My grandparents lived in Reading. They had done all their lives and only ever lived in 3 houses in their entire lives. They moved from their family home to their first married house and then when this was knocked down they moved to the little flat where they stayed until they died, Granddad first and then Nan 2 years later. I don’t remember their house but have a photo of Nan outside it. The exciting wall paper on the walls is always the first talking point and then after it the haircuts and clothes that we look at. But when these are seen and you just stand and stare I see a happy, smiling lady who if I looked too long might ask me if I wanted a cup of tea…
Their flat had a garden out the front and a little one out the back. The back garden was crammed full of vegetables, flowers and there was very little space to sit and think. But then, I suppose, this wasn’t really a sitting and thinking garden. This was a food garden and as they worked hard, the plants grew the food helped with the bills. They used to keep rabbits too at their old house to eat also, but they didn’t do this at the flat. I remember rolling my eyes at yet another bag of tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes that Nan used to give us and we took them home and chuckled over them but we did use them. Growing your own wasn’t fashionable really in the 80’s, life was about buying everything and not trying to grow or make your own so whilst the veggies were great, I don’t think I appreciated them as much as I should have.
They had a little shed at the bottom of the garden and in it I noticed old terracotta pots. I asked if she used them and when she said no I asked if I could have them as I love older things, things with a history and I was astonished when she said no, that could I take the white plastic ones instead? She wanted me to have the new things that she couldn’t have when she was young and I couldn’t get her to understand why someone would want old things. I remember she was quite cross about it so I left it and took the plastic one. I never used it but it made me smile when I saw it at the back of the garage years later. Dad had a house in Wales and she came for a visit once and we went to an antique shop and she was reminiscing over mangles and cast irons, wooden buckets and I loved it. She was telling me bits about her life when she was a young wife and I asked her where all these things were. Apparently she left everything behind when her house got knocked down. The mangles, the furniture and even the box of photographs that held the door open she pictured in her mind as she told me. I could not understand why she would leave any of this but as we stood there generations apart, this was the woman who had no bed of her own and no bedclothes either telling me she had the chance to have everything new and in that instance I understood.
They did take the old chair that was Grandad’s mums. (The picture is of my Grandparents wedding, guess which was the lady the chair was for; she’s tiny! My Granddad described her as a lady ‘you wouldn’t say bugger twice’ in front of. Small but a lady with 3 sons – to the left of Granddad as we look at the photo.) The small dark wooden chair we have in our utility room that we all look at and use daily to sit on when we put shoes on and take them off. This tiny chair was made to fit the tiny woman that sat on it. My great Grandmother (Ellen) was 4 foot nothing and a normal chair was always too big as her feet didn’t touch the floor. My great grandfather (Mark) cut the legs down so although it looks a bit odd, the chair fitted her perfectly. Nan had a purple cover made and it sat in her bedroom in the corner from the day they moved in ’till the day I took it out and put it in my small bathroom on my narrow boat. I took the cover off as I wanted to see the dents and nicks from years of use and I wondered at all the little splash mars of paint that were still on it.
The chair has followed me round in the various houses I’ve lived in, more than both my grandparents put together. It followed my Nan around too although it was made new again by the addition of the purple covering.
The flat also had 2 other cupboards one inside the entrance passageway and the other at the end of the hallway inside the flat. The cupboard inside was full of jumpers never worn. She was an amazing knitter (weren’t all grans then?) and kept knitting long after anyone actually needed anymore jumpers. The top shelf of the cupboard was full of them, lonely with no one to wear them but should there be a jumper shortage; she would be the woman to save us all. In the cupboard outside in the hallway there seemed a never ending supply of random items brought up in conversation. I needed a suitcase to go on a residential music course and out she popped and came back with this beautiful, vintage brown suitcase that I felt amazing when I carried it. I had it for years and it contained all my teenaged letters (another lifetime ago, another blog maybe) but it’s gone now, and I don’t know where. When I first mentioned sewing and needing a sewing machine, off she disappeared again and came back with the most amazing old sewing machine. Cast iron with a boat bobbin (so pre-1900’s) on a wooden base with mother of pearl inlay. I loved it but never got it going due to not being able to source a needle for it. I went to a factory just round the corner from where Nan was born and although the man said how gorgeous it was, he did say that it would probably never go again. Nan’s cupboard was legendary and it’s lovely sitting here typing away with a smile on my face just thinking about it.
I loved old and she loved new so whilst we never really met on our thinking about certain things she loved me enough to give me the things (from the few things) that she had. She’d share anything with anyone no matter how little she had. I want my boys to know about where my grandparents lived and not just the address or a Sunday drive past but that she grew beautiful purple aubrietias in the front garden and they didn’t have any heating in their flat for years, just and old bar heater that was never turned on making their bathroom freezing and even more so to a 7 year old. I want them to know that I stayed there over night watching ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and that they were astonished I didn’t want to see the end as I was so tired I went to bed. I say bed but I had a makeshift blanket bed on the floor down by my grandparent’s bed as they only had the one bedroom. We made do and I remember it again with a smile on my face. I remember the little piles of money on the mantelpiece that Nan would carefully place a set amount each week so she had the money to pay the bills. She used to say ‘that’s the electric money, that’s gas money…ect’ and that’s where I get my obsession for saving on a weekly/monthly basis. Work out what you want, when you need it and divide it by the amount of weeks you have before you get it and that’s what you have to save. That’s from them, my grandparents.
I hope, one day, to inspire my own grandchildren. I hope they look back on photos with exciting wallpapers and exciting old fashioned clothes but I hope they too see the smiles in the photos and maybe, just maybe, if they stay looking just a little bit longer they might see the corners of my mouth upturn and they’ll know that it really will turn out fine, that an ordinary life can be extraordinary in terms of bonds created and memories left behind. I have my memories but my boys just have photos of people from another time and the stories about them their mum liked to tell and I think its important I keep doing that…
Here is a photo taken this morning of my 3 sons sating around that wooden chair that’s over 100 years old. It was great, they thought it was an odd idea to have your photo taken with a chair but when I told her about the lady who used to sit on it many years ago and showed them the photo of her (to shouts of ‘She’s small!!!’) they came alive again and I was happy.