My Nana (great-grandmother) was from strong scottish highland stock; growing up on the west coast of the highlands on a small holding. She left at 15, journeying to London to become a nurse. I know she spent time in the army and I know she returned home and married a local only for him to die in an accident. Returning to London she married again and together they ran a well known pub in the east end for many years. She raised her young children there but it was an abusive marriage and she got a divorce at some point. Returning to Scotland homeless I know she spent time living in a very famous castle as she knew the custodian before settling in our seaside hometown. I’ve no idea how or when but she married for a third time and they were happy together until his passing. Papa was a darling. He died when I was around three/four years old so I don’t have many memories of him. I remember visiting him in hospital. I remember his funeral, sobbing through most of it as I grasped the idea this was goodbye forever. I remember the long journey to stay with family near where he would be buried; it was one hell of a stormy day and it was night time when we took the tiny one car ferry across tempestuous waters and I was terrified. Happier memories are simply sitting on his knee with my head against his chest being cuddled as he watched the tv. It was the best place for a nap! I remember him sitting in his big red velvety chair as I played hairdresser. I would shake talcum power over his head then comb it through, the red of the chair quickly turning pink. I’m fairly sure I did this to him every chance I got!
Nana worked as a private nurse to many upper class people during her working life. She had many stories to tell and had many souvenirs given to her by patients that appreciated her care. It certainly educated her in our hierarchical class system and I know she wanted better for her children. She could be strict but I can only recall having her hand hit my backside once, you did what she said, you simply did not want to disappoint this woman. The stone wall demeanour of an old school nurse indeed! She taught me to speak Gaelic although it is all mostly forgotten now. She taught me to sit straight, that balancing books on my head would improve my posture; that knees should be kept together. I was not to drop my T’s, to practice saying butter and you must never lick that butter off a knife! She was a constant teacher, forming me into her idea of the perfect child. She taught me that horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow and I adored being her little lady. It was an extra special occasion when we’d take the bus into the city and she would let me wear her Burberry headscarf; before it was fashionable. Of course all this did make me a bit different to the other children in the housing scheme and they could be cruel in pointing that out. Not having a dad around also made me an easy target for bullies; there would be no scary angry father round to tell them off. There was never any knowing quite how my mother would react to my tattle tales and I learned it was just easier not to make a fuss. Anything verbal was water off a ducks back, everyone knew me as “Posh Paws” after the purple dinosaur from the Saturday morning Swap Shop show but apart from having the word posh in the name I really didn’t get it or felt bothered by it; the physical bullying was much harder to take. She paid her friends grandson to walk me to and from school not knowing that he was one of the main protagonists!
She would tend her roses in her garden and I would help by pulling the hated daisies from the lawn, spending many hours happily making daisy chains. I remember being naked a lot in that garden! A big basin of water on the grass, a bar of soap, my dollies and it was summers day bath time. Such happy days cooling off in the water while washing my dolls and their clothes. Nana would lift me to the washing line to hang the clothes to dry and lift me again to gather them in later. It was important to me that I did the work of cleaning those clothes! How her arms must have ached holding me up as I fumbled about with pegs! Still naked I would “sunbathe” lying out on a towel with a few beloved soft toys beside me with a golf umbrella casting a shadow over me so large that the suns rays didn’t touch me. There was shade at the side of the house. A tree grew in the middle of a great big patch of dirt; roses don’t grow well in shade so there were few plants here. Whatever water I had left in the basin i made good use of cooking mud pies and then after all that fun it was real bath time. She couldn’t have been any less than Seventy years old when I was born and yet she’d piggy back me up hills when my legs hurt and she could still carry me up the stairs to bed when I was eight! Before bed there was always a whisky and milk for me, scandalous I know but it was just the tiniest touch and I felt so grown up sharing a nightcap with her! That woman loved her Whisky. She had a never tiring reading voice and when I had limb pains that kept me awake she’d rock me in her arms and sing to me in Gaelic, a lullaby that she wrote for me, a simple melody; lyrics all the things she loved about me! The only line I can definitely remember meant “your little button nose”! I remember telling her how much I loved her and that when I was grown up and rich I would pay a doctor to iron the wrinkles out of her face!
She wasn’t perfect; she had her flaws, as we all do. She was a gossip and could be interfering and controlling, a matriarch that liked to get her own way. She wanted an academic life for her son who could not stand the thought and so ran away to sea, she heard he had become a whaler, she never heard from him again and that was one of her greatest sorrows.
I must have cast charms on her or perhaps she had just mellowed, age brings a certain clarity on how you view your life. She stood up for me though, when she saw with her own eyes my mother beating me she fought to stop her: and when she couldn’t she packed to leave and tried to take me with her. She threatened to write Mother out of her will if she hurt me again, that would rely on being finding out; I wouldn’t be telling! Still, money was one of the few things that talked to my mother, so it was worth a shot. She never did stay with us again and when we talked on the phone she would beg me to run away, I always thought she had figured out what was going on with my step father as her urgings grew more insistent “steal money and get a bus to the city, I’ll meet you there and I won’t let them have you back!”. I was never brave enough; I saw it only going badly for me. She was a mouse to my mothers’ viper. All that matters to me is that she tried. Later she would tell me she never knew for certain but she was pretty sure and she wasn’t the only one thinking things were very odd.
She had great stories to share.. the evening she sat on a hill with friends watching a huge damaged naval ship being towed into the bay during the 1st world war; of the summers she spent with her relatives in a Castle and the many ghosts she saw there; of childhood at the turn of the century in such an isolated place; and of the pranks nurses get up to, playing dead in a morgue scaring the life out of colleagues and that’s just a tame one! She has been gone over twenty years now and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. The physical mementos I have of her are my treasures. Not worth much in monetary value but priceless to me! Amongst them are a beautiful red glass giant goblet, a picture that hung in her home that we both loved, a necklace and only three of the many books she gave me; extra special as she wrote inside the covers. The sting of grief has faded and I find it’s easier to think of all our time together these days and to really appreciate her. I wish I had been given more time with her as an adult to learn more about her varied life. I feel very privileged to have had her in my life, she once told me that she would not leave me until she knew I was safe and happy; She died a week before her 90th birthday, a few months after I married and two weeks after my husband and I had spent a few days staying with her.. a promise kept.