My maternal grandmother died when my mother was six months pregnant with me, so I never knew her except through the softness that entered Mum’s voice every time she spoke of her. She was a gentle soul who never spoke ill of anyone. When my Grandad swore or spoke sharp words, she would just say, “Oh, Charlie.” She worked hard all her life and had eight children, two of whom died young, of diptheria. When the mother of a neighboring family died, she took in her children as well.
I carry with me a few fragments of my grandmother, mostly through stories told by Mum. My middle name, Elizabeth, is hers; she was Lizzie. She loved the hymn, “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” and I sing it on Good Fridays and think of her. Very occasionally a church group would take the neighborhood women by coach to the seaside for the day, and she enjoyed those rare outings. Every year (or at least more than once), Grandad played the same April Fool’s trick on her and, according to Mum, she fell for it every time. He brought her breakfast in bed (“Oh, Charlie”), something he did at no other time, and she cracked the boiled egg on the breakfast tray to find that it was hollow.
My grandmother had a stroke when she was just over 60, and lost some control over her speech. She knew what she meant to say and those close to her understood perfectly, but sometimes the words didn’t come out as she intended. Once, the doctor came by to see her, and she said, “Here comes the Flying Dutchman.” Everybody laughed, because this captured him to a tee. Television was just coming in at this time, so after her illness her children brought one home for her. She had a favorite radio host who now had a show on television, so she prepared to watch it with great anticipation, but was terribly disappointed when she saw him; his disembodied voice had been so much more attractive.
My grandmother’s cardinal rule of cooking, oft-repeated by Mum, was, Clean up as you go. Mum has always followed this rule religiously, and I try to do so as well. With a large family in a small space, it must have been an absolute necessity. On cold school days, she would slip a hot potato into the children’s pockets to keep their hands warm. Mum would hurry home from school to help her mother, as she knew she was weak and tired, and her two older sisters were already out at work. It upset her when, in my twenties and trying to live the simple life, I made a virtue out of maintaining a labor-intensive woodstove. She had watched her dear mother labor over a dirty coal stove, and had worked hard herself to make sure that my sister and I would have a better life, yet here was I, who had been given every opportunity, perversely choosing what her mother had been forced to do out of necessity.
Mum has only one thing that belonged to her mother, a small glass-bulb egg-timer with a wooden frame. When she and Dad left for India with me at six months, her father accompanied her to the docks. As he said goodbye, he slipped the egg-timer into her pocket.