The understanding I have of my grandparent’s lives is fake. It comes to me in Chinese whispers from biased observers. It sloshes around in my imagination until it seems to make some narrative sense.
My gran grew up in a small village in Yorkshire. She would milk the family cow every day before she walked 10 miles to school on her own. Everything was in black and white back then. Everything was bought to last. Life was frugal. You grew into your shoes.
My grandad grew up in India, a child of the Raj. His family rode on the backs of elephants. They shouted demeaning things at the natives and then laughed heartily twirling their waxed moustaches.
That’s the plastic flower version of their story: brightly coloured, unreal and vaguely comical. A plastic flower looks like a real flower from a distance.
But what do I actually know about them?
Gran was born into a working class Yorkshire family. She’d hate it if she knew I’d told you that. She married a man from a different class and rewrote herself into the role of a respectable lady.
Grandad was born into a posh white family in India. He was sent to England as a child when he contracted tuberculosis. For most of his life he was a doctor. He was a conscientious objector in both wars.
When they met, there were fireworks. Or maybe air raid sirens. The second world war was happening around them. She was a nurse and he was a doctor.
She was thrilled to meet a man descended from the aristocracy. A professional in a white coat, no less. He spoke properly. She liked that. Sure, he was a socialist, but that’s politics! That’s men’s talk. She had no interest in any of that nonsense.
She should have taken more interest in “that nonsense” though.
Later she would have to shoo hippies out of her dining room and into the less civilised areas of the house when her husband invited them round for those dratted CND meetings. You could say what you like about bombs or banning them but she didn’t want boys with scruffy hair and dirty feet in the house.
“That nonsense” was the flaw in her plan. She would never find true class because Grandad refused to become a private consultant; he remained committed to the National Health Service, and she felt that commitment held them back.
I now see Gran as someone stumbling through life in her own way, same as me, same as my mum, same as everyone I know. I’m not saying she’s a nice person; every old and frail person has probably hurt people in their lives. But I see her as someone who’s had a life and that has to be respected.
I never had that with Grandad. He used to play chess with us. He always won. He didn’t really speak. He looked wooden like his chess set, worn and tall and thin. I always saw him as an Ent: wise, not too hasty. When he died I was given a wooden elephant that came from the Raj. I love that elephant. Its tusks are wonky.
The chairs in their house were uncomfortable. Everything looked like The Queen might have bought it. There were all sorts of rules about which bit of cutlery you used first. All the adults were tense for reasons you couldn’t understand. Children were to be tolerated and silent. On the tables were bowls of things that looked a little like Bombay Mix but turned out to be something called potpourri. The taste of dried flowers in my mouth and a stifling silence all around me, everything smelling unnatural: that’s how I remember it.
This strict woman terrorised my mother, passing the terrors down the line, the terrors that my mum passed to me. I’d heard the stories and I could see it in her eyes. Gran was a pantomime villain.
She isn’t anymore. Now she’s an old lady living in an old house full of old people in the countryside just outside Bath. She has her tea and cake every day at three o’clock. She regularly lunches with a Lady. They wear Easter bonnets at Easter. They get their children to tend their gardens. They have staff to look after them. In a way she’s finally made it to where she wanted to be.
But she gets angry with the deer and the rabbits. They eat her flowers. They don’t know that humans find them decorative; they just know they’re tasty.
At her 80th birthday, my gran had a few drinks. Someone gave her a knife to cut the cake. With a mischievous gleam in her eye, she suggested she might as well end it all now. The assembled family, holding their cameras and their toddlers in their hands, stared in horror as she swung the knife back and forth in front of her chest.
My mum and I once sat with her drinking sherry from dusty glasses. She told us about her life during wartime. She’d been a nurse in Blitz-addled London. When she talked of it she seemed younger. I suddenly saw the girl from a small village who’d gone to a city being bombed and found excitement, freedom and something that sounded like independence. I was shocked to hear such feeling in her voice, surprised that she was nostalgic for a time of war. It remained bright and light in her memory.
It struck me then that I might have liked the woman she’d been for those few months, before she’d met my grandad, before she’d found the mask to put on.
When she moved into The Home she finally became a completely real person to me. I’d love to get into all this with her, adult to adult, hear the whole story from her mouth and find out what she really thinks about class. About freedom. About being a mother. About being a nurse in the wartime. About marrying Grandad. I want to hear this story without the embellishments.
But I don’t know how to ask.
So instead, when I’m around (which is rarely) I go and visit her with my mum. The last time we went Mum stopped at a shop on the way and suggested I buy her flowers.
Gran loves flowers. She has them all around her room beside carefully placed bric-a-brac. She arranges everything just so. She still models herself on The Queen.
I went to her old house in Limpley Stoke with my mum to stick post-it notes on things I might want. I didn’t want much but I wanted something.
The bits of property I salvaged from that house are ways to try to understand the lives of the people whose genes are inside me. Understanding who they were might help me understand who I am.
I stuck Day-Glo bits of paper on a few strange looking bits of furniture and the old school bell Gran had used to call my mum and her sister down for dinner when they were children. In some ways that bell was an instrument of torture.
It felt nice to be useful to my mum, the sort of thing proper sons do. Visiting Gran in the old people’s home is the same sort of thing: a taste of being a good grandson.
The last time we visited her she took us out to her gardens. As we stood looking down at the flower beds, Mum mentioned how she’d put sticks down to try and stop the animals.
“Those creatures are determined. They think the flowers are veg-ee-tub-els.”
She’s always had a fake voice. She puts all the stresses in the wrong places.
“Don’t tell anyone will you, dear, but I use fake ones.”
On top of her ruined flowers, Gran puts plastic flower heads.
I smile at her, “Don’t worry, Gran, I won’t tell anyone.”