In the Middle of the Night
In the dark of the night, I woke up very suddenly. From a deep dreaming sleep, to wide awake in an instant. I knew what had woken me - not a noise, or a bad dream, but a question. It was a fully formed question, although not one I had ever asked myself before, and it seemed urgent. It was this: How is it possible that I only ever saw my grandmother once?
I lay half in a panic in the dark, dredging up every scrap of memory and every bit of information about my grandmother. There wasn't much. This was my father's mother - my other grandmother died when I was a baby. My father was an only child, so there were no uncles and aunts or cousins on his side of the family, and his father had died before I was born. So the only family he had, that I knew about, was my grandmother, living on her own about five miles away on the other side of the Potteries.
Try as I might, I can only remember seeing my grandmother once in the ten years from my birth to the time we emigrated to New Zealand. The occasion was this: my mother took my sister and I over to see her for a 'fitting.' My grandmother was a seamstress, and she was making my sister and I winter coats. And as soon as I start to remember this, I hits me with the force of a revelation that this was a ruse on the part of my grandmother to get to see us. For all I know, she might have made up many schemes and plots over those ten years to get to see her two little granddaughters, but this is the only one I remember ever worked.
We take the bus to the other side of Hanley. It must have been a Saturday morning, as we don't have school, and my father is at work. There is a strangeness to the whole thing, we've never done this before.
'Where are we going?' I'm sure I said.
'To see your grandmother,' my mother would have replied.
'I didn't know we had a grandmother. I thought Grandma died when I was a baby.'
'This is your father's mother, not mine.'
'Well, why are we going to see her now?'
'Because she is making you both coats for winter, apparently, and they're an expensive item and not to be sneezed at.' I have made up this rather waspish tone of my mother's, but I'm sure its pretty accurate. If she had liked her mother in law, I surely would have had a relationship with her of some kind.
We walk down a long road of old brick terrace houses. When we get to Grandmother's front door, my mother says, 'Behave yourselves now, your Grandmother is not well.'
The material of my half made coat is green, and coarse. It prickles my skin. It has a waist, and flares out. Its full of pins.
My mother says, 'Stand still!' She was always saying this. I was no novice to having clothes fitted, my mother sewed all my dresses and knitted cardigans and jumpers, even bathing costumes! But she had never attempted a coat.
My grandmother is fat, at least, this is what my sister and I say afterwards. She is fat, and her house smells. What does it smell of? Small dark rooms, and things that haven't been moved for years, and grease used over and over again, and of course, loneliness.
She measures the hem from the floor. My legs are bare and cold. My Grandmother's head bobs about below me, grey curls drifting rather wildly about her shoulders. She has a grey cardigan on.
'Oh dearie, its all higgledy piggledy!' she says, 'I'll have to go round again.'
'For goodness sake Stephanie, stand still,' says my mother, ' or we'll be here all day.'
Could she have been so cruel? Yes, because she couldn't have my Grandmother thinking there was going to be a repeat visit.
Afterwards, my Grandmother makes tea. We stand and watch her while she bustles about with a big green teapot and a tea cosy. We sit at the kitchen table, perched on the edge of the chairs. There are some yellow, sticky, soft things to eat.
'I thought the children would like these,' my Grandmother says, passing the plate.
'No thank you,' I say, remembering my manners.
Perhaps I have made up the memory of my father coming home with the finished coats one night. I do remember that we wore them. I didn't like wearing mine, because the material prickled my skin.
I have no way now of solving the riddle of why it was like this. My mother was an independent, reserved person, who didn't like interference, Perhaps she had an early experience of her mother in law that made her decide - never again! But if so, why didn't my father take us to see his mother? Did he even go to see her himself? I don't know.
There's a thin light spreading across the top of the mountain to the east. Its five o'clock, and my head aches with questions, and a yearning sadness.
I have one other clear memory about my Grandmother. A year after we went to New Zealand, I saw my father crying. Not open, loud sobs, but his eyes overflowed silently, and his cheeks shone with tears. He was lying on the couch in the sun room, and he'd been reading a letter, which he held crushed in his hand. My mother told me to come out of the room, and hush.
'Your Daddy has just had a letter from a solicitor,' she said, in a whisper, 'to say that his mother has died.'
On the Antiques Roadshow, people are always saying, 'Oh, this was passed to me by my Grandmother,' or 'my Grandmother gave it to me many years ago.' There is nothing in my house that came from my Grandmother, nothing at all.
The green coat, of course, was left behind when we left England. I never wanted it, until now.
3/27/2016 09:01:30 am
How sad you never got to know your father’s mother. I wonder what she would have taught you? Perhaps you have got your seamstress gifts from her. The beautiful quilts you have designed and fashioned from needle and thread. The gorgeous curtains you have made from scratch – the elegant frocks and even a gown or two. You may not have known her, but perhaps a part of her lives on in you?
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