A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.
Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.
Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.
Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.
Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.
She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.
I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.
I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.
But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.
The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”
She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”
Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”
There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going – and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.
We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.