Josna Rege

36. My Grandmother

In 1940s, 1950s, Britain, Family, people, Stories, women & gender on April 9, 2010 at 12:39 am

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Such a sweet memory of Lizzie.

    Josna Lizzie has a great ring to it!

  2. Oh, Mom.

  3. Josna, this is beautiful. i try to follow the “clean up as you go” rule as well-usually turns into “eat as you go” too!

    Can’t wait to see you!
    xo Emma

  4. Emma! Yes, eating is a terrific way to clean up. Thank you for reading. One of the things I love best about this blog is how many people–and not just any people–it brings together in one “place.”
    I missed your own blog entries when you didn’t write on it for all that time, but now I know it was because you were becoming more fully absorbed into life there–which is the best possible thing. Yes, looking forward to seeing you; until then, be well. Love, Josna

  5. Dearest of Jojos,
    This story brought tears to my eyes and so many memories of my own Grandma Randolph as we called her. She was the wonderful one in far away America who sent such exciting and sweet “American smelling” boxes of clothes to us as we grew up in India. Many of the clothes were products from her own sewing machine and we loved those dresses and also the marvelous American underwear from Sears or Penney’s. Once while there were still only three of us girls in the family she sent us three unique dolls with long, beautiful hair and several sets of clothes to change them into, and we thought America must be very much like heaven.
    Some of the best things she sent us were records and a record player to play them on. We spent so many happy hours playing in the living room with the thrilling music of great composers ringing in our ears. Then there were the children’s introduction to the orchestra records with songs for ever instrument which we very soon knew by heart. My favourite album was a glorious set of records in a light blue silk cover with silver lettering, of the whole of Tchaikovsky’s Swan lake.
    Our most favourite thing to do was dance around the living room, up onto the couch and around the chairs and tables pretending we were ballerinas dancing with an orchestra in front of an audience of thousands. I was always Navratilova dancing with Nabakov and my sisters and brother
    were cygnets and Russian swordsmen and courtiers in glorious costumes – often my mother’s silky bathrobe and other clothing she allowed us to use for the occasion!

    One day a record arrived in a package which had us begging for tango and rhumba lessons as we
    fell in love with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Such excitement!

    The day finally came when Grandma and Grandpa Randolph flew all the way from America to visit us and we got to know them in a whole new way.
    Grandpa build us the most wonderful tree house and when there was an air raid because of the impending arrival of the Chinese, he and my brother would take moras (stools made of wicker) into my mother’s bathroom shower and eat chocolate bars until the all clear signal sounded. The three of us girls missed all the fun because we were away at school. I was in Darjeeling at MH and my two younger sisters were day scholars at Loreto Convent in Shillong.
    Of course my grandparents had to come up to Darjeeling and see this lovely boarding school with moss growing up the walls and white mice being raised in the attic by my friend Janice and I. We took them to Glenary’s for cakes and to a chinese restaurant for delicacies such as mo-mo’s dipped in soy sauce and the best chow anywhere!
    Grandpa’s favourite was the toy train which we all went to ride on several times during their stay and he took many pictures of such adventures.

    When I graduated from MH our family flew to California to discover America and I stayed on and lived with them and started college and then Nursing school, when the rest of the family went back
    to India. One by one as each of my siblings graduated they followed my example and came over here to live with our grandparents and go to college.
    As we have grown up we have realised how fortunate we were to have such wonderful grandparents who made our lives so rich and full of interesting adventures.

    You see, your stories have unlocked many stories in my life! Thank you, dearest friend!

    • Dear Marianne,

      A response like yours is what makes this blog worthwhile! I’m so happy to read about your grandparents, who, I realize now, were very much present in you although I never had the chance to meet them personally. In particular I think that all of us at MH benefited from the songs you used to sing, some of which you probably learned from those records your grandmother sent you. They captured a certain 1940s and 1950s American ethos and sensibility that I would not have known about if I had not known you, and that gives depth to my understanding of America even though I have only been here since 1970. How wonderful that your grandparents were able to come to Darjeeling to visit you, and see all the sights with you. Of course I was thinking of Glenary’s when I was writing about having to miss a Saturday in town and sit in detention instead! Glenary’s was one of our favorite destinations, as well as the Chinese restaurant (New Dish?). the botanical gardens, and all the fascinating gift shops on the Mall.

      Your story of the arrival of the parcels from your grandparents reminds me of our own excitement when parcels arrived from our aunts and uncles in England. Swan Lake, in particular, reminds me that while we were in Athens my parents took me to a nighttime performance by Dame Margot Fonteyn (and I think, Nureyev, though I can’t be sure) at the Acropolis. The frustrating thing is that I was too young to really appreciate that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I remember having to struggle to stay awake! But what your story also captures, in your description of the makebelieve with your siblings, where you dressed up and performed, are some of the best and most intimate of times in a family, when you all play together. I remember my mother organizing a performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors at home in India during the school holidays, in which all of us children acted. And when Nikhil and Eric were young, they acted out King Arthur stories in costumes made by Maureen: Nikhil was Arthur and Eric a dashing Lancelot. (I was the arm (“clothed in white samite”) of the Lady in the Lake, that rises out of the water holding the sword.)

      That war you mention–I think it might have been the war between India and Pakistan in 1965, since you wouldn’t have been at MH in 1962 at the time of the short border war between India and China. (Unless there was a scare in Shillong that China might also get involved in ’65?) But I too remember the ’65 war as a time of excitement for us children, since we weren’t affected directly by the horrors of it. I remember helping to cover our windows in paper for the nightly blackouts, and ladies in Calcutta donating their gold jewelry for the war effort. More immediately, we children witnessed a dogfight between two planes above the maidan outside our convent school in Kharagpur. The Pakistani plane was shot down and the pilot killed. When people went to the plane, they found that everything was American, from the plane itself down to the pilot’s gloves. And Indians were under the impression that America was selling weapons and equipment to them. Clearly, the U.S. was an equal opportunity arms saleman–selling to both sides. Another memory of that war: since we were close to East Pakistan (East Bengal, Bangladesh), we could get the radio broadcasts from Pakistan as well as from India, so we heard both sides insisting that Kashmir was an “integral part” of their nation. Food for thought for a 10-year old.

      And now there you are in California in your grandparents’ town, with your brother and his family and your mother living in their old house! I love the continuity and connections; nothing is ever really left behind.

  6. On re-reading I realized I made several grammatical mistakes which flew off because I had to leave without correcting – Sorry! I also meant Nureyev, not Nabakov! But I know you know all that!
    Isn’t friendship wonderful!

  7. I didn’t even notice them, Marianne–I was so loving what you were saying. And yes, I knew who (whom?) you meant. xox Jo

  8. And Nikhil it is now my turn to say:
    Oh, Mom.

    I know we arent as far as India, but I know Lily loves hearing from you as much as you loved hearing from Grandma & Grandpa Randolph. I thank goodness for Skype all the time!

  9. Another lovely story. Grandad Sharp wasn’t all bad which is heartwarming. I try to clean as I go but it never quite happens for me. Love you lots. And can I just confirm you are keeping these blogs ‘safe’ – they cannot get lost in the ether? Love you lots xx

  10. It never quite happens for me either—it’s not for nothing this blog is called “Tell Me Another”. You should see the state of the house! But it’s the thought that counts, right? And yes,dear cousin, I am keeping them as Word docs and printing out hard copies. I would like to try to write one about Grandad, too, though my direct memories of him are almost non-existent. But I’ve heard so many stories… x J

  11. This was, as so many of the stories I greedily read on your blog, so lovely and reminded me of the times I spent with my maternal grandmother in Hawaii, who even after 70+ years in the States never managed to learn to speak English. She was able to get by with some awful fractured version of Pidgin. I wonder if anyone still speaks Pidgin in Hawaii, these days. There was just a brief window of time when I was able to communicate in Japanese with her. I do remember the wonderful brown paper wrapped, butcher string tied parcels (packages) we got on Long Island each Christmas from Hawaii, filled with all sorts of Japanese food goodies that were impossible to get in New York in the 1960’s (Ironic, now that I live in a hotbed of a hip Japanese ex-pat community.) Not having the global market place readily available through the internet and even just outside your door (as it is these days) made those treats so eagerly anticipated and special. Dried squid strips, arare (rice crackers, which you can now get on every street corner in NYC), nori, chewy sugary rice candies (Botan)…

  12. Dear Gail, all your struggles with Intensive Japanese and the years of slogging at it thereafter were worthwhile if they enabled you to speak with your grandmother, for however short a time.

    I can imagine the excitement of opening one of those brown paper parcels filled with goodies from Hawai’i and home. My aunt, Mum’s elder sister, used to send one from England every Christmas until quite recently. And Andrew’s mother used to send us packages of assorted Japanese and other Asian treats from San Diego when they lived there, along with Southern California honey, nuts, and dried fruit. I would put the packets of nori in Nikhil’s school lunches, and never suspected that he was conducting a hot trade in them, until one day a mother called me and asked me where I got that nori Nikhil brought in–her son had been asking her for it!

  13. Josna,
    This is just lovely. This story about your grandmother touched a chord in me. It’s strange how reading your story about the grandmother you never knew includes the same sweetness of memory that I feel about the grandmother I grew up with. The bit about your mother’s lack of material things from her mother suddenly made me realize how lucky I am to have so many things from both my mother and grandmother. Since my mother’s stroke and my father’s death I’ve inherited a lot of things that I’m reluctant to part with but which seem to be overwhelming too. I’ll just hang on to them until I’m ready to let them go, maybe when the memories are enough. As you can guess, I rarely clean up as I go…

    • Thank you for your moving response, Maureen. Yes, I know what it’s like to have things that, while they take up lots of space and have little value in themselves, mean too much to me to let go of easily. I’m facing the prospect of going through all my parents’ books and it gives me a pang even to have to get rid of a mass market paperback if it is inscribed with one of their names and the date. But yes, there may come a time when I’m ready; until then, I will keep them.
      Cleaning up as I go is a goal but, for me too, a rarely achieved one! (Have you heard of I subscribed (free) to her emails for a while and did learn to more-or-less keep on top of the dishes at least.) Love, J xxo

  14. Josna, this is lovely. I am writing about my mother, aunt and grandparents, from roughly this generation, so it evokes a lot. Little details about the egg and the egg timer make it come to life. So sweet!

    • I’m so glad you like it, Allie; it’s one of my own favorites. I found your recent story about your mother and the absentee ballots very moving and am going to go back to it and post a comment soon. x J

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