We call my mother’s mother My-My. Let me start by saying that she is, in many ways, an incredible woman (how incredible we’re only really discovering now she’s started telling us tidbits about her early life – My-My and I had never had a conversation about her life until 2002 when I was dumped and miserable and she shared a story about how she’d been dumped in 1940…) She was left, aged 10, to fend for herself when her parents went off to find work and left her with an old woman who lived in the same village. She couldn’t go to university, because her parents didn’t have the money, so she became a teacher, which meant that when war broke out she couldn’t become a WREN which was her greatest desire. When she married, she didn’t stop working, which was unusual at the time. Not only that, she became a deputy head, at a time when women with families rarely worked, and certainly didn’t get promotions. Such was her work ethic, and so strongly was it passed down through my family, that, as a child, I had no idea that women didn’t work. I’m pleased that I thought it was the norm, not the abnorm. She looked after my grandfather when he had Alzheimer’s and aged 69 took on her first ever mortgage so that she could move them both to a bungalow when the stairs of their rented flat became too much. She has lived alone since he died in 1988 and only went in to a home three weeks ago, when macular degeneration and the fear that came with it made living in her own house too hard. Until recently she was on the WI committee, the church committee, the local garden society committee, you name it, she was on it.
Incredible. But until this week, I had never seen My-My hug anyone outside of her immediate family. I had never seen her kiss anyone outside of her immediate family. This is the first time I’ve seen her as anything other than stern. It’s odd, because she looks like the archetypal “granny” (though try calling her that to her face…!) – she’s always been a bit cuddly looking, she always wears dresses and skirts (never trousers), she’s got that fluffy white candy floss hair that grannies have. But as a child she was, frankly, terrifying. She disapproved of most things, and would tell us. She would play games with us, but would make no concessions to our age – Monopoly became known as Monotony because of the regularity and glee with which she would beat us, a 6 and a 7 year old, the 6 year old who liked buying the Old Kent Road and the stations, but nothing else, so was NEVER going to win, let’s face it. Monopoly hasn’t been played in our family for about 20 years (and with any luck will never be played again!) We were never allowed in her kitchen to help with cooking, or to bake cakes. She didn’t have the time, the patience or the inclination. To be fair, none of the women in my family are interested in babies, and have limited interest in children, even their own (my own mother once said to me that if she’d known how tedious and repetitive having children was, she doubts she’d have bothered. Some people find this harsh. I find it honest. And it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the children she has, it just means she found them boring until they were able to discuss ideas and stopped repeating themselves over and over and over…) but My-My’s lack of interest is legendary (although she has started asking for great-grandchildren, but only in wedlock, which counts me out of the running) The most terrifying memory of my life is when we were staying in their tiny flat in Wolverhampton (over a sweet shop – it should have been a child’s dream!) and on the stairwell My-My and Pa had a cuckoo clock with hanging pendulums like pine cones. Perfect for swinging on, thought my 5 year old brother and I, until the clock came crashing down from the wall. Her rage was epic. And she still brings it up from time to time, bringing back the sick feeling in my stomach as I knew I’d done something IRREPARABLY AWFUL. When we stayed with My-My and Pa, we were on best behaviour at all times. Compared to my father’s parents, where we ran about in the garden, made coconut cakes, turned footstools upside down to make boats, painted, sewed, knitted, made as much mess as we could.
Even My-My’s name suggests cuddly fun times. She loves it, because as she says, there’s only ONE My-My, but there are countless Grannies. But she only has that name because… she was FURIOUS that my father’s mother got Grandma. She got in there first, so Dad’s parents were Grandma and Pa. Ma’s parents were going to have to be Granny and Pa (see the men didn’t mind that they both had the same name – no distinction at all!) but she didn’t like the word Granny (much the same way Ma hates “Mum” so to avoid calling her mummy I call her Ma and my brother calls her Jude…) so I don’t think we really called her anything. But, when my brother was about 2, my parents moved to an old Victorian villa in Dover which had 6 floors (2 of which were condemned as human habitation which meant they slept in the bathroom for a year a half and my brother and I learnt to identify rising damp and dry rot before school-age). My-My was carrying my brother up the stairs and said, “My, my, my, my, my you are heavy.” And from then on, she was known as My-My. It’s a lovely story, and speaks of affection and love that you would never know from seeing our interactions with one another or from her interactions with anyone.
She’s always been a guarded, stern woman. With a sense of humour, which is equally guarded. And with no time for children. Which explains a lot about my mother, and her desire to fill her house with fun, and for us to be allowed to have friends over whenever we wanted, and for there to be parties and dinners and drinks. A desire which often goes against her upbringing and can cause tensions for herself and for the rest of us. Especially as my father is a complete product of his upbringing – all hale-fellow-well-met and sociability. They came from polar opposite backgrounds and it still shows. My-My didn’t speak to Dad for 5 years after he and Ma got together. She refutes it now, but she didn’t want Ma to marry a man from Essex when there were so many eligible bachelors at her school in Wolverhampton (all of whom were gay, did she but know it, and at least 20 years older than Ma) – so she simply ignored him. Their relationship has mellowed over the years (although I do remember Dad storming out of our house one Christmas day after My-My, let’s not forget a guest in his home, insisted on cooking the turkey and the homemade stuffing and bread sauce and the kitchen had gone nuclear. His parting words were “All this reverence for a FUCKING BIRD.” He came back half an hour, equable as ever, carved and made Pa laugh so he was forgiven.) Mellowed so much that he can now call her “The Wicked Witch of the West” and get away with it. He bought her a broomstick for her 80th birthday.
I have endured years of being told to brush my hair – Pa loved combing people’s hair. My brother loved it, I hated it because my hair was always knotty and it hurt. But I was often in trouble for not allowing it, and was made to endure it (and at night brush my hair 100 times – I should be like fucking Rapunzel if her theories were correct!) I’m nearly 40, but I still get told to brush my hair, and when one day, in exasperation, I did finally brush my hair, My-My simply said, “Well, it looks awful.” She did chuckle afterwards, but still… I haven’t really been able to tell her about any of my acting work because she won’t approve of the kind of programmes I’m in. I know they are not for her particularly, but whereas other old people of my acquaintance will admit it’s not for them but will still be pleased I’m in it, she will (or rather would) tell me why it was awful, why it wasn’t funny etc etc. The last time we laughed at a comedy together it was Les Dawson (and I still have a huge affection for him and I wonder if that’s part of the reason why? She used to do a very good impression of him.) She always asks when I’m going to do some “legitimate” theatre and refuses to understand impro. I say refuse because she is a very intelligent woman, and has the capacity, but not the willing.
I’m not really sure why all this is important to me at the moment. I think it’s because I saw her this week for the first time in 2 years (she lives somewhere unreachable by public transport, I don’t have a car, and I have made work my priority for a while – no excuses, just choices) and possibly for the last time. She’s old. She’s ill. She has a narrowed heart valve which one day will simply close completely and that will be that. She’s started putting stickers on things so we know who gets what. She’s still completely “with it” mentally and was really funny on her birthday – witty and laughing. And so warm. A word I have never really associated with her. We all got hugs and kisses. The carers in the home got hugs and kisses (as I said, the first time I’ve ever seen her kiss someone from outside the family). Everyone was thanked for their efforts (she’s always been courteous and polite, but can be incredibly dismissive of people she doesn’t feel immediately like – oh the stories!) But she’s increasingly deaf and increasingly blind so can no longer read or even really watch TV which were her two joys (Dick Francis and Emmerdale are her favourites). And I suppose what I want to say is that I love this difficult, stern, repressed woman. As she gets nearer death, she’s letting us in, finally. It’s sad that she’s left it so late. And I also want to say that I owe her a great deal. Because, and she’d hate the word, she’s a feminist, an early pioneer of the working woman. Because I have inherited some of her reserve, and it’s a reserve I like. Because it’s useful being stern sometimes, being unemotional, being businesslike. Because my mother rebelled against her, and created a warm, welcoming home for their friends, and for my brother’s and my friends (many of whom have lived at my parents’ house when they had nowhere else to go), and for us. And most of all because there really is only one My-My.