In a one-generation gap there’s space for breath to be drawn, wounds to scab and memories to fog. My grandparents were woven into my life in a way that I thought was unique to me. They were the touchstones of my childhood, the champions of my spirit.
My granddad was big – in body and in personality. He let me smoke his pipe when I was seven. Can you imagine? “Hold this, would you pal?”. A grease-streaked hand from underneath a car, passing up a brown pipe, the glowing bowl winking at me, infernal and exciting.
My grandma was quiet and still. A kindred creature of the sea. We would take evening trips to the beach, me walking several steps behind her through the shallows. I’d dawdle, watching as she hitched up her long skirt, tying it into a knot high up on her thigh whilst searching for illusive purple sea glass or shy hermit crabs.
I remember the long summers that my mum, my brother and I spent with my grandparents in their bungalow by the sea stretched out in a haze of sunburnt skin and adventures. I remember one morning in particular: I opened the bedroom curtains to see that the apple tree in the garden was sprouting bananas from its branches. Bunches and bunches of bananas swayed in the sea breeze. I knew it was impossible but I also knew I was looking at an apple tree with bananas hanging from every sturdy twig. My mum says now that it was just five bananas lashed there individually, nothing like the cornucopia I remember. But in my recollections my granddad’s mite really could cultivate an exotic fruit tree in the south of England overnight.
In the hinterland between the sea and the South Downs their village was a 1950s sprawl of bungalows. People would ride their horses from the Downs to the sea so they could run them on the beach. Most days, my granddad would mount a purpose-built crate onto his battered Raleigh, lay a spade over his lap, and cycle the horses’ route to the sea. He would scoop up manure and put it into the crate, cycle home and spread it on my grandmother’s roses. Helping a person to grow things seemed like such a simple act of love to me.
My grandma, a wiry, capable woman with my eyes, would take me to the library every other day. We would fill her trolley with as many books as my summer library card would allow and drag them back through the village to the garden. Sometimes she would negotiate extensions on the number of books I could take out in one go if I really couldn’t bear to put one back on the shelf. Once a librarian told her that I couldn’t possibly read all those in one week. My grandma gave her a steely look and said simply: “you’d be surprised”. I loved that she wasn’t like other nans. The older she got the more gold she wore – hoop earrings and chains. She was a curious mix of the Victorian and the bohemian.
She cultivated a garden from very little and it was the place I most loved to be. I would crawl into the runner bean cage, lie in the dirt, and look up past my book, through the green fronds, to the seagulls clattering about the sky. My grandmother would stand at the cage entrance and ask me to pick the beans we would have for tea that night: “Pick ten good uns and ten middle uns.” Then we’d divvy them out in the kitchen. I would be so proud of my small harvest on our family’s plates.
Their garage was not off limits to me, something I took advantage of. My mum said she was terrified for me in that fusty space, my granddad puffing his pipe, teaching me to whittle sausage dogs from old chair legs, asking me to turn the engine over if he was fixing the car. But I thought it was absolute bliss to sort out his washers into old ice cream containers and listen to his stories about the war: living in the desert, riding camels, the mini Olympic games they held in the blazing sun. He spared me the worst of it.
Later, I learned he’d been shot in the back whilst stationed in Europe. He waited a day and a night before it was clear to crawl back to his comrades. My mum said that as he dragged himself through the mud he spotted a pair of binoculars which he pocketed. I still have them. They frighten me a little.
My grandmother’s domain, the small shed, was ‘entry by invitation only’. I can recall on one hand the occasions I was allowed in. It was an earthy space and smelled of dirt and rot, a contrast to the mechanical tang of the garage. In the shed, bulbs nestled in crates underneath a workbenchand herbs were strung together and hung from hooks in the roof to dry out. My grandmother would bring me empty seed packets and plastic plant labels. I would be asked to copy the plant names (common and Latin), in my best handwriting, on to the labels. We would do this silently, her repotting seedlings and me writing, for hours.
To me, my grandparents represented the two opposing sides of my personality. The story-telling adventure seeker, and the quiet, orderly organiser. The summers my mum took me to my grandparents felt like my period of growth. During the time before and the time after I lay dormant and silent, waiting for nourishment.
My granddad died on Christmas Day when I was 11. My grandma died alone on a bright November morning many years later.
During an evening spent drinking with my mum she spoke about her childhood in a way she hadn’t before. My granddad was a coroner’s officer in London after the war, delivering terrible news to the bereaved whilst in a police uniform. He made rules and he expected them to be followed.
My mum loved to tell the story of how she’d given him lip once and he’d chased her around the garden with a slipper. She used to tell it with much comedic embellishment. I knew the story so well that I’d interject, pick up her story half-way through and spin it a little myself. After two glasses of wine her memory took a darker turn. She told me about her terror of being caught by him. How she’d climbed the rockery, knowing he couldn’t reach her, and she stood there for most of the night waiting for his resolve to break and for him to return to the house.
When my uncle died last year my mum had to break the news to my grandma. After my mum spoke those awful words, my grandma tapped my mum’s hand lightly and said: “Yes, I knew. I already knew” and walked slowly and quietly to her bedroom. My mum cried alone wishing her mum could cry with her. “I save my tears for bedtime”, my grandma said. The insinuation that my mum should do the same hung in the air.
My granddad: my fellow mischief-maker. My grandma: serenity personified. My mum’s dad: draconian rule enforcer. My mum’s mum: cold and distant. I sometimes feel my grandparents’ love for me was an apology to her, something like: “I could not always love you the way you needed to be loved but I will love your children, wholly and completely, without judgement and fear.”
I must find a way to hold those two ideas of my grandparents in my heart at once, because to favour one memory over the other does a disservice to them and to the complexities of memory itself. It is a constant practice. A balancing act without end, even though they are both gone. I cannot know who my grandparents were when they were young and scared and trying to raise children on a pitiful income. I know now that I saw them through child’s eyes – perfect, complete beings that sprung into existence when I did. Perhaps that’s how they wanted to be seen. I’ll never know. I rely on others’ accounts of them to try and make my grandparents whole. But that will never be enough, or completely accurate, either.
I break my heart almost daily thinking of the conversations I never had with them and the connections I didn’t seek out, especially with my grandma, who I had for so much longer. Who was your first kiss? Did you love your parents? What books made you cry? What is duty? Tell me, please, did you have this awful sadness sometimes too?
Ali is a long-term Londoner and works in communications for a non profit. She is a staff writer for Aurelia.