a clump of them in my own unruly back garden but, to my dismay, they are not nearly so gregarious as Grandma’s, and scarcely a bloom has sprouted from their sparse foliage.
My nostalgia for Eva is far from rose-tinted – or should that be sugar-coated? There were many occasions when she spoke harshly, or unnerved me with a joke that was too abrasive; moments when I noticed how warmly she smiled at Fiona and Greta, the girls next door, and flinched, a little, at the slight setting of her jaw as she turned back to me. What did they have, that I didn’t? Her relationship with my mother was brittle, and I wonder now if she recognised too many shades of Mum in me.
Mostly, however, I understood that Grandma was just a very practical person, so tightly stuffed with pragmatism that she could not yield to sentiment. I cannot recall hugging her and yet, I have a sense of the shape of her in my arms. Strange…
Of my two grandmothers, I invariably describe Grandma as the nice one. Was ever an adjective more inadequate? We shared an odd, uneasy affinity, tinged always with diffidence. I did love her, but in the way that a tree spreads its roots over rock to reach the earth beyond. Perhaps we had more in common than either of us realised. I certainly sense some of the reserve that silhouetted Grandma fizzing around me; it is a faint, almost electric hum. I have spent much of my adult life attempting to shake it off.
My Grandma. It startles me how acutely I still miss her. Not so long ago, I was reading a novel that described time as a river, a current that carries the past ahead of us, conveying our ancestors downstream. I’d like to think that is true… That Grandma has just sailed off into the future, and that I might transform her pink crocus bowl into a little coracle, grab one of the ivory-handled spoons from her cutlery drawer, and paddle frantically off in pursuit of her…
I’d pack a pinny for us both, and a wooden spoon, just in case.