Sunday, January 28, 2018

A tribute to my grandmother

My grandmother, Nana, died at the age of 101 late last year. Here's my tribute from her funeral.

Nineteen sixteen seems a very long time ago. It was the year of the Battle of the Somme in the midst of the Great War. But in June that year, just a week before that great battle started, there was another event, less remarked by historians: the birth of Mary Marjorie in Liphook in Hampshire. Although her first name was Mary, she was always called Marjorie as there were, she told me, already a sufficiency of Marys in the family. That her given name was not her first name would continue to confuse officials and bureaucrats right up to her dying day.

Nana was the middle child of three, the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer from Glasgow and that was where she was brought up. Her time there left her with an abiding suspicion of those two most powerful Glaswegian institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the British Labour Party. That said, and although she was a woman of firm opinions, Nana was not above changing her mind. Meeting the late Cardinal Basil Hume late in life, she was extremely impressed by his obvious holiness, and since then I never heard her utter another word against the Church of Rome. For the Labour Party, however, there would be no such redemption.

When Nana was eleven, the family moved down to Barnet in North London, and the Second World War saw her working in the West Country, as a member of the Timber Corp. One day, she took her dog to the vet in Sherborne. Dogs were always an important part of Nana’s life. Perhaps it’s not surprising in a vet’s family, but the last thing that Nana said to me was ‘Isn’t it odd that we have all always had dogs’. And, both daughters, grandson and granddaughter, we all do. The line of succession for Nana’s dogs included Bill and Merry, Doodle (named after the V1 rockets crashing onto London), Dusty, Jingle, Kelpie, Bonnie, Sadie, Dougal, and finally Shadow.

The vet on duty in Sherborne that day, when Nana arrived with her dog, was Robert Brown, also from Glasgow. They married in early 1944 and the honeymoon was a week in St Ives. The time was not wasted and my mother Lesley was born nine months later.  The birth was complicated and Nana’s life only saved by some military grade penicillin, then not officially available to civilians. Nana didn’t fight in the war: I can’t help thinking it might have been a bit shorter had she done so. But hers was the quieter and less celebrated burden of waiting at home with a young baby not knowing if her husband would ever come back. In contrast, by all accounts, husband Robert was having a lovely time as an army vet, gallivanting around Italy on a horse.

After the war, the family lived in Yeovil at Grove Dene where Robert had his veterinary practice. Ten years later, my Mum was joined by a little sister Heather. But simply being a wife and mother was not enough for Nana, important though those things are. She threw herself into the Girl Guides rising to President for Somerset and was awarded the Laurel Award for Exceptional Service by Lady Baden Powell herself. Her dedication to the guides certainly went above and beyond. One night, at a huge guide camp in Jersey, she found the site was being invaded by a group of boys. Nana pulled on her wellington boots, donned a sou’ wester and black oilskin, then charged across the campground in this battle dress, swinging a mallet around her head. The intruders were put to flight, and no more trouble was had from the local youth.

However, Nana still needed other outlets for her drive and talent. Today, thank goodness, women have many more opportunities and she might have made a fine litigation partner in a solicitors’ firm. Instead, she had to content herself with becoming a magistrate, quite a radical step back then when most justices of the peace were men.

In the late 1960s, Mum moved out, met Dad and settled down in London. Nana, Papa and Heather moved out of Grove Dene to a lovely little house in an orchard called Virgin’s Living. My sister and I loved to scamper around the garden there, walk the dogs on Ham Hill and play with Mum and Heather’s old toys. But Grove Dene was always THE family home of which I heard so much as I was growing up, despite never having set foot there.

But in 1978, tragedy struck when Robert died suddenly in the garden of Virgin’s Living. Heather had already left home and Nana was on her own. She moved to The Quest in Over Stratton where she lived for the rest of her life. Then she began to spread her wings. Mum used to complain that when she was a girl, holidays involved a long drive to Scotland. Nana now went much further afield. She visited Mexico, Canada, Australia, went on several safaris, cruised up the Amazon and visited the Soviet Union, which was born the year after she was and didn’t last nearly as long. She flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and rode off on a camel in India.

It took a long time for her to slow down. When she did, it was because her eyesight was failing. But there were still dogs to be walked and visits to be made. No one was surprised that she reached her century last year.

“I go a long way back, you know” she told us just before she died. Longer than anyone else I’ve met in fact. It has been a privilege to have known this remarkable woman for so many years. I am thankful for that and will always miss her.

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