My great-grandma – Nana - died this morning. Ever since I can remember, she always called me her “sweet rose.” She was ninety-five: born in 1917 as the last flames of the First World War flared. She lived through almost a century of history, but to her it wasn’t history – merely life. She had a sweet, loving heart that was squeezed by her upbringing. Her father was a Methodist minister, and she grew up being taught that other people’s needs were more important than hers. Her parents expected their only child to have a smile for the public, practised in front of a mirror and then worn at all times like a paper cut-out. If she showed preference for certain toys then they were taken away and given to someone else deemed more needy. Her treasured dolls' house was a casualty of this process, something she never forgot. She was forbidden from forming any meaningful friendships – for if she favoured one girl then her parents claimed she would upset the others.
These rules and expectations echoed through the rest of her life. Nana had no space to flourish, and so developed a tendency towards self-destruction. She was an extraordinarily talented painter and pianist. Despite such talents, at nineteen she was told she could not continue a study of music as it was time for her to become engaged. At twenty-one she married the man to whom she had been betrothed at birth. He was five years older than her, and had held her when she was a few days old – their parents setting out the future for the two of them. Nana was a product of the times; property handed from father to husband. She was expected to fulfill the twin roles of housewife and mother. But there was luck. My great-grandfather was a considerate, sensitive man who had no desire to assert his power, and the two of them lived in a sibling-like relationship. He was a primary school teacher, on his way to becoming a head teacher, but joined the RAF at the start of WWII; making use of his Cambridge maths degree to train young men in radar use. He was barely home for six years, with only sporadic visits back to his wife and only child (my mum’s mum). But this was no exception, merely the rule of a time when everyone was working through varying degrees of personal loss and trauma.
At this point my great-grandma moved back in with her parents, who had an open-house policy for all servicemen passing through Stratford upon Avon. It was perhaps one of her happiest times, with the duties of war giving Nana a defined role. She had purpose - helping out in the canteen, and spending her evenings driving around a projectionist who set up film showings for troops. Once a young couple arrived at her parents’ house with nowhere to stay. They had been married that day, rushing into matrimony before the RAF pilot returned to duty the next morning. Nana gave up her bed – laying out fresh sheets and flowers – so that the newlyweds might have a proper wedding night. It was a moment of true selflessness, my great-grandma wanting to be the agent of someone else’s brief happiness.
For the seventeen years I knew her, the last four were characterized by extreme dementia. She still referred to me as her “Rose” when I saw her, but she was confused – asking my mum how my career as a high court judge was going (when I was sixteen), and whether my brother enjoyed his job as an engineer (at age eleven). Her days were full of fantasy – populated with television personalities she regarded as personal friends, and family members who had long since died. There were flashes of warmth as she said “thank you duckie” or referred to my mum by her nickname. But she was frail, hanging onto life with ever-aging hands. The news today was sudden, but not unexpected.
When my mum was with her this morning, she described Nana as looking like a “tiny alabaster saint”. It’s easy to glorify those who have passed away, as though the tensions and problems of previous years are cancelled out. But this is not a hymn to my great-grandma. Instead it is a folk-song: a narrative recalling her in all her beauty and her unhappiness. She was both extraordinary and ordinary, as perhaps we all are. She saw a country change from gas lights and horse-drawn milk-floats to the internet and fast cars. In fact, in the late 1970s she insisted that my great-grandpa bought a bright yellow TR7 sports car for them both to drive – upgrading from the rather more mundane mini. This is one of the many snapshot tales that define her. It is part of remembering and celebrating someone to share their stories, and we keep them as heirlooms – carefully folded; ready to shake out and to pass down.
She is survived by her only grandchild (my mum), two great-grandchildren (me and my brother) and a niece.
Roses seemed particularly appropriate for this post. The vintage dress I'm wearing (in shots taken a few months ago) is very similar to one that we have slides of my great-grandma wearing. And at the moment there is a framed photo sitting on our kitchen table, the image showing my great-grandfather in his garden, framed by banks of bright flowers and roses. Nana had it in her bag when she was taken to hospital for the final time.