I’ve worked out the problem with getting older. For a while, I thought it was the difficulty that wrinkles presented. Could I be a feminist and realistically contemplate getting a jab of Botox? Did I still have the right to enter the changing rooms of Topshop? But this year, it’s all become so very clear. The problem with getting older is that people suddenly start dying more often. Great people.
This past weekend, my grandmother passed away. She was our family matriarch. She was also hilarious; much of that hilarity, it dawns on me now, more intentional than I had previously supposed. It’s a kind of disenfranchised grief, in a way, losing the elderly. People are keen to pass off the death of those who enjoyed a long and relatively healthy life. It’s as if you are meant to carry on regardless. If I once hear the old rejoinder ‘She had a good innings,’ I will not be responsible for my actions. The fact that someone is old or has ‘lived their life’ changes the selfishness of the bereaved not a jot. We want those we love to be with us forever. We fool ourselves until they are not there that they always will be. We want them to protect us. And this world is so replete with a lack of acceptance that their entire acceptance of us is worth more than any kind of success you can achieve in this world. I wish I’d noticed that earlier.
My grandmother did not have a grand life. Not in the way I used to think was grand. She went into service as a girl – yes, the world was really like that, and not so very long ago. She went on to become one of the best landladies in Wales. She loved the man in her life until he left her a widow in her 60s. She loved her daughter. In my father she found the son she never had. She adored her grandchildren. She worshipped her many brothers and sisters. But, of course, as we go through life, we recognise more keenly that great lives can often be small and small lives can often be very great indeed.
My grandmother’s time in service led to a curious situation in which she was the only one of our clan ever to have lived in a stately home – Blenheim Palace, no less. She was evacuated there during the war, along with the upper-class girls who were schooled there and whose lives she made comfortable. ‘They were lovely and so good to me,’ she said, much to my class-conscious teen fury. We went back there in the 1980s, and she lovingly went through every room, remarking how little it had changed. Yes, she went back – as if it was yesterday, recalling her many duties with no hint of self-pity, but, instead, pride. She could explain more about the place than the guidebook we bought. It is with amusement now that I note that, during her period there, the yanks had also landed in the grounds and set up their camp. Nan viewed the era as a golden one in her life.
She married my grandfather, after he somehow managed to charm her, despite his enduring mischief – they met when, behind her in the queue, he exposed her ration fraud to a shopkeeper. They entered the pub trade and she became landlady of The Greyhound (a pub I re-imagined as The King’s Head in a poem of mine). Neil Kinnock was a young radical, supping regularly. They both thought him a mouthy and disrespectful fake and later keenly pointed this out every time he appeared on the news, roundly mocked by commentators, in the 80s. My grandfather sacked Tom Jones and his then band (Tommy Scott and the Senators) from their appearances at the pub, thus freeing up the Welsh Pelvis’s schedule, and allowing a bit of rock and roll history to happen. ‘Tom Jones can’t sing,’ they both insisted. Many great people passed through their hours there.
But she was special to me because she was such a committed personality. Intractable in her beliefs, always exhibiting outward strength in times of great despair, unwavering in her devotion and loyalty to family and all that that meant and obligated one to. She was the perfect, textbook Welsh woman. Her support of me was enormous. She took great pride in my achievements, especially when I received my degree. And she could be quite uniquely ingenious in her magpie hunts around Swansea, once turning up a vintage issue of Poetry Wales she discovered in some car boot sale or other, just as I was starting to write my own poetry. ‘It’s perfect,’ I told her. And it was. But not every discovery was quite so successful. The whole family found themselves regularly gifted with eccentric objects, most pretty useless – and she converted her living room, after my grandfather’s passing, into a cave of bizarre delights. ‘It’s like santa’s bloody grotto in here,’ my brother once dryly observed. She laughed. She was impossible to offend and unconcerned with conformity.
There was no one quite like her. It’s such a sad thing to lose someone who knew you and loved you your whole life. It’s almost like a part of who you were then has been taken with them.
But here she is as a young girl, in a photo weathered through the time travel. She was remarkably pretty. And her good looks lasted her entire life. She was always very pleased about that. She was incredibly and amusingly vain. Perhaps her only flaw. Along with her bingo habit. And we loved her for it, and for everything.